Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Jet-setting MLAs defend £250k bill for overseas trips

Assembly Members have defended the value of overseas travel after it emerged politicians were flown around the world at huge cost to the taxpayer.

Trips by ministers and top civil servants to destinations including the United States, South Africa and India cost nearly £250,000 in the last two years.

And a further £70,000 was spent sending MLAs who sit on Stormont committees to various conferences and events abroad.

The details were revealed after a Belfast Telegraph investigation into travel expenditure.

In some cases ministers, MLAs and civil servants wined and dined in style at plush five-star hotels.

Matthew Sinclair from the TaxPayers' Alliance said some of the spending was “staggering and impossible to justify”, and called for a review of overseas travel.

However, SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly, who travelled on four trips in two years, including visits to Belgium and France, insisted it was good value for money. “These conferences and visits can be invaluable for MLAs,” she said.

“You are there to learn and hopefully bring something back that adds value to your work as an MLA and makes a difference to the people you represent. It is also about networking and building relationships.”

Ms Kelly was part of a six-member delegation from the employment and learning committee which travelled to Scotland and Wales in May 2010 for an inquiry examining young people not in employment, education or training.

The six officials booked into the five-star Hotel Missoni in Edinburgh.

Alliance MLA Anna Lo, who was also among the tour party, said it was a worthwhile exercise. “We didn’t go there for leisure, it was meeting after meeting.”

Background

The Belfast Telegraph revealed yesterday how Stormont ministers, MLAs and senior civil servants had enjoyed five-star hospitality during costly trips around the world. Former Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey visited the US and Canada six times in 18 months.

During one visit Mr Empey stayed at the prestigious Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, “the city’s only five-star, five-diamond luxury hotel”.

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