Debate resumed on motion:
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. — [Mr Agnew.]
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. However, given the context in which we are speaking, the motion is, at best, little more than mischief-making.
We have been returned to this House by our constituents, who have put their belief in us to uphold our professional standards and to act in their best interests in the decisions that we make. I agree that, by entrusting us with that responsibility, the very least that our voters can expect is a system that is transparent, open and accountable. In signing the Roll of Membership, I committed to the principles of the Assembly's code of conduct and have been faithful to working selflessly, with integrity, objectivity and accountability, in an open and honest manner, while providing leadership in my constituency.
The Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards provides an invaluable service to the House by providing regulation and monitoring of the conduct of all of us. The scope of the commissioner's remit is to ensure that serious breaches of the code are fully investigated and that the integrity of the House is upheld. I repeat my initial remarks: the motion is simply mischief-making.
I fully support the notion that there must be a system in place to investigate serious breaches, but the commissioner is not here to act as the schoolmaster presiding over disobedient pupils. To suggest that we require yet another layer of bureaucracy is completely at odds with the principles of streamlining and cutting red tape, which we have sought to achieve during this mandate and the previous one. During these times of austerity, when we need to ensure that we are getting the best possible value for money when using public funds, the idea that we should rush through legislation to add even more layers of bureaucracy is absurd. I am an advocate of transparency and openness in our government, as suggested in the motion, but the expansion of the commissioner's role and remit would place a barrier in the way of providing that.
This Assembly has deemed the Assembly's code of conduct to be fit for purpose, and it has been satisfied that the mechanisms are in place under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to deal correctly with any breaches. I have said this on several occasions on varying matters, and I find myself saying it again today: bad legislation is worse than no legislation. Even if we were not standing on the edge of another election, the call to bring forward urgent legislation lacks any consideration for the process involved or the implications that it may have. The commissioner's role is clear, defined and wholly adequate. Any attempts to widen that role not only undermine the office of the commissioner but undermine the personal standards and accountability with which Members must uphold their own office. If changes are to be sought, they must only be carried out following thorough scrutiny and process. They should not be sought as an attempt to create issues where none exist. We would need to give further consideration to changes such as those outlined in the motion before making them. We must ensure that persons are not found guilty on issues before we even have the matter investigated.
I apologise to Mr Agnew for stepping out when he proposed the motion. I had a bit of a cough.
I support the motion. I support not just the words of the motion but the words of its proposer. We need transparency in government at all levels. I will keep my remarks reasonably brief, because I support the motion, but, as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I have continually said that I believe in more standards and less privilege. All that we require is enough privilege to ensure that we can do our job effectively.
We must be held to account. Every one of us must be held to account, so we need more standards. It is clear that Ministers are bound by the Nolan principles. Do not worry, I am not going to ask anybody what the Nolan principles are. I had to write them down just to remind myself. Sometimes, those principles have to be tested.
If the Assembly commissioner can investigate Members of the Assembly, it seems only reasonable that a similar investigation process should be in place to hold Ministers to account. There are certainly concerns about existing mechanisms to enforce the ministerial code, and we have seen Freedom of Information Act requests ignored; late ministerial statements so that they cannot be scrutinised before they are delivered on the Floor; Members' questions for written answer not answered or not answered on time; and, of course, the issue in regard to RHI and other scandals prior to my coming to the Assembly.
Given the state of politics in Northern Ireland today, given how people view us at the minute, and in light of scandal after scandal, surely we should all be supporting measures to improve the credibility of our Ministers. What harm would it do to permit the Assembly Commissioner for Standards to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code of conduct? It cannot but help. It must help.
I thank the Member for giving way. He asked why anyone would oppose this, and we have just heard Mrs Cameron say that it would be more bureaucratic. Does he think that it would be more bureaucratic than a public inquiry or more bureaucratic than, say, a Committee investigation into Red Sky?
I have got to agree, and I think that any sensible-minded person has got to agree. If you do not want the light of scrutiny shone into the corners of the work that you do, you have clearly got something to hide. I certainly have nothing to hide, and I do not think that any of us in public office should be hiding anything that we do.
I will finish by asking how this Executive, which have been damned in the eyes of the public, can argue against scrutiny and transparency? It is a simple process to have the commissioner look at all aspects of the Assembly, including Ministers, and it can do nothing but help us in the eyes of a public who do not view us in a good light at this time. I absolutely support the motion.
