This is the end of session report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 12th May 2011 to 31st August 2012.
The Committee on Standards and Privileges is a Standing Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly established in accordance with paragraph 10 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Assembly Standing Order No. 57.
The Committee has power:
- to consider specific matters relating to privilege referred to it by the Assembly;
- to oversee the work of the Assembly Clerk of Standards;
- to examine the arrangement for the compilation, maintenance and accessibility of the Register of Members’ Interests and any other registers of interest established by the Assembly, and to review from time to time the form and content of those registers;
- to consider any specific complaints made in relation to the registering or declaring of interests referred to it;
- to consider any matter relating to the conduct of Members, including specific complaints in relation to alleged breaches of any code of conduct to which the Assembly has agreed and which have been drawn to the Committee’s attention;
- to recommend any modifications to any Assembly code of conduct as may from time to time appear to be necessary.
The Committee is appointed at the start of every Assembly, and has power to send for persons, papers and records that are relevant to its enquiries.
The membership of the Committee is as follows:
Mr Alastair Ross (Chairperson)
Mr Kieran McCarthy (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Steven Agnew
Mr Cathal Boylan
Ms Paula Bradley
Mr Jonathan Craig
Mr Alex Maskey 3
Mr Fra McCann
Mr Colum Eastwood 2
Mr David McIlveen
Mrs Sandra Overend 1
1 With effect from 26 September 2011 Mrs Sandra Overend replaced Mr Michael Copeland.
2 With effect from 23 April 2012 Mr Colum Eastwood replaced Mr Patsy McGlone.
3 With effect from 2 July 2012 Mr Alex Maskey replaced Mr Pat Doherty.
The Register of Members’ Interests
1. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has responsibility for examining the arrangements for the compilation, maintenance and accessibility of the Register of Members’ Interests and any other registers of interest established by the Assembly, and to review from time to time the form and content of those registers. At the start of the mandate the Committee oversaw the provision of awareness sessions on the requirements of the Code of Conduct for all new Members. A new register was then published on 29th June 2011 which included the registered interests of all 108 Members. Five updated versions of the register have been published on the Assembly website during this session.
Appointment of the Assembly Commissioner for Standards
2. During the last mandate the Committee conducted an inquiry on enforcing the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members and the appointment of an Assembly Commissioner for Standards. The inquiry concluded that the Assembly should have its own Commissioner for Standards and that the role and powers of the Assembly Commissioner for Standards should be set out on a statutory basis.
3. The Committee, together with the Assembly Commission, consequently introduced to the Assembly the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Bill 2011 (Northern Ireland) which, inter alia, provided for a statutory Commissioner. The bill passed all its stages and became law on 29 March 2011.
4. During the 2011/12 session the Committee assisted in ensuring arrangements were made to appoint a Commissioner through a fair and open competition. The Chairperson participated in a selection panel to identify a preferred candidate for appointment. In June 2012, further to the selection panel having identified its preferred candidate and a joint motion from the Committee and the Assembly Commission, the Assembly agreed to appoint Mr Douglas Bain as the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards for a five year term from 17 September 2012.
5. All-Party Groups provide a forum for MLAs from different parties to meet in order to consider and discuss shared interests in particular subjects. During this session sixteen All-Party Groups from the previous Mandate were re-established and the Committee approved the formation of ten new All- Party Groups, as detailed below:
- The All-Party Group on European Environmental Regulations, Directives and Decisions;
- The All-Party Group on Heart Disease and Stroke;
- The All-Party Group on Human Trafficking;
- The All-Party Group on Muscular Dystrophy;
- The All-Party Group on Neurology;
- The All-Party Group on Rugby;
- The All-Party Group on Science and Technology;
- The All-Party Group on Tourism;
- The All-Party Group on Football; and
- The All-Party Group on Mental Health.
Complaints against Members
6. During this session Dr Tom Frawley continued to act as the interim Assembly Commissioner for Standards. In this role he carried out independent investigations into complaints against Members and reported back to the Committee.
7. The interim Commissioner received nine complaints during this session. Five of these were brought by the interim Commissioner to the Committee’s attention and in each case the Committee agreed with the interim Commissioner that the complaint was inadmissible. The remaining four complaints received by the interim Commissioner will either be considered by the Committee at the start of the next session or shall be transferred to the new Commissioner on 17 September 2012.
8. In addition to these nine complaints, the interim Commissioner had two cases to investigate which had been carried over from the previous mandate. In each case the interim Commissioner’s investigation had been suspended pending the outcome of police investigations and other legal proceedings. One case remains suspended and shall be transferred to the new Commissioner. In the other case the interim Commissioner’s investigation was resumed after the Public Prosecution Service had announced a decision not to prosecute. This case will either be considered by the Committee at the start of the new session or shall be transferred to the new Commissioner on 17 September 2012.
9. During the last week of the previous mandate the Speaker referred a specific matter affecting the privilege of the Assembly to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The matter was the unauthorised disclosure (leaking) of a draft Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report. The Committee considered the referral and agreed that the matter should be referred to the interim Commissioner for investigation.
10. The interim Commissioner presented his report on his investigation to the Committee at its meeting on 20th June 2012. The interim Commissioner was unable to identify with any certainty the source of the unauthorised disclosure but he did make a number of recommendations which were intended to provide additional "levels of assurance" that, if accepted, could be applied systematically in order that the risk of disclosure could be reduced as far as is practicable.
11. The Committee agreed that, as some of the interim Commissioner’s specific recommendations were for others to implement, it was appropriate that these bodies should consider the recommendations and report back to the Committee on whether they were practical and how they might address them. It would only be after the Committee had received this information that it would be in a position to publish a comprehensive report with its own commentary and views on each of the specific recommendations.
12. The Committee therefore published an initial report on the investigation (with the interim Commissioner’s full report included as an appendix) and agreed that following consulting with others it would publish a full committee report addressing each of the recommendations.
13. The Committee held 13 meetings during this session. Of these 1 was held entirely in open session, 7 were held in part closed session and 5 were held entirely in closed session. The Committee met in closed and part closed session to consider correspondence or reports from the interim Assembly Commissioner for Standards.
14. During this session the Committee sponsored a presentation at the Assembly by the Electoral Commission on the issue of the requirements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. The Chairperson represented the Committee at the Committee on Standards in Public Life seminar on researching public attitudes towards standards and trust in public life and gave evidence to the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) on its inquiry on the prevention of corruption in respect of Members of Parliament, Judges and Prosecutors.
15. Details of the Committee’s expenditure are shown in Annex A.