Freedom of Information – when the minister has access to the information the public can’t see

Minister for Social Development Nelson McCausland rang into the Nolan show on Radio Ulster on Tuesday morning to respond to the debate around the cessation of the Laganside Events Grant scheme.

He had figures – from across departments – at his finger tips to explain the public funding that was being granted to events. In particular, he was able to rattle off the different public funding streams for the Festival of Fools.

My query into the DSD communications team seven days before that was unable to be answered and is now being dealt with as a Freedom of Information request. The request was deliberately kept simple to ease the bureaucratic burden and increase its chance of being answered “promptly, but not later than 20 working days after receipt”.

Should I be surprised that the minister had a comprehensive list of figures available, while my request for just his department’s grants is still unanswered?

And should I be surprised that last week whenever one of the arts organisations asked another part of DSD for the same information they were told to get in touch with me since I had been asking about it … rather than answering the request directly or logging it as FOI?

Northern Ireland generally lags behind the rest of the UK in terms of active ‘open data’ policies. Yet this is one instance when there is already an online tool that is intended to hold this kind of information – the Government Funding Database. If only it was kept up to date! Its records for the Festival of Fools only cover DCAL’s direct contributions in 2009 and 2010.

The Detail are logging their FOI adventures, one of which now involves Executive Information Services investigating a complaint against itself!

Will Chamberlain from Belfast Community Circus School and Festival of Fools responded on this morning’s Nolan Show to Monday’s intervention by the minister.

Maybe Nolan should ask the Minister for Social Development back onto his show on Wednesday morning and see if he can cough up the grant amounts for the other organisations supported by Laganside Events?

UpdateTwo MLAs have tabled written questions for the Minister for Social Development about the Laganside fund.

10 February 2012 – AQW 8075/11-15 – Conall McDevitt – To ask the Minister for Social Development (i) why he has closed the Laganside Events Grant; and (ii) why local organisations were not consulted before this decision was made.

14 February 2012 – AQW 8215/11-15 – David McIlveen – To ask the Minister for Social Development to detail his Department’s reasons for closing the Laganside Events Fund; and whether he has any plans to replace the fund with a similar scheme.

Further update – some of the figures requested have now been released.

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