Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Questions over ministerial trips

This newspaper would never suggest that no government ministers or civil servants should ever go abroad in pursuit of either promoting Northern Ireland as an investment destination or learning best practice in any field which can be adopted here and benefit the local economy.

Yet it is surprising that almost 300 trips involving Stormont politicians and advisers were taken in a 20-month period at a cost of at least £430,000.

In times of austerity the size and make-up of delegations going abroad and the frequency of overseas trips inevitably raise questions. That is right and proper in a democracy. The public should be told if all the trips are necessary, if they represent value for money and could business have been done through technology like video conferencing. There are also valid questions about who actually goes abroad. Ministers and senior civil servants have obvious roles, but do they really need several information officers whose main job seems to be to laud the worth of the trip?

Stormont reacts nervously to such questions. This newspaper had to exert considerable effort to gain the information which we publish today. And even then the figures given to us are incomplete. Not all expenditure was included and, shamefully, one department, Deti headed by Arlene Foster, simply ignored requests for information. Having a portfolio which includes tourism and investment she is one minister with strong reasons for travelling abroad, but the veil of secrecy remains over her department.

The sums of money spent on overseas visits seem large to the public, which needs to be assured that this is a good return for paying taxes. The proper way forward would be for each department to put online its expenditure on such visits as soon as the invoices are in. That would be transparency of government and then ministers or their officials could defend the expenditure afterwards. They may well win that argument. If they have nothing to hide they have nothing to lose.

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