Serious questions remain over Assembly rules on MLA office expenses, a leading public standards expert has said.
Sir Alistair Graham’s comments follow renewed controversy on rental expenses claimed for the DUP’s Ballymena advice centre by Ian Paisley and Ian Paisley jnr.
A report last week said their combined £57,200-a-year rent was “significantly” above normal market rates and was creating a “property asset” for the party. It also concluded that no Assembly rules have been broken.
There are no Stormont rules limiting the size of constituency offices or requiring independent valuation for rental claims.
Sir Alistair, former chair of the UK-wide Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: “I never think that saying you are within the rules is a satisfactory defence.”
Referring to the Assembly, Sir Alistair told the Belfast Telegraph: “Serious questions about the appropriateness of the current rules have been raised which need to be explored further.”
Responsibility for expenses rests with the Assembly itself.
The Committee on Standards recently voiced concern about politicians setting their own rules.
It said this approach at Westminster has “not well served either MPs or the public interest”.
The £57,200 rent is being paid to a DUP-linked company called Sarcon 250. The firm was created in 2007 to buy the premises and have its mortgage paid off through MLA rental expenses. The purchase price was £500,000.
Last week’s report on the case was compiled by Assembly Standards Commissioner Tom Frawley.
Questions have now been tabled to the cross-party Assembly Commission which oversees MLA expenses. UUP member David McNarry has asked on what basis rent payments are being made above the market rate.
The Commissioner of Valuation advised Mr Frawley that the rental arrangements were understandable in terms of Sarcon 250 requiring a commercial return.
Mr Frawley reported Mr Paisley jnr told him Sarcon 250 was “acting as a trust“ and was holding the property in trust “for the purposes of providing constituency accommodation for the DUP”.
Mr Frawley said: “There is no evidence on the public record to sustain the contention that there is a trust in place governing the role or actions of Sarcon 250 Ltd.”