The Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards has today highlighted to councillors the importance of registering and declaring their pecuniary interests.
Commissioner Marie Anderson’s comments are contained in a Decision Notice issued to explain her findings in an Adjudication Hearing held last week. The Hearing resulted in a censure for Mr Mervyn Rea, a former councillor from Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.
A member of the public complained to the Commissioner about Councillor Rea’s conduct during a meeting of the Council’s Planning Committee on 27 October 2016 at which an application for planning permission for a pig farm in Newtownabbey was being discussed.
Whilst Mr Rea was not a member of the Planning Committee, he spoke in support of the application. The Commissioner found, on the balance of probabilities that the then councillor had an ‘indirect’ pecuniary interest in the planning application but that he did not declare this and participated in the meeting. This amounted to a breach of paragraph 6.1 and 6.2 of the Code. After considering the particular facts and circumstances of the case, the Commissioner was satisfied that a sanction of censure was both appropriate and proportionate.
In recognising the complex nature of the issues raised in the case, she believed it was important to issue a number of learning points for councillors.
Among these were that the requirements relating to the declaration of pecuniary interests are a fundamental requirement of the Code and it is a councillor’s personal responsibility to comply with them, regardless of the relevant Council practices and procedures.
The Commissioner also stated that having registered any interests, councillors have an ongoing obligation to disclose and declare their pecuniary and non – pecuniary interests. Failure to do this could be regarded as a serious matter which may result in a sanction of disqualification.
On a more general point, the Commissioner stressed the importance of councillors engaging and cooperating with both the investigation and adjudication processes. In this case Mr Rea, assisted by his legal representatives, was given credit for the regard he showed for the standards regime. Ms Anderson stated that co-operation from councillors is of mutual benefit and invariably leads to savings to the public purse.