Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Revealed: £8m bill for MLA expenses

What have a £1,300 television, bin bags, document shredders, bottled water, pot plants, cameras, vacuum cleaners, kettles and toasters got in common?

They are all items MLAs have claimed for under their office expenses system.

And taxpayers footed the bill in every case.

Details of the claims are today being published in full for the first time by the Assembly.

MLAs can each claim up to £72,660 a year to cover the running costs of their constituency offices.

The total was raised from £48,000 to £70,000 by Secretary of State Peter Hain on the restoration of devolution in 2007. It climbed by a further £2,660 the following year.

Office costs make up the bulk of the annual allowances outlay for MLAs, now running at some £8 million overall each year. Travel claims provide the other source of expenses expenditure.

The total cost of MLAs is now in the region of £13m a year, when a £5m pay bill is taken into account.

The standard salary for MLAs is £43,101 each, but extra payments go to Ministers and office holders such as committee chairs.

Today's office expenses disclosure by the Assembly covers the period April 2008 to July this year.

Similar details will be published before Christmas for 2003 to 2008.

However, a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by the Belfast Telegraph has yielded a sample breakdown for this earlier period.

A large proportion of the constituency office expenses go on staffing, rent, rates and utility bills.

But they can also cover a wide range of other areas including: adverts in newspapers and other publications, televisions for offices, TV licences, weed killer, drain clearage, skip hire, furniture, room hire, digital cameras, painting and decorating, maintenance costs, photography, leaflets, signs, website costs, newspapers, water coolers, vacuum cleaners, stationery, kettles, and legal and accountancy advice.

The material made public by Stormont today covers several hundred pages of receipt-level detail. It can be viewed from this morning on the Northern Ireland Assembly website.

Mileage expenses claims have also been released but only in the form of month-by-month totals. Further information on individual journeys may be released at a later stage.

All the newly issued claims were approved at the Assembly and there is no suggestion that any rules have been breached.

Among expenses listed in today's Assembly disclosure and the details separately obtained by this newspaper through FOI are:

£1,340 paid in October 2006 for a 42-inch Phillips TV for the constituency office of future DUP First Minister Peter Robinson.

A DUP spokesman said: “As was the case when the Westminster expenses were published, Mr Robinson is one of the lowest claimants. The television is situated in Mr Robinson’s general office and the various news channels can be viewed by those visiting the office.”

The lowest priced claims included £2 for bin bags for DUP MLA Trevor Clarke's office in the summer and a £8.94 toaster for Sinn Fein Minister Gerry Kelly's constituency base last year.

Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs claimed £42 for a Sky Plus box in February while the SDLP's Dolores Kelly received a number of payments last year for Sky subscription. The MLA last night said she had only paid for a basic package to obtain a news channel service.

Independent Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Gerry McHugh claimed £100 earlier this year for a map of Fermanagh. He also spent more than £200 in 2008 on drinking water. A number of other MLAs also claimed for drinking water.

Past office cost claims by Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness included £25.73 for water in March 2007. A party spokesman said a public representative's office needed “a fresh water dispenser”.

Ulster Unionist David McNarry claimed £114 last year for office plants. He said last night they were artificial flowers to enhance his office after flooding. He said he had re-furnished his office at this stage at his own expense.

“The flowers spruced up the place, making it nicer for constituents. Everyone remarks on how nice they look,” he added.

Mr McNarry also claimed £30 for pot plants in February 2004.

Expenses payments listed for the DUP’s Rev William McCrea included £861 for a “walnut desk” in May 2009.

A range of payments were made by a number of MLAs to their parties. These covered such areas as secretarial and research work, press office assistance and media training.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was among the MLAs who claimed rental expenses for offices owned by their parties.

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