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Ministerial Code

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 17th October 2016.

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Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 2:00 pm, 17th October 2016

1. Mr Agnew asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the mechanism in place to allow members of the public to report breaches of the ministerial code of conduct. (AQO 461/16-21)

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

As the Member will be aware, no authority was conferred on the First Minister and me by the Good Friday Agreement or the 1998 Act to rule on alleged breaches by other Ministers or impose sanctions on them. The accountability of Ministers for their conduct is, ultimately, to the Assembly. The fact that the Pledge of Office and the ministerial code of conduct are included in the ministerial code did not qualify or replace the statutory arrangements put in place to determine alleged breaches of the pledge, which include questions of compliance with the ministerial code of conduct. However, as with any issue, a member of the public may write to us. Where we receive such a complaint, we consider it in accordance with the mechanisms provided in the Act. They allow us, if we consider it justified, to table a motion asking the Assembly to resolve that a Minister has not observed the terms of the Pledge of Office. If the Assembly so resolves, the sanctions available to it are censure, exclusion from office or a reduction of remuneration. That decision, however, is one for the Assembly. A member of the public may also, of course, approach an MLA and request them to consider tabling such a motion, which must have the support of 30 Members.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. When I brought an amendment to the House, it was disappointing that no one from the Executive Office was here to respond. Why does the deputy First Minister think it acceptable that, whilst other Members of the House are open to an independent investigatory process, there is a lower level of accountability for Ministers and no direct access for members of the public to make complaints? Why does he think that he and other Ministers should be less accountable?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I am aware that, in a recent debate in the Chamber, Mr Agnew called for there to be a standards commissioner to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct. He alternatively suggested that the remit of the Assembly Commissioner for Standards be extended to give that office the power to adjudicate on alleged breaches of the ministerial code. That would be in addition to the powers that it has to adjudicate on alleged breaches of the Members' code of conduct. The Assembly defined the role of the Commissioner for Standards to exclude ministerial conduct, even though it is the Assembly that must resolve whether the Pledge of Office has been breached. While this would be a matter for the Assembly to pursue, if Members saw fit, we would be happy to discuss the need for any expansion of the role, particularly to avoid nugatory expenditure on separate arrangements. We are willing to have a conversation about the matter in the time ahead. I suggest that people take up that offer.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I inform the House that question 13 has been withdrawn.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

Does the deputy First Minister believe that the public are being fettered from raising concerns by the present arrangements?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

As I outlined in my initial answer, it is quite clear that there are several routes that can be accessed by Members and members of the public. One is through the First Minister and deputy First Minister; the other is through approaching a Member, who, to put it before the Assembly, must gather 30 signatures. I have listened very carefully to what Steven Agnew has had to say. I hope that my answer allows for a conversation, and not just between the Executive Office and Mr Agnew. If any other Member feels the need to take up our offer to discuss the matter, we are more than willing to facilitate that.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

You are very late to rise. I call the Member.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Thank you, Mr Speaker. On the heels of his last answers, does the deputy First Minister recognise that there is a wider problem with regard to ministerial conduct, openness and transparency, and that we have seen a decline in standards during this mandate with regard to things like responses to FOIs, the number of ministerial statements to the House, delays in responses to questions and, indeed, non-responses by Ministers to very important ministerial debates, including today's debate on Brexit?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

That is a range of criticisms, all of which may have merits or not. I believe that the Administration is open and transparent; others will disagree with that. The big change that happened, folks, was in May, when we had the election. There was an opportunity for five parties to take up ministerial positions, and three parties chose not to do that. We and the DUP had the courage to go forward together. Of course, the criticisms that have been lodged in relation to the issues that have just been specified by the Member are all issues on which we have tried consistently to ensure that we close the gap between us. It is still early days. Some of the criticisms I accept; some I do not. We will try to do something about the criticisms that I accept.

Photo of Jennifer Palmer Jennifer Palmer UUP

Will the Minister outline what sanctions are in place where Ministers are found to be in breach of the ministerial code?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I think that I answered that question in my first answer.