Belfast Telegraph

Agency chief Laird spent £260 on a taxi

...but rail fare to Dublin costs only £59

By David Gordon

Northern Ireland peer Lord Laird was today at the centre of fresh revelations about Ulster-Scots Agency spending as details of hefty taxpayer-funded taxi bills were made public for the first time.

Northern Ireland peer Lord Laird was today at the centre of fresh revelations about Ulster-Scots Agency spending as details of hefty taxpayer-funded taxi bills were made public for the first time.

The veteran UUP politician has denied any responsibility for his travel costs as agency chairman in 2000 and 2001.

The bills included taxi fares of £240 and £260 for Belfast to Dublin return trips and £272.50 for a Co Derry journey.

A total of £2,505 was spent on taxis over 10 months during this period.

Lord Laird today said he had not been responsible for the agency's accounts.

The present-day price of a standard first class return rail ticket from Belfast to Dublin starts at £59.

The agency's taxi bill figures date back to its fledgling years and predate the introduction of tighter controls following a 2001 internal audit report.

Lord Laird was chairman of the Ulster-Scots Agency up to April 2004. The costs of his official taxi journeys have been released following a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph.

Agency records include details of a £240 bill incurred on May 10, 2001, when Lord Laird travelled from Belfast to Dublin for a meeting.

A Belfast taxi firm drove him to Dublin and waited in the city to take him home again.

The same company also took Lord Laird to Dublin in February 2001 on official business and brought him home the next day, at a total cost of £260.

This £260 fare formed part of a £692.50 outlay on taxi trips for the chairman in the space of 10 days, including a £272.50 bill for a return journey to Campsie, Derry and Raphoe.

Lord Laird today said responsibility for agency expenditure in this period rested with its then acting chief executive and accounting officer John Hegarty and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).

He stated: "I had no ability to approve these things or not. I was not the accounting officer. I just said to somebody how do I get down to Dublin and a taxi was organised for me.

"I know nothing about the figures, they are nothing to do with me. If there's any issue, it should be taken up with DCAL. We got no guidance from DCAL."

Lord Laird also stated that he was the "whistleblower" who triggered the 2001 audit by complaining in writing to DCAL.

The peer defended some of his taxi use on personal security grounds, linked to his practice of wearing a kilt for functions.

"Am I going to turn up somewhere, get out of a car and walk half a mile to a function wearing a kilt? That would be drawing attention to me," he said.

Lord Laird resigned as Ulster-Scots Agency chairman last year, claiming its funding was being squeezed.

The organisation's past chief executive John Hegarty could not be contacted for comment.

A DCAL spokesman today said the acting chief was issued with a memorandum in 1999 outlining accountability requirements.

"Travel and hospitality costs incurred by the agency since its establishment in 1999 were the subject of an audit commissioned by DCAL in April 2001.

"This resulted in a significant tightening up of financial controls within the agency," he stated.

The Ulster-Scots Agency today blamed "inadequate staffing" for the lack of a travel policy in its early years.

"These expenses would not be incurred today as the agency recommends the use of public transport and/or private/official cars, along with the use of taxis on appropriate occasions only, for business travel," a spokeswoman said.

Trips at centre of storm

August 17, 2000: Pick up from Dublin Airport, following collection of mail from Lord Laird's Belfast home - £120.

February 16/17, 2001: Trip to Dublin for discussions with Ireland Fund and return journey the following day - £260.

February 25, 2001: Return trip from Belfast to Campsie, Derry and Raphoe - £272.50.

May 4, 2001: Belfast to Newry for Highland Fling ball event and return - £125.

May 10, 2001: Return trip to Dublin for meeting with Ulster-Scots Agency's southern board members - £240.


From Belfast Telegraph