Date: 02 July 2014
Reference: NIA 185/11-15
Mandate Number: 2011/15
1. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has considered a report from the Assembly Commissioner for Standards on his investigation into the conduct of Mr Jimmy Spratt MLA. The Commissioner’s report is appended to this report.
2. The investigation was not prompted by a complaint but was initiated by the Commissioner on 13 February 2014 after he decided that there was a prima facie case that Mr Spratt had breached the Code of Conduct.
3. The incident under consideration was the subject of earlier reports by the Commissioner and Committee (Committee report NIA 155/11-15 refers). On 26 June 2013 Mr Spratt attended a meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First and deputy First Minister at which the proposed Peace building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze Long Kesh site was discussed. When Mrs Brenda Hale MLA said that while canvassing she had met with ‘no local opposition’ to the Maze or the buildings within it, Mr Spratt interjected, sotto voce, “except the nutters”. The Chairperson of the Committee, Mr Mike Nesbitt MLA, overheard the remark and later challenged Mr Spratt, saying “some of your interventions, such as calling the people who are against the peace-building centre at the Maze ‘nutters’ have not been helpful”. Mr Spratt repudiated this charge and accused Mr Nesbitt of ‘spinning’. The next evening Mr Spratt took a call from a local journalist, Mr Sam McBride of the Newsletter, about the remark. Mr McBride used the conversation as the basis for an article on the incident, and provided a quotation appearing to show that Mr Spratt had denied during the call having used the words ‘except the nutters’.
4. On 1 and 9 July 2013 Mr Robin Swann MLA submitted a complaint in which he alleged that Mr Spratt by his comments, his language towards Mr Nesbitt and his denials, had breached the honesty, promoting good relations, respect and good working relationships principles contained within the Code of Conduct.
5. The Commissioner accepted this complaint as admissible and commenced an investigation. As far as the honesty principle was concerned, the Commissioner considered that the main question at issue was whether Mr Spratt had intended to disown either the ‘except the nutters’ remark itself or a malicious interpretation of it, as he claimed. The Commissioner, having interviewed the various parties and studied the evidence, decided it was the latter. In the Commissioner’s view, Mr Spratt’s subsequent utterances in committee amounted to an implicit acknowledgment of the remark (“I certainly was not calling anybody in this room, nor, indeed, people who have opposition to the Maze, nutters”). It was therefore highly unlikely that in a later phone conversation Mr Spratt would have denied what he had already publicly conceded. The Commissioner suggested that the poor quality of the line might have been sufficient to explain the inconsistency between the recollections of the two men. The Committee accepted this reasoning and, on 15 January 2014, found that Mr Spratt was not in breach of the Code in relation to any of the allegations that had been made.
6. The matter appeared to be closed. But in February 2014 Mr McBride published another article in which he claimed to have in his possession a recording of his conversation with Mr Spratt on 26 June 2013, and that this recording corroborated Mr McBride’s version of events, namely that Mr Spratt had denied using the words ‘except the nutters’. A copy of the recording was provided to the Commissioner, who then initiated his own investigation to determine whether Mr Spratt had breached his obligations under the Code of Conduct to act honestly; to co-operate with the Commissioner; and to co-operate with the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The Commissioner’s investigation and findings of fact
7. The particular matters that the Commissioner considered as part of this investigation were: Mr Spratt’s alleged denial during the telephone conversation with Mr McBride that he had used the words ‘except the nutters’ at the OFMdFM Committee meeting on 26 June 2013; Mr Spratt’s statement (to the Commissioner at interview on 21 October 2013) that Mr McBride’s allegation that Mr Spratt had denied using the word nutters at that committee meeting was ‘lies’; and Mr Spratt’s statement of 8 January 2014 to this Committee that “at no time did I deny use of the words ‘except the nutters’”.
8. As part of his investigation the Commissioner interviewed under oath both Mr Spratt and Mr McBride. During the interview with Mr McBride the Commissioner listened to an unedited recording of the disputed conversation. The recording is included within this report and contains the following exchange: Mr McBride: “…I’ve just listened to the audio that has gone up on the website there, and it does appear to be quite clear that you did say ‘except the nutters’ during the - Mr Spratt: No, absolutely not, Sam.
