Belfast Telegraph

Austerity? Ministers spend £200k on wining and dining

By Noel McAdam

They may be barely on speaking terms at times, but between them Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness managed to splash out almost £200,000 on hospitality in a single year.

Their own joint department directly accounted for over £160,000 of the total spend for last year.

And their 'arms'-length' bodies – like the Victims' Commission, Community Relations Council and Commissioners for Children and Older People – over which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's officials do not have full accounting control, added nearly a further £32,000.

The overall total for the financial year ending in March this year is £194,113, pushing Stormont's overall spending on hospitality to £2.7m.

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) declined to provide details on how the money was spent.

But Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister is to table further questions in the Assembly to attempt to unearth additional information on departmental spends.

OFMDFM was the last of the 13 Stormont departments to provide figures to the North Antrim MLA who calculates the total Stormont bill for hospitality – despite the recession – to around £50,000 a week.

And while spending cuts have begun to bite – with £78m taken from departmental budgets in the last quarterly spending round, and a further £87m of cuts already agreed 'in principle' – the total 'wine and dine' bill is up by 22% over a two-year period.

Mr Allister said: "I accept that ministers have to be hospitable but it does seem to be a huge sum at a time when departments are having to struggle for every penny. The right comparison is with two years ago, when the total was around £160,000, so this now at almost £200,000 is something of a 25% increase at a time of austerity.

"It is not a colossal sum, I suppose, when it includes the arm's-length bodies and when compared to some other departments, in particular education."

OFM-DFM said its total spend on hospitality "within our accounting boundary" for 2013/14 was £162,595. The arm's-length bodies "outside the accounting boundary of OFMDFM" spent a total amount of £31,518.

The latest revelations come just over a month after Assembly answers obtained by Mr Allister disclosed the total for the departments and their arm's-length bodies in the last year was £2,599,522.

"This is despite all the talk about austerity and departments cutting services," he said. The highest amount was spent by Sinn Fein Education Minister John O'Dowd, whose departments bill came to £710,000.

Next was DUP Minister Arlene Foster's Department of Trade and Industry (DETI) – with a £534,000 total – and its arm's-length bodies which include Invest NI, a previous target of Mr Allister's over its corporate hospitality.

Mr Allister said: "Of course, some hospitality spending is appropriate, but is it necessary on this scale, £50,000 per week?

"I expect not. It is time Executive ministers clamped down hard on such lavish spending of taxpayers' hard-earned cash.

"Ministers can't expect to be taken seriously in talking up a difficult budgetary climate while failing to cap and control the spend on wining and dining," he added.

The North Antrim MLA also revealed that "despite all the talk about austerity and departments cutting services, individual departments spent 22% more than they did two years ago", the last time he conducted the exercise.

The SDLP's Patsy McGlone also said he would be pressing for a detailed breakdown of the expenditure.

"From the point of view of the public it does look bad," the Mid Ulster MLA said. "We certainly need more detail to see how this money has been spent.

"A lavish lifestyle is clearly being led in some departments and we cannot have that."

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