16 January 2006

Council censure policy moves backed

Belfast Telegraph

By Michael McHugh
16 January 2006

Moves to end the censure of councillors by finance watchdogs for misconduct in England and Wales should be adopted in Ulster, embattled representatives of a border council claimed today.

Demands for a shake-up came as 17 Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors at Newry and Mourne District Council face hefty fines and being barred from holding public office after denying Protestant victims' group FAIR the use of a community hall in Newtownhamilton.

Councillors are taking legal action against the Local Government Auditor's decision to surcharge them over the matter and believe official moves to scrap the system in England and Wales should be replicated here.

Willie Fraser from FAIR argues that changes to the system in the rest of the UK are not suitable for Northern Ireland.

SDLP group leader on the council Michael Carr, who is not being surcharged but is leading the legal challenge, said: "Having responsibility lying with the auditor is like making him judge, jury and executioner.

"Because of this decision, councils across the north will be put in the position where out of fear of litigation they won't make any decisions - particularly with councils adjudicating on liquor licences.

"There is legislation covering discrimination and equality already. It is different when you start talking about the role of the auditor."

A 2003 report by the Westminster Committee on Standards in Public Life found it "particularly unsatisfactory" for the district auditor to have powers to adjudicate upon guilt or innocence and determine the penalty based on his own calculation of financial loss.

The watchdog said a new offence covering misconduct by all public officials should be created and added that the courts should be involved from the outset.

Solicitors representing some affected councillors will be using the report as a central plank of their appeal.

A total of 12 Sinn Fein and five SDLP councillors face a £10,000 fine under the disciplinary action. They were accused of wilful misconduct by the auditor.

Mr Fraser said it was dangerous to draw close comparisons between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

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