Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Education Minister John O’Dowd urged to act over lack of openness at South Eastern Education and Library Board

Sinn Fein Education Minister John O'Dowd
Sinn Fein Education Minister John O'Dowd

Education Minister John O’Dowd has been urged to disband the commissioners in the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) amid claims that decisions are being made behind ‘closed doors.'

Of Northern Ireland's five boards, SEELB is the only one that does not open its meetings to the public. It’s claimed that major decisions are being made without the transparency of other boards.

In July 2006, the SEELB's Board collapsed after its members refused to sign off on a number of budget cuts under the direction of the Department of Education.

Then-direct rule Education Minister Maria Eagle brought in commissioners to take over the decision-making process.

Board meetings were open to the public and Press, but every commissioner meeting since has been in private, with details put up on the SEELB website, sometimes more than a month later.

Trade union Nipsa has called for an end to the commissioners.

Branch Secretary, Janette Murdock, said: “Nipsa believes that the closed meetings of the commissioners in the SEELB present a democratic deficit that is not present in any other public body.

“Board meetings should be open and transparent, giving all interested parties the opportunity to hear the debate and, if necessary, challenge the decisions.”

She added: “Nipsa calls on Minister O'Dowd to step down the commissioners and reinstate the board with immediate effect.”

DUP MLA Mervyn Storey, of the Assembly’s Education Committee, said his party opposed the commissioners’ introduction and have called repeatedly for the matter to be solved.

He added: “We believe that all the issues in regard to education in the South Eastern Board area should be subject to political and democratic accountability as this ensures openness and transparency. When this is absent, decisions can be taken not in the best interests of children or communities.”

In December the SEELB agreed to publish the agenda for each meeting beforehand, and said key decisions would be online within a week.

In January, the commissioners said they can decide to hold some or all of their meetings in public.

When asked why no meeting was open to the public, the SEELB said: “The commissioners are of the view that consultations on development proposals and input to the meeting of commissioners for delegations in such cases provides the appropriate mechanisms for access to their meetings.”

Regarding transparency, the board said: “The commissioners believe they meet the requirement for transparency by providing the opportunities for delegations to have inputs into decision making.”

There are no plans for public meetings.

Background

Commissioners took over responsibility of the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) in July 2006 after the original board failed to meet a deadline implementing school cuts affecting special needs schools in the area. Maria Eagle, who was then direct rule Education Minister, stripped authority from board members. Ms Eagle highlighted how the board has spent money without authorisation in the previous two years. The four commissioners have been in place for nearly eight years and, because of this, SEELB is the only education board which does not open its meetings to the public.

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