Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Spotlight may now fall on the politicians who have two jobs

As the storm over MPs’ expenses blows into a second week, David Gordon gives his opinion on the long-term fall-out

You might be wondering when the current storm about MPs’ expenses is going to subside.



The honest answer is that no one knows for certain. This applies to the Northern Ireland political scene as much as Westminster. So far, the leaked material obtained by the Daily Telegraph has produced two controversies linked to locally elected representatives — on the London housing allowances claimed by Sinn Fein MPs while boycotting Parliament; and the expenses details for DUP First Minister Peter Robinson and his MP wife Iris.

Both these stories could run a bit yet.

Sinn Fein has denied claims that the rental expenses for the two London properties provided for its five MPs were above market rates.

It states that the totals cover other costs as well as rent — like parking, utility bills and housekeeping.

But it has yet to issue full figures for how often its five MPs actually use the two addresses.

Their parliamentary airfare expenses suggest it's not very often at all.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew, who is also Northern Ireland's Agriculture Minister, claimed just £352 for return flights to London on Commons business in 2007/08.

The forthcoming official inquiry into MP expenses, by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, will address the issue of parliamentary allowances being paid to Sinn Fein's abstentionist MPs.

Alongside this matter is the question of what they actually do in London when they make their taxpayer-funded trips and stay in their taxpayer-rented properties.

They are obviously not there to engage in parliamentary business.

The answer presumably relates to the party's ongoing campaign for Irish unity.

But given that it is now signed up to the principle of consent, surely work on that goal should be concentrated at home?

The Daily Telegraph revelations about Commons expenses claimed by Peter and Iris Robinson will meanwhile not fade away overnight.

They included a joint total of £30,525 for London food between 2004 and 2008 and £2,172-per month in mortgage interest on their Docklands flat. Such expenses are entirely within the rules for the second home allowance.

However, a sizeable body of opinion believes the public purse should not be assisting MPs to acquire real estate in London — or paying for their meals on top of their salaries, pensions and a £4m-£5m a year subsidy for House of Commons restaurants.

Mr Robinson may have actually added to the controversy with his assertion that the £30,525 food total worked out at an average of £73 each per week.

Critics say that would be on the basis of every week of the year being devoted to parliamentary business — somewhat difficult given their Assembly and constituency responsibilities, plus the fact that the Commons does not sit for about a third of the year.

A long-term problem for the serious-minded First Minister may come if the food expenses become the subject of satire.

A blogger on the website Slugger O'Toole quickly coined the term “Swiss Roll Family Robinson” last week. “The Grub-insons” is another nickname that might be taken up by electoral rivals.

Meanwhile, other parties and politicians across the UK will be waiting to see what comes next from the Daily Telegraph.

A second wave of data will eventually arrive, with the long-awaited official Freedom of Information release of expenses details for every single MP. That's now expected by early July.

By that stage, the Committee on Standards in Public Life inquiry will be underway. Its tasks include devising a workable replacement for the second home allowance. It is also taking a specific interest in the double jobbing by Northern Ireland politicians. That's just one of the knock-on effects for Stormont. Another stems from the now widespread acceptance that transparency must be the cornerstone of any expenses system for politicians.

The Northern Ireland Assembly does not currently publish receipt-level details on items purchased by MLAs under their allowances.

It may well have to change that position.

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