Watchdog to ‘urgently’ flag up FOI concerns with head of civil service

David Sterling gave evidence to the RHI inquiry on Tuesday
David Sterling gave evidence to the RHI inquiry on Tuesday

The information watchdog is to raise concerns with the head of Northern Ireland’s civil service following claims that it adopted certain practices in a bid to frustrate Freedom of Information requests.

David Sterling, who has been running the Province without ministerial oversight since the collapse of devolution, said many meetings during the DUP/Sinn Fein administration were not minuted, partly due to ministers’ desire for secrecy.

Giving evidence to the public inquiry into the RHI scandal, Mr Sterling said the two parties were “sensitive to criticism” and that officials had “got into the habit of not recording all meetings”.

In light of Mr Sterling’s comments, the News Letter contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to ask what action, if any, it planned on taking.

An ICO spokesperson said: “We will be contacting the head of the civil service to raise our concerns as a matter of urgency.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said Mr Sterling’s remarks suggest the civil service is “not fit for purpose” and is in need of “root and branch reform”.

The South Antrim MLA labelled the current system “broken” and called for the UK Government to carry out an in-depth review.

He told the News Letter: “The relationship between the civil service, DUP and Sinn Fein ministers and their special advisers has been far too cosy. This has resulted in a practice which has undermined democracy in this country and it is nothing short of scandalous.”

Mr Aiken said, in the event that devolution is someday restored, his party was calling for all senior civil posts in NI to be readvertised, with only a third of internal applicants being accepted.

“There is no where else in the UK where senior roles only go to internal candidates,” he added.

He also claimed that the evidence given by Mr Sterling – a former permanent secretary of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment – demonstrates “probably a clear breach of the rules and regulations for civil servants”.

The South Antrim MLA told the News Letter: “It is important to remember that permanent secretaries are also the accounting officers of their departments, and their first responsibility is to ensure the money they are allocated is used appropriately. Part of that process involves having a full audit trail and accurate records, which is totally at odds with what Mr Sterling’s evidence.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said Mr Sterling’s comments suggest a “deliberate, conscious policy of withholding information”.

He added: “The RHI inquiry is providing an eye opener into just how woeful and appalling the standards of government were under the watch of the DUP and Sinn Fein.”

Alliance MLA David Ford, a former Executive Minister, said it was not standard practice for departmental meetings not to be recorded.

He added: ““If there was a policy by the two biggest parties to not have matters record, there was a duty on the civil service to say that is not how the civil service operates and things must be recorded.”

The News Letter asked both the DUP and Sinn Fein to respond to Mr Sterling’s claims that ministers had encouraged civil servants not to minute meetings in an attempt to thwart Freedom of Information requests.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: “The civil service have a responsibility to adhere to their own protocols and, under no circumstances, would any Sinn Fein minister instruct a civil service official not to record minutes or carry out the functions of their job.

“If the civil service did not adhere to their own protocols, then they should be held accountable.”

Meanwhile, a DUP spokesperson told the News Letter: “It would not be appropriate to comment on evidence outside of the inquiry process. It is important that the inquiry is allowed to complete its work.”