Seven years of ministerial gifts revealed

MORE than a thousand gifts received by Stormont Ministers can be revealed in full today by The Detail.

The items range in value from £5 to £1,000 and include food, alcohol, clothes, plus tickets to music and sports events.

But while Westminster departments publish quarterly lists of ministerial gifts costing more than £140, there is no obligation for Stormont departments to make a similar declaration.

However The Detail can now publish information on all gifts received by our ministers after obtaining a list of the items in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

The gifts, presented by groups ranging from local businesses to heads of state over the last seven years, included:

• The deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was given a “wall plaque of Crumlin Road Gaol” in 2012, while in July 2014 First Minister Peter Robinson was given a travelling prayer mat and a copy of the Koran. Hillary Clinton gave both leaders a gift from the New York-based Alicia Adams Alpaca clothing range.

• Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín was given a frequent flyer-complimentary car parking and executive lounge pass for Belfast International Airport in December 2011.

• In November 2012 Employment Minister Stephen Farry received a ‘horse ornament’ worth £1,000.

• Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy received tickets to the Champions League game of Arsenal versus Borussia Dortmund at Emirates Stadium in London In October 2013.

• In December of each of the last three years Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has received a turkey.

All but two Stormont departments provided a breakdown of gifts, while some produced lists that only covered a portion of the period in question. Half of the departments provided an exact value for each gift, with this totalling to over £12,000.

There is no allegation of wrongdoing against any of the organisations or individuals who provided the gifts, or against the politicians who received them.

But the publication of the full list of gifts for the first time comes as the Assembly is due to debate a report that covers how politicians record the gifts they receive.

The latest information on gifts was obtained through a series of FOI requests sent by The Detail to all of Stormont’s 12 Executive departments.

We asked for a breakdown of all gifts received by ministers since devolution was restored in May 2007.

Registers of gifts for ministers were provided by all departments except the Department of Health, which said no gifts had been received, and the Department of Finance, which said it kept no such records.

For a summary of the type of gifts received by First Minister Peter Robinson, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and other leading politicians, click here.

Graphic by Chris Scott

Graphic by Chris Scott

“THANK YOU, MINISTER...”

Politicians across the UK have been held to account over controversies involving the use of expenses and employing relatives and this has heightened the calls for transparency around their work.

Government departments in Westminster publish, on at least a quarterly basis, details of all gifts received and given by ministers which are valued at more than £140.

Stormont departments are under no such obligation though, for the most part, they internally record a list of all gifts received by ministers, regardless of value. But those lists are not routinely published or put into the public domain under the current rules.

Some information on gifts is declared publicly by ministers under the code that covers their work as members of the Assembly.

Under Assembly rules, as an MLA they must declare gifts worth over £240 on the Assembly’s Register of Members’ interests.

In this way some ministerial gifts, which are not declared publicly by departments, are made public by the politician in their role as an MLA, but only if the gift cost more than £240.

However, gifts and hospitality registers for senior management of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland are publicly available, whatever the cost of the gift.

Last June the Assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges commissioned a review of the Assembly’s Code of Conduct.

The committee’s review report is due to be debated in the Assembly next week.

The Detail understands that the issue of how MLAs and ministers are registering gifts will form part of this debate.

“AN OVERSIGHT...”

A complete speadsheet listing information on gifts received by Stormont Ministers is available by clicking here Ministerial gifts FOI responses spreadsheet.xlsx.

The Details contained in the spreadsheet were provided by individual departments. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing in relation to any of the individuals or organisations involved in the sending or receiving any of the gifts.

However The Detail identified a small number of instances where gifts over £240 were received by a minister but not registered in line with current Assembly rules for MLAs.

In October 2013 the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy received tickets to the Arsenal versus Borussia Dortmund Champions League Game worth £300.

The gifts were given by MICROS-Fidelio UK Limited in conjunction with Petrogas Global Ltd.

When The Detail first contacted the Department for Regional Development (DRD) the tickets were not recorded on Minister Kennedy’s register of interests.

In a statement a spokesperson for DRD said: "The Minister has advised that not recording the tickets to the Champions League football match in October 2013 on his register of interests was an oversight on his part and this has now been corrected.

“They were, however, recorded on the Department's hospitality register at the time given.”

In November 2012 the Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry received what was described as a “horse ornament” worth £1,000 from the JP McManus awards.
The following year at the same awards ceremony the minister received a fox ornament worth £800 and a pen worth £250.

Despite each of the three gifts being valued over £240, none were publicly registered.

In a statement to The Detail a spokesperson for the Department for Employment and Learning said: “The gifts from the JP McManus awards were given to the Minister in his capacity as Head of the Department. They will remain within the Department following any change of Minister.

“As the gift was provided to the Department, and is the property of the Department, therefore it is not appropriate for it to appear on the Assembly register.”

In November 2011 Education Minister John O’Dowd also received a £900 horse ornament at the JP McManus awards. This gift was publicly registered on Minister O’Dowd’s Assembly register.

“TO AVOID CAUSING OFFENCE...”

The information obtained by The Detail through FoI shows that decorative gifts such as photographs, paintings and plaques were the most common type of gift received by Ministers.

The Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) provided a list of gifts, but said that to date no gift its ministers have received were valued at more than £140.

The office also said it operated under different rules than other departments.

A spokesperson for OFMDFM said that as it fell under cabinet office guidance, it would publish any gifts that cost more than £140 in line with Westminster.

Since OFMDFM is a joint office, some gifts were presented on that basis, but overall, the First Minister Peter Robinson received more gifts than any other minister listed in the information released by departments.

Only two Stormont departments did not provide a breakdown of gifts received by their ministers.

In response to The Detail’s original FOI, the Department of Health said there were no records held to show that any Health Minister had been offered any gifts.

Meanwhile the Department of Finance (DFP) said it did not hold gift information in respect of the Finance Minister.

When The Detail asked for further clarification a DFP spokesperson said: "Gifts received by the Finance Minister were 'inexpensive' and accepted in order to cultivate relationships and avoid causing offence.

“As each gift was assessed as being ‘inexpensive’ at the time of receipt, they were not included on the Gifts Register. This process is in line with the DFP policy, which only requires ‘expensive’ gifts to be recorded.”

There are no details held for gifts offered to the Agriculture minister between 2007/08 because records were destroyed in a flood in Dundonald House.

Meanwhile, the Department for Social Development (DSD) said there were only records for gifts offered to the Social Development Minister from May 2011 onwards.

As the Department of Justice was established in Northern Ireland in April 2010, information on gifts is only held from that date.

As mentioned above, spreadsheets giving the full breakdown of all gifts received by ministers can be viewed by clicking here Ministerial gifts FOI responses spreadsheet.xlsx.