Minister accused of 'ducking responsibility' on wages controversy
THE minister in charge of council reform has been accused of "ducking his responsibilities" by failing to stop councillor wages being paid directly into party bank accounts.
Department of the Environment (DoE) officials wrote to councils two months ago warning them against paying councillor allowances and expenses straight to political parties.
The Audit Office is also investigating the issue after The Irish News revealed nine Sinn Féin councillors on Derry council have their wages paid into a party account.
Among them is Colin Kelly – who also claims a carer's allowance that is paid into the same account.
The DoE letter was sent following a court case in July involving the Sinn Féin councillor.
He faced benefit fraud charges after claiming £19,000 in jobseeker's allowance despite receiving a councillor wage.
But a judge acquitted him after the court heard how his council allowance was paid straight to Sinn Féin.
The court heard he had no "card, no chequebook, no access at all" to the account and that all his allowance went to the party.
Following the case the DoE wrote to local authorities saying legislation "clearly states that councillor allowances are payable by councils directly to councillors".
"It is a council's duty to ensure that all administrative arrangements adhere strictly to this statutory regime," the letter read.
However, the department appears to have rolled back on its position after clashing with some councils.
Senior officials at Derry City and Strabane District Council say they are "content that we are currently fulfilling our requirements".
And Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon council says it is a "matter of personal choice" if councillors want their allowances paid directly to political parties.
At odds with the DoE's initial letter, environment minister Mark H Durkan now says the legislation is "silent" on the issue.
"It is my department's view that a council's obligation only extends to carrying out the direction of the councillor and the holding of that direction as a record," he said in response to an assembly question.
TUV leader Jim Allister, who submitted the question, criticised the conflicting DoE responses.
"I am appalled that the minister is choosing to duck his responsibilities in relation to this issue and is leaving it up to the local government auditor," he said.
"Minister Durkan both could and should act now to halt this flow of public money into the coffers of Sinn Fein/IRA.
"Ratepayers should not be funding a political party and the minister would be perfectly within his rights to do something to address this situation."
Meanwhile, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council has moved to clarify that all its councillors use personal accounts.
In response to a freedom of information request the council had said it didn't know if councillors' wages were paid into party bank accounts.
But after The Irish News highlighted the issue, a spokeswoman said allowances of all 40 members were paid directly into personal bank accounts.
Councillors can claim on top of expenses a basic allowance of £14,200. An extra dependants' carer's allowance of up to £8,100 a year is also available to councillors for care of children or elderly dependant relatives.
Sinn Féin has said councillors in Derry "choose to have their payments paid into a central account and make a voluntary donation to the party".