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Stand-off in Stormont expenses row

IFRP chairman Pat McCartan said public confidence in Stormont's expenses system was being undermined.

The cross-party group of MLAs with responsibility for assembly business last night remained at odds with Stormont's spending watchdog over contentious expenses payments to Sinn Féin.

There was no sign of either side backing down in the row over claims involving west Belfast-based Research Services Ireland, a company run by two members of Sinn Féin's finance team.

It emerged last week that the Stormont authorities concluded that Sinn Féin MLAs did nothing wrong by claiming £700,000 in expenses to pay for research from a company.

The Assembly Commission cleared the payments even though a BBC Spotlight investigation was unable to find any evidence of research carried out by the firm, whose directors included Séamus Drumm and Sinéad Walsh – both members of Sinn Féin's finance division..

But the head of the assembly's expenses watchdog has said his body called a halt to such pratices in 2012 and that the assembly was wrong to have paid expenses of up to £150,000 which were claimed subsequent to the ruling.

Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) chairman Pat McCartan dismissed as "nonsense" an Assembly Commission statement which said the £150,000 was paid out because contracts had been signed before the practice was banned. Mr McCartan said the commission, which is chaired by assembly speaker Mitchel McLaughlin with the remaining members drawn from Stormont's five largest parties, had "no authority" to backdate payments.

"Our intention was spelled out and it was not for them to deviate from it," Mr McCartan told The Irish News.

"The nub of the issue is – having given us the task, do they accept its conclusions or not?"

The IRFP chairman said the Assembly Commission's action in relation to the Research Services Ireland controversy was "undermining public confidence".

"The public need to vigilant to ensure the independence of the setting of and adjudication of MLAs' expenses," he said.

Mr McCartan said Stormont's expenses system was meant to be "rigorously audited and externally audited" but to date this had not happened "sufficient to catch on a number of areas where we have real concerns".

He said the panel had written to the commission last year urging a "tightening of the system" but that November's Fresh Start agreement indicated any changes would fall well short of his recommendations.

The panel chairman also raised concerns about a system that allowed MLAs to query their expenses claims directly with the Assembly Commission in a process that "was not transparent".

In the assembly yesterday, DUP chief whip Peter Weir said "erroneous and mischievous allegations" had been made against the assembly.

The North Down MLA asked the speaker to confirm that no "secret appeal mechanism" existed for querying expenses claims and that the panel's determination over payments to firms like Research Services Ireland dated from January 2013.

Mr McLaughlin said he was able to "confirm the facts" as Mr Weir had outlined them.

"I am extremely disappointed at the publicity that has been generated, apparently at the behest of the two senior members of the independent panel," the speaker said.

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