Stormont minister ignored officials for six months to delay FoI request

Simon Hamilton
Simon Hamilton

A Stormont minister sat on an innocuous Freedom of Information request for more than six months — despite repeated attempts by his officials to get him to comply with the law — before finally accepting their advice after the department found itself facing court proceedings.

The revelation — which comes due to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by a member of the public — is rare documentary proof of the reasons why so many Stormont departments repeatedly break the transparency law.

The documents lend weight to the belief of many FoI observers that chronic delays in getting responses from departments such as the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) or the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) are down to the actions of ministers, rather than the inaction of their officials.

The member of the public had initially requested details of the 2012 decision by the then DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson to hike the top pay band for ministers’ special advisers (Spads) from £82,531 to £90,000.

The request was made on May 29, 2014 and a draft reply - which had been cleared by a senior civil servant - was forwarded to the private office of the then minister, Simon Hamilton, on June 17.

On August 19, a civil servant asked the minister’s private office: “Just wondering if I could have an update on this? The requester has suggested that he is now considering going to the [Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)] and before we respond it would be helpful to know where we stand.”

A civil servant in the private office responded: “The response is currently with the minister.”

Then, after a complaint to the ICO, the department was given 10 days to issue a response.

A DFP civil servant emailed private office, highlighting that the ICO was warning that the department could face enforcement action because of a number of similar complaints.

“I would ask you to use your best endeavours to pursue this further with the aim of enabling compliance with the ICO request and avoiding the reputational damage associated with any enforcement action.

“Please let me know of the results, bearing in mind the October 8 deadline.”

Yet a day before the ICO’s October 8 deadline for compliance with the law, a civil servant emailed to say that they had checked with private office and the response had still “not yet been cleared for issue”.

The DFP stance was all the more baffling because it had already released the relevant information to another individual in 2013 after being compelled to do so by the ICO, meaning that by this stage it was fairly innocuous.

Numerous internal emails show that civil servants repeatedly tried to get the minister to make a decision on the case - but none was forthcoming.

Even when the ICO issued a Decision Notice ordering the release of the information, there was no indication of a decision from the minister.

Finally, two days before Christmas, a civil servant wrote to the private office and warned: “It will be very embarrassing for the minister if we do not respond to this decision by releasing the documents and he could face contempt of court.”

Six days later, the minister’s private secretary wrote back to say that the minister had cleared the response to be issued.

But even at that point, the minister did not agree for the documents to be released immediately, but ordered that they be released two days later, on New Year’s Eve.

The News Letter asked DFP to comment on the case but it had not done so at the time of going to press.

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