On Tuesday the NI Assembly debated a motion about the Committee for Social Development’s Inquiry into allegations, arising from a BBC NI Spotlight programme aired on 3 July 2013, of impropriety or irregularity relating to NIHE managed contracts and consideration of any resulting actions.
Locally within Lagan Valley DUP circles, there has been strong personal support for Councillor Jenny Palmer who appeared on a BBC Spotlight programme as a whistleblower. She alleged that the Social Development minister’s special advisor had phoned her to forcefully insist that she vote in favour of extending Red Sky’s contract at a Housing Executive board meeting. Given her knowledge of NIHE audit reports about Red Sky’s performance, Jenny Palmer chose to ignore that party advice.
In summary, the 1,100 page report found “evidence that the Minister became involved with contractual matters that, as advised by his officials were outwith his responsibility, and which rested solely with the NIHE and the [Red Sky] Administrator, BDO”. It found the evidence given by Lisburn DUP councillor Jenny Palmer to be “consistent, convincing and compelling” and was critical of the Social Development minister and his special advisor Stephen Brimstone. (That’s a gross simplification of the evidence and findings.) The committee’s report also contained a ‘minority’ appendix that represented the divergent view of the DUP MLAs on the committee (including Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson).
Centrally the minister (now replaced by Mervyn Storey) and his special advisor (who has since been promoted to be one of the First Minister’s special advisers) have received strong and public support by DUP MLAs and staff.
There was a noticeable absence of DUP MLAs in the chamber before the Social Development Committee motion [screengrab from Sam McBride’s tweet], presumably locked in a party meeting to decide how to best to handle the debate and perhaps discussing whether to put down a petition of concern?
- According to the Official Record (Hansard), none of the four Lagan Valley MLAs spoke during the debate.
- Paul Givan and Edwin Poots voted No (ie, supported the minority appendix and Nelson McCausland’s actions as minister).
- No vote was recorded for Jonathan Craig or Brenda Hale.
- Later in the day, both Jonathan Craig and Paul Givan raised issues in the Assembly chamber during Ministerial Questions.
Disgusted at so called “supporters” of my mother voting against the report in the assembly today. Search your conscience. #redsky
— hannah palmer (@hmpalmer1) May 12, 2015
Despite five drafts, Jenny Palmer has yet to receive an apology from Stephen Brimstone. The councillor faces disciplinary action within the party. At one level it’s unsurprising that a councillor-turned-television-whistleblower should have to account for her unusual actions.
However it sharply contrasts with the treatment of Stephen Brimstone. “A key recommendation of the fact-finding report was that a formal disciplinary investigation should be initiated into the special adviser’s actions” and “the Minister decided that no further action was required”.
The boil has still not been lanced.
Social Development Committee chair Alex Maskey yesterday described it as “clearly holding accountability in contempt”.
A prerequisite for holding public office is to accept that one must be accountable for one’s actions in that role. To underpin that fundamental requirement, there must be appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure that holders of public office can be held accountable. While there is currently a mechanism to investigate allegations in relation to the conduct of MLAs, no such equivalent mechanism is available for investigating alleged misconduct by Ministers. The Committee believes that procedures for establishing a mechanism for investigation and consideration of the findings of any subsequent report on allegations of inappropriate conduct made against Ministers should be taken forward as a matter of urgency. As per the Committee’s terms of reference for the inquiry, had such mechanism been in place, the Committee would have had no hesitation in referring the matter for consideration to the appropriate authorities, given the serious nature of the conclusions. The Committee considers it entirely inappropriate that the decision on whether to take forward a formal disciplinary investigation of the actions of a special adviser rests with the appointing Minister and considers that this procedure needs to be urgently reviewed.
The Committee also calls on the current Minister to publish the fact-finding report in full and, in the interests of accountability and transparency, to review the decision not to initiate the recommended formal disciplinary investigation of the actions of the special adviser. The Committee is of the opinion that the existing Civil Service guidelines and mechanisms for challenging Ministers in relation to their becoming involved in operational or contractual matters are not sufficiently robust and need to be reviewed urgently.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.