I thank Mr Agnew and the Greens for tabling the motion, which is consistent with the approach that they have adopted. I will come back to that shortly. I agree completely with what Mr Agnew said in his opening remarks. He said that there needed to be an independent open process to investigate ministerial conduct —
I agree completely with Mr Agnew who said, in his opening remarks, that there was a need for an independent open process to investigate ministerial conduct, not least given recent events, and that there will be public anger if the motion is not passed. All of that is consistent with the amendments that Mr Agnew and Claire Sugden moved to John McCallister's Opposition Bill not very long ago.
I am completely at sea to understand Sinn Féin and the DUP's positions today compared to a short time ago, because, when this very matter arose in the Opposition Bill, Sinn Féin and the DUP opposed the then proposal of Steven Agnew to create an independent mechanism for the investigation of complaints against Ministers. They were so opposed to that proposal that neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin even spoke on the amendment in the debate. There had clearly been a cosy arrangement agreed beforehand that both would oppose the principle — at that stage, it was only a principle — that said that procedures be established for the submission of complaints of breaches of the ministerial code and for the investigation of those complaints. So, less than 18 months ago, the DUP and Sinn Féin opposed that proposal.
The curious thing, of course, is the comments of Mr McKay. He accepted a point from me and then said, "Well, actually, since that time the then deputy First Minister has been looking at the matter." Is it not curious that 18 months ago, despite NAMA, despite Red Sky, despite ransom strips — and, for all we know, people might have even known about RHI then — Sinn Féin, despite all that evidence, still gave the DUP a soft landing. Is it not the point of this motion — the last motion of this mandate — that 18 months ago, on issues of accountability about Ministers, around Red Sky, ransom strips and NAMA, Sinn Féin gave the DUP a soft landing? When its own constituency told them that was not acceptable, Sinn Féin, in order to catch up, rushed to an election. That is the consequence of its failure 18 months ago.
I thank the Member for giving way. I share your concerns around the issue of the motion that came before the House in the name of Jim Allister and the fact that Sinn Féin, at the time, did not support it. The U-turn today is because it now impacts on their communities and it is a selfish and an arrogant statement that I have made today in pointing the finger at Sinn Féin for not taking the responsibility 18 months ago.
Whatever it is, it is a flip-flop. It is trying to cover your tracks. It is having said to people that everything was all right when things were not all right. People saw through it. That is why Sinn Féin is today supporting something that it did not support less than 18 months ago and why, on the other hand, it has rushed to an election.
If there is anything worse than that, it is the speech of Pam Cameron, who said during her contribution — in the week that is in it, in the months that are in it, can you believe that this is the approach of the DUP? Why should we have this model: "to create issues where none exist"? She said it is better to have no legislation than bad legislation. Will Pam Cameron explain to people where she sees that we are trying to create issues where none exist? What world have you been living in for the last two or three months?
That is why Mr Agnew is right to say that there will be anger. There will be anger at the DUP on the day that a public inquiry is established into RHI, belatedly endorsed by Sinn Féin because it had no place else to turn. The DUP says, "Why create issues where none exist?". In a pincer movement, Sinn Féin tries to cover its tracks by saying, "Let us have support for what Steven Agnew, Claire Sugden, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists all voted for less than 18 months ago." Some people talk straight and some people have not been talking straight. In a short space of time, people will have to make a judgement about whether the future is about those who talk straight and those who do not.
On a point or order, Mr Speaker. I appreciate that my comments on the ministerial statement that was made prior to this motion have created some stir. I wish to withdraw some of the comments in relation my calling into question the judiciary on how they will expedite this inquiry. I welcome the inquiry, and I withdraw some of the comments associated with how they might wish to elongate it or not expedite it as quickly as it could have been.
It is an irony that the last debate of this extremely short mandate turns out to be about the fundamental issues which have plagued the Assembly, not just for the last few weeks but for a considerable period of time, around openness, accountability and transparency of operations.
I congratulate Steven Agnew on somehow managing to come out of the lucky dip at this precise point to highlight an issue that, in fairness to him, he and his party have been highlighting for some time. Although I would like to claim a small share of the credit of the work that the Alliance Party has done, alongside the Green Party, on things such as the transparency of funding of political parties where there is still a major block in this Assembly for many others.
When I listened to the start of the debate, I welcomed the comments that Mr McGuigan made, but, as Alex Attwood said so forcibly, even when he intervened and asked what had changed, there was an inability on the part of the Sinn Féin representative to explain anything other than to say that there is an election in six weeks' time so we had better get on the right side of this and dump it all on the DUP. However, that party's behaviour has been in parallel with the DUP on many occasions.
