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One in five MLAs still has relative on office staff

By Rebecca Black

A fifth of our MLAs still employ family members in their constituency offices.

The latest Register of Interests published by the Northern Ireland Assembly reveals that 20% of MLAs have relatives on their payroll.

It is a drop from the 40% in 2011 that sparked public outrage.

At that stage MLAs could employ multiple members of their family, whereas now they may just pay one. In 2013 there were five MLAs who employed more than one family member.

DUP MLA Robin Newton then employed both his wife and his son in his East Belfast constituency office. In the most recent Register of Interests, Mr Newton employs only his son.

The total figure from the latest Northern Ireland Assembly Register of Interests includes 22 of the 108 MLAs (20%). Three out of Northern Ireland's 18 MPs employ family members.

Most of the MLAs who employ relatives are unionists.

The DUP have the most number of MLAs who employ relatives (13), followed by the UUP (4), then the SDLP (2), TUV (1), Alliance (1) as well as suspended DUP MLA Jonathan Bell.

These MLAs include some of the newest faces in the Assembly, such as Ulster Unionists Steve Aiken and Philip Smith, whose wives work in their constituency offices.

DUP MLAs Trevor Clarke, Alex Easton and Paul Frew also employ their wives, while Sammy Douglas and Gordon Dunne employ their sons.

TUV leader Jim Allister employs his daughter as a receptionist, SDLP MLA Alex Attwood employs his brother Tim (a councillor in Belfast) as a constituency aide, and Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw employs her husband as a part-time Parliamentary Officer. No Sinn Fein, People Before Profit nor Green Party MLAs currently employ any relatives.

It is not against the rules to employ relatives, but MLAs must declare it if they do. According to the Assembly's Financial Support for Members Handbook, which was published last May at the start of the new term, MLAs may only claim staff costs in relation to the employment of one "connected person". A connected person is defined as a family member of the MLA, belonging to a political party of which the MLA is a member or a person the MLA is connected with via a body, trust, partnership or firm.

Meanwhile, of Northern Ireland's team of 18 MPs, Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) employs his wife as a secretary, Gavin Robinson employs his father as a part time office manager and Gregory Campbell (DUP) employs his wife. There is no suggestion that any of the relatives hired by MLAs are not qualified for the posts they hold, with some having worked for the respective MLAs for a number of years.

The DUP, Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Alliance and TUV were contacted for comment but did not respond. Green Party leader Steven Agnew said the best people should be hired by MLAs, regardless of their surname.

"I have opposed the hiring of multiple family members by elected representatives in a consistent way. People should be appointed on merit, not on the basis of their surname," he said. "There are enough bright and talented people out there to at least be given the opportunity to apply for these roles.

"I'm glad that Assembly rules now require these posts to be advertised and filled in a more transparent and equitable way.

"Assembly support roles are publicly funded and it would be a waste of money if the best people were overlooked in favour of family members. I am pleased the figures have dropped but it still unsettles me that some MLAs have used public funds to run their constituency and Assembly offices like family firms."

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