News

Councillors warned of journalist examining declarations of interest

How The Irish News revealed concerns over councillors not disclosing their declarations of interest
Brendan Hughes

OFFICIALS at Belfast City Council tipped off councillors that a journalist was probing their failure to declare property and business interests.

Councillors were encouraged "as a matter of urgency" to complete their declaration forms – just hours after an Irish News reporter looked through the public register at City Hall.

In an email, a senior staff member in the chief executive's department wrote: "A journalist has recently called with us to inspect the register of members' interests.

"We do not have any record of you having made a return for the register and there must be a possibility that the journalist will be reporting on the matter in the local newspapers."

He added: "I would encourage you to complete the attached form and return it to ... the members' support office as a matter of urgency."

The unusual intervention emerges just weeks after The Irish News published an analysis of hundreds of council and company records.

The investigation revealed almost two thirds of the north's councillors have not declared any land or property interests, while many more gave vague or incomplete disclosures.

Some councillors had still not submitted their declaration forms – a year after the 11 new 'supercouncils' were formed.

Councillors are required under their code of conduct to complete the forms to help assure the public that decisions are not being made for their own personal or financial benefit.

Local authorities are only required to maintain a register for public inspection, with breaches of the code investigated by the new public services ombudsman.

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said councillors should be declaring their interests routinely.

"It shouldn't need the threat of embarrassment to prod them into action, and it looks remarkably cosy that council staff appear to have been tipping off councillors about journalists' enquiries on this subject," he said.

"Ratepayers deserve full and proper transparency so that they can make their own minds up as to whether or not their local representatives are acting in their best interests."

Meanwhile, it has emerged that 14 Belfast councillors did not submit their forms in 2014-15, and eight did not submit their 2015-16 forms until earlier this year.

One councillor, independent unionist Ruth Patterson, has still not submitted her declaration form.

Belfast City Council had previously not recorded when councillors submitted their forms, but has reviewed its procedures after concerns were raised.

Councillors also agreed in April to have the declaration forms published online for the first time following a proposal by Alliance.

Alliance's Nuala McAllister said: "Having had two years to fill in the relevant forms, it is worrying that so many waited until they couldn't get away with it any longer.

"Elected representatives should be doing everything they can to increase levels of openness and transparency, rather than allowing their failure to adhere to basic rules overshadow decisions made."

The staff email warning councillors about a journalist was sent in January this year.

In a statement a Belfast City Council spokesman said: "To ensure, fair and balanced reporting, it is not only in the interests of the subject of a media query but also the media outlet itself that the individuals be advised of any query in relation to them to give them the opportunity to respond if they wish and review the accuracy of any published stories. There are no procedural reasons why they shouldn't be told."

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