Unregistered interests: ca. 50% of MLAs don’t declare £150 payments from Lobbyist Company?

There are lots of interesting little details in the Assembly Register of Member’s Interests. Two MLAs being paid a small sum for filling in surveys isn’t one of them:

Miscellaneous Interests

Jim Wells and Paul Givan

Stratagem Northern Ireland: a survey company which occasionally surveys the views of MLAs on a wide range of issues. A fee of £50.00 is payable for each survey completed.

You can find the results of numerous Stratagem surveys of MLAs online but details of how they are conducted now only seem available via a cached link. Stratagem claims 55 MLAs have signed up to answer these surveys up to 3 times a year with a guaranteed response rate of at least 40.

The panel gives organisations a unique chance to engage with a balanced group of over 55 MLAs across all political parties. These MLAs have agreed to respond to questions in a short questionnaire sent two to three times a year. Stratagem guarantees a response rate of at least 40 MLAs.

That’s a little more interesting when stood beside Wells and Givan’s declaration that each survey completed attracts a payment. While Strategem do not state there is a payment there is – £50 per survey. That’s a fee of up to £150 a year paid directly from Stratagem to between 40 and 55 MLAs, something all but two aren’t declaring on the Register. Slugger understands (edits to add: that sounds really wanky – I rang Quintin and asked him) all MLAs ultimately pass their Stratagem payment to a charitable cause.

So did Wells and Givan needless declare a small sum paid to them by a lobbying company or have up to 53 MLAs failed to register their payments from Stratagem?

That depends on how you interpret Section 69 of the Code of Conduct:

Category 10

Miscellaneous Interests: Any relevant financial interest not falling clearly within one of the above categories.

69. Members should register here any financial interests which might reasonably be thought by others to influence a Member’s actions, speeches or votes in the Assembly, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of the Assembly but which do not fall clearly into any of the above Categories. It is a cardinal principle that Members are responsible for making a full disclosure of their own interests in the Register; and if they have relevant interests which do not fall clearly into one or other of the specified Categories, they will nonetheless be expected to register them.

Adds: there may be an argument the £150 falls into another category some of which allow amounts under 0.5% of the member’s salary (£217) to be exempt from declaration. With Wells and Givan’s treating the payments as declarable it seems 53 MLAs could face having to make that argument given Section 12 states:

Failure to register an interest may be an offence under section 43 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Committee on Standards and Privileges may refer to the Public Prosecution Service complaints received in respect of such an alleged failure.

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  • Dangerous thin edge of the wedge if an arbitrary amount is decided by individuals not be worthy of being declared. Anything other than a token such as a cheap ballpoint pen or small diary should be declared.

  • Well I suppose there are “thresholds” and “tolerances” in any system.
    Even the DHSS or the Working Tax Credit people have a “tolerance”.
    What is the tax for example due on an under declaration of £150……about £30.
    As I understand it, organisations usually pay figures with basic tax deducted or supply a list to the appropriate authority of gross payments made.

    For example those Sluggerites signing up to being an “extra” for Game of Thrones might find one or other system exists.
    So….presumably a reputable organisation like Strategem is supplying a list of gross payments it might occasionally make to people.
    And…….how do I sign up?.
    I can give Strategem any opinion they want.

  • Mark McGregor

    I’ve put a small update on the end of the blog.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Pardon my ignorance but is Stratagem not “Northern Ireland’s first dedicated lobbying company”?

    http://www.stratagem-ni.com/about.aspx

  • Pigeon Toes

    FJH

    Perhaps they don’t want your opinion? ;-D

  • Mark McGregor

    PT,

    Yes, they are a Lobbying Company (and a longstanding supporter of Slugger – ‘we’ should declare our interest. Though I’ve never had a penny or pint from them)

    Yes, they are selling themselves to clients on one level as having access to MLA opinions via regular surveys.

    Yes, they pay the MLAs for these opinions (donate to a favoured cause to ensure they engage)

    No, most MLAs don’t think this needs to be declared.

