Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Stormont needs an expenses watchdog

Robin Newton's family have earned more than £800,000 from the public purse
Robin Newton's family have earned more than £800,000 from the public purse

DUP MLA Robin Newton has not broken any rules by employing his wife and son and by making occasional payments in the past to his daughter for research work.

In the nine years that he has been a Stormont member he and his immediate family have earned more than £800,000 from the public purse.

The real scandal is the lack of tougher rules governing how MLAs employ staff and pay for them out of their office allowances.

Of course his is not an isolated case. Almost one-third of the 108 MLAs employ a family member and five have more than one working for them.

The politicians don't have to advertise those posts nor conduct interviews and there is no limit on the number of family members they can employ.

This practice taints the work of Stormont and it is little wonder that so many people hold the administration in such low regard. There is a perception that MLAs are cashing in as much as they can under the rules.

MLAs may argue that their family members are the best people to employ on often sensitive constituency work and some may have particular skills in research.

But those claims cannot be tested if there is no requirement for competition for jobs nor interviews conducted. At Westminster, members are only allowed to employ one family member, the Scottish Assembly doesn't allow any and Wales Assembly officials must oversee interviews for jobs with elected members.

Here many people will feel that office expenses for MLAs – at more than £70,000 – are too high, but the biggest complaint is that there is not enough transparency on how scarce public money is being spent.

There is an obvious need for a public standards oversight body which can draw up rules on how those paid from the public purse should behave and monitor how they comply with the regulations.

That is a fair and responsible way to proceed and the sooner such a body is established the sooner greater confidence in the political process will be restored.

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