“Run like a huckster’s shop” – Redux

[No change since June 2009, then? – Ed]  Have there been any consequences…?  A BBC report that the DUP and Sinn Féin have, belatedly, agreed the outcome of the semi-detached polit-bureau Northern Ireland Executive’s June budget monitoring round was met with understandable criticism from the other NI Executive parties.

Justice Minister David Ford, who leads the Alliance Party, described the situation as “shambolic” while the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) said they had been kept in the dark about the deal.

Mr Ford said: “We got a message late yesterday afternoon, sometime after five o’clock, that there would be an executive meeting today (Thursday).

“We have no sign of the paper that is going to be presented to the executive today, to know exactly what is now being proposed.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kinahan said: “We have absolutely no detail as to what they have agreed.

“We wanted consensus government when we set this all up and instead we have stand-offs all the way through and don’t get anywhere.”

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said there appeared to be “two-party rule” at Stormont and accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of “very poor decision-making”.

“I don’t think its good enough for many workers across all of the other departments not to know what the implications are for their jobs, particularly those who are on temporary contracts,” she said.

The contempt shown for the other NI Executive parties runs contrary to Sinn Féin and the DUP’s professed concern about releasing information to the public in a way that would “seriously undermine Assembly business” – despite their failure to agree an answer to Assembly written questions within the required time-frame.  As Sam McBride reported

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s department has argued that it would “undermine” the Assembly if it answered in public the questions which it has refused to answer through official Stormont channels.

The claim, which was made as the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) attempted to refuse a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, will likely astonish some of the MLAs who have been unsuccessfully attempting to get responses to written Assembly Questions.

The questions are meant to be answered within 10 days but some lie unanswered for months or more than a year with no Assembly sanction. [added emphasis]

However, in a development which could have significant implications for Stormont, the Information Commissioner, the FoI watchdog, has dismissed the argument.

That means that MLAs now have a legally-enforceable route – backed up by the possibility of High Court action – to force responses to questions which the Assembly has proved incapable of seeing answered.

In adjudicating on the complaint from an unknown individual, the commissioner also ruled that in responding to the request Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness had taken a decision that no reasonable person in their position could have taken. It is understood that in nine years of the Freedom of Information Act this is the first time the commissioner has made that finding in Northern Ireland. [added emphasis again]

From the same News Letter report

In attempting to refuse the request, OFMDFM argued that the information related to unanswered written Assembly questions to the department.

As such, it argued that to release the information to a member of the public before it was given to the Assembly “would seriously undermine Assembly business” .

The department told the commissioner that “ministerial agreement [between Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness] had not been reached on the Assembly Questions in question at the time of the request”. [added emphasis]

It added that “[the complainant] was effectively challenging the Assembly’s privileged access to information process, by attempting to elicit a FoI response before an Assembly question response was issued”.

The decision notice also revealed: “OFMDFM was of the strong view that it would be disrespectful to ministers if officials attempted to answer questions submitted as formal AQs before MLAs had received a reply”. [added emphasis again]

In reality, when it comes to being “open and transparent[as possible… – Ed], Sinn Fein and the DUP have shown no reluctance whatsoever in undermining the Assembly, the Executive, and public confidence in both – when such concerns conflict with their own party political interests.

As in a previously dismissed submission to the Information Commissioner in April this year

…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]

As I paraphrased 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.”

Adds  Here’s what the semi-detached polit-bureau DUP and Sinn Féin agreed before the Northern Ireland Executive met.

A key feature was the £78million reduction to departmental resource budgets. On this issue the Minister said: “Given the significant pressures facing the Executive’s budget this year, it has been necessary to agree an immediate 2.1% reduction to departmental resource budgets in order to provide funding for a range of Executive commitments such as the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry and Local Government Reform and a much needed allocation of £20million to the Department of Health. These reductions have not been applied to Health or Education.”

The Minister also expressed his frustration on the issue of welfare reform, saying: “Further reductions to departmental budgets amounting to £87million will be required as a consequence of welfare reform not progressing. The Executive has agreed that these reductions should occur in the October Monitoring Round. This will cause further pain across departments and will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on our public services. Those failing to proceed with welfare reform bear sole responsibility for the dire consequences that will follow.” [added emphasis throughout]

And from the BBC report

A majority of ministers passed the deal on the June monitoring round.

However, the two Alliance ministers voted against it and the Ulster Unionist minister Danny Kennedy abstained.

They said the issue of welfare reform had merely been postponed.

Mr Kennedy said what he called “voodoo economics” were at play and that there was an “air of unreality”.

Following Thursday’s meeting, the Ulster Unionist Party said there were elements of the budget paper it was “deeply discontented” with and criticised Sinn Féin’s stance on welfare reform.

“While Sinn Féin may be good negotiators they aren’t good at government. Today was a demonstration of voodoo economics,” the party said in a statement.

“While they may try and spin the June monitoring round as a victory, all they have done is kick the can down the road.”

Alliance Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry said the fact that funding for the health and education departments – “one each for Sinn Féin and the DUP” – would put added pressure on other departments.

He said there was no sign of an agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP over welfare reform.

“It’s an utter standoff, there’s no process in train in which they will try and bridge that gap,” he said.

More “voodoo economics” here, and, indeed, here.

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