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Stormont urged to tell us how £50,000 a week is spent on hospitality

New figures reveal how Stormont politicians spend millions of taxpayers' money on wining and dining

By Noel McAdam

Stormont has come under fire after refusing to reveal details of increased hospitality spending – totalling almost £50,000 a week.

Assembly members are pressing for a detailed breakdown of departmental expenditure after it was revealed the total has soared by an eye-watering 22% over the last two years – when Stormont ministers were preaching austerity.

But as the criticism mounted, a number of departments fought back to argue the money being spent was justifiable.

The SDLP's Patsy McGlone said he would be asking for a detailed breakdown of the expenditure when the Assembly resumes next month.

"From the point of view of the public it does look bad," the Mid Ulster MLA said.

"We certainly need more detail to see how this money has been spent.

"A lavish lifestyle is clearly being led in some departments and we cannot have that.

"If you have a soiree where the costs are £100 a plate, that is extravagant when some people would not have £100 to spend on their shopping for a week."

Mr McGlone, chair of the Assembly's Enterprise, Trade and Industry scrutiny committee, said: "I would have empathy with the attempts of Invest NI to bring more jobs and investment and it is perfectly understandable that you have to take people to dinner to promote jobs.

"But there are some of the other figures which do look odd, like the amount which the Department of Education and their arm's-length bodies are spending. I think we need to see the breakdown of that. If you are sitting in the house wondering whether you can afford to have heat this winter and then you see this money which perhaps was spent needlessly, I think there are questions."

TUV leader Jim Allister, who obtained the spending levels of the departments which totalled almost £2.6m, argued that at a time of spending cuts being imposed by ministers, the hospitality spend showed Stormont priorities are askew.

And he said he now intended to follow up his series of questions with more queries on how the money was spent.

The highest amount was spent at education – £710,000 – followed by the Department of Trade and Industry (DETI) at £534,000 in total and then the Department of Health at £329,000.

While reluctant to provide specific examples of hospitality events, departments yesterday insisted the money is put to good use.

Arlene Foster's Enterprise, Trade and Investment department said it used the money to create jobs, attract investment and boost tourism.

It said in a statement that "interacting with key global decision-makers in order to attract inward investments" means "corporate hospitality forms a very important element of sales strategy".

The Department of Agriculture said its £78,268 included events such as the industry-wide Balmoral breakfast and graduation ceremonies at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise which has campuses in Enniskillen, Greenmount and Loughry.

John O'Dowd's Department of Education – which has 13 arms-length bodies – said its spending included some 4,000 meetings and events in support of examinations, curriculum and assessment.

And the Department of Health, which was also among the top spenders, insisted its total has gone down year-on-year to just half of its 2008/9 levels.

It also pointed out that hospitality costs stretched beyond refreshments to include room and equipment hire.

The Department of Employment and Learning said its expenditure now includes further education colleges as well as Stranmillis University College.

The Department of Justice said its expenditure on hospitality includes gifts and events but takes in not just the core department but "arm's-length bodies".

Mr Allister said the total would be higher, but Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's department had so far failed to provide answers. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister said it would reply to Mr Allister "in due course".

Mr McGlone, who also sits on the Justice Committee, said he also had a number of questions tabled with OFMDFM, including the costs of first-class travel, which have not yet been answered.

Mints

It costs a mint to keep MLAs sweet.

In the last year the Belfast Telegraph revealed sweet-toothed Assembly members chewed their way through £400 worth of mints – a total which appears to be increasing. While free to the elected politicians, the mints sucked just £288 out of the public purse in 2009/10, which then went slightly down but is rising again.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister has been on sweet alert since discovering that overall MLAs have treated themselves to almost £1,000 in mints.

And he 'named and shamed' the DUP's William Humphrey who he branded a "pick and go" politician – a claim which Mr Humphrey emphatically, er, es-chewed.

MLA numbers

Stormont has long promised to prune itself and review the number of MLAs and departments.

But nothing has been agreed and the issue now seems to have gone into abeyance until the far side of the next Assembly election – in 2016.

This despite the fact Northern Ireland also has more MLAs per head of population than the other devolved institutions for Scotland and Wales.

Here we have one MLA per 16,565 of population. In Edinburgh the ratio is one to 50,107 and in Cardiff it is one to 40,481 people.

So, proportionate to our size, we have more than three times as many assembly members as Scotland and nearly two-and-a-half times more than Wales.

Pensions and allowances

The MLAs' pension scheme has been topped up by £1.2m a year.

But their salary boost was mainly paid for by cutting Office Costs Allowances (OCA) for constituency services by £5,000. The review panel estimates that there will be a net saving to the taxpayer of £3.16m in the lifetime of this Assembly.

Allowances are used to pay rents for constituency offices and to employ staff to work in them. They will fall from £75,857 a year to £69,238 per MLA.

Assembly canteen

Over a three-year period, the cost of feeding MLAs in the Assembly went over £1m.

In 2012 the Assembly spent more than £250,000 subsidising its restaurant, cafe and MLAs' dining room – and even then the total of £266,368 was more than £30,000 less than the corresponding figure for 2011, which was £302,498.

On the menu at the time was lasagne, garlic bread and salad (£2.50); Feta, spinach and mushroom roulade (£2.30); baked haddock with herb and garlic crust served with Mediterranean veg (£3.38) and chicken California (£2.76).

"Due to the nature of assembly business and the requirement that services often be provided during unsocial sitting hours and for events, the costs of providing such services exceeds the monies taken in (and)... the extra cost is assumed by the assembly," it was explained.

TUV leader Jim Allister calculated the subsidy amounted to £1,000 per day.

MLAs pay

Stormont politicians have been given an inflation-busting 11% rise in pay, bringing salaries up to £48,000 a year. Only the SDLP members and Ulster Unionist Michael Copeland refused the increase.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister get £120,000, up from £114,535, while other Executive Ministers will see their wages rounded up from £80,902 to £86,000.

The next Speaker of the Assembly – expected to be Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin – will see his wages soar to an eye-watering £92,000. The independent panel which recommended the increases argued that the office of speaker "carries the full dignity of the Assembly".

 

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