Transparency: the McDevitt case

Press Eye - Belfast  - Northern Ireland 25th October 2012 - 
The John McMichael Memorial Debate at Laganview Enterprise Centre Lisburn.
Conal McDevitt
Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye . The payment from Weber Shandwick to Conall McDevitt broke the code of conduct for the Assembly. Peter Cheney outlines the political and PR standards involved in the case and how they are enforced.

The resignation of Conall McDevitt from the Assembly has ended a political career but, following a serious breach of the members’ code, his decision also sets a precedent for any MLAs in a similar position in future.

McDevitt resigned from the Assembly after the revelation of three separate payments, amounting in total to £50,750:

1. £30,000 to JM Consulting for research support (for his work as a member of the Policing Board);

2. £14,000 to JM Consulting for research and secretarial services (for his work as an MLA); and

3. £6,750 from Weber Shandwick (while sitting as an MLA).

JM Consulting is owned by his wife, Joanne Murphy, a lecturer at Queen’s University Management School. It should not confused with another consultancy, of the same name, based in Derry.

The Policing Board’s annual report states that two political members “employed a close family relative as a researcher”. This is often perceived as favouritism but there is no rule to prevent relatives from being researchers.

There is no also rule against family members providing similar work in the Assembly but this must be openly declared on the register of interests. This fact was not registered when the payments were made but McDevitt updated the entry on 20 May 2013.

The payment from Weber Shandwick is the most serious part of the story as it breaks the code for politicians. It also highlights the importance of the PR industry’s own code of conduct.

McDevitt left his position as Managing Director of the firm’s Belfast office when he became an MLA but the company then asked him to advise its new management team.

According to McDevitt, the payments were not made directly to him but through JM Consulting – his wife’s company. He has stated: “I was never asked to nor did I ever represent any of the company’s clients whilst an MLA.” When announcing his resignation, he admitted that this had been a “serious breach” of the Assembly’s code of conduct.

Public relations code

While most of the media attention has focused on McDevitt, the case involved Weber Shandwick, one of the UK’s largest PR agencies. The Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) public affairs code of conduct states that there should be “no financial relationship” between political consultants and “parliamentarians or representatives of institutions of government”.

The PRCA code applies to national, regional and local government across the UK. In particular, it states that political consultants must not “make any award or payment in money or in kind” to any MP, MEP, sitting peer or any member of the devolved legislatures, including the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Payments must also not be made to “connected persons or persons acting on [the member’s] account directly or through third parties.”

A Weber Shandwick spokesman told agendaNi that Conall McDevitt had “agreed to consult part-time, undertaking media and public relations activities on non-political assignments to clients that presented no conflict of interest to his MLA role.”

He added that political consultancy and communication activities were “expressly not included” in the consultancy services asked of him and it was “expressly agreed” that he was precluded from and would not undertake any political communication or lobbying.

The code is binding on Weber Shandwick as a member of the PRCA but also, implicitly, sets the standards for all other PR companies in Northern Ireland. Breaches are investigated by its Professional Practices Committee.

PRCA Director-General Francis Ingham told agendaNi: “The PRCA has spoken with Weber Shandwick and they are examining the issue with the seriousness that one would expect.”

The current head of Weber Shandwick in Northern Ireland, Ross Williamson, joined the company in December 2010, after the payments to Conall McDevitt were made.

Assembly code

The code of conduct at Stormont is modelled on that introduced for MPs in 1995 after the sleaze cases at Westminster. The UK Government ensured that all three devolved legislatures accepted similar codes when they were established.

The register of interests informs the public of any interests which may influence, or be seen to influence, a member’s actions, speeches or votes.

Complaints against a member for failing to comply with the code of conduct can be made in writing to the Assembly Commissioner for Standards, Douglas Bain.

A complaint should include any supporting evidence and should be made within one year of the alleged conduct taking place. Anonymous complaints will be not be investigated.

The Commissioner cannot consider a complaint against a member who has resigned or if it involves a member’s private and family life, their conduct as a Minister or their conduct in the chamber.

If the complaint is admissible, the Commissioner will carry out a further investigation and present his findings to the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee. It is up to the committee to decide any sanctions and its decision is final.

Sanctions could include an apology to the Assembly, censure, suspension, or the withdrawal of his or her rights and privileges as a member. The committee cannot compel a member to resign but a resignation is normally interpreted as an admission of wrongdoing.

The relevant codes of conduct are available at www.prca.org.uk/aboutus and at www.niassembly.gov.uk/your-mlas/code-of-conduct

 

Timeline
21 January 2010 Co-opted as SDLP MLA for South Belfast
March 2010 Payments to JM Consulting and from Weber Shandwick start
August 2010 Payments from Weber Shandwick end
5 May 2011 Elected as SDLP MLA for South Belfast
1 June 2011 Appointed to the Northern Ireland Policing Board
November 2011 Assembly payments to JM Consulting end
20 May 2013 Assembly payments to JM Consulting declared
6 August 2013 BBC reports Assembly payments
3 September 2013 BBC reports Policing Board payments
4 September 2013 Weber Shandwick payments admitted: Resignation

What should be registered?

• Directorships

• Remunerated employment etc.

• Elected or public office

• Financial support for election campaigns

• Political donations (to the member)

• Gifts, benefits and hospitality

• Overseas visits

• Land and property (other than family homes)

• Shareholdings

• Any other relevant financial interest (e.g. occupational pension schemes)

• Any relevant non-financial interest

• Any family members who benefit from office cost expenditure

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