The code of ethics for civil servants in Northern Ireland is under review, the Department of Finance has confirmed, following revelations that officials had not kept records of several high-level meetings.
The department confirmed the review after it emerged during an inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme that civil servants had chosen not to take minutes of some meetings, out of concern they might be obtained by the press.
David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, told the RHI Inquiry last March that senior officials "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 [legislation]”.
Civil servants’ record keeping has come under particular scrutiny during the inquiry, which is examining how the RHI, which began in 2012, racked up a £490m subsidy bill after a lack of cost controls left it open to abuse.
Northern Ireland Audit Office comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly was especially critical during a hearing in October, when he said civil servants needed to go "back to basics" on administrative matters such as records and spending.
He said he was “very annoyed” that notes were not taken in a number of important meetings about RHI. “This is something the civil service was traditionally good at, keeping the public record,” he said.
Although the NICS code of ethics is near-identical to that of the home civil service, they diverge slightly regarding the handling of information.
The Civil Service Code says that officials in Britain must "keep accurate official records and handle information as openly as possible within the legal framework". The equivalent section of the NICS code includes the same phrase, but omits the requirement to “keep accurate official records”.
But that is now under review, the Department of Finance has confirmed. In a statement sent to CSW, a spokesperson said: “The code of ethics for the NICS and the home civil service are two different documents for two different civil services. We are currently reviewing the NICS code.”
“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,” they added.
Legislation awaiting ministerial sign-off has piled up over the last two years, since a power-sharing agreement collapsed in January 2017, leaving no functioning executive in place at Stormont. Data released under the FoI Act last month showed more than 160 such decisions had stalled.
A bill passed by the Westminster government in November will make it easier for some of these decisions, such as some confirming public appointments, to move forward. However, Sterling told the RHI inquiry is nevertheless imperative the power-sharing agreement is restored as quickly as possible.
“As head of the civil service I have to accept that we cannot afford to put our people at risk of being asked to deliver something for which they are not adequately resourced or equipped,” he said when he appeared before the inquiry in March.
He added that the scandal had undermined public confidence in NICS staff. “We take that very seriously and I think we know that we have a job to do to rebuild confidence in the general public that we’re capable of delivering.”