Belfast Telegraph

Top civil servant insists there's a 'strong case' for spads rethink

David Sterling tells RHI Inquiry issue may be examined prior to return of Executive

By Lauren Harte

The head of Northern Ireland's Civil Service, David Sterling, says there is "a strong case for a review" of the role of Stormont's special advisers before devolved government is restored.

Mr Sterling made his comments in his witness statements to the RHI Inquiry, released last night ahead of his appearance today.

When he last appeared before the hearing earlier this year, Mr Sterling said some Stormont meetings were not minuted as it was "safer" not to have a record which might be released following a Freedom of Information request.

He said the DUP and Sinn Fein were very "sensitive to criticism", so senior civil servants "got into the habit of not recording all meetings".

In his latest evidence, Mr Sterling said action has already been taken right across the Civil Service to learn from the RHI scheme.

This includes reviewing the current codes and guidance relating to the relationships between ministers, civil servants and special advisers (Spads).

Mr Sterling acknowledged that "multiple failings" have occurred in the development and delivery of government policy and lessons must be learned.

He said: "Many witnesses to the inquiry, including myself, have accepted that multiple mistakes were made and that government ought to have performed more effectively. Central to the inquiry is identifying what went wrong and ensuring it is not allowed to happen again.

"Furthermore, we will ensure that any action recommended by the inquiry will be implemented quickly and fairly.

"The extent of the failings uncovered by the RHI Inquiry so far has, quite understandably, given rise to questions about the competence and capacity of the NI Civil Service to develop and deliver complex policy.

"It is also clear that there was knowledge about flaws within the system in many quarters, but that this was not freely shared. This gives rise to questions about the effectiveness of communication within and across government and its agencies."

He added: "The inquiry has also shone a light on the way in which the NI Executive was operating at the interface between ministers, special advisers and officials.

"This has raised questions about the propriety and effectiveness of those relationships in the departments under scrutiny, posing further questions about the nature of the role and function of special advisers more generally in the NI departments."

But Mr Sterling stressed it would be "unjust to infer from the RHI scheme" that all government policy-making, administration of public funds and delivery of services in Northern Ireland is "beset by the kinds of problems and issues that have arisen in the case of RHI".

"It would be unfair for the performance of 23,000 civil servants to be judged by the failings in one scheme, no matter how significant and disappointing those failings have been," he added.

While he said he would not wish to pre-empt the inquiry's findings in relation to the role of spads, Mr Sterling said he believes there is "a strong case for a review of current arrangements" before devolved government is restored and a new Executive is formed.

But he added that "even on an optimistic reading", it now seems likely that two years will have elapsed before the institutions will be fully functioning again.

Mr Sterling noted that the code of conduct for special advisers in NI departments dates from 2013 and may benefit from review, particularly in light of the evidence that has emerged in the ongoing investigations by the RHI Inquiry.

He said the Civil Service would be in a position to make recommendations to any future ministers following its review of operations in response to the inquiry.

Mr Sterling, previously the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance and Personnel, has also denied having a row with a former DUP special adviser to Arlene Foster, Dr Andrew Crawford, over the scheme. It follows last month's evidence by former Enterprise Minister, Jonathan Bell, who said Mr Sterling had a "loud altercation" with Dr Crawford in September 2015 and accused him of keeping the RHI scheme open "for the benefit of his family".

However, Mr Sterling says "no such conversation took place", adding: "I cannot recall any conversation with Dr Crawford which could have given rise to the exchange described by, or related to, Mr Bell."

Dr Crawford has told the inquiry when problems with the scheme became known in October or November 2015, he made Mr Sterling aware he had family members who were RHI claimants. Mr Sterling says at no time was he alerted to Dr Crawford's family ties with RHI.

He said: "I had many discussions about RHI from early December (2015) onwards, including with Dr Crawford. However, I do not recall having a discussion with him about any of his family members being in the scheme and it follows that I do not recall any discussion about the need for Mr Crawford to make a declaration of interest."

Dr Andrew McCormick - the former permanent secretary at the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) - will also return to finish his evidence to the panel this afternoon.

Belfast Telegraph

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