Date: 05 June 2013
Reference: NIA 114/11-15
Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/15 Fifth Report
Committee: Standards and Privileges
1. The Committee on Standards and Privileges1 has considered a report from the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards on his investigation into a complaint against Mr Pat Ramsey MLA by Mr Bertie Faulkner OBE. The Commissioner’s report and the complaint are appended to this report.
2. Mr Faulkner’s complaint relates to Mr Ramsey’s conduct and comments during a meeting of the Committee for Employment and Learning on the 14th March 2012. In his letter the complainant, who is the Chairperson of the North West Regional College, alleges that Mr Ramsey breached the principle of respect by making a series of, what were in Mr Faulkner’s view, unfounded and damaging accusations against the College’s Governing Body, as well as Mr Faulkner personally.
3. Mr Faulkner objected to Mr Ramsey’s assertions that evidence submitted on behalf of the Governing Body to the Committee for Employment and Learning had been “manufactured and fabricated”; that the Governing Body was involved in a “cover-up”, and that he regarded Mr Faulkner as having no more to offer than “a bit of process”. Mr Faulkner objected particularly to Mr Ramsey’s assertion that he (Mr Ramsey) had “grown men in tears telling me that you wrecked their lives”. Mr Faulkner also complained about a press statement issued by Mr Ramsey’s office several days later which repeated some of these claims.
4. Mr Faulkner, together with Mr Seamus Murphy (the Principal of the College), had been invited to appear before the Committee for Employment and Learning because of widespread concerns about developments at the North West Regional College. There was anecdotal evidence, later confirmed by an independent review, that working relationships at the College had deteriorated and that there had been a diminution of trust across the organisation. Meanwhile, the College was preparing to implement a redundancy programme on the basis of what had been referred to as the ‘curriculum audit’. This expression, used at a meeting with elected representatives in March 2011, gave rise to the assumption that there existed a document by that name and prompted successive requests for a copy, first from Mr Ramsey and then (on three occasions) from the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning. However, neither Mr Murphy, nor Mr Faulkner, nor the Minister of Employment and Learning, all of whom corresponded with the Committee on the subject, saw fit to make clear that ‘curriculum audit’ was a process and not a document. When the Committee’s three requests to Mr Murphy failed to meet with the desired response, the Committee wrote in February 2012 asking him and Mr Faulkner to attend a Committee meeting on 14th March 2012.
5. The Commissioner has reviewed the minutes of evidence of the committee meeting and has listened many times to the audio recording of it. Having done so the Commissioner holds that no breach of the Code of Conduct has been established. The Commissioner points out that language and tone used by Mr Ramsey at the meeting were at all times within acceptable limits. He concludes that Mr Ramsey’s allegation that the Redundancy Business Case document was “manufactured and fabricated” as part of a “cover-up” was understandable in the circumstances; his interruption of Mr Faulkner may have been unfortunate, but it was calm and not ruled out of order; and his allegation that Mr Faulkner had “grown men in tears” was directed instead at the Governing Body, and is consistent with representations from staff and the findings of the independent review on industrial relations. As for the press statement released several days after the event, it did no more than repeat views that Mr Ramsey had expressed at the Committee meeting of the 14th March and were thus already a matter of public record.
6. The Commissioner is scathing about the ‘extraordinary failure’ of Messrs Faulkner and Murphy to disabuse the Committee of their belief that the ‘curriculum audit’ was a document. The Commissioner has no doubt that, had this simple step been taken, events at the Committee meeting would have been very different.
7. The Committee on Standards and Privileges considered the report at its meeting on Wednesday 22nd May 2013. The Committee has given careful consideration to the evidence gathered by the Commissioner and the reasoning behind his conclusions. The Committee is satisfied that Mr Ramsey did not subject the complainant to an unreasonable and excessive personal attack. The complaint is not upheld.
8. The Committee shares the Commissioner’s view that it was inexplicable that at no time prior to the meeting on 14th March 2012 did Mr Faulkner or Mr Murphy inform the Committee for Employment and Learning that the curriculum audit was a process rather than a document. Given this omission by the witnesses it is unsurprising that they were questioned robustly at the Committee meeting.
9. It is particularly notable that the Deputy Chairperson, who was chairing the meeting, only had to intervene once when it was Mr Faulkner rather than Mr Ramsey who was called to order.
10. This complaint was transferred to the Commissioner on 19th September 2012 from the Deputy Ombudsman who had been investigating the complaint in place of the interim Assembly Commissioner for Standards (who had recused himself from the investigation). At the point at which the complaint was transferred the Deputy Ombudsman had already decided that the complaint was admissible. The Commissioner informed the Committee that if he had been asked to consider the admissibility of this complaint (under the General Procedures Direction which came into effect on 12th November 2012) he may have come to the view that it was inadmissible on the grounds of triviality. The Committee is sympathetic to this view.
11. For a democracy to function properly the people’s elected representatives must be free to raise any matter. If a Member speaking in the Assembly believes a fact or opinion needs to be raised in a debate, that Member should not be deterred from raising it by a fear of liability for defamation. It is for this very reason that absolute privilege attaches to the making of statements in proceedings of the Assembly. It is not the purpose of the Code of Conduct to curtail or limit this important statutory privilege.
12. The Commissioner has correctly pointed out that witnesses before a committee should expect to be asked questions and be subject to challenging comments. That is particularly the case when they have failed to co-operate fully, or are perceived to have so failed. Committees play an important oversight role and to fulfil it may have to challenge witnesses in a way that they find uncomfortable.
13. The Code currently provides, under the principle of respect, that individuals should not be subjected to unreasonable and excessive personal attack. However, even without this provision there is a responsibility on committee chairpersons to ensure good order within a committee. Committee members should cease speaking at the request of the chairperson. A chairperson could suspend a committee meeting in the event that member refused to comply
with or wilfully disregarded the rulings of the chairperson. It is this therefore in the first instance a matter for chairpersons, rather than the Code of Conduct, to ensure good order in committees.
14. The Committee would only expect complaints about conduct in committee to be admissible in exceptional circumstances, and the conduct of a Member would have to be of a significantly greater magnitude than the conduct in this case before the Committee would consider upholding such a complaint.
1 The Chairperson, Mr Alastair Ross MLA, and Mr Fra McCann MLA declared an interest in this matter as members of the Committee for Employment and Learning at the time when the conduct complained about occurred. Neither Mr Ross nor Mr McCann participated in the Committee’s consideration of this complaint.