Assembly backs tough new rules restricting how MLAs accept gifts
The Assembly has accepted tough new rules on gifts to MLAs, ministers and their employees.
Last week, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that cases of wine, Waterstones vouchers, concert tickets, silk ties and crystal bowls were among the presents lavished on local politicians and their aides by dignitaries, business figures and lobbyists since 2008.
But new rules, part of a revised code of conduct, will help introduce greater transparency - especially when combined with forthcoming new regulations covering the declaration of political donations.
Some of the most expensive gifts, revealed through a Freedom of Information request, were presented to Employment Minister Stephen Farry, whose presents included a horse statue worth £1,000, a fox ornament valued at £800 and a £255 pen, all given to him by JP McManus, the billionaire entrepreneur and racehorse owner. A spokesman said these were not regarded as his personal property, but will remain within the department following a change of minister.
In a report yesterday, the Committee on Standards and Privileges said that it "invites Executive departments to routinely publish details of gifts, benefits and hospitality etc. or overseas visits accepted by ministers". This was accepted.
The main difference on gifts is that the old code merely stipulated that a count be kept of them but in the new one they must generally be refused.
Jimmy Spratt MLA, the DUP committee chairman who presented the report, said that a single point of registration should be set up in co-operation with the Electoral Commission.
The committee is also introducing requirements for political donations to be made public, as they are in England - something that has previously been banned here on security grounds.
Mr Spratt praised the new code as "relevant, appropriate, comprehensive, well-structured, clear and enforceable".
It was generally welcomed. Committee vice-chair Anna Lo, an Alliance MLA for South Belfast, said: "We are confident that the new code and guide will increase the public's confidence in the probity of the Assembly and the accountability of its members."
The committee left some hanging threads over what could and could not say in political speeches. It noted that "a degree of the immoderate, offensive, shocking, disturbing, exaggerated, provocative, polemical, colourful, emotive, non-rational and aggressive outside that context, is tolerated".
However Mr Spratt qualified this by saying that "the right of freedom of expression should not be misunderstood as allowing members to bully or harass others. Clearly that sort of conduct is unacceptable."
In all there are 21 rules, many of which replicate or clarify existing rules which have been in place since 1999. The committee has also issued separate guidance for members when dealing with lobbyists.