Audit Office issues guidance to councils over DUP event payments
A PUBLIC spending watchdog has issued two councils with guidance following complaints over controversially paying £3,000 to attend a DUP dinner.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC) and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council (CCGBC) each paid £1,500 to sponsor tables at the event hosted by DUP North Antrim MP Ian Paisley.
It was held at Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena in September 2017 and was attended by British government environment secretary Michael Gove.
The Electoral Commission, which is treating the payments as 'donations' to the North Antrim MP, is investigating because local authorities are not considered "permissible donors".
The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) was separately asked to investigate, and the matter was addressed in its annual audit letters.
In her reports, local government auditor Pamela McCreedy advised MEABC to ensure councillors have "up-to-date information" and to consider amending its policy on attendance at gala dinners and other events.
For CCGBC, she said that "in future the council should carefully consider their attendance at events to ensure there is no direct or indirect political involvement".
However, she said the payments were made directly to the hotel and were "correctly recorded in the accounts so there are no concerns with the truth and fairness of the accounts in relation to this issue".
She added that because the Electoral Commission is investigating, "I do not intend to take any further action at this stage".
SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan criticised the "weak" extent of the NIAO report, saying it has publicly released "much less information" than contained in a report given privately to MEABC.
"It is a very serious matter when a council takes a table at the annual constituency dinner of a DUP MP at a cost of £1,500, and when its councillors did not have a proper description of the event when they agreed to it," he said.
"That report in itself is weak, and I have made that view clear to the Audit Office.
"The attempt to defend the council administration by saying that the party political nature of the event only became clear after the council authorised attendance does not stack up."
Both councils have previously defended the payments. CCGBC said the subjects discussed at the dinner, such as Brexit, justified the spending.
The DUP has previously denied the event was a party fundraiser.
In September, a Conservative councillor said Mr Gove had apologised for attending the dinner and was unaware it was a party fundraiser.
Mr Paisley has previously defended the event, saying that his "annual community and business engagement dinner in Ballymena was very successful and enjoyed by all who attended".