Northern Ireland news

DUP's Linda Clarke involved in giving council cash to son's business

The DUP's Trevor and Linda Clarke with party leader Arlene Foster
Brendan Hughes

A DUP councillor was involved in awarding thousands of pounds of ratepayer cash to her son's business.

Linda Clarke and her MLA husband Trevor have already come under pressure after an Irish News investigation exposed his sideline business lobbying for planning applicants.

It now emerges that Mrs Clarke was involved in giving more than £4,500 in council contracts to a printing firm run by her son from the family home.

AC Print was allocated public money over several years to create virtual graphics for vacant shop fronts and buildings in Randalstown.

It was also awarded more than £250 to print Christmas flyers.

Mrs Clarke lists AC Print among her 'financial and other personal interests' registered with Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.

But the councillor did not declare an interest or absent herself from meetings when the funding was awarded.

In some cases, she was the only councillor present at meetings when payments were agreed.

Read More: DUP's Trevor Clarke tells planners 'I'm here as an MLA and nothing else'

Under the code of conduct, councillors must withdraw from discussions where they have a "pecuniary interest, direct or indirect", and declare significant private or personal non-pecuniary interests. This applies not only to council meetings, but to committee or sub-committee meetings.

Mrs Clarke is already the subject of a complaint to the standards commissioner over alleged conflicts of interest in the planning process.

AC Print was awarded £425 for virtual window graphics placed on the old D Rainey shop front in Randalstown. Picture by Hugh Russell

A DUP spokesman for Mrs Clarke said she has referred the issue of alleged conflicts of interest to the commissioner and "she is happy for that office to carry out its work".

The printing jobs were awarded by the Randalstown Town Team, one of five council sub-groups made up of councillors, council officials and business community representatives.

Each Town Team receives an annual budget of £22,000 which the group then decides how to spend on projects to support their area, such as marketing and environmental improvements.

Since 2016 the Randalstown Town Team has awarded £4,502.50 to AC Print, according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Minutes of the meetings show Mrs Clarke was present during meetings when jobs for AC Print were approved.

In May 2017, Mrs Clarke was the only councillor present when members approved virtual window graphics for a vacant building at a cost of £700. No interests were declared.

Mrs Clarke was also the only councillor present in February 2018 when "members agreed to proceed with" replacing a missing window graphic on the same building for £175.

In its FOI response, the council said projects are "agreed by the Town Team and then procured and implemented via council officers in line with relevant council policy".

The council said it "does not require written quotations for expenditure below £3,000".

In July, an Irish News investigation revealed DUP MLA Trevor Clarke is running a sideline business lobbying on behalf of planning applicants.

Mr Clarke earns thousands of pounds as a partner in Versatile Consultancy, which has acted as the planning agent for several applications in the Antrim area in recent years.

It was later revealed that Mrs Clarke, who works in Mr Clarke's constituency office, also had involvement in the business but did not declare it to the council.

The MLA code of conduct prohibits paid advocacy, but the couple have insisted they "made all the relevant declarations and adhered to all rules".

A complaint has also been made to the council standards commissioner against Mrs Clarke.

She did not absent herself from a planning committee meeting in May 2017 when her husband made representations on two applications, and no declarations of interest were made, according to the minutes.

Mr Clarke lost his assembly seat in March 2017's election, but was selected in June that year to replace Paul Girvan after he became an MP.

The applications did not involve Versatile but in correspondence on one proposal, Mr Clarke told officials he was "working alongside the agent who is currently out of the country".

Asked about the Town Team funding, a DUP spokesman for Mrs Clarke said: "Councillor Clarke has referred this matter to the Local Government Commissioner for Standards. She is happy for that office to carry out its work."

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