Belfast Telegraph

First Minister Arlene Foster calls for new system to monitor Stormont expenses

'Voters should feel we are fighting for them'

By Rebecca Black

DUP Leader Arlene Foster has called for a new expenses system.

Ms Foster said an independent watch dog monitoring MLA expenses at Stormont will help voters to have confidence in Northern Ireland's politicians.

It comes following a week of headlines over MLAs expense claims.

She was speaking on Friday evening during a speech to DUP party members and supporters in Cookstown, Co Tyrone.

"If people are going to vote for us they need to have confidence in us," she said. 

"They need to be confident that we’re one of them, fighting for them and not for ourselves."

It emerged earlier this week that MLAs claimed for work carried out by external research companies until 2014.

The Independent Financial Review Panel (IRFP) maintains that none of these payments should have been made after April 1 2012.

The current assembly members' handbook still allows an MLA to claim for third party research.

The IFRP said in a statement on Thursday it did not believe it made a mistake in a ruling banning such payments in 2012.

However, the Assembly Commission said that it had applied the ruling correctly.

Assembly elections will take place in May.

Ms Foster said she wants a new system to be in place from day one of the new mandate.

She revealed on Friday evening that she will be sending a letter to every DUP Assembly candidate, the leaders of all the political parties represented in the Assembly and Stormont's Chief Executive stating her intention.

"From day one of the next mandate I want a new system to deal with all financial matters for Assembly members," she said.

"The DUP has consistently argued that politicians should have absolutely no role in either deciding the level of their pay or expenses or in administering the system by which those expenses are paid.

"The completely independent system at Westminster may not be perfect, but it has instilled public confidence that failures of the past will not be repeated.

"Currently at Stormont there is an independent regulator which determines the level of MLAs’ pay and Office Cost Allowances. However, claims are submitted to and processed by staff within the Assembly.

"Of course it isn’t MLAs deliberating on the staffing, stationery and travel costs of their colleagues, but the fact that decisions are even made within 'the Assembly' creates confusion and dents public confidence."

Ms Foster said she wants a completely independent system, similar to the one in place at Westminster where expenses are taken out of the hands of MLAs and Assembly staff.

"The DUP proposed exactly this kind of system eighteen months ago. Sadly, other parties did not agree with us at that time," she said.

"The public want the Assembly to deliver on the issues that matter to their lives. It should be our health service, jobs and education which dominate the headlines. I want to see expenses dealt with entirely independently so we can get on with dealing with those issues that really matter to people’s lives here.

"If other parties will not join me in reforming the system, I will take steps on the floor of the House to have this put in place.  I accept IPSA is more expensive and bureaucratic but it is essential that people can have confidence."

The DUP leader said she came into politics because she wanted to make Northern Ireland a better place.

"At the minute no one can hear about my vision for Northern Ireland because the administration of expenses is the main issue," she said.

"As leader of this party I am not going to let an issue like this destabilise our strategy. How we deal with this will reflect on how we deal with other matters of government."

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