‘New Decade, New Approach‘ is the latest claim in relation to Stormont. The Bill which I lodged on Saturday past will put those claims to the test.
My Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill seeks to address many of the issues which came to light as a result of the RHI Inquiry and put in place statutory obligations on issues of good governance.
The Bill has a total of fourteen objectives:
a) It would render ineffective any appointment of a special adviser which does not comply with the provisions of the code for appointments.
We know from the RHI Inquiry that Ministers were failing to comply with the code which, for example, required them to select their SpAd from a pool of candidates.
b) The Bill provides for special advisers to be subject to the processes and procedures of the disciplinary code operative in the Civil Service.
During the Red Sky affair disciplinary action was recommended against Stephen Brimstone (who went on to feature again when it came to the Cash for Ash Scandal). This was vetoed by his Minister and Mr Brimstone got off scot-free. My Bill would prevent this happening again and make SpAds – who are after all temporary civil servants – subject to the disciplinary code of the NICS.
c) The Bill would make it plain that an appointing minister is accountable and responsible for his special adviser.
This is designed to prevent the situation which the Inquiry exposed where SpAds seemed to act without any sense of accountability. No more “accountable but not responsible”!
d) I want to restrict the remuneration of special advisers so that it cannot be greater than that applicable within the Senior Civil Service Pay Structure to Assistant Secretary (Grade 5).
Under the last Executive SpAds were paid in excess of £90,000 – an amount of money greater than most ministers. So, I want to cap the sum of public money they can earn at a reasonable level.
e) The Bill would impose a statutory duty on a departmental minister and Permanent Secretary to ensure no person exercises the functions or enjoys the privileges of a special adviser other than the duly appointed person.
This is to address the situation exposed by the RHI Inquiry where party functionaries who did not hold the title of SpAd effectively performed the function of SpAds. Indeed, one Minister described these non-Special Advisers as “super SpAds”. It is obviously deeply unsatisfactory that anyone should perform such a role without any of the oversight or restrictions placed upon them were they to be within the ambit of the Civil Service.
f) It would reduce the number of special advisers within the Executive Office from 8 to 4.
It is nonsensical to have a situation where the First and deputy First Ministers and their junior ministers have as many SpAds as the entire Welsh Government.
g) The Bill would prevent the exercise of prerogative powers to perfect amendment of the Civil Service Commissioners (Northern Ireland) Order 1999.
Under a previous Executive the First and deputy First Minister secretly used prerogative powers to amend the 1999 Order so as to give themselves the power to appoint a ‘spin doctor.’ My proposal would require Assembly approval for any such amendment.
h) It extends the powers of the Commissioner for Standards to include investigation of complaints against ministers.
Before the last Assembly fell its last act was to pass – without a division – a motion from Steven Agnew calling for Ministers to be made accountable to the Assembly Commissioner for Standards as the Ministerial Code as it stands is effectively unenforceable. Let’s do what the Assembly has already agreed.
i) The Bill requires that the activities and meetings of ministers and special advisers are adequately recorded within the Civil Service.
A problem which bedevilled the RHI Inquiry was the lack of a record of key meetings. A culture developed inside Government of not writing things down – designed to frustrate Freedom of Information requests. This means that even after the expense of the public inquiry it is likely we will never get the full truth about the manoeuvrings over RHI. Adequate record keeping is essential for the public to have confidence in government, for mistakes to be learned from and to allow people to be held to account when things go wrong.
J) It provides for a register of interests in respect of ministers and special advisers.
The alleged extensive interests of SpAds in the poultry industry was one of the issues that caused concern as the scandal broke. It would remove a great deal of suspicion and increase public confidence in government if such interests were a matter of public record from the moment a Minister or SpAd comes to office.
k) The Bill aims to ensure special advisers are not subject to inappropriate control and direction.
Again this addresses an issue highlighted by the RHI Inquiry. SpAds and Ministers were delaying key decisions because they had to clear matters with people outside the Civil Service and SpAds were taking direction from party functionaries.
l) The Bill would make it a criminal offence for any minister, civil servant or special adviser to use personal accounts in regard to electronic communication relating to government business.
This is designed to ensure government business is conducted transparently within the official system.
m) It would make it a specific criminal offence for a minister or special adviser to communicate confidential government information to a third party.
This is designed to prevent a repeat of the situation we had in a previous Executive where a SpAd was sending relatives advance notice of government plans.
n) Finally, the Bill would require the First Minister and deputy First Minister to report biannually on the functioning of government and act to improve same.
Thus, improving the workings of government would not be a one off event but a rolling statutory duty.
Should the Bill make it past Second Reading I suspect that it will be making its legislative passage through the Assembly when the RHI Inquiry reports. It is drafted in such a way so as to make it relatively simple to add amendments. Should issues be highlighted by the Inquiry report which require legislative change, there will be a Bill already going through the Assembly to which relevant amendments can be added. Thus a proper response to the Inquiry report can be expedited.
Doubtless there will be those who claim that some of these issues are addressed in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ document. If that is the case they will have no difficulty surely in putting the provisions into statute rather than leaving them in unenforceable guidance.
Is this Stormont really up for adopting a fresh approach to matters or will it lapse back into its old ways?
Do parties really want to see greater respect, honesty and integrity when it comes to the business of government?
With this Bill we won’t have long to wait to find out. No one, except those intent on perpetuating bad government, has anything to fear from this Bill. It is ‘New Approach’ in action.