Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 18 November 2015
1. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has considered a report from the Assembly Commissioner for Standards on his investigation into a complaint against Mr Barry McElduff MLA. A link to the Commissioner’s report, which includes a copy of the complaint, is included here.
2. The complaint was made by Mr Ross Hussey MLA and relates to Mr McElduff sending letters to constituents on Assembly headed paper and in Assembly pre-paid envelopes. Mr Hussey referred to a letter from Mr McElduff which had been received by a constituent in the Drumragh Ward in West Tyrone. The stated purpose of Mr McElduff’s letter (which Mr Hussey believed had been sent to over 550 homes) was:
“to highlight the need for the Omagh community to stand united together against Tory cuts”.
3. Paragraphs (8) – (15) of section 28 of the Financial Support for Members’ Handbook deal with the issue of postage and stationery (see Annex A). Among the specific provisions in that section highlighted by the Commissioner as being particularly relevant to this complaint were the following:
(9) The cost of purchasing and posting items of a political or personal nature must not be claimed from OCE [Office Cost Expenditure] under any circumstances.
(11) Stationery supplied by the Assembly Office Resources team must not be used to issue circulars.
(12) A circular is defined as:
(a) a letter sent in an identical or near identical form to a number of addresses (whether or not it is individually signed and addressed), if it is not sent in response to a query or correspondence from those addresses;… and
(13) However, a Member may issue a letter to a number of individuals or groups regarding Constituency business and charge the cost of stationery and postage/delivery to OCE. A Member must be able to clearly demonstrate that the material is not of a Party political nature in content and that it is directly related to his/her Assembly duties. For the avoidance of doubt the content of such letters must not be of a Party political nature and stationery provided by the Assembly Office Resources team MUST NOT be used for this purpose (including paper and pre-paid envelopes).
The Commissioner’s Investigation and findings of fact
4. Having interviewed Mr McElduff and further investigated the matter, the Commissioner established, inter alia, that:
- On or about 26 June 2015 Mr McElduff caused letters, of which Document 3 (in the Commissioner’s report) is an example, to be sent to all households in the Drumragh Ward in Omagh.
- As at 3 September 2015 there were 1,163 households in the Drumragh Ward recorded on the database of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. The number of households on 26 June 2015 was not significantly different.
- The total cost to the taxpayer of sending the letters, inclusive of VAT but exclusive of staff and other costs, was between £876.77 and £899.91.
- Mr McElduff is willing to repay the cost of sending the letters if it is found that his actions were in breach of the Code of Conduct.
5. Mr McElduff told the Commissioner that when he decided to send the letters he did not consider them to be circulars. Mr McElduff said that they were an attempt to engage with the constituents of the Drumragh Ward on issues that were of importance to them. However, when the Commissioner referred to the definition of a circular in paragraph 28.12 of the Handbook (set out above) Mr McElduff said that he would ‘want to reflect’ on whether the letters were within that definition. He said he had taken a conscious decision to use first-class envelopes for all the letters because it ‘was a better message to the receiving party than to send a second-class envelope’. Mr McElduff stated that if he was found to have breached the rules he would regret that and that he would be willing to repay any improper expenditure.
6. The Commissioner has told the Committee that he has no doubt that the letters issued by Mr McElduff were circulars as defined in paragraph 28.12 of the handbook. As stationery supplied by the Assembly Office Resources team must not be used to issue circulars the Commissioner is satisfied that Mr McElduff contravened the provisions of the Handbook and so breached the Code of Conduct.
The Committee’s considerations
7. The Committee agrees with the Commissioners conclusion. Mr McElduff has breached the rule in the Code of Conduct which requires that:
‘No improper use shall be made of any payment or allowance made to Members for public purposes and the administrative rules applying to such payments, allowances and resources must be strictly observed.’
8. Mr McElduff has been informed of the Committee’s finding and has arranged for the Assembly to be repaid the sum of £899.91. The Committee welcomes this prompt repayment and considers the matter to be resolved.
9. The Committee takes this opportunity to remind Members that stationery supplied by the Assembly Office Resources team must not be used to issue circulars. The cost of purchasing and posting items of a political or personal nature must not be claimed from OCE under any circumstances. In fact, all expenditure from OCE must be wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred by Members in relation to their role as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, as opposed to any personal capacity or in a party political role, or in any other official role.