MLAs’ £160k bill for tea and scones

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STORMONT politicians have eaten and drunk their way through more than £160,000 of taxpayers’ money during their work on the Assembly’s committees since 2007.

Items such as scones and fresh fruit provided for MLAs as they worked on the committees are costing about £40,000 a year, figures uncovered by one Assembly member show.

TUV leader Jim Allister said that the “extravagance” should be stopped at a time when Stormont is telling public sector workers to tighten their belts.

The Assembly said that it was “not immune to the wider budget pressures” and that spending on food and drink at committee meetings was expected to fall by about 40 per cent this year.

Refreshments “are provided for members at committee meetings as the meetings can be lengthy and without breaks”, added the Assembly

But Mr Allister pointed out that the refreshments were left in committee rooms at the start of meetings when it would not be possible to know how long the meeting would last.

The figures uncovered by Mr Allister, in response to a written Assembly question, show that spending on hospitality at committee hearings peaked in 2008-2009 at £40,763.

In the last financial year, spending fell considerably to £18,556, though the Assembly said that invoices for the month of March are yet to be included in that figure.

Mr Allister said that he believed in the past committee hearings had been provided with “the nonsense of bottled water” but added: “To have spent £160,000 on tea, coffee, scones and fruit seems staggering.

“The thing is that at the end of a meeting when you look over, very often a lot of it is still sitting there — that seems fairly wasteful excess to me.

“We are all well paid enough as MLAs to buy our own food.”

Asked whether he turned down the free refreshments on a point of principle, Mr Allister said that he would “have a cup of coffee” as it appeared to be going to waste anyway but that he did not eat much in the mornings when many committee meetings are held.

He said that if a committee meeting was held over lunch “there is a case for maybe providing a sandwich for lunch” but that there was no need for food and drinks to be routinely provided free of charge to MLAs.

A spokeswoman for the Assembly said: “The Assembly is not immune to the wider budget pressures and is seeing a 17 per cent budget reduction in real terms over the next four years.

“Following the Spending Review in 2010 there has been a reduction in the level of refreshments provided at committee meetings in line with cost-saving measures across the whole Assembly.

“While end year accounts are still to be finalised, it is expected that expenditure in 2011/12 will be reduced by in the region of 40 per cent.”

Last month, Mr Allister revealed that Stormont departments have spent £4.5 million on hospitality since the restoration of devolution in 2007 and that despite cuts the Executive is still spending £10,000 a week on food and drink.