Archives For Special Advisors Bill

Jim Allister MLA and Ann Travers After "Ann's Law" is Passed

Jim Allister MLA and Ann Travers After “Ann’s Law” is Passed

Below is the speech by TUV leader Jim Allister on Ann’s Law this afternoon:

I beg to move That the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Bill [NIA 12/11-15] do now pass.

I begin by paying tribute to the staff of the House, particularly those in the Bill Office and Legal Services, and the parliamentary draughtsmen for the exceptionally efficient and professional way in which they performed their duties in respect of the Bill.

Whatever happens with the Bill, I have acquired a very high regard for the work level, ethic and sheer professionalism of the Bill Office staff and those involved in those matters. In the almost two years or so that this Bill has been in the offing, I still have no idea of what the personal view of any of the staff that I engaged with is on the merits or otherwise of this Bill, and that is how it should be. They have conducted themselves in an exclusively and entirely professional manner. I want to pay tribute to their expertise and the manner in which they shared and dealt with that. In one sense, it may not have been the easiest of tasks because they were dealing with an MLA who felt he knew something about the law and who had certain ideas about how certain clauses should be expressed and what words should be used, but they were very gentle with me. They nudged, edged and cajoled in the direction of the wording that was appropriate to all parliamentary expectations. A very sincere word of thanks to the staff.

I also thank Members from different parts of this House who have assisted in getting the Bill to this point. I am very conscious that I am but a single voice in this House. I am very conscious that others do not share my politics, and it is a tribute to Members that so many rose above that to address the principles and the aspirations of this Bill and to see it thus far. I trust today to see it to its ultimate destination of moving on to the statute book. I sincerely want to thank Members of this House for the gracious manner in which they have dealt with this proposal and for the support, even on some very protracted and tedious voting sessions at various stages, which seemed to go on forever. I want to place on record my appreciation in that regard.

Much of the public focus on this Bill has centred, perhaps predictably, on the content of clauses 2 to 5, but I want to take a moment to remind the House that this Bill does significantly more than is contained in those clauses. The Bill also introduces other innovations relevant to special advisers that I think will make good law.

I will just say a word about the relevance and significant part of special advisers (SpAds). They are in a unique position in the governmental arrangements in that, whereas they acquire the status of senior civil servants — and salaries and pensions to match — none of them, by virtue of the special arrangements, is appointed on the merit principle that applies to appointments to the Civil Service. That is not to say that some and many of them are not meritorious; that is to say a fact, that they are not subject to the merit principle in their appointments. To date, there has been no proper statutory regulation in respect of special advisers such as I think the public in general would expect, so I think it is right that clause 6 of this Bill introduces the requirement, which exists elsewhere in regards to special advisers, that the Department of Finance should annually produce a report on the number and cost of special advisers, because they are, of course, all publicly paid from taxpayers’ money. I think that it is right — indeed, I have heard no one dissent in respect of clause 6 — that the public are entitled to know how many special advisers there are and what they cost the public purse.

I think that it is also right that clause 7 should put their code of conduct on a statutory basis and that it should form part of their terms and conditions of employment. I equally think that clause 8 is necessary to put their code for appointments on a statutory basis and to require all to be subject to vetting. Those are valuable, necessary steps taken in the Bill to add to the transparency and the accountability that would be expected in respect of individuals holding such public posts.

We then, Mr Speaker, have clause 9, which removes the anomaly whereby you, Sir, have the right to appoint a special adviser. I say “anomaly” because since the Assembly Commission introduced the office of adviser to the Speaker, a post engaged and employed by competition on merit, the justification and the need for a Speaker-appointed political special adviser has evaporated and it has been defunct in consequence of that. However, if we are looking at the subject, it is right that we remove that anachronism; hence, we have clause 9. Again, I heard no one dissent from any of that during the passage of the Bill.

I turn now to the clauses that have attracted public attention — clauses 2, 3, 4 and 5. Fundamentally, the Bill is about righting a great wrong. Those who agree and those who disagree with the Bill know that the appointment of Mary McArdle in 2011 caused great public unease for many, great disquiet and great debate but, above that, great hurt in particular to the family of her victim. She — Miss McArdle — would be convicted for her part in the murder of the gentle Mary Travers as she came out of her place of worship on a Sunday morning as an attempt was made to wipe out all the family who were present, presumably because her father had dared to serve in a public duty post as a magistrate in this land. This House knows and this community knows that that appointment, gratuitous, selective and deliberate as it was, caused immense hurt, anxiety, and re-traumatisation for the Travers family. Therefore, the Bill is about the very simple message that, in respect of such families, never again will such re-traumatising of a victim’s family be permitted.

The Bill, first and foremost, is about righting that wrong and about saying that never again should it happen to anyone else. It does that by declaring, in the opening subsection of clause 2:

“Subject to subsection (2) and section 3, a person is not eligible for appointment as a special adviser if the person has a serious criminal conviction.”

