The Assembly was last night locked in an extraordinary public dispute with the people it appointed to set the rules on MLAs’ expenses claims.
Amid serious concerns about the acceptance of claims which, according to those who wrote the rules, were contrary to those rules, Assembly Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin led an MLA backlash against those who have spoken out about the issue in recent days.
The News Letter understands that a review of Stormont’s procedures, which was undertaken by Westminster’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, expressed a series of concerns about what is going on at Stormont.
Although the focus has thus far been on £150,000 claimed by Sinn Fein for research by a company whose directors are Sinn Fein’s finance directors, and where no evidence of the research has emerged, yesterday the DUP and Sinn Fein closed ranks in response to the criticism.
Members of the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), which is chaired by the former chairman of Belfast Health Trust, Pat McCartan, spoke out on Sunday and yesterday morning about their unhappiness at what has been going on.
But in the Assembly yesterday, DUP chief whip Peter Weir denounced “erroneous and mischievous allegations against the Assembly that strike at its integrity”.
Dismissing IFRP member Alan McQuillan’s allegations that there had been a “secret” appeal mechanism for MLAs whose expense claims are rejected, Mr Weir asked the Speaker to confirm that no such mechanism had ever existed.
The Speaker concurred with Mr Weir, telling the Assembly that he had been “exercised by this”. He went on: “I am extremely disappointed at the publicity that has been generated, apparently at the behest of the two senior members of the independent panel.”
Jim Allister said it was “interesting” that “the DUP that rides to the rescue of Sinn Féin on the issue”. But Mr McLaughlin responded: “The fantastical theory that parties would combine and collude to give money to Sinn Féin is, I think, something that would cause even you to have second thoughts.”
That was followed by a statement from the Assembly Commission in which it defended its decision to pay out on Sinn Fein’s claims for research – something which it said could not be avoided because there was a contractual obligation to do so – and dismissed the IFRP’s claims that the payments were against the law, something it said was “simply not the case”.
Last night Mr McCartan hit back, telling the News Letter that he “disputes” some of what has been said by the Assembly authorities and MLAs and saying that he is meeting with the Speaker and the Assembly’s chief executive on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
Mr McCartan – whose body has long been the subject of criticism by MLAs ever since it cut their expense accounts several years ago – said that he was “quite happy for MLAs to comment on these matters as they see fit”.
But he added: “What isn’t appropriate is into the future that the current methods of determination of determination and resolution of such problems remains a mater for MLAs under the Speaker in the Assembly Commission.”
He said that there should be “robust independence” of the expenses authorities, as happens at Westminster.
Retired deputy chief constable Alan McQuillan had said yesterday morning: “We don’t know why these payments were made; we were amazed and astounded to hear on Friday that they had written to another MLA and told him that basically everything was in line with our determination when in our view...and we’ve been arguing with them about this for weeks...it was not in line with our determination [rules].”
And, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show, Mr McQuillan said that although the focus has thus far been on the £150,000 claim by Sinn Fein for research, several of the other parties implicated in similar questionable claims.
The Assembly Commission – the cross-party body of MLAs which runs the Assembly – said in a statement: “The commentary around an appeals committee is incorrect.
“There is an appeal mechanism for MLAs unhappy with a claim for expenses being rejected. It is open and transparent...the Commission has not considered any appeals under this mechanism since the introduction of the current handbook in 2011.
“The Assembly Commission’s finances are audited internally by Internal Auditors and externally by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.”
In a statement, the Northern Ireland Audit Office said: “We are the auditors of the NI Assembly and as part of our work we examine a sample of MLA expenses. “We had a very constructive meeting with the Independent Financial Review Panel last week when we were alerted to a number of concerns. We will consider the issues raised as part of our normal audit work.”
Jim Allister said that the IFRP’s statements raised “serious questions for the Assembly Commission and the financial operation on MLAs expenses which it oversees”.
Ulster Unionist councillor Graham Craig called for Westminster’s Committee Standards in Public Life, chaired by Ulster peer Lord Bew, to have “an open and free remit over the Northern Ireland Assembly”.