Belfast Telegraph

Double-jobbing MLAs to share in £75k handout for quitting councils

BY NOEL MCADAM

Four Assembly Members who double up as councillors are to share in an almost £75,000 golden handshake, it has been revealed.

However, Mark H Durkan, Minister of the Department of the Environment (DoE), which is responsible for the severance scheme, has refused to reveal the identities of the elected representatives.

Even though his department also finances the payments, a statement said it was up to individual local councils to disclose the names of the recipients.

However, the councils involved were not named.

The decision has brought the SDLP minister under questioning from one of his own back-benchers.

John Dallat, who tabled an Assembly question on the issue, said: "I do think it is rather strange that it is being made difficult to extract the information on who these MLAs are.

"After all, this is public money involved in this and the information should be in the public domain."

Mr Durkan's department insisted: "As severance payments are made by councils, not DoE, it is for councils to decide whether or not to disclose this.

"Information on all payments made to individual councillors is held by the relevant councils. Disclosure of this information by councils would be subject to the Data Protection Act and other considerations."

His Assembly answer also added: "... as at January 29, 2014, the total reimbursement payments made by my department to councils amount to £148,000.

"Of that sum, £74,800 was reimbursed in relation to councillors who also served as MLAs."

The number of MLAs who are also councillors has sharply dropped in recent years as all the main parties tackled 'double-jobbing' and attempted to deal with the ageing profile of politicians.

An estimated 267 councillors – about 46% of the current total, which will shrink in accordance with the new 'super councils' – have served for at least 12 years and would therefore be eligible. Mr Durkan's predecessor Alex Attwood calculated at one point that if all 267 were to apply it would cost £4.3m.

Mr Attwood said at the time: "I think that there is an argument to be made and won that people who fulfilled their democratic responsibilities, stretching back to the 1970s and 1980s, need to be recognised when leaving the democratic council stage."

Meanwhile, the annual gathering of the council's umbrella body, the NI Local Government Association (NILGA), will today demand that the entire system of Government in NI should be overhauled – not just town halls.

NILGA president Arnold Hatch is to argue that local government will not be reduced to "an homogeneous, one size fits all administration, servicing the needs of Government, as willing, junior, silent partners for regional government".

BACKGROUND

A severance scheme for councillors ahead of the current 26 local authorities merging into 11 was launched last August. With funding secured by former minister Alex Attwood from the Executive, applications had to be made directly to councils – which would then be reimbursed from central Department of the Environment coffers. To be eligible, however, a councillor must have served a minimum of 12 years.

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