I applaud my constituency colleague Pam Cameron for her ability to defend the indefensible party line consistently and show her loyalty, but I am not sure, from what I have seen so far, that it will go down very well on the doorsteps of South Antrim. There is an inability in all that we face at the moment to recognise the public disgust at the behaviour of certain people in this place and, most particularly, in the Executive. If we do not have openness and transparency about public dealings, we see a decrease in trust, and if that trust continues to decrease because there are no accountability mechanisms at work, it is not just a matter of concern; it turns to complete cynicism. That is, frankly, what we are witnessing amongst a very large number of our people. Sadly, we have seen all too many examples, and they have not all been confined to the DUP. We do not need to recite the litany of Red Sky to NAMA to the strategic investment fund to RHI. It just goes on and on.
No doubt, what we saw from in/out Ministers not so long ago and the failure of the outgoing First Minister to accept her role when she was Minister in DETI to deal with the issue has further added to that. Yesterday, we in this House were asked to sign off on RHI regulations that have not been subject to proper scrutiny on a simple basis of trust, but that trust can exist only if there is accountability for the way that Ministers carry out their duties, not just that there is accountability for MLAs as Back-Benchers, but that there is accountability for Ministers.
The appointment of the Executive communications director, or whatever David Gordon is known as, is a classic example. Basic HR procedures were ignored. Less than the full truth emerged and facts were eventually slowly dragged out from the bunker, sorry, from Stormont Castle. It is a classic example of why people have lost trust in the way that this place operates; it is a classic example of why the ministerial code needs to be enforced at least as rigorously as we enforce procedures against Members.
There may be a temptation for coalitions like the current one to do deals that show a lack of openness, but when we see how Committees are treated, for example, over budget procedures, completely undoing the way in which they were set out in the Good Friday Agreement, it seems that we have an action at the moment of two parties unwilling to move on at all.
We do not just need a way of investigating matters; we need to ensure that we have robust procedures when investigations are carried out. The fact that, in this place, uniquely amongst legislatures on these islands, the Public Accounts Committee can be chaired by a member of an Executive party, and members of the PAC will use their efforts to defend Ministers of their parties, is a disgrace and would not be tolerated anywhere else.
All I can say is that I remember officials coming back into the Department and saying, "You wouldn't have been very pleased with what Trevor or Stewart said at the Committee yesterday, Minister". So, I do not think that that has been the case for my party, but when you get a party with three or four Members on a Committee of 11 working to defend their Minister, there are real questions as to how this operates when we discuss issues such as PAC and not policy decisions and when what the Minister has been doing is discussed in departmental Committees. Of course, fundamentally, we have seen the way in which the petition of concern has been deployed by a single party to protect a Minister in some difficulties. The notion that it would be acceptable to do that anywhere is just unacceptable. Why is it that behaviour that would see Ministers sacked in any other legislature on these islands seems to be a recipe to keep people in place, or possibly promote them, here?
I congratulate Steven Agnew for the work that he has been doing and on splitting up the Executive — although that is not terribly hard to do these days.
A lot of issues have been raised by Members from various parties. Over recent days and months, we have heard people talking about the need for reform of these institutions and the need to change the way in which things operate. It is clear to most observers that, whatever the outcome of the election, those of us who are fortunate enough to be returned are likely to be elected to some sort of talks process. Part of that talks process will entail reform of the institutions and changing how things operate. I absolutely want to be part of those discussions and debates.
Recent events and, fundamentally, the architecture of the institutions that were created in 1998 demonstrate the need for fundamental reform and a move towards a more Westminster-style of doing things. I would absolutely welcome that. I would welcome participation in such a process and would hope that all parties feel the same. I am happy that we should look at the scrutiny of Ministers and all those who are elected to this place in terms of how they function and operate.
As a new Member, I was elected seven months ago along with other new Members who come from a background in local government. I had the opportunity to see how, in local government, there is an immediacy of delivery; you can turn things around really quickly for your constituents and get things done. Sometimes, the system here is very difficult to navigate and can become clogged up. If, as part of the reform of the institutions, people want to put forward new ideas for how people function and exercise their power, I would be prepared to give those ideas a fair wind. I, personally, have nothing to hide from openness and transparency. I would hope that anyone who is fortunate enough to be elected here to represent the people can say the same.
I believe in scrutiny and transparency. I believe that Ministers should be held accountable for how they conduct themselves in office and out of office. I listened to the comments from the Member for North Antrim Mr McKay. They amounted largely to policy criticisms, particularly of the Minister for Communities.
