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Politicians may face Whitehall expenses probe

By David Gordon

The Northern Ireland Assembly is expected to be included in a major independent review of UK politicians' expenses, the Belfast Telegraph has learned.

It was announced this week that the Whitehall sleaze watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, is to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry on MPs' allowances.

Its decision has followed a fresh outbreak of controversy on the parliamentary allowances system, particularly over the funding of second homes in London for MPs.

While the review's remit has not yet been finalised, a source yesterday said it is “likely” to include a look at the devolved bodies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The Committee on Standards has been deliberating on a possible examination of MP expenses for several months.

Its chairman Sir Christopher Kelly said last year that any such inquiry would clearly have implications for Stormont.

Talking to this newspaper during a visit to Belfast in July, he said a review would focus on Westminster in the first instance.

“It would be inevitable in doing that to look at Stormont, and at Cardiff and Edinburgh for that matter as well,” Sir Christopher added.

The committee chairman also stated: “Any principles that we might set out would clearly apply to here as well as to Scotland and Wales.”

It is also possible that the Whitehall watchdog will hold an evidence-gathering hearing in Belfast as part of its inquiry.

Announcing the review earlier this week, Sir Christopher pointed to reforms to the MP allowances system that are due to take effect next month.

He said these changes represent “significant steps towards greater transparency” and the introduction of a “proper system of audit” for the first time.

“But these changes, by themselves, will not satisfy current concerns about the way MPs are supported to do their jobs. Nor will they restore public confidence,” the chairman warned.

“The committee will be talking to interested parties and will publish an issues and questions paper setting out the scope of the inquiry in due course. In our usual way, we will ask for written evidence and hold public hearings.

“We intend to start the inquiry towards the end of year and will report early in the life of the new Parliament.”

One of the most recent expenses rows at Westminster has involved Labour Minister Tony McNulty. It was revealed that he had claimed some £60,000 in allowances for the home in Harrow where his parents live.

Mr McNulty has denied breaking any rules. The controversy has highlighted the fact that MPs representing Greater London areas can claim the £24,000 a-year second home allowance, while living within commuting distance of Westminster.

The Stormont Assembly has also had its share of expenses criticism since the restoration of devolution in 2007.

This has involved such issues as MLAs employing relatives and, in a few cases, renting constituency offices from family members at taxpayers' expense.

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