First Minister makes call for new tougher expenses body

First Minister Arlene Foster
First Minister Arlene Foster

MLAs should face a stronger expenses regime similar to that which governs MPs, the Province’s top politician said.

Arlene Foster said her party is “revisiting” plans for a more independent body to take control of MLAs’ allowances, of the kind which currently operates in Westminster under its Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

Her comments came after the DUP declined to seize on the accusations by Pat McCartan – chairman of the Assembly’s Independent Financial Review Panel – that the Assembly Commission wrongly gave the all-clear to an estimated £150,000-worth of expenses claimed by Sinn Fein; money which was paid to a private company headed by two of the party’s own finance managers.

The TUV MLA Jim Allister said it was an example of a DUP which “rides to the rescue” of its republican partner-in-government.

While Arlene Foster was visiting an event in north Belfast, the News Letter put it to her that the matter of Sinn Fein allegedly being granted a vast chunk of expenses to which it was not entitled should be a political open goal for the DUP, and she was asked why the party appeared not to be taking advantage of it.

She replied: “First of all, it was the DUP that said we should have an IPSA-style system type of system to deal with expenses; that it should be open, and it should be transparent. Unfortunately at the time, other parties decided not to support us in relation to that issue.

“We’re revisiting that again. We’re saying to other parties: it’s time to be open, it’s time to be transparent, and therefore you should support what we’re saying – and have swaid in the past.”

The DUP highlighted statements from November 2014 which it had made in support of the idea.

However, a party spokesman said there had been little “enthusiasm” from other parties over the plans at the time.

In Northern Ireland, the Independent Financial Review Panel chaired by Pat McCartan sets the rules around MLAs’ pay and expenses. However, it is then up to another body called the Assembly Commission – which is made up of six MLAs plus staff – to administer the rules.

In Westminster, IPSA both sets the rules and enforces them.

April 2012 and the end of that year, saying his panel had made clear that claims of this type involving a Sinn Fein-linked firm were banned during this period.

The claims all relate to payments to Research Services Ireland (RSI) – a west Belfast firm which was said to have done work for Sinn Fein, but which was also headed by senior party staff.

The TUV hit out at Mrs Foster’s announcement however, with its leader Jim Allister saying in a statement: “Just 24 hours after the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Speaker combined to defend the ‘integrity’ of the expenses system at Stormont, all three are scurrying for cover with OFMDFM backing a review and the Speaker calling an emergency meeting of the discredited Assembly Commission.

“Once more public opinion has forced Stormont’s hand. However, it is not cosmetic moves to push this issue past the election which is required, but dismantling of a system of in-house ‘control’ which has patently failed and left unanswered such basic questions as “how, if at all, did the Assembly Commission satisfy itself that the £700,000 it provided for Sinn Fein for ‘research’ in fact produced a single page of research product’?

“The DUP and Sinn Fein had an opportunity to address the issue in Fresh Start, but all they produced was platitudes. (Para 64). In fact the parties endorsed the Commission view of their expenses regime that ‘the fundamental architecture is sound’.

“Now it looks so unsound, the joint First Ministers are forced to relieve the pressure by supporting a “review.”