Serious criminal conviction is, of course, defined in clause 5 as meaning the application of a sentence of five or more years.

The Bill initially stopped there, but the Bill, in its final form, does not stop there. The Bill now embraces points of concern that were raised from legal commentators, from politicians, and from those who sifted and explored the Bill at various fora, not least in the Committee for Finance and Personnel in this House. The Bill, therefore, has imported, through clauses 3 and 4, what could be called appeal mechanisms for anyone affected who finds that they have a serious criminal conviction but already holds or aspires to hold the position of a special adviser. It affords, through an appeal to an independent panel established by the Department of Finance and Personnel, the right to be heard and the right to make their case within the criteria set out in clause 3. If dissatisfied with that outcome, in consequence, they have a further right of appeal to the High Court.

Those are important provisions in the Bill, and those provisions are there to stretch to meet points that were raised in the discussion and debate of the Bill. They set criteria that, I think, are fair and are good law. They say to someone, whether they are a rapist, a fraudster or a convicted terrorist, that if they expect to hold that very special position at the top and heart of government, public society expects that, in respect of their crime, they will have regret and remorse and will show contrition. They will have assisted police as a token of that in the solving of those crimes, and their victims will have a say, as they ought to have, on the fact that they are to be elevated on taxpayers’ money to such a unique and pivotal role as that of a special adviser. I suggest that that is a balanced, rational and reasonable approach.

I will move now to refute some of the gross misinformation and falsehoods peddled in respect of this Bill. Indeed, in recent days, in shrill desperation, particularly from Sinn Féin, we have seen an increase in the peddling of those falsehoods. One of them is that the Bill is not compliant with human rights law. Well, there is an answer from a far better source than me in that regard, and that comes from the Attorney General. He raised issues that I listened to and responded to. The nature of that response gave rise to his letter of 22 May, which I want to read into the record. In response, he said to me:

“I expressed some concerns to the DFP Committee when I spoke about the Bill as first introduced, particularly in the context of article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I see from the Further Consideration debates and from some comments in the press that it may be thought that those concerns still exist. It is important, therefore, that my views on the Bill in its present form are clearly understood.”

He goes on:

“As a result of the amendments made during its passage and, in particular, the existence of an appeal mechanism, which breaks the inevitable and fixed link between an historic conviction and an adverse consequence for employment, I am content that the Bill in its present form would be within the legislative competence of the Assembly. You will appreciate that my views on competence are not to be construed as a statement of whether or not the Bill is, in policy terms, a good idea or not. This is, of course, the central issue, which is properly a matter for the Assembly.”

On the issue of the Bill’s compliance with human rights expectations, however, the Attorney General could not be clearer. Given his powers under section 11 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to refer to the Supreme Court any legislation that he has concerns about in that regard, it is quite clear from that letter that he has no such concerns and will, therefore, be making no such referral.

I trust that that letter is a considerable comfort to those who genuinely raised issues of human rights compliance. Some raised them not as genuine concerns, I suspect, and to them, doubtless, the letter is but a paper exercise. To those who genuinely raised concerns, I trust that that letter will properly help to allay those concerns and enable them to see the Bill in its proper light.

We had it peddled that the Bill will open the door to the persecution of former prisoners in teaching, nursing and doctors’ jobs — in a whole raft of publicly paid positions. That is utterly, indisputably wrong. The Bill applies exclusively and only to SpAds, a coterie of 19 people. It has no application, can have no application and will have no application to anyone working as a nurse, a doctor, a teacher or anything else. In an attempt to defame the Bill, that is the sort of nonsense that has been spread about. I want to nail that firmly today.

I heard it mentioned on public radio that a Mr Thompson — not the broadcaster but another gentleman — said that the Bill did not apply to convicted soldiers. If a soldier served only two years — I think that there was mention of the name of Private Thain and others — the Bill would not apply to them. That is absolute nonsense. The touchstone and test is not the amount of time that you serve but the sentence that was bestowed on you. If the sentence was five years or more, whether you are a terrorist, a soldier, a rapist or anyone else, the Bill applies to you as a serious criminal. So, let us dispense with that lie that was peddled about the Bill.

It was then said that the Bill discriminates against those whom they call ex-political prisoners. It does no such thing. The Bill applies to all and every serious criminal who obtained a sentence of five years or more, whether that person is a rapist, a fraudster or a terrorist. It applies equally, as it should, to all criminals.

Sinn Féin has, of course, shown itself to be concerned about only its own prisoner elite, as it has been rightly called. It is not this Bill that picks out Sinn Féin’s prisoner elite for special attention. It is Sinn Féin’s penchant for rewarding such terrorist convicts that makes them central through the publicity for the Bill. However, the Bill itself does none of that, because it applies — without discrimination and without distinction — to all serious criminals.

Of course, the real problem that Sinn Féin has with the Bill is that it cannot, and will not, accept that those who were convicted of terrorist offences were criminals at all. That is the real nub of the issue. The Bill, however, properly makes no such distinction. It says, “Whoever you are, whoever you were, whatever you were about, you are caught by the Bill if you breached the criminal law and obtained a sentence of five years or more.” It is as simple as that.

