belfasttelegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Public would be best served by openness

Investigations Correspondent David Gordon argues that Stormont has to get to grips with expenses issues or the integrity of our fledgling political institutions could be badly damaged

The Assembly's leading lights need to sit down together and sort out all the potential Stormont problems surrounding expenses and salaries.

In the last few weeks, controversy has been steadily building, firstly over MLAs employing family members and latterly on the practice of renting constituency offices from relatives.

This could spiral further in a way that could even damage the integrity of the fledgling political institutions.

Claim and counter-claim could fly about between and even inside the parties - Joe Bloggs MLA is renting his office from Mrs Bloggs etc, etc.

Tit-for-tat allegations to the Standards Committee could also start tumbling in.

The atmosphere could be poisoned and the reputation of all politicians - not exactly that high at the best of times - could be tarnished.

There is another way and that is for the Assembly to seek to take charge of the situation as a matter of urgency.

There seems to be a growing consensus among the parties about the need for greater transparency on financial issues.

It also seems a fair bet that the review of MLA remuneration, currently being conducted by the independent Senior Salaries Review Body, will recommend an end to offices being rented from relatives.

In the interim, Members could be required to declare in the Assembly Register of Interests if their office landlords are members of their families.

They may eventually be forced under Freedom of Information law to divulge this information anyway.

The same Register of Interests rule could apply to those who have spouses, sons, daughters etc on their publicly funded Stormont payrolls.

It should be stressed that transparency is not just about the right of taxpayers to know how their money is being spent. It's also a built-in safeguard against the misuse of the funding.

To take an extreme - and hypothetical - example, an MLA is much less likely to be "employing" a student nephew who's actually on a gap year in Borneo if the information is in the public domain.

Similarly, if a sky-high claim is ever made for a hole-in-the- hedge constituency office in the back of beyond, somebody is quite likely to spot it and tip off the press or make a formal complaint.

MLAs should also recognise that openness is in their own best interests.

The time taken by the DUP to name members with family employees gave the story legs and ensured that the focus stayed on the party. The story ran and ran.

It remains to be seen if the Assembly is currently ready to take prompt action.

Its Standards and Privileges Committee recently discussed a position paper on how to deal with the staffing question.

But members decided to defer discussions until similar deliberations are concluded at Westminster.

Arguably there is a case for that course of action.

But it does leave open the risk of drift.

It also has to be recognised that Northern Ireland is light years behind the UK on standards and governance issues.

It was four years ago that this newspaper revealed that the practice of renting offices from relatives was banned for MPs but not MLAs.

Nothing happened, and the disparity has finally come back to cause embarrassment at the Assembly. MLAs cannot say they weren't warned.

There are other important gaps like the long wait for a binding code of conduct for councillors and the continuing secrecy about donations received by political parties here.

Stormont Executive Ministers do have a code of conduct - but no apparent mechanism to investigate alleged breaches.

Hardly ideal. Sooner or later matters will have to be dealt with. Sooner makes more sense.

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