    Yes/No? If someone asks you to do something on the basis they will give money to something you care about – have they influenced you by their payment?

    (I’ve just realised the blog should have been titled: ‘Monkeys will dance for peanuts’)

  • Pigeon Toes,
    I have never thought that not actually wanting my opinion should disqualify anyone from hearing it. 🙂
    Indeed I reserve my best opinions for those who dont want them.
    Stratagem should not be an exception.
    Now that Ive discovered my opinion is worth £50 a pop…Im gonna have to re-think things.
    My opinions are gold dust and here I am giving them away.
    That will be £50 please. Cash. 😉

  • Snce when did someone have to pay a politician for an opinion?

  • Mark McGregor,
    Yes it certainly is influence.
    But who are their “clients”?
    And whats it it for them?
    And while I certainly take the point that “Monkeys will dance for peanuts” surely “dont feed the animals, they have already been well fed by the Taxpayer” is a motto that should be adopted.

  • Oh Im all in favour of politicians having an opinion……as long as its their own.

  • Mark McGregor

    the dissenter,

    ‘Since when did someone have to pay a politician for an opinion?’

    In this case circa 50 of them require a regular donation from a Lobbyist company to their favoured charity 3 times a year before giving an opinion.

    That looks like a slippery slope? Something they should declare?

  • There’s also a link between MLAs and Stratagem through the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust where the financial contribution from a business is related to the size of a company. Is this a cash for access arrangement? NIABT is described as an educational charity.

    Robin Newton and Leslie Cree have registered their directorships of the NIABT Board of Trustees; Sue Ramsay, Dominic Bradley, Chris Lyttle and David Bradley haven’t. Katharine McDonald (Stratagem) is also a director.

  • Well am I right in thinking that those who have not declared an interest have replaced four former MLAs in recent weeks so maybe they simply havent got around to it.
    Dominic Bradley has replaced Declan O’Loan
    Sue Ramsey has replaced Paul Butler
    Chris Lyttle has replaced Sean Neeson (former Chair).
    David Bradley??? (shome mistake shurely Nevin?). Dawn Purvis was on board.
    Hmmm several Slugger favourites there.

    Im sure its a good thing that “Business” involves itself with so many parties.

    But what exactly does NIABT do?
    What exactly have they done?
    And..why?

  • A lobbyist paying an MLA (doesn’t matter why) would seem to certainly fall under the definition of “any financial interests which might reasonably be thought by others to influence a Member’s actions” It is not the same as £20 or whatever to do a BBC or other TV interview.

    It may be convenient to be believed that the recipients hand the payment over to Charity later, but at the point the payment is handed over it is owned by the MLA and is registerable. What they do with that payment then becomes entirely their business. Unless of course it is one of those payments where the money goes directly to the charity – I do one from time to time where payment is made to Medcins Sans Frontieres directly – in which case surely the Lobbyist could publish the list and show us how accountable and beneficent everyone is. But we know “all MLAs ultimately pass their Stratagem payment to a charitable cause” may be true but not the point, because at least two have fessed up and said it is their’s in the first instance (properly) and rightly declared it. The rest we don’t know, unless they declare. Perhaps you should ask the two if they ‘ulimately’ have passed their payment onto Charity. Had that been done before the post went live, who knows how interesting the post might have quickly become.

  • fjh, I’m not sure where David Bradley came in; I meant David McClarty. Maybe just another mystery of Room 401. I don’t recall any SF member having declared membership of the Board of Trustees on the Register of Interests.

  • ah McClarty would be the Independent replacing Purvis.

  • Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa.
    Have I been a recipient of Stratagem “benefits”.?
    I attended a Slugger event in Duncairn Gardens which was I believe part sponsored by Stratagem.
    Although I enthusiastically threw myself (figuratively) into the very pleasant multtiple buffets, I dont think Ive changed my opinions as a consequence.
    So I think we should not assume anything untoward in MLAs getting a wee “handshake”.
    But I think lkie the MLAs I should actually declare it.