NI Assembly Commission misleads the Assembly, and the public

When the BBC reported the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission’s written answers to some ‘stupid’ questions from TUV leader Jim Allister on Friday they used the headline “Sinn Féin MLAs who claimed almost £700,000 in expenses ‘did nothing wrong‘”.  There was also a report broadcast, “Sinn Féin cleared in expenses investigation“.

The NI Assembly Commission is chaired by the Speaker, currently Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin, and consists of one MLA from each of the Executive parties – who have a vote according to the number of MLAs in their respective parties.

On Sunday Pat McCartan, chair of the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), intervened to point out that the Assembly Commission’s answers were factually inaccurate.

The claims were made by Sinn Féin MLAs through Stormont expenses to pay Research Services Ireland (RSI) over a 10-year period.

The commission also cleared the party of wrongdoing in paying office rent to three cultural societies.

Mr McCartan, chair of the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), told the BBC’s Sunday Politics that £150,000 should not have been paid.

We made a determination which started from 1 April 2012 and which outlawed payments made to companies like RSI,” he said.

“Yet it appears from information I now have that payments have been made up to the end of December of that year.

“That is contrary to the determination. And the commission, if it thinks these were okay, is quite wrong.” [added emphasis]

Here’s what the Assembly Commission told Jim Allister about the Research Services Ireland payments

The Commission reviewed the content of the two BBC Spotlight programmes. That review confirmed that payments for research services, as reported in the programme, were made for admissible expenditure up to and including the 2012/13 financial year. As such, no recovery has been sought. No payments to Research Services Ireland for work undertaken after 31 December 2012 have been made as a result of changes to the system of financial support for Members that were introduced by the Independent Financial Review Panel from 1 January 2013. [added emphasis]

And on the “payment of rent to non-existent cultural societies

The Commission reviewed the content of the two BBC Spotlight programmes. That review confirmed that payments for rent, as reported in the programme, were made for admissible expenditure. As such, no recovery has been sought.

Despite the Assembly Commission’s response to Jim Allister, and the BBC’s initial reporting, what doesn’t appear to have happened is any investigation into the substance of the allegations made in the 2014 BBC NI Spotlight programme, namely whether any actual research was carried out by Research Services Ireland – as the BBC noted at the time, RSI was “run by Seamus Drumm and Sinead Walsh, who are in charge of running Sinn Féin’s finance department in Northern Ireland”.  Nor was there any assessment of the status of those “cultural societies”.

From the minutes of the Assembly Commission we learn that, on the 25 November 2014

The Clerk/Chief Executive provided Members with an overview of the issues arising from the first BBC Spotlight documentary on Members expenses which was broadcast on 18 November 2014.  Members discussed the issues in the documentary and possible actions required. Members also sought further information relating to the management responses of the internal audit investigations conducted on the matter and it was agreed that this would be brought to the next meeting, including the proposal to update the database of Members’ signatures. It was agreed that a further paper to be brought to a future Commission meeting outlining a range of costed options for refining and improving Assembly Members financial systems, including details on comparative models within each of the other UK legislatures and the Oireachtas. It was agreed to give further consideration to these issues following the broadcast of the second documentary.

The Commission discussed the BBC Spotlight Programme over the course of two subsequent meetings, on the 1 December 2014, and then on the 21 January 2015, where

Richard Stewart, Director of Corporate Services, provided the Commission with an overview of his paper regarding the Members’ Expenses System. Members agreed that due to length and range of issues discussed, that further time and, if required, a meeting with Mr Stewart for clarification was the preferred way to proceed. This will allow Members time to consult with their respective parties.

At the next meeting, on 18 February 2015, the Commission decided

The Commission agreed that a retrospective review of OCE payments would be costly and time consuming and unlikely to produce any beneficial outcome.

The main question arising from the IFRP’s intervention is why payments continued to made for claims for Sinn Féin’s Research Services Ireland after 1 April 2012.  As Pat McCartan told the BBC

We made a determination which started from 1 April 2012 and which outlawed payments made to companies like RSI,” he said. [added emphasis]

“Yet it appears from information I now have that payments have been made up to the end of December of that year.

“That is contrary to the determination. And the commission, if it thinks these were okay, is quite wrong.”

That March 2012 determination is available on the IFRP website.  Here’s a direct link to the pdf file [161Kb].

In that determination it states under Office Costs Expenditure

[9.] (10) Subject to sub-paragraph (11), a member shall not be entitled to recover expenditure under sub-paragraph (1) in relation to any contract for goods and services entered into with a connected person after 1 April 2012.

