Ministerial Code: Independent Investigation of Alleged Breaches

Part of Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:15 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 5:15 pm, 24th January 2017

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 —