Two backbench MLAs will on Tuesday attempt to rectify a gaping hole in Stormont’s governance arrangements – the absence of anyone to investigate alleged breaches of the code by which ministers must abide.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew and independent Claire Sugden have tabled amendments to John McCallister’s opposition bill which would allow MLAs or members of the public to request that there be an investigation into a minister’s actions if they are believed to have breached the code.
The issue has repeatedly been raised with the DUP and Sinn Fein – which run the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) – since the restoration of devolution in 2007 and they have declined to introduce a mechanism whereby ministers can be clearly held to account.
Last year a cross-party Assembly report confirmed that eight years after the return of devolved government the Executive had still not appointed anyone to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code, leaving the code almost meaningless unless a complainant can afford to take the issue to court.
The Assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges said that it had taken legal advice on the issue and was “clear that neither it nor the commissioner can investigate” complaints against ministers.
It said that complaints about ministers should be sent to the First and Deputy First Minister but went on: “However, the committee is aware that there is not yet in place an independent process to investigate a complaint...”
Mr Agnew said: “It is unacceptable that there is no independent investigation of alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code.
“While other MLAs are subject to the determinations of the Commissioner for Standards, the commissioner is prohibited from investigating claims that relate to the activity of ministers.
“Therefore a member of the public who feels that they, or their community, have suffered as a result of a minister acting inappropriately have no mechanism for complaint.
“Indeed, it would appear that the only people who can challenge ministers are fellow ministers through judicial review, at great expense to the public purse.
“As a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee I have been involved in the process by which MLAs are held to account – it is time for a similar process for ministers.”
Last year it was alleged that the then DUP minister Nelson McCausland had breached the ministerial code by deliberately misleading the Assembly about his meeting with a firm that has links to the DUP, something he denied.
But although a Stormont committee accused Mr McCausland of having knowingly misled the house, no one could investigate the allegation.
Ministers have known about problem for years – and done nothing
Stormont Castle has long known that there is no figure to investigate complaints that ministers have broken the ministerial code – but it has repeatedly made clear that it has no intention of rectifying the situation.
Documents from OFMDFM released to the News Letter under the Freedom of Information Act show that the issue was raised with Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness a number of times, going as far back as 2010.
In May 2009, the clerk of the Committee on Standards and Privileges wrote to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to ask whether there was any independent individual who could investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code.
The ministers failed to respond for almost a year, and only did so after the clerk wrote to them again with the same question. In a letter sent by an official on behalf of Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, they said that “the First Minister and deputy First Minister have no plans to establish an external, independent, mechanism to investigate such complaints [about alleged breaches of the ministerial code].”
In September of that year, the committee clerk again wrote to the DUP and Sinn Fein ministers. He highlighted that Westminster’s Committee on Standards in Public Life had by that stage called on the Executive to address the discrepancy.
The letter said that the cross-party Stormont committee “recognises the difficulties that arise as a result of the absence of means of investigating alleged breaches...”
It went on: “Clearly, it is incompatible with the principle of accountability if allegations of misconduct by ministers cannot be subjected to scrutiny and investigation.”