Interview: Jim Allister MLA talks about his Special Advisors bill…

Next Monday the Northern Ireland assembly order paper will contain a private members bill from one of the few non-government party MLAs in the chamber. That member is Jim Allister. His tenure in politics spans decades and he has been present over the course of many political changes including the function or dysfunction of local institutions, he issued a challenge to the Assembly members:

“if people are serious about cleaning up this place then they should have nothing to fear from the type of proposals I am putting forward.”

As someone keen to see massive reform in how our politics functions I spoke to Mr Allister on the hill about his bill and about the general culture in governance here exposed in its sometimes ugly waste and incompetence by Sam McBride’s “Burned”. Mr Allister pointed me to section 29 of the NI Act 1998, in it the committee system is tasked with the purpose “to advise and assist each Northern Ireland Minister in the formulation of policy with respect to matters within his responsibilities as a Minister.” Here Mr Allister made the compelling point that without an official opposition the committee could not hope to hold the government to account with such a remit.

Recently the finance minister, Conor Murphy, proposed a new code to how SpAds are appointed, how they operate and how they are remunerated. Mr Allister supports the spirit of such a change, but he reiterates his point made many times on the media;

“You can have all the codes you like, you can have all the fine decorations and guidance and everything else, but at the end of the day its only legislation that makes things change.”

The code would have no justiciability in the courts and no independent enforcement mechanism. Allister aims to change this by putting such ethical rules on statutory footing. He explained to me that: “There only is a code of conduct because of my first SPAD bill, the 2013 act requires there to be codes of conduct and appointment – interestingly Mr Murphy and his party voted against that.”

He explained, “The purpose of my bill is to clean up the mess with government, to bring some order where there is disorder.” He believes that not only did RHI expose this disorder at the heart of NI government but that “people were confronted with the shambles of government and it seemed to be necessary if we are going to do anything about that that we should have legislation.” He points to his time since 2011 as an MLA as being a period over which he has seen the mess of government at close hand.

The civil service as the mediators of permanent governance work within a disciplinary code which means that they are accountable for their actions, in the realm of politics it becomes murkier as to who one is answerable to. Mr Allister’s bill would begin discussion about who the various players in politics actually are subject to; “it starts by a focus on SpAds because they were well exposed by RHI and it tackles issues like the fact that they are not subject to the disciplinary code and since they are [effectively] civil servants I’m saying we should make them subject to the civil service disciplinary procedures.” This is part of how his bill would “…really hone in on making the system that they’re central too, better.”

On the subject of making the system better we discussed his proposal to create two new criminal offences, firstly he wants to make it a requirement that government business should only be conducted on government email systems. This was exposed during RHI when some high-ranking people in government used private email accounts to conduct official business on thereby making an official audit trail difficult and in some cases nigh impossible to trace. He noted that there would also be a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’ if an extraneous circumstance could be proven.

The second criminal offence that this bill would create is to stop privileged government information from being used outside the business of government – particularly if it were to be used for the private benefit of those in government or their families. To tie up the theme of making the bureaucracy of government function better Mr Allister said;

“I want to require such basic things as that all meetings are minuted, if you have a meeting you log it so that its known who you met. If you are a minister or SPAD you shouldn’t be going about meeting people secretly behind closed doors, never for it to be seen in the light of day. None of these issues can be adequately covered in codes.”

As we focus our attention on the code of conduct perhaps we have missed the other important document which is the code of appointments, in this Mr Allister is concerned with Mr Murphy’s proposed changes; “I take issue what he [finance minister] has [proposed] with the code of appointments, he has taken out that the minister had to choose from a pool of talent, had to keep a record of his reasons, that record had to be with the permanent secretary and all of that has been removed.” He described it as a ‘retrograde’ step, and when I put it to him that some claim this to be a ‘civil service power grab’ before the RHI report is even published he doesn’t subscribe to this notion but did say that the change in the codes is part of a “pre-emptive strike” on the eventual publication of the report.

He relishes the debate around all of these proposals, I put it to him that if the larger parties supported the bill and amendments were to come forward then this legislation could become of prime significance in our statute book and could become the ‘go to guide’ for all ethics in public office. He hopes, particularly if it passes the first reading, for it to reach committee stage where members can propose amendments which will make the legislation a ‘vehicle’ for important legislative changes.

Like him or loath him, Jim Allister has been steadfast in his scrutiny of the institutions of government here. Although he doesn’t agree with power sharing model and he sees it as a paradox that Sinn Fein, a party not believing in the existence of the NI state, should share power in the governance of such a state, I think that he does believe in the responsible administration of government. This sense of public duty is something that is the driving force in Mr Allister and every legislature needs such conviction in its members if it is to function to the highest possible standard. For now he is our ‘one man opposition’ over in what some call the ‘naughty corner’ but with the precedent of Colum Eastwood’s decision to walk out in the last mandate and form an official opposition the debate will rage on as to whether the approach of 5 party power sharing government will deliver.