Sinn Féin 'U-turn' as councillors stop using party bank account
SINN Féin councillors have stopped having their wages paid directly into a party bank account following criticism of the practice.
The Irish News revealed in September that nine Sinn Féin members of Derry and Strabane council had their allowances paid into the same account, prompting an Audit Office probe.
One councillor was also claiming a carer's allowance that was paid into the group account, while three received extra special responsibility allowances.
It meant more than £140,000 in councillor wages were going straight into the same account despite a Stormont department warning over the practice.
Sinn Féin had defended the arrangement, saying some councillors "choose to have their payments paid into a central account and make a voluntary donation to the party".
But now all nine Sinn Féin councillors have changed to use individual bank accounts for their council allowances and expenses.
TUV leader Jim Allister described it as a "u-turn" by the party, claiming it has been "shamed into this climbdown".
"There should never have been any question of ratepayers' money being paid into a party bank account in this fashion," he said.
The controversy emerged following a court case in July involving one of the councillors, Colin Kelly.
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.
In September a freedom of information request revealed Mr Kelly's allowances and expenses were still being paid into a party account, along with eight other councillors.
Councillors can claim on top of expenses a basic allowance of £14,200.
Mr Kelly claims a basic allowance and a dependants' carer's allowance, which is used for childcare.
A dependants' carer's allowance of up to £8,100 a year is available to councillors where care of children or elderly dependant relatives is needed to enable them to carry out council duties.
Following the court case the Department of the Environment (DoE) wrote to councils warning that legislation "clearly states that councillor allowances are payable by councils directly to councillors".
But SDLP environment minister Mark H Durkan faced criticism when the department appeared to row back after clashing with some councils.
Mr Durkan has since said: "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."
Mr Allister had criticised the minister and called on him to "halt this flow of public money into the coffers" of Sinn Féin.
Derry City and Strabane District Council yesterday confirmed that no council members currently receive payments into the same account.
A spokeswoman said the council "continues to follow good practice in this area by following councillors' instruction".
Sinn Féin said: "Following a local review all allowances and expenses are now paid into councillors' accounts."