Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

MLA expenses: Further questions now need answered

There are no duck islands here, or claims for moat cleaning work.

The newly-published MLA expenses are nowhere near as explosive as those that proved so damaging for MPs earlier this year.

They were never going to be.

The Assembly does not have a second home allowance — the source of the vast majority of those controversial MP expenses.

And a large chunk of MLA office expenses goes on routine costs like staff salaries, rent and utility bills.

But that does not mean there are no questions to be raised about Stormont's £8 million-a-year allowances system.

There are in truth lots of them.

For a start, that £8m annual total — plus another £5m on wages — is hardly likely to impress all those people currently struggling with the effects of the recession.

It highlights once again the costs involved with Northern Ireland's multi-layered system of public administration.

Does a region with a population lower than greater Manchester really need 108 MLAs?

That's a debate that is struggling to happen.

The issue of double-jobbing, meanwhile, is never far below the surface of any expenses controversy here.

Sixteen of the province's 18 MPs also sit in the Assembly, and have full access to two sets of office-running expenses. That's a maximum of around £180,000 available to each of them annually.

Few would seriously suggest that politicians should have to fund constituency office services from their own pocket.

However, do the large sums now available not hand an in-built advantage to sitting members and the parties that dominate Stormont and political life here?

A significant number of MLAs channel a portion of their allowances back into central party operations, like Press offices and research wings.

The Assembly, meanwhile, has some important expenses hurdles ahead of it in the next few months.

The material released today gives no indication on the current number of MLAs who have relatives on their taxpayer-funded staff teams.

But that information should start being officially declared from next month, due to changes in Stormont register of interest rules.

Meanwhile, the whole office expenses rulebook is currently being reviewed at the Assembly.

It will take into account developments elsewhere, including the forthcoming official report on MP expenses by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The Assembly review is expected to tackle such questions as whether office rental payments should be independently verified to ensure they match market rates, and whether MLAs should continue to be able to rent premises from relatives.

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