Northern Ireland

Stormont departments 'may not release government information'

Stormont Image copyright Getty Images

Stormont departments could refuse to release certain information in the absence of government ministers, the UK data watchdog has confirmed.

The Information Commissioner's Office said some information requests could not be processed.

It said this was because of the absence of an "appropriate minister" in government departments.

The development has sparked concerns about transparency involving Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

FOI legislation allows the public the right to obtain information held by public authorities.

It has become a well-established tool for finding out more about the workings of central and local government and the rest of the public sector.

Speaking to BBC News NI the former commissioner for public appointments, Felicity Huston, said she feared Northern Ireland was "sinking into a maladministration quagmire".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Freedom of Information Act gives the public the right to access recorded information held by public sector organisations

The latest developments relate to a recent ruling by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

In October 2018 the ICO found that in the absence of the Minister for Communities, the Public Records Office for Northern Ireland (PRONI) was unable to fully process information requests.

PRONI is overseen by the Department of Communities and the ruling related to information it held in closed public records.

FOI requests have been temporarily suspended at PRONI.

BBC News NI asked the ICO if the ruling would also have an impact on information released by the remaining eight Stormont departments.

In a statement the ICO confirmed "it is also the case that the absence of an appropriate minister may affect the ability of Northern Ireland departments to deal fully with certain information requests".

A spokesperson for the ICO confirmed that as well as closed public records this could relate to requests where information could be seen to prejudice the "effective conduct of public affairs" and ministerial approval would be required under FOI legislation.

'Significant difficulties'

In a statement the ICO said: "We recognise the significant difficulties caused by these particular and unusual circumstances and are in contact with the permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and other stakeholders regarding this situation.

"Our priority at the ICO is to find a prompt and effective solution in order to protect the public's right to access public information."

The former public appointments commissioner Felicity Huston said: "FOIs are one of the few tools citizens have to find out what is going on in their government and how their money is spent.

"Without them would we know about the shameless incompetence of RHI? We don't have MLAs asking assembly questions and now it looks like it will be harder for taxpayers to get questions answered too.

"Northern Ireland is sinking into a maladministration quagmire. This is just another example"

Major decisions

Northern Ireland has had no government since January 2017, when a power-sharing deal collapsed.

Since then civil servants have taken some major decisions normally reserved for ministers.

But earlier this year a judge ruled that the Department for Infrastructure's permanent secretary did not have the power to give the go-ahead for a controversial waste incinerator plant in County Antrim.

In October legislation to give Northern Ireland civil servants more legal clarity to make decisions in the absence of ministers was passed at Westminster

However in a statement the Department for Communities said: "This new legislation does not empower senior officers to exercise powers which are reserved to Ministers in legislation rather than departments.

"It does not provide a legal basis for senior officers to allow the operation of FOIA in respect of transferred public records."

The Department of Communities said the temporary suspension on some FOI requests will last until the appropriate Northern Ireland minister takes up post.

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