Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Watchdog acts over Stormont's refusal to answer questions

TUV's Jim Allister wants answers
TUV's Jim Allister wants answers

Stormont's top department has refused to answer 56 questions from an MLA - including one that dates back almost three years.

Jim Allister said he now intended to submit every unanswered query to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's office as Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

He also intends to submit another 47 questions which were ignored by other Stormont departments using the FoI Act.

It comes after a watchdog dismissed an argument from OFMDFM that it would "undermine" the Assembly if it answered questions in public which it had ignored through the official Stormont channels.

The Information Commissioner's ruling clears the way for MLAs to pursue questions ignored by the Assembly using FoI legislation.

Mr Allister is well known for his probing questioning of Executive ministers and is viewed by some as the Assembly's unofficial opposition. However, in some cases departments have opted to ignore questions which have proven too difficult to answer.

Mr Allister said 103 of his questions – which should be answered within 10 days – have been ignored. Two of the questions date back to June 2011.

The queries were submitted to the Departments of Finance and Enterprise – both headed by DUP ministers – on June 6 and June 17 respectively.

Mr Allister said he has had particular problems with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's office. Some 56 of the 103 questions still to be answered relate to OFMDFM.

One question, relating to lobbying for the Peace IV programme, dates back to September 5, 2011 and is still awaiting answer. In May 2012 Mr Allister asked OFMDFM when a response would be forthcoming. This question has also been ignored.

The TUV leader said he now intended using FoI to seek answers to all 103 questions following a ruling by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

"Some ministers are deliberate and serial abusers of the rules on answering Assembly questions and consciously ignore the 10-day rule set out in Assembly standing orders," Mr Allister said. "While Stormont and the Speaker can't rein them in, I'm glad the Information Commissioner is taking them on. I now propose to have all my unanswered Assembly questions tabled as FoI requests and thereby take advantage of this ruling."

The ICO ruled on an FoI request which asked for details including special advisers' pay and draft responses to MLAs' unanswered Assembly questions. OFMDFM tried to refuse the request on the grounds that, since the questions have not yet been answered by the Assembly, releasing the information to the public "would seriously undermine Assembly business". OFMDFM's claims were dismissed by the Information Commissioner.

OFMDFM did not respond to requests for comment.

Some of the unanswered questions

September 2011: To ask OFMDFM whether they can offer an assurance that in their lobbying for a Peace IV Programme they have not, and will not, advocate its extension to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender interests.

May 2012: To ask Minister for Social Development why Assembly questions tabled in June, September and October of 2011 and January of 2012 respectively, have yet to be answered; and when he will provide the answers to these questions.

May 2012: To ask Minister of the Environment on how many occasions Planning Service has taken |action in relation to paramilitary memorials erected without planning permission.

Ignorance is bliss at the very top of Government  

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