Belfast Telegraph

We should be thankful cat is out of the bag over parties' aversion to record-taking

Freedom of Information Act inhibits free discussion, so don't blame Civil Service for secrecy, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I'd like to put in a good word for David Sterling, the unfortunate head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who told embarrassing truths to the RHI Inquiry last week and thereby attracted massive criticism.

Explaining why key meetings were not minuted, he said: "The two main parties have been sensitive to criticism and I think that it is in that context that, as senior civil servants, 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."

Civil servants, said the angry director of the UK campaign for Freedom of Information, "are distorting the public record by not keeping a public record". It was "highly unusual" - indeed "unprecedented" - for a top civil servant to acknowledge that this practice existed.

Mind you, since there manifestly are no records - and to claim that the dog ate them would not wash - telling the truth was the obvious route to take, but what was impressive was that Mr Sterling told it bluntly.

I've been interested in the culture of the Civil Service since I joined the Department of Industry for a few years in the mid-1970s, at a time when it was coping with a radical Labour strategy most officials thought crazy.

While they did their duty and tried to implement policies they disagreed with, they sought to mitigate the worst effects by forceful arguments with their political masters.

I greatly admired - and after leaving became a friend of - the permanent secretary Sir Peter Carey, whose courtesy and warm, witty, good-tempered exterior concealed a steely core that had been honed undercover in wartime Yugoslavia.

When Secretary of State Tony Benn (who would become Jeremy Corbyn's mentor) insisted on overruling his Industrial Development Advisory Board, of which Carey was accounting officer, to authorise a payment of around £40m in today's money to set up a clearly unviable workers co-operative, Carey took the almost unheard of step of filing a formal objection that would set off a parliamentary storm when it was leaked.

Margaret Thatcher fought with officials, rolled over the weak ones and respected those with informed arguments who stood up to her.

But the tradition of telling truth to power was greatly undermined in the Blair years, for the new Prime Minister saw the Civil Service as an irritating block to implementing his grandiose vision of turning the United Kingdom into his kind of country.

Unfortunately, since he had no idea how the system worked he was to find out the hard way that you can't grasp hold of the levers of power if you don't even know where they're kept.

It was Blair who gave the likes of Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell control over officials, who were as far as possible excluded from confidential discussions on the sofas in No.10 Downing Street.

The Blair administration understood nothing of the law of unintended consequences, and therefore blithely ignored all caveats to bring in the Freedom of Information Act in 2000.

Its harshest critic since then has been Blair himself, after discovering that to open up all your thinking processes to public scrutiny severely inhibits free discussion: "Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop... I quake at the imbecility of it."

It was too late to row back, and this became the wider context in which the Civil Service operated.

Newton Emerson has written of how the new "informality" crept in between 2002 and 2007, when officials were in charge and nervously watching their backs.

When politicians were once more in the saddle there were some checks and balances, but once the two big parties reigned unopposed, they got their way.

Sinn Fein wanted party-to-party meetings to be no-go areas for officials, the DUP wanted no records that might come back to haunt them, and the Civil Service was too demoralised to shout "Stop".

We should be grateful to Mr Sterling for telling us the unvarnished truth.

Belfast Telegraph

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