Northern Ireland

NI Civil Service reviews record-keeping rules after RHI revelations

David Sterling Image copyright RHI Inquiry
Image caption David Sterling's RHI evidence gave a revealing insight into how Stormont is run

A key difference between the NI Civil Service's code of ethics and the UK-wide code on record keeping will be subject to a review by senior staff.

Record keeping or the lack of it was an important issue during the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) Inquiry.

It was told some meetings were not minuted in case details were requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

The code for NI staff is similar to the UK-wide code, but omits a requirement to "keep accurate official records".

Last March, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling told the RHI inquiry that both the DUP and Sinn Féin had been sensitive to criticism.

"I think it is in that context that, as 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, for example, might be released under Freedom of Information," Mr Sterling said.

Image copyright RHI Inquiry
Image caption David Sterling's RHI evidence gave a revealing insight into how Stormont is run

The comment led to widespread criticism with both parties insisting they had never asked officials not to take minutes of key meetings.

Later, Mr Sterling clarified that he "did not say that ministers asked or directed that notes of meetings should not be taken".

'Openness'

In November, the Northern Ireland Audit Office criticised the governance of the multi-million pound Social Investment Fund.

The Audit Office report pointed out that in some cases there were no records of minutes from meetings where key funding decisions around projects were taken.

In the same month, the DUP leader Arlene Foster told her party's annual conference that a number of lessons must be learned from the RHI scandal regarding openness and transparency.

Mrs Foster said that in the future "proper records must be kept and we must recognise that greater transparency will add value to public debate".

Image caption Arlene Foster apologised for her party's mistakes over RHI at the DUP annual conference

The code of ethics, which governs the standards of behaviour required of Northern Ireland's civil servants, says officials must "handle information as openly as possible within the legal framework".

Discrepancy

Much of the Northern Ireland code mimics word for word a similar code governing standards for the UK Civil Service.

However, regarding the handling of information, the UK version specifies that officials must "keep accurate official records and handle information as openly as possible within the legal framework".

It is not clear when or why the discrepancy in the two codes of ethics came about.

The duty to keep accurate records is likely to feature in the report of the RHI Inquiry, which is expected to be published in the spring of 2019.

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance, which has responsibility for the code, told the BBC: "The code of ethics for the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) and the Home Civil Service are two different documents for two different civil services.

"We are currently reviewing the NICS code."

Asked whether it would be possible to amend the code prior to the restoration of a power-sharing executive, the spokesperson added that "there is no requirement for ministers to be in place to revise the NICS code, however, officials would consult and engage with a range of stakeholders".

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