Conflicts of Interest Are Bad for Democracy; Putting Politics into Perspective

Article excerpt

Byline: Alex Kane

A funny thing has happened on the road to the creation of a more open and accountable society in Northern Ireland. A couple of weeks ago an Executive Bill, the Local Government (Best Value) Bill, was not so much watered down, as blown out of the water by the activities of the Environment Committee.

The Bill was agreed by the Executive Committee, and included as part of the overall Programme for Government.

The opinion of Sam Foster, the Minister who introduced the Bill, was; "I remain convinced of the need to introduce a Best Value Bill which would introduce necessary statutory accountability which, while it would make life more testing for councils, councillors and council officers, would be to the benefit of council residents and ratepayers. I do not need to remind members that MLAs sit in this House as MLAs and not as a lobby group for councillors."

Mr Foster continued: "In the event of this Bill failing, Assembly Members will, I suspect, face public criticism as to why they do not want this type of openness and accountability."

The Bill didn't fail, but it only scraped through the Consideration Stage after the Minister had agreed to pare it down to the barest of very bare bones: a not very surprising fate when you realize that 78 of the 108 MLAs are sitting councillors, former councillors, or defeated candidates.

Ratepayers and council residents are entitled to know whether or not their local council is operating under and exercising the principles of transparency, auditability, accountability and value for money in relation to council services.

The sums involved are indeed substantial. District councils spend over pounds 400 million per year. Councils have, since 1998, signed up to the principles of Best Value, albeit upon a voluntary basis, but both their level of participation and rate of progress have been unacceptable.

Why should councils be exempted from the same sort of standards that are applied to others?

At the heart of this saga is the issue of unambiguous accountability, public confidence in that accountability and the clear conflict of interest between those MLAs who have a dual, and sometimes triple mandate.

I have argued in previous columns for MLAs to adopt a very rigorous attitude and approach to the policies emerging from the various government departments; but how can we expect the statutory departmental committees to act as impartial monitors and scrutineers of legislation, if members of those committees (five in the case of the Environment Committee) remain members of the public and local government authorities which are the subject of the legislation?

I wouldn't go as far as suggesting that the whiff of corruption is in the air, but when the general public has the perception that decisions are made within a conflict-of-interests culture, it doesn't take long for confidence in the system to seep away.

Put simply, if a politician is wearing two hats, can you blame the public for thinking that he may be two- faced?

The simple solution would be to introduce legislation which would prevent MLAs from occupying a multiplicity of political offices.

That is an issue which should have been included within the terms of reference of the Review of Public Administration announced earlier this week by David Trimble and Mark Durkan. …