Northern Ireland news

Stormont standards commissioner to publish statistics on complaints against MLAs

Assembly standards commissioner Dr Melissa McCullough speaking on the BBC's Sunday Politics programme
Brendan Hughes

THE new assembly standards commissioner has clarified that she will disclose statistics on a backlog of complaints against MLAs after previously suggesting legislation prevented her from doing so.

Dr Melissa McCullough was appointed last month to the watchdog role, which had remained vacant for three years amid the collapse of devolution in the wake of the RHI scandal.

The former commissioner Douglas Bain has warned there could be a "substantial" backlog of as many as 100 complaints to examine from the years since he stepped down.

But Dr McCullough has so far refused to disclose the number of complaints received by her office.

Complaints statistics were previously published on the commissioner's website in the years when Mr Bain was in the role.

Dr McCullough was asked on BBC's Sunday Politics programme last weekend whether she would be able to investigate complaints made in the three years when there was no commissioner in post.

"Well I can't speak to any specifics or numbers or anything in particular due to the legislation that governs my role, but if there were any complaints, all complaints will be heard," she said.

Dr McCullough also said she "can't confirm or deny" if she is investigating complaints made in the past three years.

She added that she could not confirm if she was examining complaints against any Sinn Féin MLAs over the Bobby Storey funeral controversy.

Legislation from 2011 says the commissioner "shall not disclose any information contained in any complaint or referral" or any information obtained "in the course of, or for the purposes of, an investigation".

Asked to explain further why statistics could not be disclosed, Dr McCullough clarified that she intends to release details in her first annual report.

In a statement, she told The Irish News: "The law prohibits me from confirming or denying that a complaint against a particular MLA has been received or from disclosing any information on any complaint under investigation.

"All complaints I receive are given careful consideration and if admissible are investigated thoroughly.

"Statistics on the number of admissible complaints will be made public in an annual report that will be published on the Standards Commission website."

Dr McCullough was Stormont's third attempt to fill the independent watchdog post, which investigates complaints about the conduct of MLAs.

In July, retired solicitor Paul Kennedy was selected for the role after the preferred candidate pulled out because of illness.

However, the Co Down-based lawyer later withdrew himself from the process at the eleventh hour.

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