9. Having undertaken his investigation the Commissioner has gone on to make 18 findings of facts. These are set out in paragraph 15 of his report and include the following: Mr Spratt believed, prior to taking the call, that Mr McBride had been ‘spinning’ a story to the effect that that he (Mr Spratt) had, during the Committee meeting, called ‘the people who are against the peace building centre at the Maze nutters’. During the call Mr Spratt incorrectly but honestly believed that he was being asked by Mr McBride whether he had said this.
10. The Commissioner is clear that Mr McBride genuinely believed that Mr Spratt had denied using the words ‘except the nutters’ at the OFMdFM committee meeting. However, the Commissioner is also satisfied that Mr Spratt believed, incorrectly, that he was being asked whether he had used words to the effect that all those who were opposed to the building of the Peace building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze were nutters. In coming to this view the Commissioner has taken into account the following points: (i) Mr Spratt had already, in the Commissioner’s view, implicitly acknowledged the remark publicly in committee. (ii) Mr Spratt did not hold Mr McBride in high regard. (iii) Mr Spratt believed that Mr McBride was trying to misrepresent him. (iv) Mr Spratt was ill. (v) The quality of the line was poor.
11. According to the Commissioner’s reading of events, previously affirmed by this Committee, Mr Spratt had not denied saying ‘except the nutters’ at the committee meeting. Mr Spratt felt aggrieved by how his remark had been interpreted on social media, and he considered Mr McBride one of those responsible for this misinterpretation. When Mr McBride challenged him, Mr Spratt mistakenly assumed that he was being asked to admit, not only the remark itself, but that he had intended it as it had been understood by others, including Mr Nesbitt.
12. The Commissioner’s reasoning on these points is set out at paragraphs 17 to 20 of his report. Having considered all of these points the Commissioner is not satisfied that Mr Spratt had been dishonest during his telephone conversation with Mr McBride.
13. The Commissioner has also said that, as it was a genuine and entirely understandable mistake for Mr McBride to report that Mr Spratt had denied the using the word ‘nutter’, it follows that it was inappropriate and incorrect for Mr Spratt to describe Mr McBride’s allegation against him as ‘lies’. However, as the Commissioner is satisfied that Mr Spratt was referring, at the relevant time, to a false allegation that he believed others had made, Mr Spratt did not therefore attempt in any way to mislead the Commissioner or provide him with false information. The Commissioner’s reasoning for this conclusion is set out in paragraph 21.
14. Likewise, the Commissioner is also satisfied that Mr Spratt did not mislead the Committee. His reasoning for this is set out in paragraph 22.
The Committee’s considerations
15. In line with the usual procedure, Mr Spratt was provided with a copy of the Commissioner’s report. Mr Spratt was informed that he may provide the Committee on Standards and Privileges with his comments in respect of any matter raised within the report. He was also advised that he may choose to appear before the Committee to make his comments in person and to respond to any questions that members of the Committee may have. Mr Spratt neither chose to appear before the Committee nor to provide it with any additional comments.
16. The Committee on Standards and Privileges considered the Commissioner’s report at its meeting on Wednesday 25th June 2014. The Commissioner attended, discussed his findings and answered members’ questions. Having done so the Committee then reached its own conclusions on the matters investigated.
17. The Committee accepts that after Mr McBride told Mr Spratt that the audio recording appeared to be quite clear that he did say ‘except the nutters’ Mr Spratt responded by saying “No, absolutely not, Sam”. Therefore it was entirely understandable that Mr McBride should report that Mr Spratt had denied saying these words. The Commissioner says that it was inappropriate and incorrect for Mr Spratt to describe Mr McBride’s allegation against him as ‘lies’. The Committee agrees.
18. However, the Committee also believes that Mr Spratt and Mr McBride were clearly talking at cross purposes on a number of occasions throughout the telephone conversation. Given this, and Mr Spratt’s implicit admission during the committee meeting that he had used the words ‘nutters’, the Committee is not satisfied that he was being dishonest when he responded as he did to Mr McBride. The Committee accepts the Commissioner’s judgement that Mr Spratt genuinely but incorrectly believed that he was responding to a false allegation.
19. It follows that as Mr Spratt honestly believed that he had denied a particular interpretation of his words, rather than the remark itself, his subsequent statements to the Commissioner and the Committee that he had never denied using these words were not dishonest.
20. It would be a very serious matter if a Member was found to have deliberately misled either the Committee or the Commissioner. However, having considered all of the Commissioner’s findings, the Committee has agreed that Mr Spratt has neither done this, nor breached the Code of Conduct through any of his other actions that were considered during the investigation.
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