Delay in returning Covid funds prompts questions over Maolíosa McHugh's role on Stormont scrutiny committees
THE SINN Féin MLA at the centre of the controversy over the prolonged delay in returning funds meant for struggling businesses is expected to face questions about his suitability to sit on two Stormont scrutiny committees.
West Tyrone representative Maolíosa McHugh remains an MLA and party member while three of his Sinn Féin colleagues, including former Foyle MP Elisha McCallion, were forced to quit after it emerged that three payments of £10,000 had been received under the Small Business Grants Scheme, even though political parties are not eligible for the funding.
The money was returned earlier this week up to eight months after it has been paid.
According to the Department of Finance, the payments were made in error to Elisha McCallion, Lurgan Sinn Féin office and " rate payer Maoliosa McHugh MLA – Strabane Sinn Féin office".
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said on Thursday that she had accepted the resignation of an unnamed party official in West Tyrone who had "responsibility for the administration of the account and failed to promptly return the grant money despite being requested to do so by Maolíosa McHugh".
However, questions remain over why the money was not repaid sooner.
The PSNI confirmed last night that it is considering a request to investigate issues around the mistaken payments.
In all 452 payments totalling £4.5m were made to businesses that did not qualify for the scheme – two per cent of all those who received the emergency funding.
DUP MLA Gary Middleton said he has written to PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to ask for police to investigate where "a potential offence" may have been was committed.
The assembly's commissioner for standards has also been asked to investigate the matter.
Mr McHugh sits on the Finance Committee and Public Accounts Committee, which were both been briefed in recent weeks by Ian Snowdon, chief executive of Land and Property Services, which administered the scheme.
Last night SDLP finance spokesman Matthew O'Toole raised concerns about the suitability of the West Tyrone MLA's role on the committees.
"There are serious questions about Mr McHugh's remaining on both the PAC and finance committees – which are there to act as guardians of the public purse – given the questionable circumstances around these payments," he said.
TUV leader Jim Allister said if Mr McHugh was the beneficiary of the £10,000 support payment then "the return of the money was his personal responsibility – likewise the inordinate delay in the return of the money".