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 Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 5:15 pm, 24th January 2017

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.