Stormont admits: We’re now massively less transparent than under direct rule

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Stormont is becoming less and less transparent about its activities, a buried report signed off by the First and Deputy First Ministers confirms.

The Executive now breaks the law in failing to respond within the legal maximum time limit to a quarter of all Freedom of Information requests, often failing to even respond to requests for months until a response is forced by the Information Commissioner.

This week the News Letter revealed how a request by this newspaper has just been answered by the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) — more than three and a half years after it was first made.

The 2014 report, which again shows that the vast bulk of FoI requests come from members of the public, shows that the DUP-controlled Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment only responded to 31 per cent of requests within the legal time limit.

At the DUP-controlled DFP, just 46 per cent of requests were answered on time, while Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s own department, OFMDFM, answered 56 per cent of requests on time.

In 67 per cent of all requests, the information was released in full; a decade ago almost 80 per cent of requests were being granted in full. Now 10 per cent of requests are totally refused — double the percentage fully withheld in 2006.

In the 2006 report (published in 2007) — the last which covered the period of direct rule — the then First and Deputy First Ministers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, wrote: “We believe that openness and transparency is the mark of a healthy democracy. Therefore, we will aim to disclose, wherever possible, information about the progress of our policies, with a view to informing everyone who engages with us.”

Considering the most recent figures, and using the standard and language in the quote above, there seem to be questions about the “health of democracy” at Stormont.

In 2006, over 93.5 per cent of responses were processed within the legal maximum time or under an extension permitted by law. Last year that had plummeted to a new low – despite the fact that departments are receiving slightly fewer requests than under direct rule.

Now just 73 per cent of requests are answered within the legal time limit - and the situation is getting relentlessly worse. The previous year, 78 per cent of requests were answered on time, which itself was a then record for the worst ever FoI record since the law was introduced a decade ago.

Last year the law was broken in responding to 763 of the 3,133 requests for information.

However, some departments performed very well, showing that the law can be adhered to. The UUP-run Department of Regional Development responded to over 96 per cent of requests within 20 working days, while the Alliance-run Department of Justice responded on time to 96 per cent of requests.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has stepped in repeatedly to order some of the most closed Stormont departments to comply with the law, and last year took the rare step of placing OFMDFM under monitoring because of its poor performance.

In recent weeks the ICO has issued an even rarer ‘enforcement notice’ to DFP, leading to it finally answering the News Letter’s request — after 1,358 days — about the outcome of disciplinary action against a senior civil servant.

Report now quietly buried, not released with past fanfare

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s department has become less keen to publicise its annual report into Freedom of Information requests to Stormont departments.

It is common for departments to send out a press release to alert the media and public when important annual reports are published.

Stormont’s 160-strong press office operation even alerts the media to low-level issues such as a speech by a junior minister or a decision to stock a river with trout. Up until 2009, the publication of the annual FoI report was publicised by a press release.

However, since then and as many of the figures in the reports have gotten worse, there has been no alert when they are published.

Now the report is simply uploaded to an obscure page on the OFMDFM website.

It is believed that the most recent report was uploaded in recent weeks.