| 13.5°C Belfast

Coronavirus: NI MPs defend offer of extra £10,000 expenses for working from home

Close

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

Northern Ireland MPs have defended an additional £10,000 allowance to help them work from home during the coronavirus epidemic.

The money, which can be spent on laptops and printers for members and their staff, or to pay for additional electricity, heating and phone bills, is in addition to the existing £26,000 a year that MPs can each claim to cover their office costs.

New guidance published last month by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which polices the MPs' expenses regime, said this is "an uncertain and challenging time".

It added: "Ipsa is committed to supporting MPs and their staff to carry on with their work as far as possible."

The decision to offer all MPs an additional £10,000 allowance has drawn criticism. But local representatives told the Belfast Telegraph the money will only be used if absolutely necessary.

DUP Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the rise to expenses, which applies to all eight party members, was indicative of the exceptional circumstances.

"Parliamentary authorities have made provision for MPs to avail of additional office costs to be incurred so that staff may continue to safely continue their work," he said.

"It allows for the purchase of any additional IT equipment for staff to work from home or for telephone systems to be amended so that important queries from constituents can still be dealt with.

"The support is not given directly to MPs, but enables them to purchase equipment from a central facility.

"The increase is obviously an exceptional measure and it was a decision taken quickly by Ipsa to assist during this exceptional time of crisis."

Close

Colum Eastwood

Colum Eastwood

Colum Eastwood

A spokeswoman for the SDLP, which has two MPs including party leader Colum Eastwood, said the cash will be a welcome boost if needed.

"The allowance is designed to allow MPs and staff to work effectively from home," she said.

"If we need to access it to enable us to provide an effective constituency service we will."

Stephen Farry, who is the Alliance Party's only representative at Westminster, said he did not think he would need to access the additional coronavirus fund.

"This is a decision taken independently from MPs and its purpose is to facilitate remote working," he said.

"I am committed to ensuring Parliament can function and meet virtually during this crisis, with constructive scrutiny and accountability more important than ever. However, I don't anticipate drawing down much, if any, of this money."

Close

Stephen Farry

Stephen Farry

PA

Stephen Farry

A Sinn Féin spokesman said the guidelines on social distancing had created the need for additional IT equipment.

"This proposal is not an increase in MP or staff salary, " he said. "It is an uplift in office cost allowance for ensuring a constituency service can continue to operate remotely in these times of crisis and to meet the needs of constituents.

"Given the increased demand on constituency services at a time of public health emergency, constituency workers should be able to work safely from home or adhere to strict social distancing guidelines - this inevitably creates a need for additional IT equipment.”

According to The Times, the extra funds will be available until March 2021 and come with a relaxation of the rules on evidence of purchases.

In addition to increasing the money available for MPs' office costs, the authority is also suspending the 90-day limit for claiming costs and relaxing the requirements on producing evidence of money spent.

The monthly credit limit on MPs' payment cards has been increased to £10,000 and the single transaction limit has been increased to £5,000.

The authority says it will provide additional funding from the staff absence budget for workers who are unwell or cannot be in work.

Responding to the announcement, Labour MP Andrew Gwynne said: "Casework has exploded (understandably too) so it's right that our offices remain open ­- remotely - at this time."

But he added that it would have been better if Ipsa had done "an equipment loan scheme instead".

And Conservative MP Julie Marson said: "No MP will see an extra penny of this in their bank accounts.

"Ipsa increased the office budget to provide staff who primarily work from the office the ability to work from home, and to produce and distribute Covid-19 information."

Ipsa was established in the wake of the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal. It sets and regulates MPs' salaries, pensions, business costs and expenses.

Belfast Telegraph