I beg your pardon. I apologise. Daithí McKay is now off to that happy land of being the commentator, where you get to talk about everything, do not actually make any decisions and get paid for it.
I listened to his comments and a lot of what he said amounted to effectively policy criticisms of the Minister for Communities. In particular, one of the issues that he cited was the funding of community halls. I would point out to Mr McKay —
That is twice. I would point out to Mr McGuigan that since the first cessation of IRA activity, the number of attacks upon Orange halls has skyrocketed.
Hatred for and directed at the Orange Institution and its members has increased. Therefore, when a hall applies for funding — a funding process in which the Minister had no hand in making the decisions about who gets the money — and demonstrates that they meet the set criteria, it is not for anyone to gainsay or deny them their funding, least of all because of the background they come from.
I am grateful.
The Member talks about the criteria being skewed. Oddly enough, the Member was part of the Government — or his party was, until it decided to have a hissy fit and walk — when this programme was launched, and there was not one word of criticism. You did not say that the scheme was skewed and unfair when you were in government. I suspect that you are saying it now because we are in the teeth of an election. A lot of what has been said here —
Mr Ford rightly observed that, as this Assembly collapses, and it is not unrelated to the issue of ministerial accountability, it is ironic that we are discussing the total absence of any system to import accountability in respect of Ministers, and so it is. It is also fitting, because it is quite astounding that, after all the years of limping through devolution that we have had, we are still at the point of effectively having no mechanism to hold Ministers to account for their actions as Ministers. Yes, we have a code of conduct. Yes, there is a ministerial code. But there is no mechanism to investigate, in any independent sense, whether or not a Minister has fallen short of the standards thereby imposed, and that is deliberate.
Today, we see a deliberate intent to hold on to that. Mrs Cameron's speech was quite amazing. She told us that she believes in accountability, transparency and matters of openness, and then she berates the very modest suggestion that we should have some mechanism to investigate Ministers' alleged failures. For her to tell us that that is mischief-making is itself quite astounding.
Ordinary MLAs are subject to an investigative process through the commissioner. Yet Ministers, who make the real decisions in this House — who get into the sort of trouble that has landed us in this present situation — are immune from investigation. They are protected by a system that affords only the First Ministers together acting against their own, which is unheard of in this incestuous place, or 30 Members raising an issue that the DUP does not block by petition of concern, as it did in other cases. So, for all practical purposes, there is neither a means of investigation nor a means of holding to account Ministers in this House. Hence, to suggest we should extend the powers of the commissioner, who examines us as MLAs, to Ministers in their role as Ministers is not mischief-making. It is a very basic component of the start of accountability that anyone would reasonably expect. The fact that, at the moment, the primary party in the House is seeking to block, avoid and thwart that extension is a huge commentary on that party and, as someone said in the debate, an indication that the last couple of months have taught them nothing.
What Mr Agnew is asking for is the barest minimum of an investigative process that will not cost the House anything of significance because the apparatus already exists with the commissioner. Therefore, this is simply about extending his remit to Ministers who, until now, have been the untouchables in the House. We saw scandals, like how Mr McCausland conducted himself with Red Sky and elsewhere —
Does the Member agree that the importance of this issue is that it should also bring in the accountability of SpAds? In the Red Sky affair, there was a recommendation that a full, formal disciplinary investigation should occur because there was sufficient evidence. The Minister refused to allow that to happen. Does he agree that it is important that the responsibility for SpAds be brought under scrutiny as well?
Thank you. I certainly do. Indeed, the Member will recall that, after the Red Sky debacle, I brought a second SpAd Bill to the House. One of the things it sought to do was to make the SpAds' code of conduct and measuring them against it subject to the Civil Service disciplinary procedures. Who voted that down? Sinn Féin, a party of suspension at that time —
I am delighted to make a winding-up speech on this debate, which has been the first-ever sole Green Party private Member's motion. Thanks to the election of my colleague, Clare Bailey, we have two Green MLAs, which has increased our ability to use the Assembly privileges to put such suggestions forward. As a result, Mr Speaker, as you know well from the many letters I have written to you in my continual lobbying, I think all Members should be represented on the Business Committee. I am delighted that is one of the areas of progress we have been able to make in the short life of this Assembly.
