Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Public consultations: We can't go on like this, says UUP leader

Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt

Stormont ministers have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in public consultations, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Yet the overall total still remains unknown with both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness' office and the Department of Health refusing to reveal details.

And the departments which have disclosed their totals do not include internal staff costs.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, who sent written questions to each department, told the Belfast Telegraph: "There is a better way to do this."

Mr Nesbitt, chairman of the committee monitoring the office of Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, is proposing an advisory panel to approve consultations. The totals revealed include the cost of public meetings – often only attended by a handful of people – and even 'pre-consultation' excercises.

Under the DUP's Edwin Poots and more recently Alex Attwood of the SDLP, the DoE forked out £406,061 on consultations – not including staff costs.

Since 2007, the Department of Education has spent more than £280,574 on 44 consultations.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) total is £54,284. DETI did not set out the specific issues it has consulted on, instead listing them as 'legislative' or about policy or strategy.

The Department of Health said information on more than 180 consultations it has conducted since 2007, including the totals involved, could only be provided "at disproportionate cost".

The Department of Agriculture has held 324 consultations over six years costing £96,490.

The Department of Education and Learning has undertaken a total of 41 public consultations, at a cost of £97,000.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson's most expensive consultation came in at £21,113, for the Executive's 2010 Budget proposals.

But cheapest overall is Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin whose biggest bills included £1,970 in 2011 on a Cultural Awareness Strategy but whose total was £20,769.

But Mr Nesbitt argued: "I think we could do this better. We could do this in a much more co-ordinated manner in which decisions on what should be consulted on where not just down to an individual minister or a party pursuing its own agenda.

"I would suggest a standing advisory panel which would also ensure that there are no overlaps between departments or that consultation is not just being used to put decisions off.

"Year on year, it seems to go up in various leaps and bounds."