Political news

Stormont accused of U-turn after pressure over expenses

Expenses watchdog Pat McCartan claims Stormont has performed a u-turn on the Fresh Start agreement

A WESTMINSTER watchdog is to be asked to "quality assure" new beefed-up expenses guidelines for MLAs.

The Assembly Commission, which oversees the running of Stormont, will request that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) examines proposals to strengthen current procedures.

The move emerged last night following pressure on Stormont to act in the wake of recent controversies surrounding the expenses system.

The commission had insisted an informal procedure where MLAs can query rejected expenses payments is "open and transparent", but the system has been criticised by the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) and Ipsa.

Members of the Assembly Commission met for 90 minutes in Parliament Buildings yesterday to discuss the issues.

They agreed to ask Ipsa to assess planned amendments to the MLA handbook on expenses.

The commission, which comprises speaker Mitchel McLaughlin and five other MLAs, will also ask Ipsa to "review" the findings of its own September report.

Earlier, the chairman of the IFRP claimed Stormont had performed a u-turn on the Fresh Start agreement by acknowledging the need to change the process.

Pat McCartan said First Minister Arlene Foster's suggestion that the assembly should adopt a system similar to Westminster ran contrary to last year's accord.

November's Fresh Start agreement includes several measures for reforming Stormont's structures, but in the section on the expenses system the document says the "Assembly Commission has concluded that the fundamental architecture is sound".

On Tuesday, the First Minister said the Stormont's expenses regime should be more akin to the independent system used by MPs.

"There is a necessity now to review what has occurred and to move forward from there, because we need to protect individual members as well as the integrity of the assembly," Ms Foster said.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also said no MLA would object to taking "a fresh look" at how the Stormont system worked.

But Mr McCratan said Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness's remarks represented a "u-turn" on their previous stance.

"We had recommended changes in the past but they did not act – instead they went backwards," Mr McCartan said.

"Now by acknowledging change is required they have effectively performed a u-turn on the Fresh Start, which said system's fundamental architecture was sound."

TUV leader Jim Allister claimed: "It was only after TUV got the spotlight on the issue and the press ran with the matter for a number of days that Mrs Foster realised that she needed to engage in some spin in order to take the bad look off the issue."

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister said Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness's remarks were "in line with what was proposed during the Fresh Start talks".

"Transparency, accountability and clarity remain fundamental to any expenses or salaries system," it said in a statement.

"All expenses for admissible expenditure must be fully compliant with assembly regulations and ministers expressed the need to continually review and evaluate the system to ensure this is the case."

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