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Unions angry at extra £10k for MPs working from home while front line staff put lives at risk

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Unison members on strike last year

Unison members on strike last year

Patricia McKeown of Unison

Patricia McKeown of Unison

Alison Millar of Nipsa

Alison Millar of Nipsa

UUP MLA John Stewart

UUP MLA John Stewart

Unison members on strike last year

Unions representing health workers and civil servants have said they understand why their members are outraged at MPs being offered a £10,000 boost in expenses to help them deal with coronavirus.

Both Unison and Nipsa have fought hard for better pay and conditions for the people they represent.

They are dismayed by reports this week that MPs' allowances are to rise. The extra allowance can be used to buy additional equipment such as laptops and printers for staff having to work from home.

Union members took to social media to express anger, with many pointing out that MPs can already claim £26,000 for office expenses on top of their £82,000 salaries.

Meanwhile, sick leave for health workers and civil servants is a mere £95 a week.

The offer of additional allowances was defended by some local MPs, including the DUP's Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who said it was indicative of exceptional circumstances and would allow for the purchase of additional IT equipment.

One post on the Belfast Telegraph website, from Andrea Preston, said: "I work for NHS and had to borrow a laptop to be able to work from home. I had to install all IT myself onto it."

In another comment, Brian Mullan added: "What MP does not have a home office already? They already have a more than generous expense account. This is an insult to every business owner and employed person forced to work from home. Where is their £10,000 assistance?"

And Audrey Stevenson said: "Disgraceful."

Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said she can comprehend why some people are angry. "I understand the disgust of front line workers out there, taking the risks they're taking and having to do things like find extra money for childcare in order to be on the front line putting themselves at risk," she said.

At a time when food bank access has gone through the roof, Universal Credit applications have spiked like never before and front line services are running to stand still, it certainly seems unjustifiable John Stewart

Alison Millar from Nipsa said a £10,000 increase in MP expenses is hard to justify.

"Civil servants and other low paid workers who are having to work from home are not being given any additional remuneration - this has prompted me to formally write and ask for it," she said.

"It's unjustifiable when all other public and private sector workers are not receiving any additional remuneration when they're told to work from home. There should be equality of treatment for all workers."

Meanwhile, UUP economy spokesman John Stewart said he could not see how £10,000 "could possibly be spent".

"To me, that money seems unfair and I don't honestly see how it's required," he said. "At a time when food bank access has gone through the roof, Universal Credit applications have spiked like never before and front line services are running to stand still, it certainly seems unjustifiable."

Sir Jeffrey said the parliamentary authorities have made provision for MPs to avail of additional office costs so that staff may safely continue their work.

"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," he added.

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

A spokeswoman for the SDLP, which has two MPs including party leader Colum Eastwood, said the allowance "is designed to allow MPs and staff to work effectively from home".

Stephen Farry, 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.

A spokesman for Sinn Fein 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 stated. "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."

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

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

Belfast Telegraph