Where sub-paragraph (1) is

(1) Subject to sub-paragraphs (3) to (14), a member shall be entitled to recover the expenditure which he incurs in any year in respect of research, secretarial, clerical or administrative assistance (including the provision of any equipment, facilities or services associated therewith) required by the member in connection with the carrying out of his Assembly duties.

and “a connected person” is defined as

a family member; „

a political party of which he is a member; „

a person with whom the member is connected within the meaning of section 252(2)(b), (c), (d) or (e) or section 254 of the Companies Act 2006; or 

any person from whom the member, his family member, or a political party of which the member is a member, derives a financial benefit; „

and for this purpose “financial benefit” shall not include: ƒ any benefit derived by his family member which arises in connection with the family member’s occupation; or ƒ any benefit which arises in connection with any shareholding that is a registrable interest under the Northern Ireland Assembly Code of Conduct and Guide Relating to the Conduct of Members, or, in the case of a shareholding held by a family member or political party, would be a registrable interest were it held by the member;

The “changes to the system of financial support for Members that were introduced by the Independent Financial Review Panel from 1 January 2013” referred to by the Assembly Commission was, in fact, an amendment to the March 2012 determination [pdf file 147Kb].  The accompanying press release from the IFRP explains the reasons for the amendment

Following the publication of the Panel’s first Determination in March 2012, talks were held with a number of political parties on the issue of the pooling of their support staff. This would allow a member of staff to be employed by one Assembly Member and to provide a service not only to that Member but also to a pool of Party colleagues.

The Panel considered this proposal in detail and has accepted that, subject to certain safeguards, this arrangement would:

• be an efficient and effective way of providing support to MLAs

• enable members to share specialist staff in an efficient and effective manner.

As currently drafted the March 2012 Determination does not facilitate such an arrangement. The Panel has therefore made a new Determination to amend the March 2012 Determination in order to enable a pooling arrangement to be put in place. The Assembly Commission and Assembly Members have been notified of this amendment. The Determination has been published on the Panel’s website. The new arrangements take effect on 1 January 2013 and will apply to the end of the current mandate. [added emphasis throughout]

That amendment specified

(5) A member shall be entitled to recover expenditure under sub-paragraph (1) in relation to any person providing research, secretarial, clerical or administrative assistance only if that person is: a) employed by the member; or b) employed by an employing member under a staff pooling arrangement in which both members participate.

(6) A member shall accordingly not be entitled to recover expenditure under sub-paragraph (1) in relation to any person providing research, secretarial, clerical or administrative assistance if that assistance is provided by virtue of any arrangement between the member and a third person save a staff pooling arrangement in which he participates.

Significantly, sub-paragraph (10) continued to state

(10) Subject to sub-paragraph (11), a member shall not be entitled to recover expenditure under sub-paragraph (1) in relation to any contract for goods and services entered into with a connected person. [added emphasis]

In addition to the payments for claims for Sinn Féin’s Research Services Ireland from 1 April 2012 to December 2012, payments also continued for claims by Sinn Féin, SDLP and UUP MLAs for secretarial and administrative services provided by their parties until December 2012 when all such claims ceased.  The details of MLAs’ Office Cost Expenditure for 2012/13 are available here.

Presumably the cost of pooled support staff is now contained within individual MLA’s Support Staff Costs.

Sinn Féin MLAs continue to claim for the “payment of rent to non-existent cultural societies“.

Alan McQuillan, who also sits on the Independent Financial Review Panel, was on Nolan this morning.  The conversation gets somewhat sidetracked by an apparent appeals process, but it’s worth listening to.

The BBC report now contains a response from a spokesperson for the Assembly Commission

A spokesperson for the Assembly Commission said: “Media reports over the weekend have stated that the Assembly Commission unlawfully made payments of approximately £150,000. This is simply not the case.

“The Independent Financial Review Panel made a determination in 2012, that stated an MLA could not recover expenditure in relation to a contract for goods or services with a connected person entered into on or after 1 April 2012.

“The £150,000 in this case was for goods or services relating to contracts made before this time. The real issue in this case is when the contract was signed and not when the payments were made.”

Up to a point, Lord Copper…

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  • Jollyraj

    I think it is very important here, if money has been siphoned off illegally, that we remember that it is money which belongs to the public ie voters and non-voters of all types in NI and beyond. One suspects that some people seem to feel that misallocating public funds is in some way a victory against ‘the Brits’, when of course what it really means for all of us is less funds available for roads, hospitals, schools and other public services. Quite the con being pulled on many’s the working man. Worth remembering next time we all go to vote.

  • Robin Keogh

    It is very important to investigate accusations of fianacial impropriety, especially where it concerns the misuse of taxpayers money. It is also important to except the findings of such bodies charged with investigating same.

