Stormont MLA Robin Newton's family earn £800,000 of public cash - Stormont urged to tighten rules
Calls are growing for a major overhaul of Stormont's expenses system after it emerged that a high-profile MLA was paying thousands of pounds of taxpayers' cash to his wife, son and daughter.
DUP member Robin Newton employs his wife Carole as office manager and his son Adam as researcher.
They are currently paid a total of £60,831 a year.
But the Belfast Telegraph has also discovered that the MLA for East Belfast paid his daughter Emma Ruth Newton – in either her own name or described as ERN Research Services – up to £13,780 for research and secretarial work for a year-and-a-half up until 2009.
In that year the Assembly rules were tightened to require all MLA family members receiving payments to be declared – and monies to his daughter and the company stopped. There is no suggestion that Mr Newton did anything improper.
Mr Newton admitted to the Belfast Telegraph that the payments were stopped partly because of the new rules.
"I think there probably was a bit of that, yes," he said.
When the newspaper asked him specifically if his constituents in East Belfast may have found it unpalatable for an MLA to be paying three members of his family, Mr Newton replied: "I think there was a number of issues and that was highlighted to me."
The Policing Board member insisted he had never employed his daughter. She had instead done "bits of work".
He pointed out that his daughter, who is now a detective, did economics at York University before joining the police in North Yorkshire.
"So there was her and two other girls at once doing work for me, research into different things," he added.
The MLA insisted all the payments were declared to the Assembly.
The revelation of the big sums paid to family members has sparked fresh calls for the introduction of a standards committee similar to that introduced in the UK Parliament after its expenses scandal.
At Westminster, MPs are only allowed to employ one member of their family in their offices, but in Northern Ireland many MLAs employ more than one.
There are no limits in Northern Ireland, and MLAs are not required to advertise or interview for staff.
Mr Newton is one of five MLAs who employ more than one family member.
Alistair Graham, who chaired the Westminster Committee on Standards in Public Life, said it was "appalling" behaviour and that Northern Ireland's politicians needed to "put their house in order as a matter of urgency".
"Whether it is Westminster or Northern Ireland Assembly representatives, I just think it is totally inappropriate to be using public money to be recruiting family members where the public will interpret it as a roundabout way of boosting the income of a family as a whole," he said. "I also believe that nobody should be recruited for employment by public representatives without going through a competitive process where anybody can apply."
In recent weeks the SDLP's Conal McDevitt, TUV's Jim Allister and the Alliance Party's Trevor Lunn have all defended paying public money to close relatives.
Mr Graham said: "It is totally shocking. Let's hope they put their house in order as a matter of urgency to ensure that this cannot happen, because it just totally undermines the purity of the system."
The Belfast Telegraph emailed a list of questions to Mr Newton last night asking for clarification on a number of matters, including whether ERN Research Services had any other clients, whether the other two workers were paid through ERN and whether Emma was still studying at the time of the work. At the time of going to press we were still awaiting a response.
The DUP's Robin Newton was first elected to Belfast City Council in 1985. He has been re-elected to the Victoria ward every election since and in 1999 was elected High Sheriff of Belfast.
It was in 2003 that he won his Assembly seat, representing East Belfast at Stormont. Before entering politics he was the chief executive of a management company. In 2009 Newton replaced Jeffrey Donaldson as junior minister in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, where he served until May 2011. He has also held the post of chair of the Audit Committee, and is DUP spokesman on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
The Robin Newton story, Storified, by reporter Claire Cromie: