It hasn’t been a good week for Environment Minister Sammy Wilson.
Firstly it was revealed that he had been caught riding one of his motorbikes without tax or a current MOT certificate. He was fined £40 after arguing that he was bringing the vehicle to be tested and thought that was permitted. As Minister of the Department responsible for both testing and licensing motor vehicles, it was a serious gaffe, not least because he should have known better.
Now he finds himself under scrutiny again because of the scale of his lobbying on planning matters to his own department officials. It has to be said immediately that he is not guilty of any offence. As a councillor, MLA and MP, he is perfectly entitled to make representations on behalf of constituents on any matter they want raised. That includes planning matters which are often the most contentious local issues and which can led to a flurry of requests from constituents to their local political representatives.
Mr Wilson has been particularly active in raising
planning matters with Department officials. Papers released show that he wrote to DoE officials on 26 constituency cases in his first three months in office as Minister of the Environment and also discussed 32 cases in face-to-face meetings. It again has to be stressed that the Minister has been careful to steer clear of any planning applications on which he might have the final say. That, of course, would be a clear conflict of interest and an abuse of his office.
Nevertheless, his lobbying caused concern to senior civil servants within his department and the matter was raised with his most senior civil servant,
the Permanent Secretary. The advice was that all correspondence from Mr Wilson to officials in his Department should be dealt with in exactly the same way as representations from other elected politicians. That was sound advice, ensuring that constituents’ concerns were properly received and dealt with and, at the same time, making it clear that Mr Wilson was not attempting to exert undue influence because of his ministerial position.
What the flurry of correspondence between senior civil servants demonstrated was their sensitivity to Mr Wilson’s lobbying. They knew that the Minister could
be seen as trying to exert influence because of his post and they wanted to be sure that a strict protocol was in place to protect both them and the Minister from unfair criticism. However, while Mr Wilson may be scrupulous in his attempts to ensure that no undue pressure is put on officials dealing with his lobbying, he must still be aware that as Minister, some civil servants may regard him as more important than other political representatives.
It is a delicate balancing act for Mr Wilson to give his constituents at local government, Westminster and Stormont levels full value for money and yet retain a certain circumspection in his lobbying. There is no doubt that he is an effective councillor, MP and MLA, but he must not allow his enthusiasm for helping his constituents to leave his Ministerial role open to question. It might be more politic for him to rein in his enthusiasm and direct more of those issues which come under the ambit of his Department through party colleagues. That is advice which all of his ministerial colleagues in the Executive should bear in mind.