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OFMDFM blasted over delays in answering MLA questions

By Adrian Rutherford

Stormont's top department has been branded dysfunctional after failing to answer more than three-quarters of questions from MLAs on time.

In the last year more than 300 queries to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's office did not receive a response within the 10-day deadline.

In many cases questions remain outstanding after many months.

The details were released after an Assembly question from Green MLA Steven Agnew.

Ironically, Mr Agnew waited almost eight months for a reply to his query, tabled in February.

The North Down MLA said the issue highlighted the dysfunctionalism of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's department.

"Often these are questions I am asking on behalf of constituents who would like a response in an acceptable timeframe," he said. "It is the job of an MLA to provide a direct route between constituents and Government so a slow response or no response at all shows a lack of respect for democracy."

Politicians and journalists have long had difficulties obtaining information from Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness's office. However, the figures released to Mr Agnew underline the extent of the problem.

Between July 2013 and June this year, 420 written questions were sent to OFMDFM – yet 329 (78%) were not answered on time.

Assembly procedure dictates that written questions should be answered within 10 working days.

Yet in many cases questions linger for months without reply.

Mr Agnew's query was only answered last week – even though it was tabled on February 4.

He added: "OFMDFM has become known as the black hole because when legislation, such as the Racial Equality Strategy or the Sexual Orientation Strategy, goes into it, it never comes out again.

"While there may have been political disagreement over those two particular issues, OFMDFM has also failed to agree the Child Care Strategy. This lack of response is an indicator of the dysfunctional nature of this department.

"This is not a model for good, accountable governance and it means on many key issues progress is slowed or even stalled by lack of legislative progress.

"This does not build confidence in the electorate in institutions of democracy and suggests this department may not be fit for purpose." In some cases questions asking for an update on unanswered questions have also gone ignored.

The Belfast Telegraph has been investigating OFMDFM's responses to Assembly questions since we revealed in July that one MLA, TUV leader Jim Allister, had 56 questions awaiting answers from Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness.

On July 29, using Freedom of Information legislation, we asked OFMDFM for a list of each question they have yet to answer.

By law a response should have been issued in 20 working days.

Two months on, the request is still outstanding – despite the Information Commissioner writing to OFMDFM asking it to respond to our query.

Last month it emerged that OFMDFM had failed to properly respond to a letter sent eight months earlier by Northern Ireland's top judge, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.

This newspaper approached OFMDFM for an explanation for its poor record to responding to questions, but we did not receive a reply.

Delayed action: Some of the queries from MLAs which are still awaiting a response

Dolores Kelly, September 17, 2013

Q: Following the review of the effectiveness of the Civic Forum that was commissioned in 2007, when will they publish the recommendations for the Civic Forum?

Patsy McGlone, September 30, 2013

Q: How many Assembly Written Questions remain unanswered by their department as of October 1, 2013; and of these questions, how many have been unanswered for more than (i) two months; (ii) three months; (iii) four months; (iv) five months; and (v) six months?

Pat Sheehan, November 14, 2013:

Q: In light of the concerns expressed to the Justice Committee, are there any plans to review the workings of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission?

Stewart Dickson, November 14, 2013:

Q: Have there been discussions about ensuring that recommendations from the Haass talks are not left unimplemented due to disagreements?

Michael Copeland, December 9, 2013:

Q: What legal certainty exists that third party appeals will not have to be introduced into law if the amendments to the Planning Bill, which impact on their department, are re-introduced and adopted in legislation?

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