Belfast Telegraph

Minutes storm civil service boss had pledged to record meetings

BY Jonathan Bell

The civil service chief who told an inquiry that some Stormont meetings weren't minuted in order to frustrate Freedom of Information requests had previously said he would ensure notes were taken of all engagements with ministers.

The head of Northern Ireland's civil service, David Sterling, told the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) public inquiry at Stormont on Tuesday that some meetings were not minuted because it was "safer" not to have a record which might be released later.

Mr Sterling

said the two main parties at Stormont had been sensitive to criticism.

It has since emerged that during a finance committee hearing dealing with the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) portfolio in October 2015, Mr Sterling - who was the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance and Personnel at the time - was asked why his department did not have a record of a meeting, while Nama did.

"Obviously, it is up to Nama to take whatever notes it sees fit," he told MLAs.

"This whole process has identified that we probably need to be more consistent in our approach to taking notes of meetings.

"I actually agreed with the minister recently that we will ensure that notes are taken of all meetings, simply recording who attended, what was discussed and what was agreed."

At an RHI inquiry hearing on Tuesday, Mr Sterling described it as a "feature" of government in Northern Ireland that minutes would not always be made in case they were later brought into the public domain.

"It is a feature of devolved administration here where there have been two main parties that have been sensitive to criticism," he told the inquiry.

"And in that context as senior civil service we got into the habit of not recording all meetings on the basis it is safer sometimes not to have a record which may be released under freedom of information that shows that things that might have been unpopular were being considered." Meanwhile, former finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir rejected Mr Sterling's implication Sinn Fein was involved in any cover-up of internal political business, saying it was "claptrap".

"When I was there we conducted our business in a transparent manner," he told BBC NI's Stephen Nolan show.

"We discharged our responsibilities in a proper manner, in an open manner and that is our commitment."

Asked if anyone from within Sinn Fein instructed minutes not be made, he said: "Most definitely not, at no point did we ever tell a civil servant not to minute a meeting."

The Executive Office has not commented.

The DUP has said it would be inappropriate to comment on matters arising from the RHI Inquiry as its members are to appear in front of it later in the year.

Belfast Telegraph

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