Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Relatively speaking, we urgently need reforms

We make no apology for returning to the controversial subject of Stormont allowances, following our revelations that MLAs have been employing family members to help them to do their jobs.

The DUP's Robin Newton, for example, has paid more than £400,000 to his wife and son for their work as constituency employees, and he paid more than £13,000 to his daughter for research and secretarial work.

Mr Newton has not broken any rules, but the major problem is the lack of an allowances watchdog to oversee these matters on behalf of the taxpayer.

Robin Newton is not the only MLA to have acted in this way, and our research has indicated similar practices, in which almost a third of our 108 MLAs employ one family member, and five have more than one relative working for them.

Alistair Graham, who chaired the Westminster Committee on Standards in Public Life, has spoken for many in Northern Ireland by describing the Stormont system as "appalling", and by demanding that our politicians "put their house in order as a matter of urgency".

In practice when an MLA recruits staff there is hardly ever an advertisement for the job, and the successful candidates' main credentials seem to be that they know the boss. In other cases where people are doing research for a MLA, they are given the post even without tendering.

The fact is that in the real world of business, people would not be able to work in this way, but in our Assembly they undoubtedly can do so. In England, Scotland and Wales the rules are much tougher, and the case for parity of treatment in Northern Ireland is so strong that it hardly needs emphasising.

We therefore repeat our call for a considerable tightening of the rules in Northern Ireland, and for the establishment of a new body to ensure that the highest standards are set out and maintained at Stormont. Such a body must be created without delay to rule on what is acceptable and what is not. The case for dragging our heels is weakening by the day.

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