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Outcry over Stormont meetings no one recorded

DUP and SF’s desire for some meetings to go unrecorded is branded ‘undemocratic’ after admission by head of Northern Ireland Civil Service

By Suzanne Breen

A desire by the DUP and Sinn Fein for some meetings at Stormont not to be minuted represents an attempt to "subvert the democratic process", the director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information has said.

Maurice Frankel described as "unprecedented" the admission by the head of the Northern Ireland civil service David Sterling that some meetings weren't minuted because it was "safer" not to have a record which might have to be released following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said it would be contacting Mr Sterling urgently. A spokesman told the BBC there were concerns about statements made indicating efforts were made to frustrate FoI requests.

The ICO is the independent body set up to uphold information rights.

Mr Sterling told the RHI Inquiry on Tuesday: "The two main parties have been sensitive to criticism and I think it is in that context that as senior civil service we got into the habit of not recording all meetings on the basis that it is safer sometimes not to have a record that, for example, might be released under Freedom of Information."

Mr Frankel said such a practice was wholly unacceptable.

"They are distorting the public record by not keeping a public record. They are subverting the democratic process in political interests," he said. "This isn't even a case of providing a watered down record, it is about no record keeping at all. This runs totally contrary to the process of accountability.

"It also does a disservice to those individuals who have behaved properly because the lack of record-keeping exposes them to criticism."

Mr Frankel said it was "highly unusual" for a top civil servant to acknowledge this practice existed. "We may suspect that some people behave in this way but for a senior official to acknowledge it is unprecedented," he stated. The FoI Act already offered protection regarding ongoing policy discussions so there was no justification whatsoever for what happened at Stormont, he added.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan called on the DUP and Sinn Fein to come clean over their level of secrecy. He said: "This is a scandalous contortion of standard practice that was designed to keep the work of ministers secret from the people they are supposed to represent."

Mr McCrossan said questions must be answered by each and every minister in that "secretive" Stormont Executive.

"Did they instruct or intimate that senior civil servants should not take notes of meetings to protect them from public scrutiny?" he asked.

"Did they have any knowledge that notes were not being taken of key meetings and decisions?

"This goes to the heart of the character of those two parties.

"They negotiate in secret, they govern in secret, they are terrified of scrutiny. Any minister who is too sensitive to have their decisions scrutinised by the public has no business being in government."

Alliance MLA David Ford called on the DUP and Sinn Fein to clarify whether they will record all departmental meetings in any future Executive.

Mr Ford, a former Justice Minister, said: "There needs to be an agreed record of the decision taken and the basis on which it was done so. That's the way things have been done in my experience and that's the way they should be done across every department.

"But it appears it was not the case in departments under the control of the DUP and Sinn Fein - where things were decided and nothing recorded as to why.

"Those two parties need to clarify whether any reformed Executive would be subject to the same draconian approach by ministers more interested in saving their own skin than being transparent to the public."

The issue of minutes was raised at the inquiry over a meeting between Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment official Fiona Hepper and former minister Arlene Foster about whether to proceed with RHI without the cost controls introduced in Britain.

There was a difference of opinion between the two about the meeting and no minute was taken. Ms Hepper said she flagged a warning while Mrs Foster said she has "no recollection" of the conversation.

Belfast Telegraph

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