Three years ago, auditors expressed concern about the potential for abuse of a Stormont funding stream which on Saturday the News Letter revealed is being used to pay party spin doctors.
Under a previously hidden arrangement, five political parties are paying the salaries of their press officers directly from the Financial Assistance for Political Parties (FAPP) Scheme, which contributes about £800,000 of the £18 million a year which goes to either MLAs or political parties via Stormont.
Ten press officers, some of whom appear to be on significant salaries but whose exact salaries the Assembly has refused to disclose, are working for the DUP, SDLP, UUP, Alliance and the Green Party. Just one party – the Greens – voluntarily released full details of the salary of the press officer funded under the arrangement.
The scheme is meant to be used solely “for the purpose of assisting [MLAs] ... to perform their Assembly duties”.
A report released to the News Letter under the Freedom of Information Act shows that the scheme’s auditors, PWC, found “internal control weaknesses” in how the scheme was being run, with a risk that staff whose salaries are paid out of the scheme “may complete duties to assist members in party duties” rather than solely working on Assembly business.
It also expressed concern that the public money could be used in fighting elections.
Since then, there have been changes to the scheme, partly to address some of the auditor’s concerns. But the arrangements allowing party spin doctors to be paid from public funds remain untouched.
David Hoey, coordinator for the TaxPayers’ Alliance in Northern Ireland, said that the FAPP scheme “should be for support to Assembly business alone and not be backdoor funding for general party staffing”. He said that the lack of transparency surrounding the scheme was “striking”.
“This is public money, and it shouldn’t have been difficult to find out more, in detail, about the expenditure,” he said.
“Parties are functioning in Northern Ireland at taxpayers’ expense. It is only right for information to be freely available on that expenditure. What is not transparent is unaccountable, and unaccountability only alienates the electorate and taxpayer from the political class.”
Mr Hoey also highlighted that, unlike ‘Short Money’ at Westminster which is only available to parties outside of government to assist the opposition, Stormont’s scheme was giving money to parties who already benefit from “a great deal of information and resource” through being in the Executive.
An Assembly spokeswoman said that “all staff who are employed by political parties and funded from the FAPP scheme, are employed to ‘assist members of the Assembly who are connected with that party to perform their Assembly duties’”, but that work outside of their contracted hours was “a matter for the party”.