ASSEMBLY BUSINESS

Report on a complaint against Mr Jimmy Spratt MLA

Committee: Standards and Privileges

Session: 2013/2014

Date: Monday, 20 January 2014

Reference: Report on a complaint against Mr Jimmy Spratt MLA

ISBN: Only available online

Mandate Report Number: 2011/15

Together with the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee relating to the Report, Minutes of Evidence, and Written Submissions

Powers

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.

Introduction

1. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has considered a report from the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards on his investigation into a complaint against Mr Jimmy Spratt MLA by Mr Robin Swann MLA. The Commissioner’s report and the complaint are appended to this report.

The Complaint

2. Mr Swann’s complaint of 1 and 9 July 2013 related to comments made by Mr Spratt during a meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First and deputy First Minister on 26 June 2013. The First Minister, deputy First Minister and Junior Ministers had attended the meeting and had discussed a range of issues, including those in relation to the proposed construction of a peace building and conflict resolution centre on the Maze/Long Kesh site.

3. Mr Swann claimed that at the meeting Mr Spratt had referred to those who opposed the proposed peace building and reconciliation centre at the Maze site as ‘nutters’, only to deny using this term later. He asked for Mr Spratt’s ‘point of order’ in committee to be investigated and described the language used by Mr Spratt towards the Chairperson (Mr Mike Nesbitt MLA) as totally unacceptable, particularly in light of his (Mr Swann’s) claim that Mr Spratt’s protestations were later proved unequivocally wrong.

4. Mr Swann also cited Mr Spratt’s conversation with the Political Editor of the Newsletter, during which Mr Spratt was alleged to have made further denials and threatened legal action. Mr Swann included with his complaint the Hansard transcript of the committee meeting, a press release issued by Mr Spratt and a Newsletter article entitled “DUP’s Spratt sorry for calling Maze opponents nutters”.

5. Mr Swann said he believed that Mr Spratt had failed to abide by the principles of Honesty, Promoting Good Relations, Respect and Good Working Relationships contained within the Code of Conduct.

The Commissioner’s investigation

6. As part of his investigation the Commissioner interviewed Mr Spratt, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Brenda Hale MLA and Mr Sam McBride of the Newsletter. He also studied the official report of the committee meeting in question. Having done so the Commissioner established a number of facts which are set out in paragraph 12 of his report and include the following:

That, apart from the omission of a number of ‘asides’, the official report of the Committee meeting on 26 June 2013 is accurate;

that Mr Spratt made the comment “except the nutters” sotto voce as an aside principally for the benefit of Mrs Hale who was seated next to him and speaking at the time; and

that on 27 June 2013 Mr Spratt issued a statement apologising for any offence caused by the manner in which his comment had been reported.

7. In relation to the Honesty principle, the Commissioner reports that Mr Swann alleged that Mr Spratt dishonestly denied using the phrase on two occasions: firstly, at the committee meeting and, secondly, during the telephone conversation with Mr McBride.

8. The Commissioner says that the first leg of this allegation is without any basis in fact. He states that it is clear from the official report that at no time did Mr Spratt deny using the words “except the nutters”. He says that in the course of the first exchange on this matter at the committee meeting Mr Nesbitt had inaccurately attributed to Mr Spratt a denial of saying the phrase “except the nutters”. The Commissioner judges Mr Spratt’s subsequent comment at the meeting (“I certainly was not calling anybody in the room, nor, indeed, people who were opposed to the Maze nutters”) to be an implicit acceptance by him of having used the word nutters.

9. On the second leg of this allegation the Commissioner points out that there is no independent evidence of what was said but suggests it would be inconceivable for Mr Spratt to deny using the phrase “except the nutters” when he had already acknowledged this point in committee. Further detail is set out at paragraphs 20 – 22 of the Commissioner’s report.

10. With regards to the principle of Respect, the Commissioner believes that making the ‘nutters’ comment sotto voce does not come anywhere near the bar for breaching the Code. The Commissioner observes that it is hard to reconcile Mr Swann’s objection to the phrase with the fact that his party subsequently funded lapel badges bearing the words “Proud to be a Nutter – Raze the Maze”. Further detail is set out at paragraphs 22 – 25 of the Commissioner’s report.

