McCausland deliberately misled the Assembly, inquiry determines

DUP minister Nelson McCausland
DUP minister Nelson McCausland

DUP minister Nelson McCausland was last night facing cross-party calls for his resignation after an inquiry found that he “deliberately misled” the Stormont Assembly.

Stormont’s Social Development Committee decided that the Social Development Minister deliberately altered documentation to conceal the fact that he had met a company with links to the DUP prior to making a decision about a contract.

Last night the TUV leader said that in “any credible democracy”, Mr McCausland would be forced to resign but that by the standards of Stormont he would probably be allowed to continue in office.

The UUP described the North Belfast MLA as a “lame duck minister”.

But the DUP — which voted against yesterday’s report — alleged that the committee had engaged in a “witch hunt” against the minister.

Yesterday’s finding only relates to the first strand of a three-strand inquiry into last year’s BBC Spotlight investigation into Mr McCausland’s department.

Yesterday’s report centres on a meeting which Mr McCausland held with senior figures from Turkington Holdings Ltd. In May 2010, the minister told the committee, in response to a question, that he had suspended the double-glazing of all Housing Executive properties after a meeting with the Glass and Glazing Federation and Fusion21.

But last year Spotlight revealed that the meeting was not with the Glass and Glazing Federation and Fusion 21, but was actually with Turkington Holdings.

Spotlight made allegations of wrongful political interference in the Housing Executive, potential breaches of the ministerial code and allegations that Mr McCausland misled the Assembly.

The third of those allegations has now been corroborated by the committee which Mr McCausland was alleged to have misled.

The committee uncovered evidence held by Mr McCausland’s department which showed that from the start it had recorded the meeting as being with Turkington’s. Even the entry in the minister’s diary described it as such.

And, the meeting in question began with the Turkington representatives giving an overview of their company — not the Glass and Glazing Federation.

In December, Mr McCausland admitted to having “inadvertently unintentionally misinformed the committee in the letter”, something he said was due to his genuine belief that the attendees represented the Glass and Glazing Federation, of which Turkington Holdings is a member.

But the committee rejected that argument and instead found that “the determined efforts that the minister and his special adviser made to remove Turkington’s from the record would suggest that it was neither unintentional nor inadvertent”.

Committee chairman Alex Maskey said that the report’s findings were “very serious”

The report shows that Mr McCausland’s office emailed a senior DSD official stating that the minister wanted the reference to “Turkington Holdings Ltd” changed to “representatives of the Glass and Glazing Federation and Fusion 21”.

The official, Michael Sands, admitted that this did not reflect the meeting of 16 April 2012 because Fusion21 had not attended that meeting.

When they appeared before the committee, the two senior Turkington figures who met Mr McCausland were adamant that it could not possibly have been construed by anyone present that they were representing any organisation other than Turkington’s.

Repeatedly throughout its inquiry, the committee — whose report will be debated in the Assembly in September — heard from those who made clear that the meeting had always been clearly described as being with Turkington Holdings.

The report also revealed that on the day that Mr McCausland received a letter from his scrutiny committee asking for the basis of his claim that money could be saved on the windows contract, the minister’s then private secretary, Barbara McConaghie, amended the minutes of his meeting with Turkington’s to state that instead the meeting had been with members of the Glass and Glazing Federation.

On the same day, she also retrospectively amended his diary to remove reference to Turkington Holdings.

The report said that most committee members were “unconvinced” by evidence from Mr McCausland’s special adviser (spad), Stephen Brimstone, where he claimed to never have seen a letter from Turkington’s which made clear that the meeting was with the company.

The report also said that most MLAs on the committee “were deeply concerned at the lack of challenge exhibited by senior civil servants when the minister requested factually correct information contained in the letter to the chairperson to be changed”.

DUP opposes finding

Throughout the months-long committee inquiry, the DUP has fiercely contested the allegations against Nelson McCausland and produced a two-page ‘minority report’ which endorsed the version of events put forward by the minister and his adviser Stephen Brimstone, pictured above.

The report said that in misleading the committee “his actions were in no way deliberate” and also rejected the claims that DSD officials did not do enough to challenge the minister.

It highlighted that in a 2012 Assembly answer Mr McCausland stated that he had met representatives of Turkington’s.

The minority report said that it accepted the social development minister’s case that the numerous changes to minutes, his diary and Assembly response “were based on his genuine understanding that the meeting of the 16 April 2012 had been with Turkington’s”.