Northern Ireland news

Plans to relax spending policy after DUP dinner row 'dilutes transparency', councillor warns

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley hosted a dinner at the Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena in September 2017 which featured Conservative MP Michael Gove
Brendan Hughes

PLANS to relax a council's policy on paying to attend events following a DUP dinner controversy could "dilute" transparency of public spending, a unionist councillor has warned.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC) has a spending limit of £500 on attending gala dinners or events.

But new proposals remove the spending limit and allow senior staff to use ratepayers' cash on events involving officials without seeking councillors' approval.

The revised policy was created in response to controversy over the council paying £1,500 for a table at a DUP dinner hosted by Ian Paisley.

A Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report found MEABC did not assess its attendance in line with its policy, The Irish News revealed.

MEABC and another council each paid £1,500 towards the DUP dinner in September 2017 at Tullyglass Hotel, Ballymena, which featured British government environment secretary Michael Gove.

The payments are being investigated by the Electoral Commission because they are being treated as 'donations' to the North Antrim MP and councils are not considered "permissible donors".

NIAO separately investigated and issued recommendations, including that MEABC should consider amending its policy.

A revised policy was presented this week to councillors at committee level and will go to full council for approval.

The new document makes no mention of any spending limit.

It also says that while council will decide on events relating to councillors, "in the case of officers, the final decision would be made by the chief executive or director".

TUV councillor Timothy Gaston expressed concern.

"Transparency is severely lacking in Mid and East Antrim and anything that would dilute that further wouldn't have my support," he said.

"My concern would be that the ratepayers would be spending money unknowingly for these lavish dinners without it going through the scrutiny of full council, and without councillors deciding whether it would be value for money."

Sinn Féin councillor Patrice Hardy, who has been asking questions about the DUP dinner, described the proposals as "entirely unacceptable".

"Given the history of this council, particularly the Paisley dinner, it seems incredible that council officers are now attempting to bring in a new policy that would not have any spending limit in place," she said.

SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan warned that the new draft policy "removes existing protections".

He said the council "was in clear breach of its own policy" in relation to the DUP dinner and "inadequate information was given to council when it agreed to attend".

However, DUP councillor Gregg McKeen dismissed concerns over the new policy and branded the matter a "nothing story".

He said senior staff should have discretion "to attend things that benefit council".

"Not every penny that council spends has to go through council. Just because it's a dinner, do we need to have that authorised by full council? We have senior officers and directors who are responsible people," he said.

A council spokeswoman said: "The policy is yet to be ratified by full council so it is inappropriate to comment on any changes until they've been approved."

The 2017 dinner has been among several DUP events featuring senior Conservatives held since the parties forged their confidence-and-supply deal at Westminster.

Last month Mr Paisley co-hosted a party fundraiser which featured leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.

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