Powerful official working to end Stormont secrecy presided over suppressing material

The senior civil servant in charge of efforts to make Stormont less secretive was herself responsible for a process which wrongly suppressed the release of potentially embarrassing material, the News Letter can reveal.

Tuesday, 19th November 2019, 7:45 am
Department of Finance Permanent Secretary Sue Gray is one of the most powerful civil servants in Stormont

Sue Gray, one of Whitehall’s most senior mandarins who shocked many observers by moving to become permanent secretary of Stormont’s Department of Finance a year after Stormont’s collapse in 2017, has been leading the work to make Stormont more transparent if devolution is restored.

However, documentation obtained by this newspaper reveals several occasions where she was either responsible for a decision to – or attempted to – prevent the publication of material which under the Freedom of Information Act should have been released, but might have caused her some embarrassment.

Mrs Gray’s department stressed that although she was named as the decision-maker who initially withheld information, she had not in fact even seen the information and the real decision to withhold the information was taken by a more junior official.

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Ironically, the information she sought to prevent becoming public was in relation to a powerful new role she had created which was ostensibly intended to “champion openness and transparency” and adopt a “more proactive approach in publishing material and data online”.

In April, Mrs Gray decided to create a new communications supremo who would also be responsible for transparency and decided not to advertise the post externally.

The post, which is two grades higher than the normal press office positions within departments, was given to Mark McLaughlin, a former Stormont Castle press officer who is well regarded both inside and outside Stormont. Mr McLaughlin reports directly to Mrs Gray as permanent secretary.

The head of communications and engagement role oversees both the press office and the department’s Freedom of Information (FoI) responsibilities, the publication of open data, internal communication and the ministerial private office, presiding over a £1.5 million budget.

It is now clear that the post was created on Mrs Gray’s instructions at unusually short notice, and at the time one senior political figure involved in Stormont before its collapse said that “ministers would have been slaughtered had they suggested such a thing”.

In response to an FoI request for details of how the job was created, the department initially blacked out some key sections of the documentation, including parts of a letter from the Civil Service Commissioners, the body responsible for ensuring that civil service appointments are made on the basis of fair and open competition.

The department justified those redactions under an FoI exemption which protects personal data. It said the blacked out sections were “either personal information, opinions or correspondence not relating to this particular competition”.

However, the News Letter has obtained the original letter and it is clear from it that some of the blacked out sections did relate directly to the request and were not about protecting personal data – but could have been about covering the potential embarrassment of the department or Mrs Gray.

The letter from the civil service commissioners expressed a series of concerns about what she was doing. It said that the commissioners “are disappointed that this competition is not going to be advertised externally particularly as the competition will be used to fill a senior civil service position in the NICS. Commissioners note that the requirements of this post might be particularly suited to external competition ...”.

Another blacked out sentence had said that the civil service was consulting with trade unions “regarding the proposal to establish external recruitment as the default position. However, you will understand that commissioners are disappointed that this competition is not going to be advertised externally and furthermore, that this trawl will be used to fill two other Grade 5 posts.

“Commissioners have previously highlighted their concerns in relation to the impact of running internal SCS [senior civil service] competitions, particularly in relation to achieving gender diversity plans and targets within the NICS ...”

Other documentation shows that it was Mrs Gray who personally signed off on the FoI response which wrongly blacked out that material.

When asked how it was that Mrs Gray – who has an excellent knowledge of FoI from her time in Whitehall – came to approve such a flawed response, the department said that it was “committed to openness and transparency and all Freedom of Information requests are handled in line with the legislation.

“We reject any assertion that the redacting of information was for any other reasons than compliance with the FoI legislation.

“The information redacted was outside the scope of the FoI request as it related to a different recruitment competition. Information was also redacted under exemption section 40(2) where names of junior staff were included.”

It went on to say that another section of the department had redacted “what was perceived ... to be personal opinions and therefore considered personal data under GDPR. This was an error on the part of the [department].

“The permanent secretary in reviewing FoIs does not see unredacted versions when a section 40(2) [personal data] is applied and is not privy to the personal data and would have had no way of knowing they were made in error.

“The requester then sought an internal review. During the process it became clear that the redactions were made in error and were overturned by the department’s internal review. The response was reissued and the only redactions that remained following the internal review where those junior staff (under G7) names that were exempt under section 40(2), and information that was outside the scope of the request.”