A revised Northern Ireland local government code of conduct for councillors was issued for consultation on 21 December 2016, together with the report of the code of conduct review working group. The consultation will run until 28 February 2017, and a synopsis of the responses to the consultation, along with any response from my Department, will be forwarded to the Committee for Communities for consideration prior to publication. Any amendment to the current code of conduct for councillors will require the approval of the Assembly before it may come into operation. Just for the record, I declare that my dad is a councillor.
I thank the Minister. Does he agree that a revised code of conduct for councillors must draw a distinction between strict regulations for councillors involved in quasi-judicial decisions, such as members of planning committees, and areas where councillors must have more freedom to represent the concerns of their electorate?
I do, and the consultation reflects that, but, clearly, where there are quasi-judicial decisions to be taken, for example around planning or to do with licensing, it is important that the code of conduct as it currently applies will continue to be that way. Obviously, local government reflective of all of the political parties raised issues around other aspects of council activities and councillors and committees and decision-making processes and felt that the current code of conduct presented challenges around that. This is a two-pronged approach: one very clearly having the quasi-judicial aspect and then the consultation that reflects the changes to do with the other aspects of the council.
Building on Mrs Overend's supplementary question, there certainly have been questions raised in the past, including when the Assembly passed the Local Government Act, about the transparency of political donations, particularly in the context of planning decisions. Will the Minister agree that it is time that large donations were made public?
Obviously, our party has been very clear on that. Donations will be made public when the Northern Ireland Office decides that it will release them, so that decision is in the hands of the Secretary of State. When the time is right to do that, there should be no one hiding from making that information available to the public.
The principles in the current councillors' code mirror those that were set out in the previous MLA code, which was in force when the councillors' code was being drafted. When the councillors' code was brought before the Assembly for consideration, the MLA code was being reviewed, and, during the Assembly debate on the motion to approve the councillors' code, the then Minister of the Environment indicated that, following the outcome of the ongoing review of the MLA code, consideration would be given to whether any changes to the councillors' code would be needed. The review working group considered the changes to the principles in the revised MLA code. The principles in the proposed councillors' code, which is being consulted on, mirror those in the revised MLA code. The proposed councillors' code also frames the principles as aspirational and not enforceable on their own, which is in line with the MLA code.