Belfast Telegraph

Stormont expenses: Time to tighten rules as Ministers and MPs called in to question

By Colum Eastwood

As an MLA I am very clear on the rules and regulations about how I spend public money.​

It is important in these times of austerity and hardship that I am able to look my constituents in the eye and know that I have not bent the rules or hidden the truth.

The guidelines on the use of public money, in my view, are clear and easy to follow. Northern Ireland Assembly staff are always helpful if any clarification is required.

So I was as surprised as everyone else at the content of the BBC Spotlight programme which claimed that some Sinn Fein MLAs (including the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness) are paying rent from public money to so-called cultural societies.

These societies do not have to pay rates.

It is also unclear who benefits from the rent as the names and identities of the landlords are not known.

There is nothing to prevent a political party from owning an office and an MLA renting that office - but this must be declared. For Sinn Fein to repeatedly say 'It's a matter for the landlord', is not excusable or acceptable.

Sinn Fein say they are fully compliant with the regulations but it is difficult to see how this is the case when we don't know where the money is actually going.

The DUP similarly have questions to answer.

MP Ian Paisley and Executive minister Arlene Foster were also called into question over their constituency offices in Ballymena and Fermanagh. The DUP has said no rules were broken.

This is the same DUP and Sinn Fein who are representing the public.

It is clear now that new Northern Ireland Assembly rules requiring transparency over ownership of buildings rented by MLAs must be implemented without delay.

There should also be a detailed investigation into the so-called cultural societies.

As politicians who hold other public bodies to account, the threshold for our accountability should be and is higher. MLAs are given every assistance to ensure that this happens.

The time for Sinn Fein/DUP excuses is over. The public deserve better.

Colum Eastwood is an SDLP MLA for Foyle

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