Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: The £1m bill for empty Stormont

Lights are on but nobody's home

By Claire Williamson

More than £1m has been spent on utility bills at Parliament Buildings in the last nine months - despite the absence of a functioning Assembly.

It's a case of the lights are still on but nobody's home as electricity, heating, insurance, rates and telephone costs generated a £1,033,996 bill.

Today's revelations are the latest in a series of disclosures about the cost of running an essentially empty and non-functioning Stormont.

And it comes while important decisions about hospital waiting lists and budgets are not being made as Northern Ireland reaches its 291st day with no administration.

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said he was conscious of the public's view of the "waste" of taxpayers' money.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: "I am extremely aware of what people think of MLAs, think of me, think about the money that is being wasted by employing us to do a job that we are not doing.

"It shames me and I'm not happy with that. I want to work, I'm working as hard as I can, but I'm not doing the job I'm supposed to be doing.

"And I can understand the frustration at that, and my frustration is as deep as theirs."

Defending the cost, an Assembly official said there was a requirement to meet the ongoing utility expenses for Parliament Buildings as it remains operational for MLAs, staff, the public and the media.

Stormont collapsed in January following the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.

Mr McGuinness stepped down in protest at the DUP's handling of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Since then a series of talks and negotiations have taken place and a range of deadlines have been missed with no deal in place.

The main stumbling block centres on calls for an Irish Language Act.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said her party would not return to power-sharing without an agreed Irish Language Act.

However, DUP leader Arlene Foster rejected the proposal, instead suggesting a "cross-community" Bill with provisions for Irish and Ulster-Scots. But Sinn Fein insists it will only agree to stand-alone Irish language legislation.

The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that while negotiations progress, the cost of running Stormont's Parliament Buildings has rumbled on, reaching more than £1m - with only 46 minutes spent in the Chamber by MLAs.

Details of the £1,033,996 bill emerged after a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper. It shows that from January to September this year:

  • The total cost of electricity paid was £96,635,52.
  • The cost of heat was £50,860.76.
  • Insurance added a further £43,163.42 to the bill.
  • Rates totalled £798,341.31.
  • Telephone costs were £42,995.10.

It follows controversy over the fact that MLAs are still being paid despite there being no Assembly. Around £37,000 a day has been used to pay MLAs and their staff and to cover expenses.

Last week former Sinn Fein MLA Caitriona Ruane resigned as principal deputy speaker after it emerged she had retained the £55,000 a year job - even though she hadn't stood for re-election to the Assembly in March.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that he would keep the issue of pay under examination and if there was no agreement reached, he would deal with the matter.

That was as he set another deadline for the talks process. He has said the absolute latest date that a deal could be met for establishing an Executive, in order for a budget to be set, is the week commencing November 6.

Mr Beattie, an MLA for Upper Bann, said he tried to be in Parliament Buildings every Monday and Tuesday.

He added: "But the reality is, money is being wasted, it's public money being wasted and it's being wasted because we don't have an Assembly up and running.

"I'm extremely aware of it and it can't carry on."

He added: "You have to bear in mind, when we say about keeping that building open and keeping it running, that it takes people to do that. That's people whose jobs rely on that building operating.

"They are in a position now where they don't know whether they are coming or going or whether their job is safe from one minute to the next.

"Close that building and we will remove the livelihood of hundreds of people, so I'm cautious about that - whether it can be utilised for a different reason, I don't know."

The Assembly official said: "The Assembly has a requirement to meet the ongoing utility costs for Parliament Buildings as it remains operational for MLAs, their staff, Assembly staff, visitors and the media.

"In addition, a wide range of services continue to be available to visitors, including public tours, public dining, the Assembly education service and events."

Belfast Telegraph

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