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Details of Stormont travel should be published: Sir Reg Empey

A former Stormont minister has called for departments to publish details of overseas travel so that they are open to public scrutiny.

It comes after a Belfast Telegraph investigation revealed how ministers and senior civil servants had enjoyed five-star hospitality while on expensive trips around the world.

Some 20 overseas trips were made by Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster or senior civil servants during 2009/10 and 2010/11, costing over £100,000.

However, it took nearly four months, and numerous Freedom of Information requests and follow-ups, for the material to finally be disclosed.

Sir Reg Empey, who visited the United States and Canada six times in 18 months whilst Employment Minister, said that it was important that travel details were made available.

“Perhaps departments should publish the costs of these visits ... rather than waiting to be asked, which nearly always leads to the type of sensationalised story published,” he said. “Also, these visits — far from being holidays — are, in fact, very gruelling.”

Sir Empey said it was time for a debate on the matter.

“This is how international relationships are built up,” he added. “There is no alternative to this.

“But we need to decide if we want such relationships to be established or not.”

Details of DETI’s overseas travel were released on Wednesday — nearly three months overdue.

However, unlike the other departments — and despite being requested to do so — DETI did not release any details of hotels used.

The most expensive trip was made in March 2010 to Washington, New York and Houston in Texas by Ms Foster.

Travel cost £6,366 while the unidentified hotels cost £867. The reason for the trip was listed only as “departmental business”.

According to the documents, Ms Foster made a further 10 overseas trips in the two-year period.

These included:

  • Toronto and Montreal in Canada between June 28 and 30, 2009. The trip cost £5,346. Again it was listed only as “departmental business”,
  • Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore in India from September 20 to 25, 2009. Travel cost £3,916 while the hotel stay was £510,
  • San Francisco from June 20 to 24, 2010. The trip cost £4,582,
  • And China in November 2011, again on “departmental business”, costing £4,115.

According to the documents, several trips were also made by the department’s senior civil servants.

One official travelled to Brussels and Luxembourg in June 2010 for a meeting at a cost of £1,696.

A second visit to Brussels, in March 2011, cost a further £1,094.

Another £1,667 was spent flying out an official to Charlottesville in the United States for a “leadership course” in September 2009, while a two-day “telecoms infrastructure conference” in Brussels would cost £1,130.

A spokeswoman for DETI said that promoting trade and tourism around the world is a vitally important aspect of Ms Foster’s work.

“The minister therefore participates in an annual programme of multi-sector trade missions to strengthen economic relations between Northern Ireland and other countries and support our businesses to grow their exports,” the spokeswoman added.

“The reality is that Northern Ireland is not large enough to rely solely on domestic markets ...

“That means the minister needs to be overseas selling Northern Ireland as a good place to live, work, invest and visit.

“The overseas programme is continually reviewed to maximise Northern Ireland’s position as an attractive location for inward investment and tourism.

“Evaluating the success of missions is a long-term and ongoing process,” she said.

Belfast Telegraph