Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Public is entitled to know how its money is spent

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) has more reasons than most for sending its minister or civil servants abroad on promotion and fact-finding missions. Indeed, it could be argued, it would be failing in its purpose if it did not engage in such outreach activities. So why then is it so reticent about releasing details of overseas travel? For 10 weeks it has ignored Freedom of Information requests from this newspaper on this issue, even though it is obliged by law to respond and should do so within 20 working days.

Perhaps DETI is taking its lead from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister which was revealed recently to have failed to answer 40 FoI requests within the stipulated period, with 25 of the requests outstanding for more than a year. That is unacceptable and only fuels public suspicion about what goes on, whether that suspicion is justified or not.

We revealed yesterday how Stormont civil servants and ministers made almost 300 trips abroad in a 20-month period, spending more than £430,000. We are not arguing that this spending was wasteful or unjustified. We simply uncovered the information as part of our responsible duty to keep the public informed as to how its money is being spent. The public is entitled to know, especially in times of austerity when even vital services are complaining of restricted funding.

There is another reason why our scrutiny of Stormont spending is important. The make-up of the power-sharing administration means that there is no official opposition, save independent MLAs like Jim Allister. Major parties are all party to the same decisions and there is no pressure to break ranks.

Little wonder that creates an attitude of arrogance and a desire to draw a veil over activities. Given the lack of opposition, that is all the more reason to repeat our call for expenditure to be posted online so that the public can make its own judgment on how its taxes are spent. To refuse is to tell the public that any concerns they have are irrelevant.

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