Ministerial Code: Independent Investigation of Alleged Breaches

Part of Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 1:15 pm, 24th January 2017

I beg to move

That this Assembly acknowledges that it is in the public interest for there to be openness, transparency and accountability in relation to the Northern Ireland Executive; recognises the important role that the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards plays in providing independent investigation of alleged breaches of the Assembly's Code of Conduct by Back-Bench Members; further recognises that the current lack of independent scrutiny of Executive Ministers benefits neither the public nor the Ministers themselves; and calls on the Executive Office to bring forward urgently legislation to expand the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards to allow him to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct.

We need an independent, open and transparent process for investigating Ministers. I have always failed to understand the opposition to that from some in the House. Given recent events, if the Assembly was to oppose it again today, there would be public anger. We have institutions that are at the point of collapse because we have had, by necessity, trial by media of the former First Minister. It was by necessity because there was no formal process for the allegations against the then First Minister to be heard. This will be the last decision made by this Assembly. I call on Members not to waste the opportunity to send a clear signal on the standards of accountability that we expect of the next Executive.

MLAs are rightly expected to adhere to the Assembly code of conduct: the Green Party asks no more and no less of Ministers. If an MLA is alleged to have breached the code, a member of the public can write to the standards commissioner and have their complaint investigated in an independent manner. The result of any investigation is published and can, if required, lead to a debate in the Assembly so that all the issues can be aired. The process is open, transparent and just. No such process exists for Ministers. If a member of the public wishes to complain about a Minister, the only avenue open to them is to write to the party leader. As we have seen on many occasions in Northern Ireland politics, leaders protect their Ministers; indeed, when the complaint is about the leader, the leader protects herself.

In 2014-15, the majority of the complaints received by the Commissioner for Standards were against Ministers. They were deemed inadmissible because his current powers do not allow him to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct or alleged breaches in which an MLA is deemed to be acting solely in their role as Minister. I am pleased that the commissioner has confirmed to me his support for an expansion of his role so that he can investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct.

I would argue that it serves neither the Minister nor the public well that we do not have such a process. An individual who seeks to complain will be left frustrated if they feel that their concerns are ignored by those in office, who are supposed to act on their behalf. Having written to a party leader, an individual may feel that that leader is acting in the interests of their party colleague rather than in the interests of good governance.

Equally, Ministers who face allegations will most likely hear them debated through the press in what I have referred to as "trial by media". The press have a job — holding Ministers to account — and have shown that they are well capable of doing it. Nonetheless, the recent RHI debacle has highlighted the need for a better process. Whilst we may disagree on the various issues — indeed, we had a six-hour debate about them yesterday — I do not think that any of us would disagree that there has to be a more dignified way of managing such complaints. The processes, in my view, are currently lacking.

For another example, I go back to 2011, when I accused the then Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster, of breaching the code by failing to declare that her husband owned land in an area that she licensed for fracking. Interestingly, she argued that it was not her who licensed the land; it was her Department. To this day, I maintain that she was in breach of 1.5 (ix) of the code of conduct, which provides that any Minister must:

"declare any personal or business interests which may conflict with their responsibilities."

Arlene Foster, of course, denied that the code was breached. We have never concluded the issue because there was no process through which to do so.

I raised this issue through questions for oral answer a number of times since May. On each occasion, by chance it was the deputy First Minister who answered, and he seemed to have some sympathy with the proposal. I took the opportunity that he offered to meet with him to discuss the matter, and he confirmed that it was a meeting with the joint office. Again, the deputy First Minister seemed sympathetic to my proposals. One of his concerns was that I seemed to be the only one pushing for this; whilst he could see the argument, he did not feel that there was enough of a drive to support the proposal. He also asked, quite legitimately, what sanctions would be in place should a Minister be found to have breached the code of conduct.

As I mentioned, the Commissioner for Standards supports this. When we debated it back in October, in relation to an amendment that I tabled to a motion, all the non-Executive parties supported it. I put that to the deputy First Minister in writing. There are a number of options available for sanctions similar to those for breaches of the Members' code of conduct. A Minister could be required to apologise. They could be censured by the Assembly, suspended or, in the most extreme cases, expelled from their role as Minister.

Unfortunately, due to the illness and now retirement of the deputy First Minister, we did not get to conclude our conversations, and I wait to hear whether Sinn Féin will support my proposal today. Equally, while I was told that my meeting was with Mr McGuinness in his capacity as deputy First Minister and with the consent of the First Minister, I do not yet know the views of the DUP and whether they have changed since October, when it and Sinn Féin opposed this proposal.

I maintain that we need an open, transparent and accountable Government. As I said, this is the last decision of this Assembly. Let us not waste it. Let us begin the process of restoring some confidence in politics in the eyes of our public.