Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Stormont office finally reveals details of trips abroad... but still won't say where Arlene stayed or even why she went

Overseas bills: Arlene Foster
Overseas bills: Arlene Foster

A Stormont department has finally released details of its overseas travel – days after being rapped for refusing to disclose the information.

But the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment still won't say which hotels minister Arlene Foster or its civil servants are using.

Unlike other departments, DETI has also refused to explain exactly what the trips were for, describing each one as merely "departmental business".

The information is missing despite DETI taking 11 weeks extra to respond to our Freedom of Information request.

According to the details which were released, Mrs Foster made nine overseas visits between April 2011 and last September, while staff at her department made a further 21 trips. Destinations included Canada, the United States, Tel Aviv and even Iraq.

The details were released after an FoI request as part of a Belfast Telegraph investigation into overseas travel by MLAs and civil servants. It means the total bill for sending public officials abroad has exceeded £500,000, and currently stands at £541,245. The Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister is still refusing to release details of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's overseas visits.

DETI's spending on travel includes:

• £17,235 on a mission by Mrs Foster and two officials to the Middle East in February 2012;

• £10,635 on sending the minister and two officials to Toronto in September 2011;

• £14,095 on a visit to Erbil in Iraq by Mrs Foster and three other officials in October 2011;

• £7,052 sending a civil servant to Erbil last July;

• And £1,639 sending two officials to Tel Aviv in Israel last March.

DETI refused to identify which hotels were used, or offer specific explanations as to why the trips had been made.

Last Friday this newspaper revealed how civil servants made 292 visits abroad since April 2011. The addition of DETI's figures means the total has now passed 300.

Four other departments were only able to provide details of senior civil servants, meaning the actual figure will be higher.

The overseas trips comprised meetings and conferences on a range of matters, including a 'protection of animals in the slaughterhouse' conference, a meeting of the UK Aquaculture Forum and an 'EU bulb exporters' event.

In some cases civil servants enjoyed five-star comfort, while leaving the public to pick up bills running to hundreds of pounds.

One official ran up a £959 tab while staying at the Hyatt in Calcutta, one of India's most exclusive hotels. Another official attended an EC Commission workshop, staying at the five-star Coral Beach Hotel resort in Cyprus, at a cost of more than £1,000.

Factfile

January 1: Belfast Telegraph sends Freedom of Information requests to all Stormont departments asking for details of their overseas travel.

January 29: By law, departments should have responded as the deadline has passed.

April 3: The Belfast Telegraph contacts DETI about its late response.

April 17: DETI finally releases some information – but key details are missing.

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