Telegraph launches “Open Stormont” campaign…

Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph launched its Open Stormont campaign. It outlines five principles that it believes should be taken on board:

The five “Open Stormont” proposals are:

* A review of the Assembly’s current approach to publishing MLA pay and expenses, focusing on the much more detailed disclosures issued by the Scottish Parliament.

* That MLAs should publicly declare in the register of interests details of family members on their payrolls. This reform has been favoured by the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee, but there are concerns that it will not take effect until 2009.

The Belfast Telegraph sees no reason why it should not be introduced immediately on a voluntary basis by the parties, pending a formal rule change.

* A review of constituency office rental arrangements, with independent rental valuations for offices that have been rented from family members and political parties.

This review should also focus on phasing out the practice of allowing MLAs to claim rental expenses for premises owned by relatives – bringing Stormont into line with the House of Commons.

* A pledge from all the Stormont parties that the secrecy surrounding their donations will finally end in 2010, with no further slippage on the target date.

* A commitment by all the Assembly parties that there will be no dilution of the Freedom of Information Act.

It seems to be that there should be something of a debate around this. There is a fundamental difference between journalists (and bloggers for that matter) and elected representatives. Representatives, ultimately, are responsible for the way they handle their mandates, not to intermediaries, but to their electorates.

In fact it may be nothing more than a distraction for journalists to look for what amounts to petty rule breaking (and further breaking the public’s trust in the ‘political class’, possibly for their own ends). There is the added hazard that they then allow something much more substantially political to go under reported. Paul over at Never Trust a Hippie is concerned that ‘enforced’ openness will simply drive the conversational intelligence out of the picture, and play into the hands of unelected private media elites.

One, it seems to me, legitimate question raised by the irregularities around the acquisition of party offices in North Antrim (and West Belfast for that matter) is why private political organisations (ie the parties) resort to using public funds to build private party infrastructure?

In the meantime, for the number crunching fraternity, here’s a break down of all the expenses of the Westminster MPs (bizarrely, three Sinn Fein MPs all come up with exactly the same figure for living away from home), courtesy of Guido.

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  • “bizarrely, three Sinn Fein MPs all come up with exactly the same figure for living away from home”

    What’s bizarre is the bare faced cheek of any SF MPs claiming expenses for living away from home when they don’t even work at Westminster!

  • Granni Trixie

    I think that there is a difference in an individual MLA claiming for renting accomodation from their party and renting from family: the latter brings up personal conflict of interests wheras the former is compatible with the explicit aims of their party. In such cases ofcourse MLAs ought to have to show that their claim for accomodation costs is based on the going rate.

  • Dec

    What’s bizarre is the bare faced cheek of any SF MPs claiming expenses for living away from home when they don’t even work at Westminster!

    AFAIK they use their offices at Westminster but don’t take their seats in the house.

    More bizarre is that 184 MPs claim exactly £22,110. And why don’t Iris and Peter’s living away from home expenses tally? Trouble in paradise?

  • Mick Fealty

    Dec,

    That’s the max figure. They can’t go any higher than that, that’s why there’s a whole rake of them at that figure. Whereas 18,000 apiece suggests they may not be the ones totting up the expenses.

    Granni,

    If it’s at or below the local market rate, there’s not a lot of problem. The problem with the latter is that the party gaining from resources that are explicitly assigned to the representative.

    That kind of elision is not necessarily desirable in a legislature which is seeking some kind of independence from the Executive. Nor, if we want genuine representation in parliament, devolved or otherwise.

  • noel adams

    The key area for candor is donations and loans given the progress on the hill why should we have to hold on to 2100 for the level of openess in westminster.Indeed in the dail TDs have to report help in kind eg use of a car or office for election work.Time for a bit of parity from the folks on the hill.

  • Twinbrook

    I think its an utter disgrace what our representatives can claim and worse still they lecture us on tightening our belt…

    The more transparency the better for all but why stop there…

    Shouldn`t the civil servant mandarins be examined for conflicts of interest…

    And why not just scrap Government quangos completely as most of these positions are filled with failed politicians and yes men…

  • T.Ruth

    The Telegraph should stop abusing foreign paper sellers. I can only assume the people at the traffic lights are advertising the Belfast Telegraph. Judging by how few papers sold it is the basest exploitation of apparently decent people. What’s going down here? Before the BT gets too sore on others its chief should take a long look at his own performance. What would happen if I tried to set up a strawberry / potatoes/or poetry book business at the traffic lights-would I need a licence? Am I missing something.Is there another explanation?.Where are all the liberal dogooders on this issue.?
    T.Ruth

  • This initiative, well overdue, has faint fingermarks of one M. Fealty.

    I’m not a great enthusiast of the politics of the DT, but, on this occasion, all glory, laud and honour.

    As for:

    … there should be something of a debate around this. There is a fundamental difference between journalists (and bloggers for that matter) and elected representatives. Representatives, ultimately, are responsible for the way they handle their mandates, not to intermediaries, but to their electorates.

    As if, for heaven’s sake!

    There is no contract of employment between the elector and the elected. The elected is not a delegate, is not mandated. Let’s believe a man of good Munster descent, graduate of the finest University this side of Gallifrey, and often quoted by the defenders of Parliamentary “independence”.

    Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.

