RHI scandal: Bell blocked release of files to the News Letter

The DUP's Jonathan Bell.
The DUP's Jonathan Bell.

Despite Jonathan Bell’s dramatic pledge to publish every document related to his decisions about the RHI, the News Letter can reveal that he blocked an attempt by this newspaper to get any documents earlier this year.

In Thursday night’s interview with Stephen Nolan, Mr Bell emphatically said that he has authorised that every document relating to his actions within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) be released.

He said: “I am authorising every detail, every document, every Civil Service document that I signed, every submission that I signed to be made publicly available and to be examined exactly as the truth I now give you.”

However, immediately after Mr Bell’s announcement that he was closing the RHI scheme, the News Letter requested many of the documents relating to that decision – and in particular the decision to release the news at 6.02pm on a Friday night, a classic time to ‘bury bad news’.

On February 19 2016, we asked under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) for “all information held by the department about the decision to close the Renewable Heat Incentive and how that decision would be communicated to the public”. FoI responses have to be signed off by the minister.

John Mills, head of the department’s Energy Division, responded in April to say: “Following a search of departmental records, I can confirm that additional information is held.

“This information is considered to be exempt under Section 35(1)(a) – the formulation or development of government policy, 35(1)(b)- communications between ministers and any information relating to those communications that reveal the views of an individual minister on a government decision.”

The senior official insisted that “the department is keen to be as open as possible and is accountable for its actions”. He also admitted that “the release could lead to a better understanding of the decision making processes within the department” and that “Release could increase confidence that decisions are based on the best advice”.

However, he went on: “There is still ongoing policy consideration around further changes to the RHI and these cannot be looked at in isolation to the policy position around closure.” And Mr Mills argued that “release of the requested documents would be likely to inhibit the development of ideas which may in turn impair the quality of decision making by the department, particularly in relation to the longer term future of the RHI”.

The News Letter has now resubmitted the request.

We attempted to speak to Mr Bell yesterday but were unable to do so. He said on Twitter that he would be making no further comment.