Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Probity on MLA expenses vital

The exposure of MPs' expenses earlier this year outraged the public and led to the first resignation of a Speaker of the House of Commons in more than 300 years. Michael Martin had tried to keep the details of members' claims secret. The scale and scope of the claims were shocking and even risible given the cases of invoices for maintenance of a moat and a duck house.

There are no such revelations among the claims of MLAs at Stormont which have just been made public, but the bill still comes in at an astounding £8m for the 108 members. It is right and proper that public representatives should not be out of pocket for their work, that is why they are entitled to expenses for travel and for running constituency offices on top of their handsome salaries.

The public has no grumble with their politicians being reimbursed for hiring staff to run offices and handle constituency issues - although some eyebrows were raised at the number of family members employed by Northern Ireland's MPs and MLAs. That gave the appearance, in some instances, that constituency offices were akin to a family business.

What particularly irks the public - who, after all, is footing the bill for politicians' salaries and expenses - are the claims for life's little luxuries which some MLAs feel should be paid for by the public purse. Is a 42-inch television really necessary in a constituency office, for example, or a £800 walnut desk? Can public representatives or their workers not pay for their own bottled water?

It has to be remembered that the majority of Northern Ireland's MPs are also members of the Stormont administration. That means they can claim expenses from both Stormont and Westminster, which should more than adequately cover any outlay.

The politicians are somewhat unlucky in the timing of the furore over expenses. It came at a time when the country was plunging into recession and most people were thanking their lucky stars that they had a job of any description, never mind one which paid well and also entitled the holders to claim substantial sums in expenses. To see the expenses system abused - as was revealed in the Westminster scandal - left many people totally disillusioned with their public representatives and politics in general.

While MLAs may well be able to justify every penny they have claimed in expenses, they must see their claims in the above context. The public will not take kindly to what it regards as claims for frivolous items. The Assembly is to make further years' expenses claims available for public scrutiny, at least in general terms, but it should go further.

The Scottish Assembly has a system where every member's expenses claims can be viewed online as they are made. It gives the amount claimed and details of what it was for. That makes the expenses system totally transparent and accountable to those footing the bill. If such a system were introduced at Stormont - or indeed Westminster - it would do much to dampen disquiet about the conduct of public representatives.

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