Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Stormont should lay down the law on MLA expenses

The Assembly must learn from David Laws’ downfall and reform their expenses rules, says David Gordon

The fall of David Laws from the Cabinet brings attention once again to an uncomfortable truth for the Assembly.

For all its many faults, the MP expenses system has been stricter in an important regard than its Stormont equivalent.

Mr Laws was accused of breaching a long-standing rule by renting from his partner at taxpayers’ expense.

There is no such regulation for Assembly expenses — a disparity that has been around a long time.

As far back as 2003, the rulebook for MPs barred them from claiming rental expenses for constituency offices owned by “a partner or family member”.

Also forbidden was renting offices from “a close business associate, or any organisation in which you — or a partner or family member — have an interest”.

These strictures were never extended to Stormont.

Those in charge of the Assembly clearly did not attach great priority to keeping it in line with best practice elsewhere.

A number of MLAs from different parties went on to rent offices from spouses — and later found themselves embroiled in controversy. It should be noted that the disparity with the House of Commons is still in place.

Assembly members are still permitted to set up a landlord-tenant relationship with family members for offices — with the taxpayer footing the bill.

The practice has all but died out among the current crop of MLAs.

But as things currently stand, there is still nothing to stop |any member setting up a relative |in the property business, at public expense.

A long-running review of the MLA expenses rules remains |ongoing.

This may finally bring in a rental restriction similar to Westminster’s — but it may not.

It seems lessons may still have to be learned at Westminster too, given all the whingeing from within the political class about the sudden downfall of David Laws.

To be precise, Mr Laws’ problems stemmed from the rules on renting London accommodation, under the MP second home allowance scheme.

By 2006, these rules had been updated to also forbid claims where properties were owned by partners or relatives. Mr Laws was, by this stage, in a relationship with his landlord. The fact that this landlord was male is not relevant.

In light of the rule change, the Liberal Democrat MP had a choice to make. He could persist with an arrangement that at the very least appeared to breach the spirit of the rulebook.

Or he could change the situation by finding somewhere else to rent. It’s hard to imagine how changing address would have threatened his privacy.

It should be remembered that the Freedom of Information Act was in operation by this stage.

He was therefore risking his own privacy by retaining a potentially controversial financial relationship with his partner.

That is what happened when the story finally broke last week.

The claims of a media “campaign” or “witchhunt” are nonsensical.

A newspaper — the Daily Telegraph — had a story about questionable claims.

They had been made by a politician who was about to front public spending cuts. The Daily Telegraph did not just have a right to publish, but a duty.

The ban on renting from relatives and partners is not a mere technical matter. The principle behind it is well summarised in the MP expenses rulebook itself:

“You must avoid any arrangement which may give rise to an accusation that you are, or someone close to you is, obtaining an immediate benefit or subsidy from public funds or that public money is being diverted for the benefit of a political organisation.”

Read and learn, Stormont.

David Gordon is the Belfast Telegraph’s political editor

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