Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report


Submitted by the Northern Ireland Office

Thank you for your letter of 9 June in which you asked for a fuller explanation of why it was necessary to withhold information in answers to particular Parliamentary Questions. I have looked into this matter and am pleased to be able to provide the attached elaboration.

I have noted your point that PQ Answers should cite how a refusal relates to the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. I have instructed that we follow this in future.

PQ 62848

This PQ from Robert Jackson was in three parts and asked the Secretary of State to list the names of the special advisers in the NIO, to list the issues in which each specialised and to provide the level of security clearance each held. Only the third part was not answered because it asked for personal information. Under the terms of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, Part II, exemption 8 (a), personnel records including those relating to recruitment, promotion and security vetting need not be disclosed.

PQ 75291

This question asked for a list of the religious and political affiliations of the newly appointed Commissioners for human rights. The reply covered as fully as possible the political affiliations but said that it was not Government policy to release the religious affiliation of each member. We said we were satisfied that the Commissioners, as a group, were representative of the community in Northern Ireland.

The Fair Employment (Monitoring) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1989, state that information supplied by job applicants and employees on their community background is treated in the strictest confidence and failure to do so may lead to criminal liability. Organisations are required not to disclose, without the individual's consent, information about an employee or applicant which might be used under any monitoring method to determine community background; and determination of an employee's or applicant's community - or any other information from which community background might be deduced. Paragraph 14 (a) of Part II of the Code of Practice therefore applies.

PQ 81885

This question asked what action was taken against a civil servant who had appeared on a public platform in support of the Spirit of Drumcree Group. The answer stated that disciplinary action had been taken against an individual and that, as this was an internal matter, in accordance with established procedure it was not appropriate for any papers to be placed in the Library.

Employment custom and practice, not just in the public sector, is that personnel information is always held to be confidential between the employee and employer. Disclosure by one party could be held to be prejudicial and result in significant litigation. In addition, the Data Protection Act requires personal data to be held in confidence and prohibits unauthorised disclosure. Paragraph 8 (a) of Part II of the Code of Practice applies.

PQ 62941 & 69091

These questions sought extensive detail of prisoners released or due to be released under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. It is the policy of the Northern Ireland Prison Service not to publish the names of prisoners on release. Such releases are not supported by all, and the policy not to publish personal details has been a key element in ensuring the safety of the former prisoners, and to assist their successful reintegration into normal life in society. This policy has been heavily drawn on, particularly across the period following the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent early release of prisoners. This policy is fully compliant with Part II, paragraph 4 (f) of the Code of Practice.

PQ 68425

This question, also asked of other Government Departments, sought detail of the legislative programme taken into account when producing the spending plans for the following three years. Central guidance advised us to answer that "There is a long-standing convention that legislative proposals for each year are not announced before the Queen's Speech at the start of the relevant Session".

PQ 67777

This question sought to determine what "knowledge" the RUC might have as to the perpetrators of punishment beatings and shootings. As much information was given as was possible but to go further would have been to discuss intelligence matters. To disclose such information would harm national security or defence and could prejudice the enforcement or proper administration of the law, including the prevention, investigation or detection of crime, or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders. It could also endanger the life or physical safety of any person, or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes. Paragraphs 1 (a), 4 (b) and 4 (f) of Part II of the Code of Practice apply.

PQ 69796

This question asked what representations there had been about the working practices of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. In composing the reply, it was taken that to discuss what representations had been made would involve discussing the working practices themselves. The Tribunal was set up pursuant to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 which made provision "….with respect to the taking of evidence before and the procedure and powers of certain Tribunals of Inquiry". The Act states that the Tribunal shall have "….all such powers, rights and privileges as are vested in the High Court…." The reply stated that the Inquiry was independent, that its working practices were a matter for it to decide and that it would not be appropriate for the Government to interfere with or comment on the way Tribunal was run.

PQ 73751

Information was sought on the value of beef exports from Northern Ireland. Since only one company was involved in exports at that time and in the absence of aggregation with figures from other companies, the information had to be treated as commercial in confidence. This approach is in accord with paragraph 13 (Third Party's commercial confidences) of Part II of the Code of Practice.

PQ 83937

This question asked how many post mortems each state pathologist in NI had conducted over the last three years and for similar information for England & Wales. The answer refused to give details of individual workloads but gave overall NI totals for each of the last three years. The England and Wales equivalents were for the Home Secretary.

While it is accepted that there is no exemption afforded by the Code of Practice, the refusal to give the detail requested was based on the belief that we should be sensitive to the feelings of the individuals concerned. A simple breakdown of post mortems conducted by named pathologists would have provided a highly distorted and, especially in the case of the State Pathologist himself, unflattering picture of workloads. Added to this is the fact that the recent Criminal Justice Review emphasised the desirability of maintaining the independence of the State Pathologist's Department.

Although administered and funded by the NIO, the State Pathologist's Department is essentially a medical department which provides a direct objective scientific service to coroners, the courts and the police. Its professional staff are required to meet the standards laid down by the British Medical Council, the Royal College of Pathologists and Queen's University, Belfast (for which it is the Institute of Forensic Medicine).

PQ 95364

This question asked what guidance was issued to the RUC on the circumstances in which the assistance of army units should be sought in dealing with public order problems. The reply explained that the RUC Force Policy document was a confidential operational policing manual. We agree with the Chief Constable that disclosing this document would harm national security or defence. Paragraphs 1 (a); 4 (b) and 4 (e) of the Code of Practice therefore apply.

PQ 94661

This question asked about the RUC's tri-annual report to the Fair Employment Commission and if a copy could be placed in the Library. While the answer gave the main points of the report, it went on to explain that the report would not be made public since it contained information which could prejudice the security of individual officers. Therefore paragraph 4 (f) of the Code of Practice applies.

5 July 2000

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