Alastair Ross MLA, Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges talks about the Committee’s review into the Assembly Code of Conduct and its recent visit to the Scottish Parliament to find out more about how our Code of Conduct compares to the Scottish model.
The Assembly’s current Code of Conduct was drawn up in 2009 to ensure that MLAs uphold an agreed set of standards and principles as they carry out their political duties.
While the current code has served us well, my Committee felt strongly that the time had come for us to review how the code works in practice, how it compares to national and international standards, and most importantly what we can do to make it work better.
As part of the inquiry process, we recently visited Edinburgh to meet with Bill Thomson, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life and with our Committee’s Scottish equivalent the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. The aim of our visit was to find out more about the Scottish Parliament’s Code of Conduct, and to explore if aspects of the Scottish code could work or be replicated here.
The Scottish Parliament’s Code of Conduct differs from ours in structure and content more than the codes of conduct in other UK legislatures. It has for example, addressed, for a number of years the issue of dealing with lobbyists. It also includes provision in relation to how MSPs treat each other, the disclosure of confidential information, the responsibility of MSPs for their own staff and a prohibition on treating Parliamentary staff in a way that might call into question their political impartiality. These are all issues which may also be considered as part of our review.
Our first meeting was with Bill Thomson. We were very clear at the outset of our inquiry that we would like our new code to go further towards underlining a clear set of standards and rules while at the same time promoting and protecting free speech and the right of MLAs to express their opinions. We had an interesting discussion with the Commissioner on this issue, which included how the Scottish Parliament has worked to find a balance of principals and rules within its Code of Conduct and the difficulties involved in separating the public and private life of elected members.
Our next meeting was with Stewart Stevenson MSP, Convenor of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and other Members of that Committee. An important aspect of our current review is the issue of political lobbying and specifically the relationship between MLAs and Lobbyists. We talked to Stewart and the Committee at length about political lobbying in general, the formal registration of lobbying activity and the definition of a lobbyist. You can find out more by listening to my audio interview with Stewart Stevenson below:
The visit to Scotland was certainly worthwhile and provided a lot of information and food for thought in terms of our own inquiry.
In the coming weeks we will be hearing the opinions of a range of organisations and individuals beginning with a briefing from Lord Bew, the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Committee’s papers ‘Standards Matter’ and ‘Strengthening Transparency around Lobbying’ have so far been invaluable in informing our Review. Further briefings will take place in June and you can find out more about witnesses and agenda items by checking the Northern Ireland Assembly Business Diary.
Our final report on the Code of Conduct is due to be published in the autumn but in the meantime you can find out more on the scope of the inquiry on our webpage.