Mr Ford made reference to the "lucky dip", and how I was quite lucky to get this timing to bring forward the last private Member's motion. Whilst the timing was luck, I assure you that the selection of the motion was no accident. I think it is right that we conclude this short Assembly term by calling into question how we hold Ministers to account. The least we can do, on the other side of this election, is improve our accountability processes and take action to restore some public confidence, although this one measure will fall somewhat short of undoing the tremendous damage that has been done, whether it be through RHI, the lack of a Budget or the collapse of the Assembly itself.
I thank Members for contributing to the debate, particularly those who supported the motion.
One of the issues that came up was Sinn Féin's change of position and the differing narratives of Mr McGuigan and Mr Attwood. Mr McGuigan highlighted recent issues and drew attention to decisions of the Communities Minister that, I take from his contribution, he would call into question if there were a process for making a formal complaint against Ministers. He added that the conversations that I have had with the deputy First Minister had influenced Sinn Féin's position. I wish to take him at face value on that, because I would love to go to the electorate in North Down and say, "I can change Sinn Féin's policy. Vote for me", but it might be an over-claim. In all seriousness, I valued the input of the deputy First Minister on the issue. I wish him good health and a full recovery. He took the time, he was helpful and he responded to all my questions and queries.
Mr Attwood, of course, has a different take on the narrative of Sinn Féin and very much sees it as an opportunist position heading into the election. I am not going to make judgement. I welcome the support today. That support is on public record. Should I be re-elected to the House and should we get the institutions back up and running, I will bring the issue back and will look for the continuing support of Sinn Féin for legislation and actual change. I give Mr Attwood — he apologised for having to leave — the commitment that I certainly will hold Sinn Féin to its commitment of support.
Others have mentioned the position of Pam Cameron. I find it bizarre. When you use a term such as "mischief-making", it is kind of saying, "We object, but we have no reason to, so instead we throw a form of insult". In a previous debate, Mr Alex Attwood referred to fog being created, and this was a smokescreen. The DUP does not have good reason for opposing the motion. I was accused of mischief-making, and that is supposed to suffice.
The idea that this would somehow lead to greater bureaucracy stands in contrast to the evidence. Look at where Ministers have been complained about in the past. In the absence of a process, we had the Red Sky issue. We had a Committee inquiry into that involving 11 Committee members, all the Committee staff and numerous meetings and calling of witnesses. This process would involve one commissioner and one independent investigation, rather than a political investigation that, I have no doubt, some at the time called a witch-hunt, as is often said when people are defending their Minister. We would have a much more streamlined process and take it out of the political debate and trial by media that I mentioned earlier. The claim that it would be more bureaucratic is spurious.
I give credit to Doug Beattie for the quote of the day: "more standards and less privilege". I could not agree more, particularly when we look at the issue of Ministers. We have not seen the standards that people expect. I used to be on the Standards and Privileges Committee. When MLAs breach standards, they are investigated and are held to those standards by the commissioner through an independent finding. Regardless of what the Assembly decides to do thereafter, it is for ever on public record that a Member has been found to have breached the code of conduct. We should expect the same standards of Ministers. They certainly have the privileges, and the two must go hand in hand.
In an intervention, Mr Beggs raised the issue of SpAds. It is a key question. Again, when I was a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, we reviewed the code of conduct and looked at the issue of Members' staff. We said that Members were responsible for the actions of their staff, and the same standard should apply to Ministers and their SpAds. I see Ms Palmer nodding her head. We have seen the damage that the actions of SpAds can do. Someone has to be accountable for them, and I would argue that the Minister, as their employer, should be accountable.
I absolutely agree, Mr Beggs.
Another point I will make is about the idea of the distinction between the Minister and the Department. When I was drafting my private Member's Bill, I asked, "Should that say 'Minister' or 'Department'?". The legal advice that I was given was that they are one and the same. The same should be true of a SpAd. The Minister, the SpAd, the Department — they are one entity. The Minister is responsible, and that is where the buck should stop.
Mr Ford highlighted the work that the Greens and the Alliance have been doing on openness and transparency in relation not just to this matter but to party donations. I deliberately left that point to the end, because I think that there is no better time to make these points. There is public distaste about the record of this Executive. There has been a lack of openness, transparency and accountability, and this measure is about introducing transparency, accountability and openness. There are other measures needed. This is but one measure, and transparency around political donations is another. My colleague Clare Bailey raised this today in relation to the RHI inquiry, but, across the board, we need to find out the relationship between those who fund the parties and the decisions that those parties make.
This is a modest proposal today. I welcome the support that there seems to be from around the House. I compel Members — sorry, I wish could compel Members. I urge Members to give it their full support and thank them for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
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.