DUP minister Nelson McCausland accused of deliberately misleading Stormont committee
Sinn Fein and the DUP have traded blows after a Stormont minister was accused of deliberately misleading the Assembly committee that scrutinises his department.
A report from the social development committee – which runs to more than 1,000 pages – rejected Nelson McCausland's explanation that his actions over a meeting with a glazing firm had been unintentional.
And a majority of members on the committee were also severely critical of senior civil servants, who it said failed to challenge the minister when they knew he had misled both it and the Assembly.
The report came several months after Mr McCausland told the committee he accepted he "inadvertently (and) unintentionally misinformed" MLAs in claiming a meeting was with representatives of the Glazing Federation to discuss Housing Executive contracts, when in fact it was with the firm Turkington, donors to the DUP.
But the report concluded: "It was considered by the majority of members that the determined efforts that the minister and his special adviser made to remove Turkington from the record would suggest that it was neither unintentional nor inadvertent."
Committee chair Alex Maskey said the findings were "very serious" and had left Mr McCausland and his colleagues with questions to answer.
"The thousands of people on housing waiting lists look to the minister to get on with the job he has been elected to do.
"(He) would be better working to build houses rather than attempting to frustrate the democratic process," the Sinn Fein MLA argued.
But DUP committee member Sammy Wilson hit back: "This is a damp squib and the inquiry is now seen to be a discredited political witch-hunt.
"However, when the committee wastes time on this, issues like homelessness, welfare reform (and) restructuring the Housing Executive are pushed to the side."
The report said that when seeking a meeting with the minister, Turkington admitted being active members of the federation but at no time purported to be acting as its representatives, and once the letter from Turkington was received by the department it was treated as such.
Noting that original documents were altered, the committee said it accepted the evidence of Mr McCausland's former private secretary Barbara McConaghie that she "would not have acted of her own volition... rather she would have been instructed to make these changes".
The report said: "The majority of members were deeply concerned at the lack of challenge exhibited by senior civil servants when the minister requested factually correct information contained in the letter... to be changed.
"Most members found it difficult to believe that senior civil servants accepted the view of the Spad (special adviser Stephen Brimstone) and the minister in relation to the meeting of the 16 April 2012, and allowed this to become the prevailing position of the department, in the face of the facts held by senior officials."
In an addendum, however, senior officials argued the role of civil servants was to "act within the authority" of their minister, who will then take decisions which they must implement – and said due regard had not been paid by the committee to their oral and written evidence.
Mr McCausland said he believed the report was fundamentally flawed, "anything but... objective" and fell short of the standards expected of a Stormont committee.
He insisted he and Mr Brimstone genuinely believed the Turkington personnel were representing the federation.
"I have no role in the tendering and letting process of any contracts so there was nothing to be gained by them," the minister added.
Timeline of a row that won't go away...
April 16, 2012: Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland and senior officials meet representatives of Co Armagh firm Turkington Holdings Ltd.
April 30, 2012: Mr McCausland suspends double-glazing of Housing Executive homes over fears it is not delivering best value for money.
May 16, 2012: The minister's former Private Secretary, Barbara McConaghie, amends minutes of meeting with Turkingtons, changing it to "Representatives of the Glass and Glazing Federation" and the minister's diary.
June/July, 2013: The BBC sends five letters to the minister and one letter to his special adviser inviting them to comment on a number of issues.
June 28, 2013: The minister rejects the "scurrilous" accusations that he had repeatedly "lied" about April 16 meeting and demands accusations are withdrawn. The Housing Executive confirms that at no time did it think that the representatives from Turkington Holdings Ltd were representing the Glass and Glazing Federation.
July 3, 2013: Broadcast of BBC Spotlight programme revealing the allegations.
July 4, 2013: Minister appears before Social Development Committee
December 12, 2013: Mr McCausland acknowledges and apologises that he had "inadvertently unintentionally misinformed the committee in the letter".
March 13, 2014: A committee meeting is adjourned after a row between DUP members and chairman Alex Maskey.
June 2014: A majority on the committee accuse the minister of 'deliberately misleading' them.
July, 2014: Mr McCausland says the inquiry is biased and deeply flawed.