Ministerial Code: Independent Investigation of Alleged Breaches

Part of Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 4:45 pm, 24th January 2017

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.