  • There was no investigation. On 18 February 2015, the Assembly Commission decided

    The Commission agreed that a retrospective review of OCE payments would be costly and time consuming and unlikely to produce any beneficial outcome.

  • chrisjones2

    Forgive my scepticism but all these members at about the same time suddenly decided they needed research costing say an average of £5000. Then they all bought it at the same time from the same company just before the new rules came in.

    Hmm

    So they can now tell us what this was for? There must be results / reports – so can we see them?

    And were there rules on getting quotations etc? Are there records of that?

    And what other work is the company involved still doing? Who are its researchers?

  • Niamh

    Absolutely, this money could have paid for this month’s (it’s a leap year) policing bill at Twaddel, Jim should raise this the next time he’s up there for a photo op, try for a few more votes by telling them their squatter’s camp could have been left unprotected from a marauding republican horde.

  • Twilight of the Prods

    “It is also important to except the findings of such bodies charged with investigating same.”
    ‘except’? – typo or Freudian slip, Robin? 😉

  • barnshee

    At least we know where and why the money is going at Twadell— it has sure help the acquisition of appartments/villas in Spain for the cops

  • barnshee

    Nonsense– the scam was an employment scheme for– amongst others the convicted murderer M McArdle SF s former IRA wing /familiars have to be paid somehow -employment of “community activists” . only stretch so far

  • chrisjones2

    … or pay off the sofa

  • chrisjones2

    ie we are all at it and you cant prosecute us all ….well you could but then who would process the peace

  • chrisjones2

    So do you mean you accept what the Politiicians say or the Panel that sets the pay?

  • Jollyraj

    Well done, Niamh. That’s exactly the kind of attitude that let’s the political class get away with fiddling expenses. We all end up getting sh## upon, and some of us are actually dupes enough to say thanks for the hat.

  • Surveyor

    One quote that Pete didn’t cut and paste was from the DUP’s chief whip Peter Weir, who told the chamber that the allegations which had been made were “erroneous and mischievous” and had “struck at the integrity of the assembly”.

    Why would the DUP pass up the chance to attack Sinn Féin if they really had being up to no good?

  • Jollyraj

    Perhaps he means ‘except’ if looking closely might endanger the peace process (TM)

  • Niamh

    Forgive my cynicism regarding Unionist concern for the taxpayers shelling out 700k over 10 years when they laid the groundwork and have subsequently done nothing to prevent the same being wasted every month because a bunch of drunks can’t parade back up a road at night.
    It’s Northern Ireland, it’s a dysfunctional state, it will remain a place for crooks to make money by making idiots angry until it becomes nothing more than a case study in history books.
    Stop pretending to yourself it’s a Nordic model waiting to happen, listen to the Nolan radio show callers some morning ffs.

  • Granni Trixie

    Listen to yourself! You seem to be justifying this SF use of public money because of a completely different use of money! Simply don’t make sense (unless you think whataboutery covers it?). Afraid I have higher standards and believe in honesty and transparency.

  • Thomas Barber

    Pointing out the motes in others eyes concerning the misappropriation of taxpayers money, like burning it on bonfires, is not whataboutery its called returning the serve.

  • barnshee

    Policing costs Twaddle legal
    Stealing money from the tax payer -legal?

  • barnshee

    They have got a long way to go to catch up with the PIRA campaign costs – so plenty of slack there God bless the taxpayer (SE England branch)

  • Robin Keogh

    Lol, damned brain is tired x

  • Robin Keogh

    I accept the findings of the body charged with investigating such things.

  • Robin Keogh

    Brilliant !

  • chrisjones2

    Look on the positive side. It brought the DUP and SF together with Cartiona and Peter working in Unison under the direction of the Speaker

    The power of money

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Meanwhile up in the New Lodge that Good Old “Ex Joiner” now turned “Painter” is having a wonderful time with his State of the Art “How to be a Picasso Classes”
    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sunday-life/news/sinn-fein-expenses-row-caral-ni-chuilin-forgot-to-say-she-paid-relative-11320-30855261.html

  • Jollyraj

    It’s only ‘brilliant’ if you think it is acceptable for political parties to steal public money. Would you be equally happy if, say, SF were misappropriating public funds in Ireland?

  • Jollyraj

    Well done, Niamh.

  • Jollyraj

    Relevance?

  • Robin Keogh

    There is no evidence that SF have been misappropriating public funds in either of Ireland’s two Jurisdictions.

  • Jollyraj

    Certainly I personally don’t have any. They do have some fascinating financial protocols, though. We learned from Phil Flanagan’s trial that his salary was seemingly paid into a bank account to which the party had access. He was then, apparently, paid an allowance out of that by them. Don’t know what became of the balance. Is that also how they do it in Ireland?

