Almost £90,000 has been set aside for Assembly Members’ ‘fact-finding’ trips in the next year, it has been revealed.
As a storm raged over plans by one Stormont committee to visit California — revealed in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday — it was confirmed that all other committees could also be taking similar trips.
For if the departmental scrutiny groups do not spend their travel and subsistence allocations from the Assembly Commission — which oversees the day-to-day running of Parliament Buildings — they lose the money.
It was confirmed the budget for trips this year is £85,270, which amounts to just 0.2% of the Commission’s total budget of £41.6m, and a spokeswoman also said there are no allocations for specific committees.
Commission member Barry McElduff, however, said he could see no rationale for the employment and learning committee’s potential visit to the United States — on which a final decision has still to be taken.
And he was supported by his Sinn Fein colleague, former Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew, who is a member of the committee, leaving chairman Basil McCrea increasingly isolated.
Hardline unionist Jim Allister. leader of the TUV, has already said he has no plans to take part, and Ms Gildernew also said she would not be participating in a “trip to the sun”.
Mr McElduff said he would “not support a waste of public money” and added that “to say that the 11 members of the committee would be invited is ridiculous”.
Mr McCrea, who recently hit the headlines in a row over an “inappropriate” use of Stormont for a beauty contest, defended the committee’s discussions on the all-expenses visit to examine how research work in universities and other institutions could help create jobs here.
“There is a definite issue here. We are falling back in terms of research and we need to up our game,” the senior UUP man said.
An Assembly statement added: “The employment and learning committee is investigating a possible study visit to the United States but at this time no definite agenda or site has been agreed.
“It is not uncommon for committees to explore the good practice that is employed in other regions to better inform their work programme and their advice to the department.
“The committee is particularly interested in the way that other regions have formed partnerships between government, business, and higher and further education to develop innovative economic solutions, particularly in previously deprived areas.
“It would be anticipated that any visit would help the committee to contribute to policy development in the field of new technologies and training to aid this region’s regeneration.”