Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

How taxpayers fork out thousands for Stomont's 5-star luxury trips

Cash-strapped Stormont departments spent tens of thousands of pounds flying ministers and top civil servants around the world — and accommodating them in five-star hotels.

Former Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey visited the US and Canada six times in just 18 months, while Nelson McCausland made three costly overseas trips in a six-month period as Culture Minister.

The three trips by Mr McCausland, which included senior officials, left the taxpayer with a near £50,000 bill.

They included a 10-day visit to North Carolina, New York and Washington by Mr McCausland and two staff in September 2010 involving stays at two prestigious hotels which cost over £30,000.

Details of overseas travel for Stormont ministers and senior civil servants during 2009/10 and 2010/11 were released to this newspaper following Freedom of Information requests to the 12 Executive departments.

Both the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have yet to respond to our FoI requests.

Other departments’ expenditure includes:

  • Stays at five-star hotels by Executive ministers such as Mr McCausland, Mr Empey, Margaret Ritchie and Michelle Gildernew.
  • Twelve visits to five-star hotels in Brussels and Luxembourg by senior civil servants at the Department of Agriculture in an 18-month period.
  • A £9,500 trip to India, with some £1,900 spent on three nights at the five-star Le Meridien hotel in Delhi by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).
  • Another £4,000 on a visit to the US by the Department of Employment and Learning, including accommodation at the prestigious Four Seasons Hotel in Washington.
  • An £11,000 bill for sending former Environment Minister Edwin Poots and two officials to New York for an awards event.

The lavish expenditure has been criticised by a leading public spending pressure group.

Matthew Sinclair, director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, called for an urgent review of overseas travel at Executive departments.

“With many families in Northern Ireland struggling to make ends meet, they will be furious to see so many politicians and officials enjoying such luxury on trips abroad,” he said. “Some of these expenses are staggering and impossible to justify as really necessary to deliver the services that taxpayers are supposed to be paying for. This waste needs to end.”

Mr McCausland stayed at the five-star Le Meridien during the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, with Ms Ritchie stopping at the luxury Fitzpatrick Manhattan and Willard Intercontinental while in the US.

Ms Gildernew stayed at the five-star Hotel Sofitel in Brussels, while Mr Empey visited the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, also rated five-star.

The total expenditure on overseas travel for the two years — excluding the OFMDFM and DETI — topped £235,000.

Heading the expenditure list was DCAL, which spent £60,640.

Its most costly trip was the 10-day visit to North Carolina, Washington and New York in 2010, which totalled £30,572. The tour was aimed at “enhancing cultural and ancestral links with America” while promoting Northern Ireland, and was attended by Mr McCausland, his special adviser and a senior civil servant.

DCAL was followed by the Department of Employment and Learning, which ran up a £54,658 bill, including five trips to the US and a sixth to Canada by Mr Empey when he was minister.

Mr Empey said he was satisfied that all the visits had been value for money. “With China and the Far East emerging, we have to see what we are up against and sometimes the best way of doing that is to go and see it, provided the visit is structured and not a tourist exercise,” he said.

“I’m quite satisfied that all our visits were structured and of benefit in learning what other people do and promoting Northern Ireland as a place to do business.”

A spokesman for Mr McCausland also defended the trips.

“The then DCAL minister was in India representing Northern Ireland at the UK Sports Cabinet during the Commonwealth Games,” he said. “In America Minister McCausland was seeking to develop the arts and cultural sectors. To this end he met with academics, cultural stakeholders and key people in the digital economy. The digital sector and film production are important growth areas for our economy.”

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