THE Office of the First and Deputy First Minister could be found in contempt of court if it fails to respond to an outstanding Freedom of Information request from The Detail.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in London has intervened in the long-running stand-off by issuing a formal notice which directs the lead government department to respond to our request within 35 days.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’ office has not yet responded to questions centred on a review report into the Children’s Commissioner’s office – despite our request being lodged with the office four months ago.
Our request asked for information on why the report on the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) had been withheld from the media and documentation held by the department relating to the report’s conclusions. We also asked for documents relating to a “negotiated termination settlement” of £30,000 paid to a former member of staff at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office.
The department has breached two sections of the Freedom of Information Act by failing to provide the information we requested or a valid refusal notice within the statutory time limit of 20 working days.
The notice states this happened “despite extensive correspondence, both with the complainant (The Detail) and the commissioner (Information Commissioner).”
OFMDFM’s handling of the request has led to strong criticism from the ICO.
The strongly-worded formal decision notice sets out steps which the department must now take and warns that failure to comply with the directive may be dealt with as a contempt of court.
The notice has been published in full on the ICO website (www.ico.gov.uk).
It continues: “The Commissioner notes with concern OFMDFM’s explanation that the delay in responding was due to the need to obtain approval from the Private Offices.
“The Commissioner would therefore remind OFMDFM that the Act does not provide for such an extension to the statutory time limit.
“The process of seeking such approval must be completed within the time limits set out in the Act.”
An OFMDFM spokeswoman said: “The department has received the correspondence from the information commissioner’s office and is currently considering a response.”
OFMDFM’s second review report, which was eventually released to the media in February, was very critical of NICCY.
The report’s conclusions included:
• The commissioner needs to re-examine the office’s priority areas “which are currently too broad and too general”.
• There is a current skew of resources towards Communication and Participation and it is questionable whether the current deployment of resources across the organisation offers the most meaningful impact.
• The review found little evidence of work undertaken by the commissioner to capture and track performance monitoring and evaluation information – even though this was a recommendation in the last review of the office in 2007.
• The senior management team needs to undertake training to strengthen performance and financial decision making processes across the organisation.
• A prime city centre location is not necessary for the commission to deliver its role. The office is currently based on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street, next door to the Europa Hotel. Expenditure relating to premises is currently £337,889 per year.
• There is a need to monitor staff turnover and absence rates closely.
Ms Lewsley issued a lengthy statement in response to the report.
This included: “My performance is set and evaluated by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in agreed business plans over a three year corporate plan. As the work is based on a three-year rolling programme, identifying a single year does not take into account that work is carried forward year-on-year.”
And: “The location and rent of the NICCY offices were agreed by the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the Department of Finance and Personnel, when the office was set up in 2004. Since taking up post I have continued to raise my concerns about the cost of the building and the overheads associated with it.”
Our second article provides a timeline of our battle for information so far.