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External body to consider MLAs' expenses may be set up

By Noel McAdam

An independent investigation into allegations of MLAs' abuse of expenses and allowances could be set up, the Assembly has been told.

And the group responsible for the running of Parliament Buildings - the Assembly Commission - is also considering a new, independent, external body to handle MLAs' expenses claims in the future.

The commission met yesterday to watch the two BBC Spotlight programmes which disclosed MLAs' use of their office cost allowances, rental of constituency offices and payments to a firm for research.

Their meeting came after hardline unionist Jim Allister told MLAs: "If the commission has been doing its job why did it take a TV programme to expose the near industrial scale of abuse going on under the commission's nose?"

The TUV leader tabled an urgent oral question on the issue, and asked for assurances the PSNI officers probing the allegations will not be told: "Move on. Nothing to see here."

But the commission said it may also want to contact the BBC if allegations against individual members prove to be false.

The DUP's William Irwin said he totally refuted claiming £1,725 for a desk, which was pictured on the programme.

Answering on behalf of the commission, Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane said: "The commission itself will look into the issues that were raised... an independent investigation may be the way forward,"

She said the commission's commitment to the "prudent use of public money is steadfast".

But she added: "Action will be taken to deal with any issues."

Quizzed by the DUP's Alistair Ross, Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein and her own party's Trevor Lunn, she said the commission would consider a number of possible models, also including strengthening the teeth of the existing independent panel.

"The commission has already requested a paper with some options and we will review the content of the broadcasts," the East Belfast MLA added.

She said the commission had already taken action including the full publication of Members' expenses going back to 2003/4, putting restrictions on employment of family members and an annual audit.

Ulster Unionist Robin Swann asked: "What reassurances are there that the commission or any single member of the commission will not hamper any investigation including (one by the) police?"

Mrs Cochrane replied: "As members of a corporate body, we are not there to answer for our parties, but in the best interests overall."

Story so far

The PSNI has begun a fraud investigation after BBC's Spotlight alleged a systematic abuse by MLAs of their office cost allowances and other expenses.

The claims include 36 Sinn Fein MLAs paying over £700,000 to a research agency with no visible outcomes and DUP MLAs misusing office cost allowances.

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