Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Civil servants and the 5-star overseas trips paid for by taxpayers

Hotel used by Ministers and their entourages
Hotel used by Ministers and their entourages

Top Stormont officials have enjoyed five-star hospitality in luxury hotels around the world – with the taxpayer picking up the tab.

Globetrotting civil servants have been racking up the air miles – and their expenses bills – on a series of costly overseas missions.

The destinations range from Canada and the United States to Africa and the Far East.

On average, civil servants travelled abroad every second day, with hundreds of trips made since April 2011.

In some cases they enjoyed five-star comfort, while leaving the public purse to pick up bills running to hundreds of pounds.

In one case an official ran up a near-£1,000 tab while staying at one of India's most exclusive hotels.

One MLA hit out at what he branded "the Stormont junket train" and said the expenditure on countless overseas visits could no longer be justified.

Strangford Member David McNarry said: "I really don't think we can afford these things."

The details emerged after a Belfast Telegraph investigation into travel by Stormont ministers and civil servants.

The key findings include:

• More than 300 overseas trips involving ministers and civil servants between April 2011 and last December costing at least £430,000.

• Stays at five-star hotels in exotic locations including Istanbul, Shanghai and Cyprus.

• Ministerial trips to the Far East, America and across Europe, often running to tens of thousands of pounds.

• More than £4,000 spent on a preliminary visit to the Far East by an OFMDFM official ahead of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's mission last year.

During the 20-month period, civil servants made at least 292 overseas trips.

The true figure will be much higher because four departments only disclosed details of senior civil servants' travel while one, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, simply ignored our request.

Mr McNarry, who sits on the Assembly's regional development committee, questioned the missions' value for money.

"People will soon be told that their benefits are going to be cut, there is a bedroom tax on the way, and here we have departments spending money like it's going out of fashion on trips with no clear mission – it just isn't on," he added.

"My own committee goes on junkets, whether it be seeing trains in Brussels or buses in Holland – they are off to Wales next week to look at water.

"I deliberately don't go on them because I don't think it needs a whole entourage going. The junket express can't be justified."

In one case a Department of Agriculture official ran up bills of more than £700 staying in five-star hotels while on a visit to the Far East. They included the Shangri-La hotel in Shanghai and Hong Kong's Langham Hotel.

In another case, an official stayed at the five-star InterContinental Hotel on the sunshine island of Cyprus.

Another civil servant with the Department of Finance spent £959 at the plush five-star Hyatt Hotel in Calcutta.

An official with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency – part of the Department of the Environment – ran up a £609 bill at the five-star Point Hotel Barboros in Istanbul.

A senior Civil Service source insisted expenditure was closely monitored with restrictions on what officials could put on their expenses.

"There are strict guidelines in place – it is not a case of civil servants spending left, right and centre," he said.

Ministerial missions with hefty bills

By Adrian Rutherford

Health Minister Edwin Poots travelled to the United States twice in the space of eight weeks on ministerial trips which left the taxpayer with a £30,000 bill.

The visits, which included a team of civil servants, were among five overseas missions led by Mr Poots in less than two years.

They are revealed as the full extent of travel by Stormont's globetrotting officials is detailed today by the Belfast Telegraph.

Employment Minister Stephen Farry made three overseas trips in as many months costing £18,000, while an entourage led by Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill travelled to China at a cost of £20,000.

The most expensive trips involving Stormont ministers also included:

• More than £21,000 on sending Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland and two civil servants to the US.

• Almost £23,000 on a mission to the US in March 2012 comprising Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy and three civil servants.

• £6,254 flying Environment Minister Alex Attwood and two officials to New York and Washington.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment ignored requests for details of Arlene Foster's overseas travel.

One of the most expensive trips was a mission to China by Ms O'Neill and two civil servants last November costing £20,476.

The trio were part of a delegation which also included Ms Foster and the First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. The full cost of the mission has not yet been revealed by OFMDFM.

Ms O'Neill said: "During my successful six-day visit to China I met key players in the Chinese agri-food and equine sectors, allowing me to raise awareness of the quality and safety of the North of Ireland's agri-food products."

Mr McCausland travelled to New York and New Orleans in November 2011, accompanied by his special adviser, to discuss inner-city housing solutions.

A spokesperson said: "The minister visited New York and New Orleans to explore how private sector initiatives can deliver services or complement public services for disadvantaged communities and groups."

Northern Ireland's roving Ministers..where they went, how much the taxpayer shelled out, and the number of officials they took along with them

STEPHEN FARRY EMPLOYMENT

Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington, December 2011. Accompanied by two civil servants. Cost: £14,813

Brussels, February 2012. Accompanied by one civil servant. Cost: £1,449

Estonia, March 2012. Accompanied by one civil servant.Cost: £1,526

DANNY KENNEDY REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Nantes, September 2011. Accompanied by seven civil servants. Cost: £2,875

Brussels, October 2011. Accompanied by five civil servants. Cost: £3,535

Brussels, December 2011. Accompanied by three civil servants. Cost: £2,023

Washington, March 2012. Accompanied by three civil servants. Cost: £22,851

NELSON McCAUSLAND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT

New York and New Orleans, November 2011. Accompanied by special adviser and civil servant. Cost: £21,614

EDWIN POOTS HEALTH

New York and Washington, August 2011. Accompanied by two civil servants. Cost: £14,956

Boston, October 2011. Accompanied by special adviser and four civil servants. Cost: £16,005

Helsinki, February 2012. Accompanied by special adviser and four civil servants. Cost: £11,126

Brussels, April 2012. Accompanied by special adviser and two civil servants. Cost: £2,488

Barcelona, May 2012. Accompanied by special adviser, one civil servant.Cost: £3,720

DAVID FORD JUSTICE

Washington, March 2012. Plus one civil servant. Cost: £2,487

MICHELLE O'NEILL AGRICULTURE

Brussels, April 2012. Plus two civil servants. Cost: £846

Brussels, May 2012. Plus two civil servants. Cost: £1,922

China, November 2012. Plus two civil servants. Cost: £20,476

Brussels, November 2012. Plus two civil servants.Cost: £2,500

Brussels, December 2012. Plus two civil servants. Cost: £2,926

ALEX ATTWOOD ENVIRONMENT

Brussels, March 2012. Accompanied by two civil servants. Cost: £2,270

New York and Washington, March 2012. Accompanied by two civil servants. Cost: £6,254

CARAL NI CHUILIN CULTURE

New York, August 2011. Accompanied by Two civil servants. Cost: £6,190

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