11. The Commissioner also says, in relation to the principle of Respect, that it was not unreasonable for Mr Spratt to have interpreted Mr Nesbitt’s comments as spinning and to describe them as such. Further detail is set out at paragraphs 26 – 29 of the report.

12. The Commissioner says that in light of his finding that Mr Spratt did not breach the Honesty or Respect principles there is no basis for the contention that his actions in any way breached either the principle of Promoting Good Relations or Good Working Relationships. Further detail is set out at paragraphs 30 – 33 of the report.

13. The Commissioner says that he has also considered whether, when looked at in the round, Mr Spratt’s actions constituted a breach of the Code. The Commissioner is satisfied that they did not.

14. The Commissioner makes a number of further observations from paragraphs 34 to 39 of his report. These include his observations that:

There was nothing improper in any threat or warning of legal action against the Newsletter by Mr Spratt (paragraph 35);

Mr Spratt’s did not, as suggested by Mr Swann, issue an apology for using the phrase “except the nutters”. Rather his apology was “for any hurt caused to those who believed my comments were directed at them” (paragraph 36); and

It is disturbing that a complaint so lacking in substance was made following a unanimous decision of the Assembly Group of a major political party. In the Commissioner’s opinion there is a real risk that what he sees as such unjustified complaints (and the publicity they will attract) will tend to undermine the public’s trust and confidence in the Assembly (paragraphs 37 – 39).

The Committee’s considerations

15. As per the Committee’s usual procedure, Mr Spratt was provided with an advance copy of the Commissioner’s report. Mr Spratt was informed that he was entitled to provide the Committee with his own comments in respect of any matter raised in the report. He was also informed that he could choose to give evidence to the Committee and answer in person any questions that members may have had. Mr Spratt provided a written response to the Committee and made clear that he would be happy to appear before the Committee.

16. Mr Spratt’s response is included at Appendix 3. In this response he said that:

At the time of the complaint he was at a vulnerable point in his life requiring further major surgery for cancer. The last thing he needed was the stress arising from what he describes as such a misrepresented complaint.

He was most annoyed about the claim that he had been dishonest when he maintains that he had never denied the use of the words “except the nutters”.

He believes the Committee should consider tightening the relevant rules and procedures to prevent similar complaints in future.

He considers that Members who make what are shown to be inaccurate and false allegations should themselves be subject to Assembly sanctions.

He wishes to be informed of the total cost of the investigation including the future publication of this report.

17. The Committee on Standards and Privileges considered the report at its meeting on Wednesday 15 January 2014 when the Commissioner attended and answered members’ questions. The Committee reflected on the matters raised in the report, on the answers given to their questions by the Commisioner and on the matters raised in the correspondence to them from Mr Spratt. Having done so the Committee is satisfied that Mr Spratt has not breached the Code of Conduct. The complaint is not upheld.

18. The Committee is clear that Mr Spratt did not deny using the phrase “except the nutters”. His use of this phrase at committee did not amount to a breach of the Code and neither did his subsequent exchanges with Mr Nesbitt and Mr McBride.

19. The Commissioner and Mr Spratt both saw this complaint as lacking in substance and unjustified.

20. Even prior to this complaint, the Committee had observed that many complaints being submitted to the Commissioner were often lacking in substance and likely to be political in motivation. It would appear that there are those who believe that the Assembly’s complaint procedures can be used as a means for airing and publicising political grievances.

21. A purpose of the Code of Conduct is to ensure public confidence and trust in the integrity of Members by establishing openness and accountability as the key elements of the Code. The Committee accepts, however, that public confidence and trust will be damaged if the Code of Conduct is seen to be misused.

22. As part of its review of the Code of Conduct the Committee will therefore assess how to ensure that the Assembly’s resources are not diverted towards the unnecessary consideration of politically motivated and spurious complaints. The Committee accepts that this may mean tightening the Code so that an investigation can only be undertaken when a specific and defined rule is alleged to have been breached.

Download the full report here

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