Once again, the FoI Act reveals dubious practices at Stormont
The relevance of the Freedom of Information Act was in the spotlight recently, when the government in London considered putting in place some barriers to accessing public information.
On reflection, the reform bid was ditched.
Media outlets across the UK spoke up in favour of the act and the aspects of public life, governance and funding that it had revealed.
Today, this newspaper gives further proof of the worth of the act in our story about Stormont spin doctors.
After a lengthy battle with the authorities, we have won an appeal to the information commissioner about the use of a fund called the Financial Assistance for Political Parties (FAPP) Scheme. It is being used to fund 10 press officers, some of whom seem to be on salaries above £35,000 a year.
Sam McBride’s story reveals that some spending on press officers was hidden under a category ‘support staffing costs’.
The DUP, UUP, SDLP, Alliance and the Greens are using the scheme to fund press officers, Only the latter party has since been open about exactly how it allocates that money.
Sinn Fein is the only major party not to use to scheme to employ press officers. However, it benefits from income streams which should be denied to it, such as Westminster expenses from a parliament it boycotts.
Anyone who works in the media will know how partisan and forceful party press officers can be. Parties have every right to promote and defend their images fiercely, but the taxpayer should not foot the cost of that. Their work is strictly in the party, not the national, interest.
Political parties in Northern Ireland already benefit from a bloated allowances system that funds far too many party offices across the country, all claiming to do good work.
The political system is in danger of becoming a self perpetuating industry. The Province does not need that. It needs diverse, competent and reasonably paid representatives who have the ability and inclination to improve society.