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Arlene Foster calls for new expenses body as Stormont row goes on

By Cate McCurry

Published 17/02/2016

First Minister Arlene Foster has proposed changes
First Minister Arlene Foster has proposed changes

The First Minister has weighed in on the Stormont expenses row after a leaked document revealed a so-called "secret system" that allowed MLAs to overturn rejected claims.

The report flagged a number of concerns surrounding the Assembly's expenses procedure, where a number of MLAs were using an unofficial appeal process for refused payments.

It claimed that a number of elected representatives approached senior Assembly staff, who subsequently had the rejected claims overturned.

Yesterday Arlene Foster suggested that Stormont could adopt a model like Westminster's Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) - the author of the leaked report.

Speaking in the Assembly, Mrs Foster said: "There is a necessity now to review what has occurred and to move forward from there, because we need to protect individual Members as well as the integrity of the Assembly."

She said the last time the expenses issue had been prominent, the DUP had proposed adopting a model like IPSA.

She added: "At that time we didn't receive support in relation to that suggestion and perhaps the other parties might like to look at it again now." A war of words has erupted between Stormont's spending watchdog, the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), and Assembly Members over the appeal process.

IFRP board member Alan McQuillan said that the system was "so informal" that it undermined the staff of the Assembly taking the decision on allowances, and gave rise to the risk of irregular payments being made.

The report stated that the "ad hoc approach" was not a "robust mechanism" and could give rise to allegations of impropriety.

However, DUP MLA Sammy Wilson said he was not aware of the process, adding that the Assembly Commission were "totally intransigent" over its decisions.

The report also referred to an unidentified MLA who complained after being asked to justify a high value bill incurred while on holiday. The MLA escalated the issue to senior management of the Assembly.

In a separate incident, it stated that in one or two instances MLAs who had a claim refused approached a senior member of Assembly staff directly and that often these approaches were successful in getting the refusal overturned.

The Assembly Commission is due to meet today to discuss the issues raised in the IPSA report.

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