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Westminster watchdog is called in over expenses row

By Noel McAdam

Published 18/02/2016

Furore: Pat McCartan
Furore: Pat McCartan

Assembly bosses have moved to tackle growing public disquiet over MLAs' expenses claims.

The Assembly Commission (AC) has asked Westminster's expenses watchdog to review its own report into Stormont's system.

The AC hopes that bringing in the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) will provide reassurance.

IPSA has agreed to update and review its own findings, although it is unclear when it will begin.

It has also been asked to "quality assure" a handbook for MLAs in the aftermath of allegations they were appealing expenses claims which had been formally rejected.

IPSA's report last September said it had not identified "any major issues of concern", but there were several smaller worries, including the lack of a formal process for an MLA challenging a rejected expenses claim.

A war of words between the AC and the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) it established to oversee expenses has escalated over recent days.

The AC concluded last week that Sinn Fein MLAs who claimed £700,000 over 10 years for research by a firm linked to the party were not guilty of wrongdoing.

But within 48 hours, IFRP chair Pat McCartan claimed £150,000 had been handed out after a ruling that payments should stop.

DUP member of the AC Peter Weir told the Assembly the allegations were "erroneous and mischievous".

But the spat then intensified, with claims MLAs had a secret pathway of approaching Assembly officials directly when expenses claims were turned down.

BBC NI's Nolan Show heard an allegation that one MLA who complained after being asked to justify a claim while on holiday had "escalated the issue to senior management" in the Assembly.

Earlier in the week, AC chair Mitchel McLaughlin said he was "extremely disappointed" over the publicity generated "apparently at the behest" of two senior members of the IFRP.

First Minister Arlene Foster then entered the fray, suggesting the Assembly adopt a similar model to Westminster. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said there would be no objection to taking "a fresh look" at the model.

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