Assembly Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin will on Wednesday chair a hastily convened meeting of senior MLAs to discuss fresh concerns about the Stormont expenses system.
Mr McLaughlin will convene the body – which is made of the five biggest political parties – to “discuss issues raised in recent days regarding the expenses regime for Assembly Members and to agree further actions to address these concerns”.
Amid continued criticism from members of the body which MLAs put in place to set the rules on expenses – the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) – that their rules are not being enforced by Assembly staff and the commission, the Assembly again insisted that its system is entirely above board.
In a statement announcing Wednesday’s meeting, the Assembly insisted that “the methods for members to seek a review of a decision to refuse payment of a claim is entirely open and transparent”.
The meeting comes as details emerge of criticism of the Assembly system in a review carried out last year by IPSA, the body which oversees MPs’ expenses.
The September 2015 ‘peer review of expenses arrangements for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly’ was given to the News Letter by the Assembly after we requested to see a copy.
The 17-page document was written by IPSA’s head of policy and strategy, Tony Stower, and its head of operations, Linda Everet. The review was initially issued to the Assembly’s chief executive, Trevor Reaney, and copied to the Assembly’s director of corporate services, Richard Stewart, and its head of finance, Paula McClintock.
It found no evidence of “major issues of concern” in the areas which it examined, but its contents were enough to seriously alarm members of the panel which sets the rules for expense claims.
In the document, IPSA said: “We did not identify any major issues of concern within our terms of reference. However, we did identify several smaller issues.”
In the section which particularly alarmed the IFRP, the report said: “We are concerned that there is no formal process in place for a member to have a decision not to pay a claim to be reviewed.
“Combined with a misunderstanding (on the part of MLAs) of the role of the Finance Team in querying and validating claims, this leads to MLAs seeking redress through other, potentially improper means.
“These means, principally escalating the issues to more senior Assembly staff, undermine the authority of the Finance Team and can lead to inconsistency in the application of the rules.”
IPSA also found the potential of abuse of the expenses system for MLA mileage claims.
It said that – unlike Westminster – when MLAs drive to Stormont only the distance and number of journeys are detailed. That meant, IPSA said, that “it is therefore not possible to verify that a journey took place”.
It added: “Conversely with journeys undertaken on constituency business, the origin and destination of journeys are not recorded for reasons of security. This makes it impossible to verify the distance travelled.”
The report also referred to “one or two instances where MLAs, having had a claim refused, would approach a senior member of the Assembly staff, directly, or through members of the commission. Often these approaches were successful in getting the earlier refusal overturned.
“This informal, ad-hoc approach is not a robust mechanism for reviewing refusals of claims. Overturning refusals in these circumstances has several disadvantages.”