MLA says 'no conflict of interest' in bouncy castle funding
AN Ulster Unionist has defended his role in awarding almost £11,000 in council funding to a bouncy castle enterprise he is involved with.
New South Antrim MLA Adrian Cochrane-Watson rejected claims that he should have declared an interest when he endorsed the payments to Bouncy King NI for work at loyalist bonfires.
Mr Cochrane-Watson sat on a sub-group of the former Antrim borough council that approved funding to Eleventh Night bonfire groups for related events.
In the past two years it agreed more than £10,900 in payments to Antrim-based hire firm Bouncy King NI.
The former mayor said he is a committee member of Bouncy King NI and carries out voluntary work, but does not own it and has never received any remuneration.
However, he admitted one of his daughters may have received an "ad hoc wage" in the past for work at Bouncy King NI.
Mr Cochrane-Watson claimed he has been "totally transparent", adding: "I don't see a conflict of interest here at all."
"You're highlighting a service provided by a social economy enterprise which I am a member of. Should I have declared an interest? I'm really not going to get hung up on that," he said.
"I never got involved in the tendering, the bidding. Was I aware of some of it? Yes I was.
"But I know they were providing a good service at an affordable price. I am actually delighted that the service was out there in the community that I represent instead of the private sector.
"I am championing a social economy enterprise which has delivered."
Bouncy King NI's website describes it as a "community-based organisation" that provides bouncy castles for hire and other services such as face painting.
Mr Cochrane-Watson's mobile number is one of the two contact numbers published on the website for customers to make enquiries or bookings.
It is also displayed on a Bouncy King-branded vehicle and office signage.
He also provides a testimonial for the website, saying the group has a "great range of services available and are both reliable and professional".
In July this year one of his daughters posted online to advertise work opportunities at Bouncy King NI.
Antrim Community Trust was awarded £10,000 from the Big Lottery Fund in 2012 to establish the enterprise.
Bouncy King NI is not registered as a company at Companies House or as a charity with the Charities Commission.
According to Companies House, Mr Cochrane-Watson was secretary of a now dissolved firm called Inter Estate Partnership. It operated from the same address in Antrim now used by Bouncy King NI.
The MLA said Inter Estate Partnership was involved in providing the business case for Bouncy King NI, which he says reinvests its profits back into the venture.
Antrim-area bonfire groups can apply for council funding of up to £3,000 for related community events, with some money usually provided up front and the remainder afterwards.
The groups submit invoices and receipts to show the council what the funding is being used to pay for.
Payments are approved by a committee made up of councillors, community representatives and PSNI officers.
Almost two-thirds of the bonfire groups in the Antrim area used Bouncy King NI for their events.
Mr Cochrane-Watson denied that he should have declared an interest while involved in the bonfire funding committee.
However, he did declare an interest in Bouncy King NI on a separate matter, council minutes show.
He made the declaration in February this year when councillors agreed to extend a contract for it to provide children's activities at the Lough Shore Park.
Mr Cochrane-Watson also dismissed suggestions that he should have absented himself from the bonfire funding meetings.
He said he had no say in whether bonfire groups chose to use services from Bouncy King NI or opt for other hire firms.
He also said the committee endorsed overall funding for the groups and did not inspect individual invoices, but admitted he would have been aware that some bonfire groups used Bouncy King NI.
"We never got into the detail of what any site was spending its money on. Never once did we do that," he said.
"Are we guilty of not being hands-on in every invoice that came in? That is not the role of council committees. We were in the trust of well-paid council officials."
The Department of the Environment said councillors must ensure their conduct complies with The Northern Ireland Local Government Code of Conduct for Councillors.
A spokeswoman said councillors should declare any relevant "pecuniary and/or private or personal non-pecuniary interests in relation to matters arising at council meetings at once and in a way that protects the public interest".
She added: "The previous code was a guidance document only. It guided councillors on the declaration and registration of interests and referred to the provisions of section 28-31 of the 1972 Act. The current code is mandatory."
Mr Cochrane-Watson was a councillor on Antrim borough council and the new Antrim and Newtownabbey council before being appointed to the South Antrim assembly seat vacated after Danny Kinahan was elected MP earlier this year.
He previously made headlines when in 2006 he suggested gay couples would not be welcome in his family's B&B, prompting claims of discrimination by gay rights campaigners.
But following his move to Stormont the MLA said the row was "in the past" and that he has "no difficulty" with members of the gay community and respected their rights.