Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Expenses: a need for transparency

The complex question of expenses for politicians at Westminster and Stormont continues to make headlines. The situation at Westminster was nothing short of a farce, but this week’s vote in the Commons has shown that politicians of all parties are at last facing the necessity of putting their house in order.

The outcome of the long overdue self-analysis on MPs’ expenses will be judged on how effective it will be in probing abuses of a previous system which was drawn up by the MPs themselves. The public has been distinctly unimpressed by how some individuals have behaved, and the onus is on politicians from all parties to operate a system that is reasonable and transparent.

The spotlight on politicians’ expenses is also focused on Stormont following the recent publication of the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee. This cross-party group has called for an urgent review of the rules governing the significant amount paid annually to MLAs to run their offices.

The committee believes that a review is needed “in the interests of public accountability and securing public confidence”, and also to safeguard the integrity of the Assembly. This conclusion was reached after concern was expressed by the Stormont Interim Standards Commissioner, Tom Frawley, who drew attention to the ambiguity of the current rules.

Assembly members can decide themselves on how they want to spend their individual £72,000 annual Office Cost Allowance between rent, staffing, equipment and other costs. There is no bar on MLAs renting properties from family members, or on using taxpayers’ money to rent property and thereby create assets for their party.

The Standards Committee concluded that no rules had been broken concerning the £57,200 a year being claimed in rental expenses for a DUP advice centre in Ballymena (which was claimed by the former First Minister Dr Ian Paisley and his son Ian Jnr).

The committee noted that the rent was “significantly in excess” of a normal figure, but also took into consideration the advice of the Government’s Valuation Commissioner that the figure was “understandable in commercial terms”.

The committee concluded that no rules had been broken, but the fact remains that the rules were drawn up by the Assembly members themselves. The very fact that the committee has called for an urgent review is an indication that these rules need to be revisited and that the entire expenses allowance map may need to be redrawn.

These issues which have been addressed by Mr Frawley and the Standards Committee echo the concerns raised by this newspaper in its ‘Open Stormont’ campaign of a year ago. This is a matter that affects all parties, and the public has a right to be informed about what is happening.

The question of politicians claiming expenses is not an issue as such. Expenses are necessary to do their job, but it is in their own interests to draw up rules which they and their constituents regard as appropriate. Transparency and fairness are the key factors which will point the best way ahead for the politicians and the taxpayers in this complex area where trust is paramount.

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