Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Civil Service head says ministerial meetings not properly recorded to save parties from embarrassment - 'astonishing,' say MLAs

By Jonathan Bell

There was astonishment at comments from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service who said meetings with ministers were not properly recorded to save embarrassment of their political taskmasters.

David Sterling, speaking at the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, described it as a "feature" of government in Northern Ireland that minutes would not properly be made in case they were later subject to Freedom of Information requests which would put the information in the public domain.

"It is a feature of devolved administration here were 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 habit of not recording all meetings on the basis it is safer sometimes not to have record which may be released under freedom of information that shows that things that might have been unpopular were being considered."

The DUP said it could not comment given the ongoing RHI inquiry while Sinn Fein said its ministers would not have ordered minutes not to be taken.

Wednesday's BBC Nolan show reported claims of another "senior civil servant" who admitted the "actual to and fro of what really is going on rarely goes down on paper".

"That's part of the way things work," the BBC reported.

TUV leader Jim Allister said he was "astonished and surprised" at the comments from Mr Sterling.

"This goes right to the heart of the independence of the civil service," he said.

Pointing to his experiences from committee meeting at attempting to get information, Mr Allister said the practice appeared "endemic" in the civil service.

This goes right to the heart of the independence of the civil service Jim Allister

"Look at the ministerial code. It says ministers must at all times ensure that all reasonable requests for information from assembly, users and citizens are complied with and dealt with in an open and responsible well.

"How is this compatible with spirit of the code?

"It takes us close to the breach of the code but certainly takes us into territory of places the civil service should not be in terms of covering up things that should not be discussed."

However, former government ministers - the UUP's Danny Kennedy and Alliance's David Ford - said they were unaware of the practice happening in their departments.

Unfair and unjust to say it applied in all departments. David Ford

Mr Kennedy who was once roads minister said Mr Sterling's comments were of concern and it should not be the role of civil servants to protect the interests of political parties.

Former Justice Minster David Ford added: "It may have applied may have in some departments but it would be unfair and unjust to say it applied in all departments and certainly not in the Department of Justice during my time.

He said that in matters of policy meetings should be accurately recorded.

"That's the way things should be done and it appears it was not the way things were done."

The Northern Ireland civil service machine is broken. Steve Aiken

The UUP MLA Steve Aiken said the practice was most likely widespread across the UK and the Northern Ireland Civil Service was in need of reform.

He described the issue as a "political scandal" and it was clear it had been going on for some time.

"I worked in Whitehall and if it had not been minuted then it did not happen.

"It is up to the civil service to make sure there is a trail of accountability and responsibility and what is clear in Northern Ireland is no one wants to take decisions.

"The Northern Ireland civil service machine is broken and it is in need of fix and needs to be taken under special mesaures."

SDLP West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan said described the revelations as incredible and must be addressed.

“Throughout the lifetime of the last Executive, the SDLP warned that it was becoming the most secretive government in the history of devolution," he said.

"Questions must now be answered by each and every minister in that secretive Executive. Did they instruct or intimate that senior civil servants should not take notes of meetings to protect them from public scrutiny? Did they have any knowledge that notes were not being taken of key meetings and decisions?

“And senior civil servants must also answer questions."

The DUP said as its members would likely appear before the RHI inquiry and could be asked on the subject, it would be inappropriate to comment.

A spokesperson said: "It would not be appropriate to comment on evidence given the public inquiry outside of the inquiry process. It is important that the inquiry is allowed to complete its work."

Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said no Sinn Fein minister would have asked civil servants to break rules or subvert Freedom of Information rules or protocols.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: "The Civil Service have a responsibility to adhere to their own protocols and, under no circumstances, would any Sinn Fein minister instruct a Civil Service official not to record minutes or carry out the functions of their job.

"If the Civil Service did not adhere to their own protocols, then they should be held accountable."

The Executive Office have also been asked for comment.

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