Leading article

More accountability needed over assembly expenses

The very public row between the Assembly Commission and the independent panel set up to oversee MLAs' expenses is quite extraordinary, even by Stormont's standards.

A war of words erupted after the commission, which is responsible for assembly business, concluded that Sinn Féin MLAs did nothing wrong by claiming £700,000 in expenses to pay for research by a firm with close links to the party.

This payment was highlighted by a BBC Spotlight investigation which was unable to find any evidence of research carried out by the company.

Pat McCartan, chairman of the Independent Financial Review Panel, which is Stormont's expenses watchdog, said such practices should have stopped in 2012 and the assembly was wrong to have paid up to £150,000 claimed after this ruling.

The Assembly Commission maintains the money was paid because of a contractual obligation, a claim dismissed by Mr McCartan.

This row escalated on Monday when DUP chief whip Peter Weir said ``erroneous and mischievous allegations'' had been made against the assembly.

Meanwhile, Mr McCartan also raised concerns about the transparency of a system that allowed MLAs to query their expenses claims directly with the Assembly Commission.

At the heart of all this is the issue of the accountability of our elected representatives and their use of public money.

The public needs to know that the oversight structures in place to monitor and scrutinise assembly members' expenses are independent, robust and with sufficient clout to ensure the rules are observed.

It does not fill the public with confidence when the Assembly Commission is locked in a public dispute with the body responsible for that essential oversight.

There needs to be an acceptance that all matters in relation to politicians' pay and expenses have to be completely above board and seen to be so.

First minister Arlene Foster said Stormont should move to a system similar to Westminster's, which seems to be a sensible suggestion.

When it comes to pay and expenses, the public would prefer more accountability and transparency, not less.

Leading article

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