Brexit secrecy may have “breached ministerial code”. So is the Executive’s line only to wait for Theresa?

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt’s charge that  a briefing paper on the negative implications of Brexit apparently withheld from the  former multiparty Executive  by  the FM and dFM in May 2015  may have been in  breach of the ministerial code, is a neat move  by a party now in formal opposition.  It is also a small coup by The Detail which has just published  the document after an FoI request.

Was it a breach of the ministerial code as Nesbitt claims? One  section of the code lists the seven ( Nolan) principles of public life one of which states :

Openness Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

In Section 2:

The Executive Committee will provide a forum for:-

(iv) recommending a common position where necessary..

(vi) discussion of and agreement upon significant or controversial matters that are clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Agreement;

which states:

  1. The Executive Committee will provide a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers, for prioritising executive and legislative proposals and for recommending a common position where necessary (e.g. in dealing with external relationships)

and – back to the Code –  (vii) discussion of and agreement upon significant or controversial matters that the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly have determined to be matters that should be considered by the Executive Committee

The cross cutting clause would seem to apply to the briefing document .   But how much discretion did  viii give Peter Robinson (now Arlene Foster)  and Martin McGuinness?  It was after all written by a Unit of what was then OFMDFM.

  The Fresh Start agreement of November last year makes the point about the conduct of Assembly business.

  1. To promote greater efficiency in the conduct and discharge of Executive business, the following practice shall be observed in line with the Northern Ireland Act 1998: a.Agenda circulated one day in advance of an Executive meeting; b.Inclusion of papers as substantive agenda items no later than the third meeting

But this section really deals with curtailing the alleged practice of bouncing decisions on the Executive, not the disclosure of important papers.

The questions arise:  why bother to withhold the briefing paper when the DUP and SF had yet to settle on lines to take on the referendum and might have benefited from an airing? (OK naive question. The politburos had yet to decide).   More to the point, what line to take are they jointly working on now, following  their joint letter to  Theresa May  ( which is clearly  based on the briefing  document), as they wait  for the UK government to  consult them ( they  hope) ?

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  • chrisjones2

    If it had been published how many MLAs would

    1 have read it?

    2 have understood it?

  • Nevin

    “a briefing paper on the negative implications of Brexit apparently withheld from the former multiparty Executive by the FM and dFM in May 2015”

    Brian, your guess is at odds with this official statement:

    A spokesperson for The Executive Office said: “The document in question was commissioned by the Head of the Civil Service in May 2015.

    “Officials prepare a range of papers on a regular basis, many of which are working papers and do not form submissions sent to Ministers.

    This analysis paper was not sent to Ministers for consideration following its completion.

  • Brian Walker

    Hadn’t seen that Nevin, thanks. That’s makes it almost worse- assuming as we must, that it’s completely true on such an important subject. I wonder who leaked it’s existence to prompt the FoI.

  • Nevin

    I think the press release may well have been posted after you uploaded your article, Brian.

  • terence patrick hewett

    O Polly talks to Tristram
    And Tristram talks to Jez
    But Jez he is a f*ck-up
    O what a shameful mess

    They witter and they chatter
    About the parish pump
    They think it does not matter
    To Crown the Knave of Trumps

  • Nevin

    “There was a short discussion on the EU referendum during which Malcolm reinforced the importance of civil servants’ impartiality and objectivity when providing policy advice to Ministers.” .. OFMDFM Departmental Board 24 February 2016 [pdf file]

    Where does corporate risk feature when senior civil servants allegedly withhold important information from Ministers?

  • chrisjones2

    Yet ofall the other negative things we were told if we voted out we are still here, the world hasnt collapsed, business is growing, the banks are still here, interest rates were cut slightly, we are not in recession

    This is an historic document in the same class

  • chrisjones2

    But presumably they had seen the 2016 HoC Finance Committees Report summarising all the evdience put to it which forecast Brexit as a one off change of a maximum / minimum change of +/- 2% of GDP and a probable result in the middle of that range – or ‘bugger all’ as economists call it

  • chrisjones2

    You have no idea what was given to Ministers. Why does this paper have special status over all the other information. The Civil Service does this stuff every day

  • Nevin

    “Perhaps it’s time Stormont got in step with HM Treasury’s guidance on good governance.” .. NALIL September 2012

  • Nevin

    Can you please post a link to that report, cj?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Totally agree they can’t just pass the buck, there needs to be some local agency here.

    We can’t have Vote DUP/SF/Independent get Conservative/Fine Gael/Independent coalition.

  • Nevin