Audit Office queries Castlereagh council 'special seat'

Interior of Castlereagh Borough Council chamber There has been a DUP councillor on Castlereagh council's special management team for 16 years

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The Audit Office has questioned Castlereagh council's decision to allow the DUP to have a special seat on its management team for the past 16 years.

It says the move is not normal practice and could lead to misunderstandings or "perceived conflicts of interest".

The then DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson was appointed to the council's special management team in 1997.

According to the Alliance Party, it was done to assist the new chief executive at the time.

However, Alliance said it only learned the practice was continuing in 2010, with Mr Robinson being succeeded by several other DUP members, including Mr Robinson's son Gareth and the MLA Jimmy Spratt.

Alliance complained, but a motion calling for the practice to end was defeated by DUP and Ulster Unionist councillors in March 2011.

An initial Audit Office report on the issue noted that while the practice was unusual, it had been approved by the council.

Clarification

However, the Audit Office agreed to look at the issue again after being contacted by Alliance councillor Michael Long, who had to seek the minutes of special management team meetings through freedom of information requests after being initially refused them by the council.

Start Quote

I believe that the presence of this member for strategic development matters confers party political advantage”

End Quote Michael Long Alliance councillor

The minutes he received through these requests had been heavily redacted.

In a draft report, the Audit Office now says there may be a "lack of transparency" over the role of the elected member on the special management team.

It has recommended the council reviews the arrangement and ensures terms of reference are in place for meetings, including specific roles and responsibilities where it is anticipated an elected representative attends.

It also said management should give consideration to making the minutes of the meetings available - a practice, it says, that is operated by many public bodies.

In response, the council has told the Audit Office that clarification on roles, responsibilities and terms of reference for the team will be drafted for approval by the council. A redacted version of the minutes will be made available to all members.

Mr Long said it was "wholly inappropriate" that a single party provides the political input into a body giving leadership direction.

"I believe that the presence of this member for strategic development matters confers party political advantage as many matters to be brought to council are initially discussed and shaped/refined at the special management team," he added.

In a statement to the BBC, Castlereagh Borough Council confirmed that since 1997 an elected member has sat on its senior management team "in an advisory capacity".

"The matter was reconsidered in 2011 and the council reaffirmed the decision to continue with these arrangements," said a spokesperson.

"While no fault was identified with the practice, the NI Audit Office in their 2012/13 final report to those charged with governance, recommended that the council should establish terms of reference for senior management meetings, which includes clarification on specific roles and responsibilities where it is anticipated an elected member attends.

"It also recommended that minutes of these meetings should be made available to all elected members. The council agreed to implement these recommendations."

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