Belfast Telegraph

A scandal... MLA’s verdict on £14m bill for hospitality footed by taxpayer

By Noel McAdam

Bodies linked to Government departments in Northern Ireland have spent more than £9.3m on hospitality over the last five years.

The sum for arm’s-length bodies is almost double the total spent by the departments themselves centrally in the same period.

And hardline unionist Jim Allister, who unearthed the figures, said people would be shocked by the overall total of almost £14m.

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader branded the amount spent on wining and dining as “quite simply scandalous”.

But a number of bodies defended the expenditure, which they said included provision for refreshments on training courses — and insisted hospitality spending is being reduced.

Mr Allister (below), however, set out a number of what he called “staggering” examples arising from answers to a series of Assembly questions he tabled.

“I wonder how on Earth the Department of Education’s arm’s-length bodies managed to run up hospitality bills averaging well over £600,000 a year,” the North Antrim MLA said.

“The figures for NI Water are also staggering. £62,000 in 2006/07, £63,000 in 2007/08, £67,000 in 2008/09 and £53,000 in 2009/10.

“And if one is hunting for savings which could be made in the health service, then look no further than these figures. In 2007/8 the Southern Trust spent £62,000, the Eastern Trust £97,500 and the Western Trust £109,200. Since 2007/08 the Southern Trust has spent an eye-watering £379,400 on hospitality.”

The TUV chief reiterated that last month he received responses disclosing that since devolution was restored in 2007, Government departments in the province splashed out £4.5m on hospitality.

“Since obtaining that information I have been investigating how much the department’s arm’s-length bodies have spent on wining and dining. The answer — £9,357,763 — will doubtless shock many people.

“That the Government should have spent almost £14m of taxpayers' money on hospitality in a five- year period is, quite simply, scandalous.”

The Department of Education, hit back saying that minister John O’Dowd “expects all bodies to exercise judgment when incurring hospitality costs and in 2010/11 there was a significant reduction on the previous year’s spend” — a downward trend he hopes to see continue.

And NI Water stated that it has reduced hospitality expenditure to £18,000.

Story so far

The Belfast Telegraph has already revealed that Stormont ministers and officials spent almost £250,000 on fact-finding trips to destinations including the US, South Africa and India, over the last two years.

And a further £70,000 was spent by MLAs who sit on the various Stormont scrutiny committees attending international conferences. Then it emerged MLAs drank and munched their way through £160,000 worth of nibbles and refreshments at committee meetings in the last five years.

Around the same amount has been spent on overtime for ushers and security staff in the last year — £100,000 of it to pay for staff working outside their normal shifts.

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