Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

It’s time to lay down the law on ethics at Stormont

Rules on conduct in public life won’t stop politicians misbehaving. But they remind us that standards do exist, writes David Gordon

Northern Ireland politics has serious accountability gaps with the rest of the UK — and some of them may even be getting wider.

The lack of established accountability measures, taken for granted elsewhere, provided a contaminating background factor in the Iris Robinson scandal.

That saga included a politician receiving money from businessmen and allegedly failing to make a required declaration of interest at a council meeting.

But the failings in the system here go well beyond the issues raised in the Mrs Robinson story.

Their continued existence should be a source of embarrassment for all the Northern Ireland political parties, as they represent a failure by the Stormont political class.

Take the vexed issue of expenses. Unlike its counterparts in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, the Northern Ireland Assembly is still wading its way through a treacle-like reform process.

The high-profile MP expenses review — by the Committee on Standards in Public Life — was completed last November.

Committee chair Sir Christopher Kelly commented then: “The Assembly is last in the queue, isn't it? It was Scotland first, Wales next and we've done Westminster.”

Stormont is still last in the queue. It might be said, in its defence, that it is better getting the job done well than done quickly. But what if the job is only going to be half-done?

The reform process was also held up because a Stormont report detailing a series of expenses changes was shelved at the end of last year.

It had also proposed a significant pay rise for MLAs from 2011. Parties baulked at that idea, presumably fearful of an angry public reaction — and with good reason.

Delayed expenses changes are now expected to be incorporated into a newly updated Assembly members’ handbook.

Based on the contents of that shelved report — and subsequent indications — the reforms will not be as radical, or as far-reaching as reviews have produced elsewhere.

No restrictions are expected on MLAs employing relatives on their publicly-funded payrolls.

It is also expected that there will be no bar on Assembly members renting premises for their advice centres from family members — with taxpayers picking up the tab.

Likewise, parties will also be able to keep benefitting from the system.

That is likely to keep open the potential for parties establishing new offices, with public money (in the form of MLA rental expenses) taking care of the mortgage payments.

In other words, it will continue to be possible to use public money to establish brand new property assets for private political organisations.

It will be said — quite correctly — that such practices have been far from commonplace among Assembly members.

The fact that a small minority may have used a loophole to date is no defence of the loophole.

In another accountability gap, Northern Ireland parties have been allowed to keep taking secret donations from business interests for years — unlike their counterparts in GB and the Republic.

There is no independent procedure for assessing alleged breaches of the Stormont Ministerial Code.

The Stormont Standards and Privileges Committee — to its credit — raised this particular gap last year in a letter to the Office of the First and deputy First Minister. It failed to get a reply.

Having strict rules on standards in public life does not stop politicians misbehaving.

But it can at least send out the message that ethics are important.

Instead, the impression has been given for years that Northern Ireland politicians are a special breed, who do not have to worry about rules that are applied elsewhere.

Complacent London ministers clearly took the view that trifling matters of accountability could be ignored here, so long as everyone stayed on-board the peace process wagon.

David Gordon is the Belfast Telegraph’s Political Editor. He is the author of The Fall of the House of Paisley (Gill and Macmillan)

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