Date: 05 June 2013
Reference: NIA 115/11-15
Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/2015 Sixth Report
Committee: Standards and Privileges
1. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has considered a report from the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards. The report is on an investigation into a complaint made by Mrs Karen Lennon against Mr Dominic Bradley MLA. The Commissioner’s report and the complaint are appended to this report.
2. Mrs Lennon’s complaint referred to a number of approaches that she and her husband had made to Mr Bradley (via email and Twitter messages). These approaches were to draw Mr Bradley’s attention, as the complainant’s local MLA, to alleged actions taken by a number of public bodies and officials in relation to Mr and Mrs Lennon’s family situation.
3. Mrs Lennon claimed that Mr Bradley had not responded to either her or her husband’s approaches. Mrs Lennon was unhappy with what she saw as Mr Bradley ignoring his constituents’ plea for help and claimed that his actions amounted to a breach of the Assembly’s Code of Conduct.
4. Having considered the complaint the Commissioner concluded that there were separate aspects to it. One aspect of the complaint was the allegation that Mr Bradley repeatedly ignored and failed to acknowledge correspondence from the complainant. The Commissioner concluded that this part of the complaint was admissible and that, if established, a failure to observe the principal of respect would have occurred.
5. The other aspect of the complaint was the allegation that Mr Bradley failed to take up the complainant’s issues regarding a number of public bodies. It was the Commissioner’s view that this aspect goes to the merits of how Mr Bradley chose to deal with an individual constituency case. Such judgements are not for the Commissioner but for the electorate. The Commissioner was not satisfied that there was a prima facie case of breach of the Code of
Conduct on this aspect of the complaint.
6. The Committee on Standards and Privileges at its meeting on 13th February 2013 considered correspondence from the Commissioner and agreed with the Commissioner’s conclusion that this second aspect of the complaint was inadmissible. The Committee did not take any view at this time on the first aspect of the complaint. Mrs Lennon was subsequently informed of this outcome.
7. The Commissioner investigated the aspect of the complaint which he considered to be admissible (as per the admissibility criteria set out in the General Procedures Direction 2012). The Commissioner established that Mrs Lennon’s emails were sent to two different email addresses, one of which Mr Bradley did not use and did not provide on his website or literature, and the other of which was found on his website but was not used by Mr Bradley for
correspondence. Three of the emails were sent to the latter address on 16th, 19th and 20th of November 2012. Mrs Lennon submitted her complaint a week later.
8. On receiving a letter from the Commissioner on 20th December 2012, Mr Bradley instructed staff to check the email account and to reply to Mrs Lennon. In the event, contact was not made until 9th January 2013, when an apology was made on Mr Bradley’s behalf together with the offer of a meeting. Mrs Lennon did not respond to the email, but did agree during a phone call on 23rd January 2013 to meet with Mr Bradley.
9. The Commissioner concluded that that there had been no breach of the Code of Conduct. He reaffirms the longstanding view that it is neither his role, nor that of the Committee, to hold Members to a minimum standard of service. It is for the electorate to reach a judgment on the competence or otherwise of their elected representatives on polling day. Nonetheless, it is the Commissioner’s position that a wilful and repeated refusal, without reasonable excuse,
to acknowledge receipt of correspondence could amount to a breach of the principle of respect. In this case, however, no such breach has been demonstrated, since the failure to respond to correspondence was the result of an administrative oversight.
10. The Committee considered the Commissioner’s Report at its meeting on 22nd May 2013 and agreed with the Commissioner’s conclusion that there had been no breach of the Code of Conduct. The complaint is therefore not upheld.
11. The Committee is clear that the Code of Conduct does not place upon Members a duty to respond to or even acknowledge all correspondence sent to them.
12. The Committee recognises that Members receive a wide range of correspondence, including items which are irrelevant, trivial, vexatious or even abusive. Members also receive circulars, marketing or promotional material, and other types of correspondence which do not merit a response.
13. Even leaving these categories of correspondence to one side, in instances where a correspondent does not receive a response or acknowledgement from a Member the Committee would expect a subsequent complaint to be inadmissible under the Code of Conduct on the grounds of being trivial. This is all the more likely in instances such as this where the complainant submitted a complaint within several days of the first approach to Mr Bradley.
14. The Committee noted the complainant’s references to approaches to Mr Bradley via social media. The Committee is satisfied that such approaches do not constitute formal correspondence.
15. The Commissioner has recommended that a process be put in place to remind Members, on a regular basis, of the need to ensure that all the details displayed on their Assembly web pages remain accurate. The Committee has agreed to ask the Assembly Commission to give consideration to this recommendation.