“I must say I would be very surprised if Planning Service would look positively on this scheme..”

I don’t see any particular smoking gun in the Belfast Telegraph’s David Gordon’s report on the continuing lobbying by the Environment Minister, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, on various planning applications to a department within his brief, but there is evidence of unease within the civil service about that lobbying.
From the Belfast Telegraph report

Departmental chiefs have firmly backed the Minister’s right to continue lobbying in his capacity as an MP and MLA.

But civil service union Nipsa has voiced concerns about officials being placed in an “invidious position” — being pressed on cases by a politician who is also their Minister.

Documents released to the Belfast Telegraph under freedom of information include internal emails from within DoE Planning Service.

In an email in August to Planning Service director Anne Garvey, an official stated that her office had received 12 requests on constituency cases since Mr Wilson’s appointment as Minister.

“His correspondence cases have not differed in any way since he became Minister,” the email added.

The following day, Ms Garvey sent an email to Planning Service Chief Executive Cynthia Smith, referring to “previous discussions about correspondence from the Minister”.

The message said in one case officials were dealing simultaneously with a letter from Mr Wilson supporting an applicant, and a request from the applicant to meet the Minister.

In her reply, Ms Smith signalled that the minister’s representations would be raised with the DoE’s top official, permanent secretary Stephen Peover.

The Planning Service boss further stated that concerns had also been raised by the head of another DoE section, Northern Ireland Environment Agency chief Roy Ramsay.

Ms Smith’s email said: “I have raised this with Stephen and I am aware that Roy Ramsay has similar type concerns from his agency’s perspective. When Stephen returns from leave we will discuss (again) with the minister.”

Ms Garvey was asked about the situation again in an email in mid-September from a Ballymena-based official.

It stated: “I was just wondering had there been any progress on this issue since the last emails from yourself and Cynthia on 18/19 August at which Cynthia indicates that Stephen Peover will discuss this with the minister when he returns from leave.”

The following week, Ms Garvey emailed officials setting out the official line on how planning staff should deal with the minister’s constituency representations.

It stated: “Correspondence directly from S Wilson in his role as councillor, MLA or MP should be handled in the normal way, similar to other political representatives and a copy of all the correspondence and the reply retained on the application file, as is the norm.”

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  • joeCanuck

    This could be a very difficult situation for the civil servants involved.
    Does anyone know how other jurisdictions handle such situations. For example, does a neighbouring MP handle queries?

  • Pete Baker

    Joe

    There are even other DUP MLAs for the area who, I would have thought, would be better placed [in terms of avoiding any appearance of a potential conflict of interest] to handle any lobbying on behalf of constituents’ planning applications.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Pete

    There’s a analysis of why the issue is worth raising by Gordon in the Telegraph today.

    While there is be no smoking gun, as Paisley Jr might say, “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it” that counts sometimes.

    As Sammy is acting transparently now – and I don’t doubt that he is – and not breaking the rules, then he is either setting a dangerous precedent for whoever might follow him and regard the division between minister and constituency representative as more porous, or the rules need changing.

    Sammy shouldn’t be punished or pilloried too much for doing something deemed legal and acceptable. But what we regard as legal or acceptable might need looking at.

    For example, it seems silly for the law to insist that a motorbike is towed on a trailer for an MoT test, while a car can be driven.

    As someone who seems to understand the letter of the law, as opposed to its spirit, would you agree?

  • Alan

    I would wholly support Sammy Wilson in his right to represent his constituents on these matters – even if he is the Departmental Minister.

    In fact, it is essential that Sammy continues with his lobbying – on the assumption that it is transparent and that any conflict of interest is acknowledged.

    The reason is that we have multi-member constituencies; not single member. Denying the right of a Minister to represent his or her constituents in such a way would be to disadvantage the individual MLA and advantage the other constituency representatives.

  • He still needs to do his constituency work…. you aren’t a Minister on the back of a job interview….

    THIS JUST IN…
    Sammy Wilson appears before the Belfast Telemagistrate on the charge of working for his constituents SHOCKA…….

  • Mark

    Surely the constituency representations in this area could be just as effectively handled by George Dawson or David Hidditch, avoiding even the hint of impropriety that comes from a minister directly contacting decision makers working in his department on the issue?

    And that’s just keeping it within the DUP and not involving the other MLAs for the area.

    Sammy Wilson should have the nous to be able to say to constituents “I’m sorry, I can’t represent you in this due to a conflict of interests, but here’s a more than capable colleague who can take it up for you.”

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that kind of seperation of duties in a system where each constituency has 6 representatives.

  • Alan

    The keys to our democracy are the rights of the individual MLA, be they minister of the crown or otherwise. If Sammy happened to be a lone DUPer in West Belfast for instance, he could hardly turn to SF.

    Equally, if we had voluntary coalition they might be the only elected member of their party and still be a Minister.

    The amswer has to come from within the prodedures of the bureaucracy, not by denying the rights of legislators.

  • aquifer

    There are even other DUP MLAs for the area who, I would have thought, would be better placed [in terms of avoiding any appearance of a potential conflict of interest] to handle any lobbying on behalf of constituents’ planning applications.

    Absolutely right.

    There are already cases in East Belfast of housing developments being blocked because of DUP connections in particular streets that would be allowed in other areas.

    Is the Ombudsman still in business?