Belfast Telegraph

Stormont expenses claims probed

Detectives are examining allegations of misuse of expenses by Stormont Assembly members.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said officers from its serious crime branch were assessing the claims of "potential criminality".

The series of allegations against a number of Assembly members were outlined in two recent documentaries by BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight, the second aired last night.

The programmes shone particular focus on how representatives of the Assembly's two largest parties - the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein - claimed money over the last decade.

They included an allegation that Sinn Fein MLAs drew down nearly £700,000 in expenses for research apparently conducted by a company run by the party's finance managers.

The reports also raised questions about the use of public money at a number of DUP and Sinn Fein constituency offices.

Both parties have defended their actions and criticised the BBC coverage.

The SDLP and Ulster Unionists have also moved to counter claims made against some of their representatives.

A spokesman for the PSNI said all the allegations were now being assessed by officers.

"Detectives from serious crime branch are currently scoping allegations of potential criminality made in recent media reports," he said.

Earlier, Alliance Party leader David Ford called for police to step in.

"It is absolutely clear from what we saw on the Spotlight programme that there is a significant suspicion that a number of MLAs abused the expenses system," he said.

"The Assembly needs to bring in external forensic auditors for all current and previous expenses claims and allow the police to investigate the allegations made in the Spotlight programme. We are talking about potential fraud in the region of tens of thousands of pounds."

Mr Ford, who is also Stormont's justice minister, added: "It is vital that there is openness and transparency in politics and that the public can be confident that expenses are being used appropriately."

DUP chairman of the Assembly Standards & Privileges Committee Alastair Ross said he will ask the Assembly Commission which runs the legislature to consider making proposals for greater independence in the system for salaries and office costs.

The East Antrim assembly member said: "Elected representatives should not have a role in setting either the rules or the level of their pay and allowances.

"Separation and independence is required to ensure there is full confidence that public money is being spent appropriately and for the purposes intended."

He added: "I am asking the Assembly Commission to ensure that the system is fully and properly reformed. Expenditure should not only be scrutinised by an independent body, but the rules governing that spending must also be set independently."

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