  • Nevin

    The plot thickens:

    “The Assembly Commission’s finances are audited internally by Internal Auditors and externally by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.”

    In a statement, the Northern Ireland Audit Office said: “We are the auditors of the NI Assembly and as part of our work we examine a sample of MLA expenses. “We had a very constructive meeting with the Independent Financial Review Panel last week when we were alerted to a number of concerns. We will consider the issues raised as part of our normal audit work.” .. DUP and SF close ranks amid expenses criticism

  • chrisjones2

    If its all OK why are the Panel complaining and why does the Commission look so shifty.

    The BBC has some interesting quotes

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-35587472

  • Robin Keogh

    The wages system as far as i know is the same throughout the whole country. Each earner recieves the average industrial wage with the balance going to pay for offices and staff throughout the constituency.

  • Jollyraj

    I see. So Sinn Fein is funded from the public purse, by the taxpayer?

  • Thomas Barber

    Once any salary is paid into an individual MLA’s MP’s Councillors bank account its no longer public money, it belongs to each individual politician and they can do what they like with their own salaries.

    Unless of course theres some law stating that politicians must give a detailed account of what they spend their salaries on. Is there such a law ?

  • Robin Keogh

    Sinn Fein recieves funding from the tax payer just like all other parties yes.

  • Nevin

    It looks as if the FM and dFM have moved to defuse the issue – in advance of the election campaign.

  • Thomas Girvan

    Have you heard Martin McGuinness’s denial of Stormont wrong doing?
    What an ironic sense of humour he has, he loves a laugh.
    Once a chuckle brother always a chuckle brother.

  • Jollyraj

    Oh really? The other parties in NI also have this allowance-style situation?

  • Jollyraj

    Exactly. It is this process of public money becoming party money that piqued my interest. As I understood it from Flanagan’s libel trial, it goes first to Sinn Fein, who then mete out some and keep some – is that not how it is?

  • Robin Keogh

    As far as I am aware all parties in Ireland have access to government funding

  • Jollyraj

    Oh, no doubt. I was just curious about the system where Sinn Fein, as a party, seem to receive the salaries and then pay a lower fee out of that to their actual politicos. It seems to me that other parties don’t do that.

  • Thomas Barber

    “it goes first to Sinn Fein, who then mete out some and keep some”

    Once again what Sinn Fein politicians do with the salaries they earn is of no concern to anyone else, like I said above, is there some sort of law against a politician sharing the salary he/she receives with others within their respective political parties, eg like a collective ?

  • Robin Keogh

    Well it is common knowledge mate. All Shinners earn the average Industrial wage. The balance goes to fund other staff positions and constituency offices etc. So if my candidate here in Wicklow for example becoames a TD after the next election, he will recieve the average industrial wage from his salary and the balance will be used to hire staff and rent premises in the constituency. It is a pretty cool system in my view.

  • aquifer

    The quietude from the DUP is very telling. They are past masters at getting fancy rentals paid for their offices. We have to suspect they are all at it, just like in GB where the Tories have given the term bye elections a whole new spelling.

  • chrisjones2

    As I said…money unites

  • chrisjones2

    I thought he just didnt look that well in the closeups ….seemed very tired

  • Nevin
  • Reader

    Thomas Barber: Once any salary is paid into an individual MLA’s MP’s Councillors bank account its no longer public money, it belongs to each individual politician and they can do what they like with their own salaries.
    … as one SF councillor found out when he felt that SF didn’t leave him enough of his own earnings and claimed benefits to make up the shortfall.

  • Reader

    Talking of motes and beams – then whatabout those innocent people killed and maimed in the Birmingham pub bombings?

  • chrisjones2

    Indeed ….as Declan Kearney said last night this £150,000 was used to brief MLAs – that’s £5000 of briefing per MLA in 9
    months. Was their performance so visibly enhanced? Why was it then described as ‘research’? Who actually got it?

  • barnshee

    “what Sinn Fein politicians do with the salaries they earn is of no concern to anyone else”

    Correc—t provided the salary is taxed at source via PAYE what happens the balance is no one else`s business
    Perhaps the taxman can help clarify the situation

  • Thomas Barber

    Reader all Sinn Fein councillors, MLA’s and MP’s understand and agree with the industrial wage system before they stand on a Sinn Fein ticket in any election.

    Im sure judges and magistrates in this part of the world have heard all sorts of crazy excuses from people when they are brought before the courts for something illegal.

    Do you believe people who knowingly break the law dont tell lies when caught and somehow attempt to distance themselves from the very crime/s they committed themselves.