Northern Ireland

Stormont: 'Significant number of complaints' made about politicians' conduct

Douglas Bain
Image caption Douglas Bain served as Northern Ireland Assembly standards commissioner

A significant number of complaints have been made about MLAs' conduct over the last two-and-a-half years, it is understood.

Former standards commissioner Douglas Bain told BBC Radio Ulster that it is "outrageous" no one has been in place to deal with the complaints.

Mr Bain used to determine whether politicians had broken assembly rules.

He stepped down in September 2017 and was not replaced as Assembly Standards Commissioner.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics, he said whoever is now appointed to take over his role will have to work through a major backlog.

Mr Bain believes the assembly did identify a preferred candidate to replace him, but was unable to proceed with the appointment due to the breakdown in power sharing at Stormont.

He does not know the precise number of outstanding complaints, but estimates it could be as many as 100, although many of those complaints may now be outdated or impermissible.

The former standards commissioner welcomed a proposal within the New Decade, New Approach document that three independent lay members should be appointed to the Stormont standards committee, which considers what sanctions should be taken against politicians who break the rules.

However he described this as only a "tentative first step".

Mr Bain recommended adding lay members to the standards committee back in 2016.

But he said that appointing only three lay members will mean they are outnumbered by politicians.

This contrasts with the situation in Westminster where the equivalent committee has equal numbers of lay members and politicians.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Stormont was without a devolved government for three years from January 2017

Mr Bain also wondered why the New Decade, New Approach document entrusts the task of investigating complaints about alleged breaches in the Stormont ministerial code to three new commissioners sitting alongside the assembly standards commissioner.

The three new commissioners will be appointed by the first and deputy first ministers.

Mr Bain said the proposal is better than nothing but expressed concern that the new commissioners would be "party political appointments".

Also appearing on Inside Politics, the former head of the independent financial review panel, which sets MLAs' pay, reiterated his support for a new body entirely detached from the assembly.

Image caption Pat McCartan was head of the independent financial review panel

Pat McCartan argued there should be entire separation between the staff who report to the assembly commission and those who report to a pay-setting body, in order to protect officials dealing with financial matters from political pressure.

He favours a new panel structure similar to the Westminster Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

In a statement earlier in the week, the Stormont party leaders expressed concern about previous rulings made by Mr McCartan's panel.

Mr McCartan told Inside Politics he has it on record that the politicians congratulated him and his two colleagues for tackling the issues they dealt with properly and efficiently.

Mr McCartan said the appointment of new Independent Financial Review Panel members should progress quickly provided they are truly independent people who were not part of the assembly in the past.

He said this recruitment process could happen in parallel with a review of the current system for determining MLA pay and expenses.

More on this story