The BBC reported a telling admission from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, during the RHI Inquiry yesterday.
Mr Sterling said the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution when engagement between civil servants and local ministers became much more regular.
But he said it was also an attempt to frustrate Freedom of Information requests.
Mr Sterling said ministers liked to have a “safe space where they could think the unthinkable and not necessarily have it all recorded”.
He said the DUP and Sinn Féin were sensitive to criticism and in that context, senior civil servants had “got into the habit” of not recording all meetings.
He said this was done on the basis that it was sometimes “safer” not to have a record which might be released under Freedom of Information.
In evidence to the public inquiry into the RHI scandal which lifts the lid on the culture under devolved Executives, David Sterling said that there was a desire by the DUP and Sinn Fein for many meetings not to be minuted or otherwise recorded, in an attempt to thwart Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.
Mr Sterling, who is now running Northern Ireland without any ministerial oversight in the absence of either devolution or direct rule, told the inquiry that the two parties were “sensitive to criticism” and that officials – despite civil service advice being to the contrary – had “got into the habit of not recording all meetings”.
And the rsport quotes this exchange with Mr Sterling
Dr Keith MacLean, the technical assessor to the inquiry, put it to Mr Sterling that his old department, now the Department for the Economy, had told the inquiry “in so many words that the good practice of taking minutes of these meetings had practically been abandoned”.
Mr Sterling said: “Indeed, and that would have been fairly common across all departments.”
Dr MacLean said: “That doesn’t make it right,” to which the senior civil servant – who on Saturday will dine with Donald Trump in the White House – replied: “No it doesn’t make it right but it reflects in some respects just the challenges facing the senior civil service working in this particular devolved administration.”
He went on: “Ministers here – no different to anywhere else – like to have space, safe space where they can consider difficult things, think the unthinkable and not necessarily have it all recorded.
“A feature of the devolved administration here has been that the two main parties have been sensitive to criticism and I think it’s in that context that as a senior civil service we got into the habit of not recording all meetings on the basis that it is safer sometimes not to have a record that might, for example, be released under Freedom of Information, which shows that things that might have been considered unpopular were being considered.” [added emphasis]
FoI legislation does include an exemption for policy advice and other wide exemptions which Stormont departments frequently used to refuse requests.
Of course, we’ve come across the DUP and Sinn Féin’s preference for a lack of transparency in office before.
For example, when the then First and deputy First Ministers. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were not subpoenaed about their un-documented and witness-free meetings when deciding to appoint four Victims Commissioners instead of one. Then, in 2009, a High Court judge, Mr Justice Gillen, defended this practice – “the process of joint decision making which will command public trust and confidence is a fragile flower which requires careful tending”.
The lack of minutes in that case resulted in the Appeal Court ruling that, as reported at the time, “there was no evidence that the ministers involved were motivated by improper political considerations. Nor that they acted on the grounds of political opinion or religious belief.” Which was convenient.
As a prescient Mark Devenport noted on the 2009 High Court ruling
In short, this judgment looks to have cut the legs off any future attempt to judicially review the OFMDFM and to provide a “carte blanche” for meetings without officials and note takers present.
But never fear, if you disagree in the future with an OFMDFM decision, you don’t need to turn to the courts, because our ministers, as Mr Justice Gillen notes “are accountable to the Assembly where they are likely to be questioned and scrutinised”. And we all know just how effective the Assembly has been at carrying out that job in the past.
Now it has emerged that neither party has had to worry about officials being present either. Whether in joint meetings, or during the course of their individual ministerial duties…