Stormont Speaker Robin Newton apologises 'unreservedly' for blocking Charter NI Assembly Question after being linked to charity
Stormont Speaker Robin Newton revealed as advisor to Charter NI - and blocked Assembly question
Stormont Speaker Robin Newton has apologised 'unreservedly' for blocking an urgent question on the awarding of public funding to ex-prisoners' charity Charity NI.
On Monday morning the BBC's Stephen Nolan show revealed that the DUP Speaker was named as an advisor to Charter NI on May 7, 2016 and that he was also a member of the east Belfast Social Investment Fund (SIF) steering group.
Mr Newton has said while he gave advice to the charity in the past he did not "hold a position as an advisor" to Charter NI.
The charity received £1.7m from the multi-million pound SIF.
A week and a half after that date he became the Assembly Speaker.
Just last month he blocked an assembly question from SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon on the group that he helped in the past on October 24.
Following a second question tabled, Mr Newton deferred it and took the position not to have any future role with any questions around the Social Investment Fund.
Mr Newton addressed the Assembly on the matter at the beginning of Monday's Assembly and apologised for not "following his instincts" with the first question and delegated it instead of blocking it.
He said: "I apologise unreservedly to the house for not having done so. I will err on the side of caution in the future."
The Speaker told the Assembly: "I make it clear that while I have offered advice, I do not hold and have never held a position as an advisor to Charter NI.
"My role has been no different than it would be with any organisation in my constituency seeking advice from their elected representative."
Mr Newton advised that in future if any decision or oral question is being delegated the "member will also be made aware when receiving the question".
He said: "Lessons have been learned and steps taken for the future."
On Monday morning a spokeswoman for the Assembly Speaker said: "Like other Members, the Speaker is elected to represent a constituency and, in that capacity, it is well known that he works on local issues with a range of organisations. However, unlike other Members, the Speaker is constrained from how he can represent his constituency (for example he cannot vote, speak in debate or ask questions) and has to be mindful of his independence and impartiality as Speaker.
"He therefore, like his predecessors, does not become involved in making public comment in matters of political debate, on which Members may have different views, as it is unpredictable when any issue may be raised on the floor of the Assembly.
"It is unusual for there to be a direct conflict between any Speakers constituency role and procedural decisions they may have to take. Decisions on Urgent Oral Questions are required to be made in a short period of time and are made on the basis of procedural considerations such as whether there are other opportunities for the Member to pursue the issue.
"When a first Urgent Oral Question was received in relation to Charter NI on 24 October 2016, the Speaker gave consideration to whether he should take the decision and then only did so on the basis of making clear to his office that if future decisions were required in relation to the Social Investment Fund in East Belfast or Charter NI, it would be prudent for him to delegate to avoid any perception of conflict.
"Subsequently, when a second Urgent Question was tabled on 8 November, the decision was delegated to the Principal Deputy Speaker as per the Speakers instruction of 24 October.
"The Principal Deputy Speaker then considered the procedural advice and made a decision on the basis of it. It should be noted that on both occasions the outcome was the same. As per the direction he gave to his office on 24 October, should any further procedural issues relating to Assembly business around the Social Investment Fund in East Belfast or Charter NI require consideration, the Speaker will again use the ability to delegate that is given to him under Standing Order 5 (2).
"The Speaker will have further comment to make to the Assembly Chamber at the start of plenary business as the House would expect of him."
The question which was blocked asked Northern Ireland's First and Deputy First Ministers to conduct a review into the funding to Charter NI.
SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon told the Nolan Show: "It was asking the First and deputy First Minister if they would conduct a review of the funding to Charter NI with a possible suspension pending an independent investigation into the conduct of that organisation's CEO and its governance arrangements.
"The Speaker refused to accept that question. That the grounds for tabling and ruling on an urgent question if it's is an issue of public importance.
"I would argue that £1.7m of public money to an organisation and then following conduct of its CEO is of an urgent nature and a matter of public importance."
She continued: "I tabled the first question and the speaker refused it. He didn't declare an interest but when I tabled the second on the 8th of November, he clearly felt he did have a conflict of interest so he deferred the ruling on that to question to Catriona Ruane.
"But he didn't disclose that he had deferred the question and didn't disclose an interest.
"There was only admission of a conflict of of interest when pressure from the media.
"That's why we have referred it for investigation."
Alliance party leader Naomi Long welcomed the decision that Mr Newton will no longer be involved in any questions of business around the SIF fund - but questioned the transparency around the role.
She said: "I have no idea what this position of advisor means, what status that position has or anything about it but what I do know is the speaker has a very privileged position in the Assembly.
"To put it in context, even me being critical of the speaker here this morning, could lead to me having less opportunity to raise issues in assembly chamber, I could be sanctioned.
"Because we are not supposed to ever challenge or question any decision of the speaker nor does he have to set out his reasons for making those decisions.
"It's a very privileged position, for that reason it's crucial that the speaker is open and transparent to an even greater degree, I believe, than an average Assembly member."
Mrs Long welcomed the decision that he will not longer be involved in any questions of business around the SIF fund.
She said: "That's very welcome. But why didn't he do that before when he got the first question put to him."
A DUP spokesman said: "Robin Newton MLA has helped Charter as part of his East Belfast constituency duties as we would expect him to do and as he has helped out many other community groups across east Belfast."
Pressure remains on Mr Stitt despite being allowed to keep his job following an internal review by Charter NI, but the furore has prompted a wider political row on the operation of the SIF scheme.
First Minister Arlene Foster has said she does not regret standing alongside Mr Stitt at a recent SIF-related photocall and that the matter of his job is for Charter NI's board to determine.
Public attention has focused on the SIF since the awarding of the money to Charter NI and following an interview Stitt gave to the Guardian newspaper in which he described flute band North Down Defenders as "homeland security" protecting his territory "from anybody".
Charter NI was initially set up to help UDA ex-prisoners, but it has expanded rapidly in recent years with millions of pounds in Government funding.
The process to distribute funds from the £80million Social Investment Fund has been described as "flawed" and in need of root and branch reform.
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What is the Social Investment Fund?
The fund was established by the Stormont Executive during the last Assembly mandate to allocate millions of pounds to disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.
The Executive appointed political, community, statutory and business representatives to steering groups - these appointees then, in turn, appointed organisations to oversee and manage the community schemes.
The chosen groups were called "lead partners" and were paid a management fee for their work.
The lead partnership bodies then, in turn, appointed specific groups to deliver the individual projects on the ground.
Controversy surrounds the middle link in the four-tier structure - the relationship between the steering groups and the lead partnership organisations.
Criticisms have been levelled around the fact organisations represented on the steering groups could appoint themselves to a remunerated lead partnership role, without a tendering process.
There have also been claims around a lack of rigorous background checks on those controlling the money and questions on why formal votes on the appointment of lead partners were not apparently commonplace on the steering groups.