Another week, another ruling by the Information Commissioner that the Northern Ireland First and deputy First Ministers acted against the public interest in refusing to disclose information in response to a FoI request. The request, from the News Letter, was for disclosure of OFMDFM’s corporate risk register – a list of the issues “causing concern” within OFMDFM. As the News Letter report notes of the commissioner’s decision
…the Information Commissioner, the watchdog which enforces the open government law, has dismissed the argument and ordered that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) provide the information by May 1.
A formal decision notice upheld this newspaper’s appeal against Stormont Castle’s decision.
That 10-page document reveals that OFMDFM “argued specifically that disclosure of the requested information ‘… could prejudice ministers’ electoral prospects and would most certainly have a ‘chilling effect’ on the future development of corporate risk registers’.” [added emphasis]
To paraphrase then - We will not disclose this information as we might be held accountable and, if we have to disclose it now, we most certainly will be economical with the actualité in future.
Conservative and Unionist activist and writer Henry Hill might have some sympathy with them on one of those points, but not the other.
There are two ways of approaching the argument over Freedom of Information requests. One view holds that by making government documents immediately available, politicians and civil servants are made more accountable to the people and the process of government more transparent.
The other, advocated by the likes of Charles Moore, maintains that the actual effect of this policy is to inhibit open debate within government and, more seriously, move such discussions off the record altogether. We can find out about the ferocious arguments of governments thirty years ago. Thirty years hence, similar documents from our own era might simply not exist.
Possibly as a result of its inherently two-minded nature, Northern Ireland’s Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) tried to block a freedom of information request using both arguments at the same time.
Although I would point out that the DUP and Sinn Fein have form on a lack of record-keeping in office… and a reluctance to disclose. [It's a "delicate" administration! - Ed] Indeed.
In any event, as the News Letter reports, there was no sympathy from the Information Commissioner
In dismissing that argument, the commissioner noted: “While the electoral prospects of individuals are not strictly a relevant factor when weighing the public interest in the disclosure of information, the commissioner is of the view that access rights afforded by FoI constitute an accountability tool which can help the public make up its mind for the purpose of participation in democratic elections.
“Contrary to OFMDFM’s assertion, this is therefore a public interest argument in favour of disclosure in respect of supporting accountability and transparency.” [added emphasis]
The decision notice also reveals that the decision to refuse the original request was taken personally by “the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly”.
The department also argued that releasing the risk registers – which record the issues causing concern within OFMDFM – would “inhibit the free and frank exchange of views” and could turn future such registers into “anodyne documents”.
But the commissioner rejected all of those arguments.