Page last updated at 16:24 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 17:24 UK

Parties bill for secretarial services

Stormont assembly
The assembly members claim their secretarial costs back from Stormont

A BBC investigation into MLA office cost allowances going back to 2004, can reveal that political parties have benefited from hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money claimed by their MLAs under the expenses system.

The parties benefit when their MLAs claim expenses for work the party has carried out centrally.

Some MLAs also recoup money for rent paid on properties owned by their party.

All of the payments are apparently within the assembly expenses rules and the parties insist the money was spent on constituency work.

However, the findings raise questions about Stormont's guidelines and the level of scrutiny over how taxpayers money finds its way back to the political parties.

In four out of the past five years, all four main parties benefited but Sinn Fein more than the other three put together - receiving almost £2m.

Next were the Ulster Unionists- whose total was just under £380,000. The SDLP MLAs claimed just over £250,000. The DUP's MLAs, despite being the biggest party claimed only £56,000.

The expenses examined by the BBC were claimed via payments known as the Office Costs Allowance and fell into three sub-categories: secretarial, research and rent.

The vast majority of MLAs claim close to the maximum amount of allowances they are eligible for each year - at present about £72,000.

But MLAs tend to divide their expenses claims up in very different ways depending on which party they belong to.

Under the expenses rules, MLAs can employ office support staff. These staff are put on the assembly pay roll and their salaries are set against the MLAs office cost allowance.

Sinn Fein MLAs have a lower wage bill than the other parties but then claim much higher charges for additional "secretarial services", carried out by the party centrally.

Take the example of the West Belfast constituency seats.

In 2004/05, Sinn Fein held four of the six seats and between them, Gerry Adams, Michael Ferguson, Fra McCann and Bairbre De Brun, claimed £75,000 for secretarial work which was carried out by their party, over and above any monies paid out in salaries to their office staff.

That is an average of over £19,000 per MLA.

By contrast the DUP's West Belfast MLA Diane Dodds claimed £5,000 for secretarial services and the SDLP's Alex Attwood claimed £2,400.

The 2004/05 pattern is repeated across the Assembly constituencies with Sinn Fein MLAs typically submitting claims for identical amounts across a year.

The SDLP and the UUP MLAs claimed identical sums too, theirs are just smaller.

DUP claims are much rarer and smaller again.

Sinn Fein MLA John O'Dowd said the way the party uses the Office Cost's Allowance "provides a more streamlined, comprehensive and efficient service."

"The difference between Sinn Fein and the other parties is that Sinn Fein MLAs draw on secretarial and research support provided by the party," he added.

"This is done with the full approval of the Assembly authorities.

"Any party could do this but all or most MLAs from the other parties individually pay for these services. Some employ family members. Sinn Fein MLAs do not.

"Our approach comes at no extra cost to the taxpayer and is also a more transparent system and means that both MLAs and the party can be held accountable."

When it came to the rental category Sinn Fein and UUP MLAs were most likely to rent offices in buildings owned by their own parties.

TUV Leader Jim Allister called on the Stormont speaker Willy Hay to investigate the use of the office costs allowance.

He said: "I am calling on Speaker Hay to immediately establish a Sir Thomas Legg type investigation, with powers to retrospectively cap payments by MLAs to their parties.

"Why should MPs be subjected to retrospective correction, but MLAs immune from such rectitude being brought to their expenditure."

An Assembly spokesperson said the Assembly Commission keeps the arrangements for financial support for Members under review "and seeks to learn from developments in best practice in other legislatures"

"The Members Financial Services Handbook is currently being revised by the Assembly Commission," he said.

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