PSNI mulling complaint after BBC Spotlight show

David 'Dee' Stitt, CEO of Charter NI, which featured heavily in the BBC broadcast
David 'Dee' Stitt, CEO of Charter NI, which featured heavily in the BBC broadcast

The PSNI are reviewing a complaint after the BBC’s investigative Spotlight show was broadcast about the Social Investment Fund (SIF) this week.

The show ranged over issues including alleged DUP links to paramilitary-connected bodies, how Sinn Fein and the DUP managed SIF cash, and the involvement of Assembly speaker Robin Newton with Charter NI – a UDA-connected charity funded via the SIF programme.

In the wake of Tuesday night’s broadcast, Mr Newton had denied misleading the Assembly over declarations of interest concerning Charter NI.

In addition to that, in a declaration following Tuesday’s show (described as a “personal statement” by his party), Mr Newton had also said he intends to stand down as speaker at the next available Assembly sitting.

On Thursday it emerged that a complaint is “being reviewed” by the PSNI in relation to the broadcast – though police revealed nothing about its content.

And in addition on Thursday, the News Letter asked the DUP whether Arlene Foster backed Mr Newton on his declaration about not misleading the Assembly, and had faith in him more generally.

It was also asked whether he will remain as an MLA for the party.

At time of writing, no response had been received.

The whole furore has its roots in last autumn, when Mr Newton blocked a question in the Assembly about Charter NI’s funding without declaring that he had previous dealings with the organisation.

He later explained that whilst he had offered advice to Charter NI as a constituency MLA, he had not formally been an “advisor” to the group (as it had stated in a message on Facebook).

Then on Tuesday night, BBC Spotlight said that it had seen documents spanning a number of years from Charter NI.

It claimed Mr Newton sat on board meetings, helped “steer the board”, helped plan strategy, “head-hunted” board members, and was repeatedly described as an advisor in the documents.

On Wednesday Mr Newton responded by saying that he was “not responsible for how others refer to me in their correspondence”.

Douglas Bain – who was until recently in charge of monitoring standards among MLAs – told the BBC that in certain circumstances failing to properly declare an interest could be a criminal offence under Section 43 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This could lead to a fine of up to £5,000 upon summary conviction.

On Thursday morning, the PSNI was asked by the News Letter whether the it is looking into any potential breaches of the criminal law identified in the BBC broadcast, and if anyone had been interviewed or arrested in relation to this.

It responded: “Police can confirm that a complaint has been received following the Spotlight programme on Tuesday night and this is currently being reviewed.”

It would not offer any further clarity on its statement when pressed.

The police statement had been put to the DUP, but at time of writing last night no response has yet been received.

Sinn Fein have lodged a complaint with the Assembly about the “serious allegations that Robin Newton may have misled the Assembly” – but there is no standards commissioner in place to look at such a complaint.

Instead, the party said that it was directing its complaint to the Assembly clerk/chief executive.

The previous standards commissioner, Douglas Bain, had been appointed in summer 2012 to serve in the role for five years. He has now left, and there is no replacement.

His job was to probe MLAs’ conduct and alleged breaches of their code of conduct.

By contrast, the online summary role of the clerk/chief executive (which is one single post) makes no mention of investigating standards or conduct, and instead focuses on offering “procedural advice” to the speaker and MLAs, plus administrative and accounting tasks.

Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, said Sinn Fein’s referral was “probably at this point a pretty empty gesture” in the absence of a standards commissioner (who is limited in terms of what that could probe, even if one did exist – with Mr Bain having previously indicated that he had no jurisdiction over things said on the floor of the Assembly, and that this would instead would be a matter for the speaker himself).