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£300,000 for blank screens

The payouts for broadcasting an Assembly that wasn't sitting

By David Gordon

Taxpayers have been shelling out thousands of pounds per month for television coverage of an empty Northern Ireland Assembly, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.

Stormont's plush debating chamber has been back in action -to some degree - in recent months, as efforts to restore devolution gathered momentum.

But figures now show that one company, Macmillan Media, received a total of £299,927 from Stormont over three financial years when local politicians were members of a legislative assembly (MLAs) in name only.

The broadcasting service contract with Macmillan dated back to 1999, when devolution was first being established.

Payments covered management fees and sums for maintaining TV equipment.

Macmillan Media was also paid £273,575 in 2002/03. Suspension occurred midway through this financial year.

A new broadcasting contract was put in place at the Assembly in August last year - almost three years after the collapse of the devolved institution.

It went to Belfast media company Pi Communications.

Its payments have also been disclosed and, predictably, are lower than the arrangements agreed when devolution appeared to be a reality.

However, the figures still show monthly payments were made when there were no proceedings from the Assembly to broadcast.

Politicians finally returned to the debating chamber in May this year, after an interim devolved body was established by Secretary of State Peter Hain.

In the preceding nine months, while the Assembly remained mothballed, the Stormont broadcasting contract earned Pi Communications a total of £79,982.

The Assembly has previously stressed the rates paid to its broadcasting contractor vary, depending on Stormont's needs. It has also emphasised that costs are "lower during suspension".

There has been repeated criticism because MLAs have continued to pick up pay and expenses since suspension. Last year, salaries and allowances cost the taxpayer almost £9m.

Other controversial costs include a £308,591 subsidy paid in a single year for the Assembly's restaurant and cafe outlets.

The broadcasting contract payments were released to this newspaper by Stormont officials following a freedom of information request.

Belfast Telegraph


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