    In the context of “the general good”, we now see how precise, how pecuniary, how exploitative that “good” has been for so many representatives at Westminster and Stormont.

    I, personally, was appalled by the looseness of the the Stormont reporting requirements. At least Westminster had some standards, which are now (too late) being applied and tightened. We yet have to hear of the Stormont regulations being fully define, fully applied, and further curtailed.

    Yes, I feel I have a personal interest here. I know I have used the following previously, but allow me this latitude.

    Back in 1974, the year of the two General Elections, I was twice a Parliamentary Candidate — but not, obviously under this pseudonym.

    I was then a senior teacher in an Inner London school. I guess my salary was some £3,250 p.a. Had I succeeded in being elected, I would have been better off in salary terms by some few hundred a year. The “expenses” allowed were minimal.

    Today the differential between the “basic” earnings of a senior teacher in a state school and an MP is a factor of twice. On top of which, in the course of a single four-year Parliament, the MP (and his dearly beloved) can collect a cool million in “extras”.

    To be honest (as has often been said on Slugger), the role of the ordinary MLA is not greatly different from that of a County or major Borough Councillor (and I’ve been there, too). Again, do the maths. The leader of a major Council is probably (with all allowances) several tens of thousands below the basic salary of an MLA, without the other perks, and with a far greater degree of public scrutiny and interest.

    Indeed, the DT is proposing an idea whose time has come.

    Now, can we also throw in the matter of pensions?

  • Sorry : in the above read BT for DT.

    Blame it on:
    1. being well into an ill-judged second bottle; and
    2. coming to terms with a new keyboard.

    Yes: one of those metallic, wireless Apple keyboards. [Letch. Letch.]

  • wild turkey

    ‘What would happen if I tried to set up a strawberry / potatoes/or poetry book business at the traffic lights-would I need a licence? Am I missing something.’

    T Ruth, the only thing you are missing is the obvious. You have discovered a market niche! Set it up at select roundabouts/intersections in south belfast and environs.

    Call it Fryku.

    A wager? The PSNI will be down on you quicker than their response to the placarded guys on the Shankhill last year.

    ‘an ill-judged second bottle’
    Malcolm, I am taken aback. I assumed a man of your experienced refinement would have made an enlightened selection sequence well in advance. Strategic planning and all that…eh? For it is written, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

  • Drumcairn

    Great idea to call for openness but it won’t work in practice.Take the case of Billy Armstrong were it was found he employed his wife and daughter,rented a portacabin from his wife,broke planning and building control laws and avoided paying rates.In the private sector Billy would have been sacked and the police called in but nothing has happened to him since.He still sits on the environment committee,doesn’t pay rates(or even offered to do so)and Reg keeps him as deputy whip.So what is the point of openness if nothing happens to the gulity MLA

  • wild turkey @ 09:42 PM:

    when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

    Grief: a fellow aficianado of the late Hunter S Thompson. Let me assure you, friend, nothing more exotic than the fruit of the vine. Alas, for my relationship with my GP, since Sainsbury’s started selling wine as “four-for-three”, evenings have had a rosier/ruddier glow. That was the sum total of tonight’s forward planning.

    I like the idea of poetry retailers at the traffic lights. Be an improvement on the squeegee-muggers on the North Circular.

    Back on topic: there’s been a heck of a lot of tax-payer mugging done by the elected elite in recent years. Now they (Westminster, anyway) are asking for £20K of bunce a year to buy out some of their expenses claims: £750 for a TV, £10K for a kitchen … boggle, boggle.

  • IJP

    To play devil’s advocate (deliberately)…

    I’m sure this is well-meaning, but is it not somewhat missing the point?

    My suspicion is that people want politicians to deliver. The issue is not the technicalities of precisely what is done with the money, but rather whether tax payers feel they are getting genuine value for money.

    Frankly, if the economy were booming, education were being reformed to make high-quality schools and colleges available to all, top-class preventative health services were being made accessible to everyone, congestion were people tackled etc etc, then I’d say few people would pay much attention to the odd portacabin.

    The issue, it seems to me, is more that there is a suspicion out there that a lot of legislators are not capable of legislating. That is the crux of the matter.

  • Granni Trixie

    IJP: Whilst I agree that people are judging politicians on their ability to deliver and be effective, they also tend to judge public representatives on what appears to be their
    (dis)honesty. It would be a foolish MLA who does not put their house in order now that many of them appear to have been taking advantage of a lack of rules governing claims for expenses etc. As regards ‘the odd portocabin’ – manys a politican who has been brought down by less.

  • Muad’Dub

    Sure wasn’t that what was really promised at St Andrews to all the parties a local trought for all gang to feed from? Forget the shared future, the end of war, the betterment of society, they all heard the sound of tills ringing.

  • “My suspicion is that people want politicians to deliver.”

    IJP, do parties or the electorate select candidates who can deliver? I think not 🙂

  • Butterknife

    But the MLAs are not delivering – not according to the Irish News article that said they had not pass a statute but they are still raking it in. It’s the Stormont Gravy Train not the Peace Train!

  • Belfast Gonzo

    I think IJP has a point. The Swiss Bank Family Robinson’s patriarch might sound a bit more authoritive about trimming the civil service if, say, he didn’t employ three of his offspring, for example.

    And how much original legislation has this Assembly passed anyway?

    Any?