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Crackdown on politicians claiming inflated travel expenses

By Noel McAdam

A number of Assembly members have been claiming double and even triple the travel expenses of other MLAs from the same constituency, a report by the Independent Financial Review panel has revealed.

While most MLAs live in the constituencies they represent, some do not and are entitled to claim to travel many miles at public expense to get to their constituency every day.

"This is not the norm in the public or private sectors," the report said. "(We) do not believe that reimbursement for home-to-office mileage represents value for public money."

The panel said it had noted "some wide inconsistencies" between travel claims from MLAs representing the same area.

"In some instances, some members claim twice or even three times as much as other members for the same constituency," it added.

There is now to be a fixed travel allowance based on the distance from MLAs' constituency to Stormont, with attendance for meetings being recorded.

The current largely discretionary expenses is to be replaced by a new highly regulated system as a result of a major shake-up announced yesterday.

The panel has scrapped the MLAs expenses entitlement to £67,161 and has also binned their entitlement to mileage and subsistence.

Overall, the three-strong team calculates that what it called "radical changes" will save the public purse between £1.5m and £2m over the four years of the Assembly to be elected in May.

Panel member Alan McQuillan told the Belfast Telegraph: "Somewhere between 80 to 85% of our MLAs do their very best to follow the rules and provide value for money and do the right thing, but the remainder of 15 to 20% is far too high and many of them make foolish decisions."

MLAs will also no longer be allowed to call their offices advice centres and will have to include the Assembly logo on their signage. To combat claims of nepotism, all future vacancies for MLA support staff have to be filled on the principle of merit, requiring open competition.

Referencing the Fresh Start deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein, which saved Stormont from collapse last November, panel member Pat McCartan said: "It's not so much a fresh start as an entirely new beginning.

"We believe it will help build public confidence in our politicians and our political system going into the future.

"It is a professional, fair and equitable system."

New limits on rents and staff salaries are also being introduced, with a cap of £8,500 rent per annum per office, which will shrink to £6,000 where the premises are shared with another MLA, or £4,000 if it is shared with an MP.

It is understood four of the main Stormont parties - DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists and Alliance - have offices which have been shared by MLAs, MPs and councillors.

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