Expenses inquiry under scrutiny

PEYE 140911KB1 115 A BBC Spotlight investigation into MLAs’ expenses has led to a police inquiry and calls for reform.

A police investigation into expense claims by a number of MLAs is continuing following BBC Spotlight’s investigation into the alleged abuse of the system. Detectives from the Serious Crime Branch “continue to scope allegations of potential criminality,” a PSNI spokesman has confirmed.

The Assembly pays out around £8 million per year to cover expenses claims by members. The vast majority is for office cost expenditure (OCE) which is intended to fund constituency services by MLAs; this amounted to £7.4 million in 2013-2014.

OCE can reimburse the cost of rent, rates and utilities, office equipment, staff salaries, and research and secretarial services. All members have constituency offices and most claim the maximum available amount (£69,238). This limit has been reduced from £73,583 in 2012-2013. The three MLAs who are also MPs – Gregory Campbell, Alasdair McDonnell and Sammy Wilson – are limited to claiming £8,655 per annum as they can claim for parliamentary expenses.

Spotlight’s most serious allegation was that, over the last decade, around £700,000 was claimed by Sinn Féin MLAs and subsequently paid to Research Services Ireland (RSI) – a company owned by the party’s finance directors. This was despite the Assembly having a publicly-funded research service which is available to all members. The programme found no evidence of published research by the company and Sinn Féin claims that its work was “too sensitive” to be undertaken by others.

The party also rented property from three organisations in Mid Ulster and North Antrim described as cultural and historical societies but Spotlight was unable to find evidence of the societies’ activities. Sinn Féin stated that the societies were not-for-profit organisations and the money was ultimately used to deliver services to constituents. The party has denied any wrongdoing.

The programme stated that Arlene Foster had bought property from businessman David Mahon (a founding member of the Ulster Land and Property Company) and subsequently rented an office from him. It also reported that the rent claimed for the DUP’s North Antrim office was higher than the independently assessed rental value of the property. Foster declared the arrangement after being contacted by the BBC. The DUP did not dispute the facts broadcast by the programme but said that no rules had been broken.

The programme also questioned an £84,000 claim for support services by the UUP and the use of SDLP claims – £10,000 per member – for funding the party’s press office. Both parties claim that these centralised functions benefit constituents by helping MLAs to carry out their role more effectively.

The SDLP said that the Sinn Féin payments to RSI were “an incredible breach of the trust that the public place in politicians to guard the public purse” and thanked the Spotlight programme for revealing the payments. The UUP and Alliance Party concurred. The DUP proposed an independent panel to set the rules and scrutinise claims for expenses, therefore following Westminster’s example. “Separation and independence is required to ensure there is full confidence that public money is being spent appropriately and for the purposes intended,” said DUP MLA Alastair Ross, who also chairs the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee.

Alliance called for an external forensic audit of expenses alongside the police investigation. Green MLA Steven Agnew agreed that a full investigation was needed and criticised the “veil of secrecy over money and politics in Northern Ireland” due to confidentiality for political donations. Agnew added: “The excuse that the system is flawed is not acceptable as weakness needs to be exploited for a problem to exist.” The Assembly Commission is now considering the parties’ proposals for a stricter system but it is likely to wait until the outcome of the police investigation before coming to a decision.

Related Posts