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I got a charming response from the Northern Ireland Human Rights (sic) Commission today following a Freedom of Information request I had sent to them concerning their departing Chief Commissioner Monica McWilliams.

I asked 6 specific questions but before I even reveal the answers (or lack of) I was amused by the line in their letter which “disclaims any inference that the information relating to staffing issues is somehow related to the Chief Commissioner” – or, in plain language, Monica is innocent!

Question 1. “How many  days has Mrs McWilliams spent out of Northern Ireland in each year of her tenure and of these how may were recorded as annual leave?” 

This information is not held by the Commission in the form requested.

Question 2. “For how many days outside Northern Ireland (whether or not recorded as leave) did Monica McWilliams receive fees, honoraria  or expenses from the Irish Government of other parties. What were the amounts?

Answer ; The Chief Commissioner has received no payment from the Irish Government or other parties.

Question 3; ” How many formal internal complaints were presented by staff during Professor Dickson’s tenure and during hers”

Not possible to provide this information.

Question 4; How much has the NIHRC spent during each year of her tenure on contentious employment issues including legal advice and representation at tribunals or other third party agencies, mediation, investigation etc.

Not possible to provide this information without compromising anonymity.

Question 5. How many working days have been lost during each year of her tenure due to stress-related or other staff illness or suspension

This information is not held by the Commission in the form requested.

Question 6. “What proportion of currently serving staff have within the past 12 months brought individual or collective internal grievance.

Not possible to disclose this information.

So, six questions and one caveated answer and five evasions. 

The Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland – it’s working for you?

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  1. Your questions are the problem. They are to scatter gunned. The Q on
    How many days has Mrs McWilliams spent out of Northern Ireland in each year

    would be impossible for any employer to answer. A specific Q relating solely to the number of trips as part of business would probably have been possible to answer because of the expenses involved. A better query would therefore be to ask for expenses and then do the dogwork yourself. You can't expect any organisation to sift through piles of data. What you want are the piles of data .

  2. David

    Out of interest, how long did they take to reply to you?

    The replies display a contemptuous attitude towards valid FOI questions.

  3. Really poor questions allowed them to avoid answering in a number of cases. Q6 is both a poor question and highly dodgy answer – "not possible" … really …. literally?

    Better, precise questions e.g. "how many employees of the commission raised grievances under the commissions internal grievance procedure between [date a] and [date b]" would be better.

  4. Q1 – of course the NIHRC holds records of exactly when and where its Chief Commissioner is out of the country. I know that I have been told on several occasions by the receptionist that she is "out of the country at the moment". (As she is this week!)
    Q2 – the response relates only to 'payments', ignoring your question about expenses – but it has already been acknowledged by NIHRC website that expenses for trips to Africa and Asia have been covered by the Dublin Government (and probably other trips by others – Monica being off in California right now).
    Q3 – of course it's possible to provide the statistics – personnel records have to be retained. They can't not have this information, unless they are admitting serious maladministration.
    Q4 – a nonsense answer – your question was purely about the amounts of (our) money spent in each year, not about any individuals. Where does anonymity come into it?
    Q5 – the Commission meetings receive statistical reports six times a year on staff illness/absence, and in the public sector all illness/absence has to be self certified or certified by a doctor – they have this information and it certainly is possible to provide it. As for suspensions (if any) they certainly should know that.
    Q6 – this is a simple arithmetic question – they have X staff, they know that Y number of staff are associated with however many grievances have arisen in the last year…

    You are being given the old runaround – Off to the Information Commissioner with you, David…

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