Junkets cost taxpayer £350,000
Overseas junkets for Government ministers cost Northern Ireland taxpayers more than £350,000 in the past year, official figures have revealed.
The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) said it had spent £357,042 on flights, transport and accommodation for seven trips since last April.
They included travel to exotic destinations such as the United Arab Emirates, China and Brazil.
TUV leader Jim Allister has questioned the merit of lavish overseas outings.
He said: "The figures suggest to me a fair bit of extravagance. It accumulates into a lot of money. It is up to OFMDFM to justify them. But I think some of these trips are questionable because they do not seem to give any obvious return. There is also extravagance in taking a photographer - why is that necessary?"
Mr Allister said he was pleased the costs had been made public after months of repeated requests.
The most expensive overseas excursion was the First and Deputy First Ministers' visit to Brazil in March which cost £155,509. Its aim was to develop and promote political, investment, trade, university and tourism links. Ministers and their officials took in the cities of Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro before jetting to Los Angeles and Washington.
The flights bill for Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, two private secretaries, two special advisers, two press officers and a contracted photographer totaled £109,892. A further £6,790 was spent on transport and a number of invoices have still not been received. The hotel bill topped £38,827.
Last year's trade mission to China cost £82,018 including £57,814 for flights plus £ 4,404 for transport and £19,800 on accommodation. On his return, Martin McGuinness was forced to deflect claims in the Assembly that officials had not got "within 1,200 miles" of anyone with influence as the visit had clashed with the Chinese Communist Party Congress, held to announce the new Chinese leadership.
A spokeswoman for OFMDFM said the overseas trips had paid dividends and had brought investment from major international companies such as HBO and Allstate. She said: "Ministers are proud of their efforts. They do try to keep costs to a minimum and the trips usually take in three or four cities."