Document 5: Maolíosa McHugh MLA Statement

Annex B5

Maolíosa McHugh MLA
Room 334
Parliament Buildings
Bt4 3XX

Dr Melissa McCullough
Commissioner For Standards
283 Parliament Buildings
Bt4 3XX

26th March 2021

Dear Dr McCullough,


  1. I refer to the above matter and to your letter of 23rd February 2021. In advance of my interview with you on 29th March 2021, please find below my response to the complaint made by Dr Aiken MLA. I hope this will assist your investigation.
  2. At the outset I should say that the complaint of Dr Aiken, and indeed the complaint of Mr Allister, is premised upon an incorrect assumption of facts. I personally did not receive any Covid-19 Small Business Grant. I am neither the owner of the building that it was paid in respect of, nor do I pay the rates on that building. I did not have access to the account the grant was paid into and neither did any member of staff employed by me. These basic facts of themselves demonstrate that the complaints are misconceived and that I had no interest to declare. I will however elaborate upon them for you.
  3. I was co-opted onto the Assembly as a member for West Tyrone on 28th May 2019. I replaced Michaela Boyle, who stepped down from her position. When I replaced Mrs Boyle I took over the her constituency office at Unit 3, 1A Melvin Road, Strabane, BT82 9PP. That office, which is provide to me by my party, is located in a building owned by the party. Whilst I use the office as my constituency office, the owners of the building, Sinn Fein, pay the rates on the office. I am therefore neither the owner of the office nor the rate payer.
  4. I understand that the name on the rate payer account is "Maoliosa McHugh MLA– Strabane Sinn Fein Office." That was certainly the name on the remittance letter that was posted to the Office that first led me to become aware of the grant payment. I will return to that letter below. However, as you can see, that description is not me in a personal capacity. If it was it would simply say "Maolíosa McHugh" or "Maolíosa McHugh MLA." I understand the description is one that is used by my party to distinguish the rates being paid on my office from other properties that the party is the ratepayer for. The name on the rate payer account is therefore a description of the property. This again shows I am not the ratepayer.
  5. I understand that the rates on the constituency office I use are paid by direct debit out of a Sinn Fein bank account that is named "West Tyrone Development Fund." I have never paid any rates on the officer nor have I had any role in setting up the direct debit. This again shows I am not the ratepayer.
  6. In March 2020 the Department for the Economy announced that they would provide a grant of £10,000 to all small businesses ratepayers who are eligible for the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme. Around 27,000 businesses would have been eligible. The scheme was set up in response to the pressures facing small businesses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Small business ratepayers that paid their rates by direct debit had the payment paid automatically to them into the bank account that Land and Property Services had on record for them. This may well be the first time such automatic payments were made and as such this was a novel approach to grant payments as those payments were paid directly into the bank accounts of ratepayers who had made no request or application for the grant.
  7. The £10,000 that is the subject of the complaint was paid under that scheme directly into the bank account on record for the ratepayer of my office. That bank account was the West Tyrone Development fund account
  8. I became aware of the payment as the remittance letter was sent to my office addressed to "Maoliosa McHugh MLA– Strabane Sinn Fein Office." I was of the clear opinion that such a grant should not have been paid to the ratepayer for an MLA's office. The money was not however under my control as it had been paid into the ratepayers account – the West Tyrone Development fund account. Neither I nor anybody employed by me has access to that account. Neither I nor anybody employed by me is a signatory to that account. It was therefore not within my power to return the grant. What I did do was ask an employee of Sinn Fein to return the money in May 2020. I have no control over that employee as I am not their employer.
  9. The money has been repaid although it is clear that there was a delay in repaying it. That delay is not however attributable to myself or to any of my staff. As soon as I became aware of the payment, I asked the recipient to repay it. As such I clearly acted in the public interest.
  10. Given that I did not receive the grant, I did not at any time believe I had an interest that had to be declared or registered. I have always been careful about registering interests. I have registered my unpaid positions as Chairman of Naíscoil na Deirge, trustee of my local GAA club and treasurer of Conradh na Gaeilge na Deirge. I also ensured the prompt registering of an interest when a relative was temporarily employed by me as my Officer Manager to cover maternity leave. Had I ever suspected the grant payment required to be registered I would have had no difficulty in registering it. Even when studying the code in great detail to reply to you it is not clear to me that this is an interest that would need to be registered in light of the fact the grant was not paid to me, and even if it were paid to me, the provisions of chapter 2 paragraph 7 of the Guide To The Rules Relating To The Conduct Of Members would indicate to me the grant was not a declarable or registerable interest.
  11. It is correct that since the payment of that grant into the West Tyrone Development fund bank account LPS appeared before the Finance Committee. I do not however believe that I had any conflict to declare as I did not receive the grant. I also do not recall that particular grant scheme ever being discussed. I would imagine that any scrutiny of how the Department for Economy administered that scheme is a matter for the Economy Committee.
  12. In summary therefore, as I did not personally receive the grant nor did I, or my staff, have access to the account it was automatically paid into, I had no interest to register or declare. By asking the recipient of the grant to repay it I adhered to my obligations to protect the public interest.
  13. In light of the above I would make the following short response to the allegations contained within your letter of 23rd February 2021:
    1. 4.1.1. Failure to adequality consider the public interest by not declaring receipt of £10,000.00 from LPS when discussed at Committee and when LPS appeared before the Committee
      I did not receive £10,000.00 from LPS and so  I had no interest to declare.
    2. 4.1.4 Failing to register in the Assembly’s Register of Members’ Interests details of your receipt of a Small Business Grant of £10,000.00 from LPS
      I did not receive £10,000.00 from LPS and so I had no interest to register.
    3. 4.1.5 Failing to declare in the Assembly Finance Committee the £10,000.00 Small Business Grant received from LPS into your account
      I did not receive £10,000.00 from LPS and so I had no interest to declare.
    4. 4.1.14 Failing to declare the £10,000.00 Small Business Grant from LPS deposited into an account in your name leaves any comments made in the Committee or Assembly regarding any grant schemes open to the question of seeking to ‘confer an advantage or preferential treatment for either yourself or any other person.’
      I did not receive £10,000.00 from LPS. The grant was not, as is wrongly alleged, paid into an account in my name and so I had no interest to declare nor could any reasonable person think that I in anyway ever sought to ‘confer an advantage or preferential treatment for either yourself or any other person.’ In this regard I note the complainant has not highlighted any comments made by me that they say constitute a breach of the rule.
    5. 4.1.19 Failing to take reasonable care to ensure that your staff when acting on your behalf, took adequate steps to ensure the said £10,000.00 was returned.
      None of my staff had any role in returning the grant. None of my staff had access to the account the grant was paid into. I fail to see how I can be held responsible for the actions of anyone who is not employed by me.
  14. Dr Aiken's complaint is therefore without foundation as it is entirely predicated upon the incorrect assumption that I personally received the grant and that I or my staff had the power to return the grant. I trust that in due course you will agree with this assessment. I genuinely believe that I had no interest to declare or register. If my you find that my understanding of my obligations in this regard are wrong then I shall be very annoyed at myself, and will regret my failure to register the interest, as I have always sought to act with integrity and in the public interest.
  15. Whilst I have not directly referenced Mr Allister's most recent email of 6th February, the complaint of Mr Allister is in near identical terms to that of Dr Aiken and cites the same provisions of the Code. I trust therefore that the above response demonstrates that Mr Allister's complaint is also without merit.
  16. I trust the above is of assistance.

Yours Faithfully,

Maolíosa McHugh MLA

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