It was said that the Bill is vindictive. No, it is not, Mr Speaker. It is not vindictive to say that serious criminals should not be employed out of the public purse in such pivotal, central roles. It would be unconscionable to say that they should be. I have heard no one say in any debate on the Bill that the rapist who violently violates a woman should be excused and elevated to a top post at the top and heart of government. I have heard no one say that. Sadly, however, I have heard people say that if you violate a woman — an innocent bystander — with the shrapnel of a bomb that rips her chest apart, and she dies, the person responsible can, and should, be elevated to the position of a SpAd. Mr Speaker, that the rapist and the terrorist should be elevated to such posts are both unconscionable propositions. That is the simple but fundamental and immutable truth to which the Bill clings, and it is the right thing to do. It is good law, I suggest, to say that.

How can it be right, in the name of conscience and all that is right, that those who are guilty of cold-blooded murder, for example, are to be rewarded with such a post by their political friends because they claim that it was done in pursuit of a political cause, but someone who is that rapist, that fraudster or that domestic killer is, by some different moral compass, to be excluded? If there is a moral compass at play, and there should be, it has to apply with equality and unanimity to all serious criminals. That is the case regardless of whether the person is someone who, for the pursuit of financial gain, kills, or whether the person is someone who lurks to pick up the guns after a murder and take them away, or whether the person is someone who sits and detonates a bomb in London and who was, in the words of the coroner, knowing, seeing and understanding of the fact that there were innocent bystanders who were going to be caught up in it. Whichever crime it is, it is a crime that deserves the same response. It is unconscionable to treat a crime differently.

Therefore, I have to say about Mr Paul Kavanagh — his “pity me” interviews in which he says that the Bill is vindictive and will rob him of his job — is that he is a man who robbed at least three human beings of their lives, including a woman who was out shopping and a young Irish lad who was walking past a barracks. The judge had this to say of Mr Kavanagh: he showed not a shred of compassion for his victims.

Some people would come to the House and say that it should make a special case for such people; that they should have a free pass to the top and to the heart of government, and that they should have access, as senior civil servants, to every paper, effectively, that a Minister sees; be party to every decision that a Minister makes, and give advice on all those issues. I will say it again: it is unconscionable that such people should be rewarded in that way, not because they are convicted of a particular crime, but because, like all the rest of those whom the Bill covers, they have been convicted of a serious criminal offence. That is the essence of the Bill.

I have heard it said that Jim Allister does not want prisoners to have jobs. That is not true. Prisoners can find jobs. They should find jobs. This particular coterie of highly paid, publicly funded jobs are not those to be tarnished by the presence of serious criminals. If Sinn Féin wants to employ such people, that is a matter for that party. Let it pay for them out of its own deep pockets. Do not let it expect and plead victimhood if it is denied the right to pay for them out of the public purse and pocket. Those people are no more entitled than the rapist, the fraudster or any other serious criminal.

I believe that the Bill is important for another reason. In its own way, it is a landmark in how it approaches and deals with victims. It affords victims the right to be heard. For the first time, it elevates their right to a platform on which account must be taken of them. It stems the tide that hitherto has flowed unrelentingly in favour of the prisoner elite. It is right that we should do that. I trust that the passage of the Bill today will mark a significant victory for innocent victims — all victims — and that, for once, we will see something done to stem the tide that hitherto has flowed so strongly in favour of the prisoner elite.

Legislation that is set by a moral compass and respects victims is good law. It is the constant pandering to the “pity me” refrain of the criminal that is bad. I trust not only that the House will respond by passing the Bill but that, in the future, we will build on this small step to honour and respect the innocent victim in our society. The Bill shows that we can move to address the needs of innocent victims, without the political world falling in. It is time to do more of that. I trust that the Bill will be a catalyst to that end. It is, in itself, the right thing to do.

I could not conclude without paying public tribute to an individual whose courage has been indescribable in the face of gross and crass insensitivity shown to her family. I refer to Ann Travers. With immense courage and disarming conviction, she took to the media when that gross appointment was made, and stood up tall and told it as it was. Particularly in recent days, she has been the object of some scurrilous abuse. It is no surprise where that came from. This House — this community — owes a huge volume of gratitude to Ann Travers, who has done more than most politicians to raise awareness of an issue. She stuck by it courageously and relentlessly, even in the face of great personal difficulties with her health. That is a badge of the integrity and strength of the lady. This House — this community — owes a tremendous debt to that lady, who spoke with such compelling candour, honesty and persistence on behalf of all innocent victims. That is why, outside this House, I have said that, whereas the Bill must officially be called the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Bill, I trust that, in common language, it will, if passed, become known as “Ann’s law”. That would be a tribute in itself to Ann Travers, her family and the tremendous courage that has been shown.

I commend Ann’s law to the House.