Are MLA’s £70k a year expenses just entrenching an already privileged incumbency?

BBCNI’s Spotlight programme tackles the issue of public money tonightThe focus will be on the money politicians get for renting and running their constituency offices.

I have little knowledge of the content, although I may make a fleeting appearance on the programme – talking about a case I previously reported on.

But aside from individual controversies over particular claims, there’s a wider issue about MLA office expenses that is worth considering. Does the taxpayer-funded system hand an unfair advantage to sitting MLAs and their parties – in the process helping to copper-fasten the political status quo?

The money involved is not insignificant. MLAs can each claim up to around £70,000 a year under the Office Cost Expenditure set-up. This funds advice centres and satellite offices in their constituencies. These operations are not just about helping pensioners fill in complicated benefit forms.

They can also act as de-facto promotional stations, trumpeting the MLAs and the work they do. They’re also a physical presence in towns, helping to maintain profile, the lifeblood of any political career.

Come election time and incumbent members are not shy about boasting about all the people their advice centres have helped. Having full-time staff based in constituency offices is clearly a big help to any political cause.

And if MLAs are renting their offices from their parties, or bodies linked to their parties, that’s another advantage banked.

The general issue of potential party political advantage from office expenses has been raised in high places.

In its 2009 review of the MP expenses scandal, the Committee for Standards in Public Life said:

“Many staff employed by MPs are also politically active in their own right and a significant number of constituency offices are rented from or shared with local political parties. There must, therefore, be a risk that resources intended to support an MP in their constituency role will deliberately or inadvertently be put to party political use instead.”

In a 2012 report, the Independent Financial Review Panel which sets MLA pay and allowances registered some concerns about the Assembly’s OCE system.

These included “the effectiveness of some of the controls on expenditure and the measures needed to ensure that OCE is used to assist Members in the Assembly only and not for wider party political purposes”.

There is no simple answer to such questions. There is no easy dividing line between constituency work and party political interests. Fighting to get benefits for pensioners is laudable – it also does no harm to re-election prospects.

There’s a clear argument for providing some public funding for the work of MLAs. Politics should not be the preserve of those rich enough to afford it. So it’s down to the messy business of finding the right balance and setting the right controls over spending.

I’m sure I’ll not be the only one watching Spotlight tonight with interest.

David Gordon works for the BBC. In a past life, he reported obsessively on MLA expenses for the Belfast Telegraph. He is also the author of the 2009 book, The Fall of the House of Paisley.

  • chrisjones2

    Its all far too much for what they do. Where does it all go? Rent and jobs to cronies sucking off the public teat? The nonsense advertising they send around our homes to pretend they are relevahnt?

  • Zeno3

    It’s a pity no one is asking the real question.
    MLA’s salaries and expenses cost us around £14 million a year in total.
    The DUP/SF office of First Minister Deputy First Minister pay their staff £16.6 million a year. How many Staff do they have? When asked that question they were unable to give an answer.
    In that one office they have at least 400 Staff.

  • chrisjones2

    and i think they have 7 or 8 SPADS EACH …EACH

    If it wasn’t so serious it would be like a modern version of the old KGB joke

  • Zeno3

    At those figures Marty and Peter could afford 200 SPADS EACH

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    We could argue all night if this expense ls justified or not- I could say that BBC reporters and directors are not worth the Tax payers funded money which they take -complaining about others but not themselves- that’s the BBC for you-

    Each and every penny of tax payers money should be accounted for- not just those that the BBC want to check up on-( how much expenses does the Un-electable Secretary of State account for )-

    David ” Does the Tax payer funded system hand a unfair advantage to sitting MLAs “-

    The MLAs had to be elected in the first place- is there anyone else that you would rather see elected that the people did not want elected-

  • M McCullagh
  • Dan

    Scrap the whole friggin lot of them. Put the money into beefing up the Citizens Advice bureaux.

  • Tacapall

    “We could argue all night if this expense ls justified or not”

    Well we could ask the most obvious question – Why would our MLA’s want to change the status quo seeing as their every expense is catered for ?

    Not that im bothered Michael, as far as im concerned the bigger the burden on the British taxpayer the better its just that some MLA’s could and probably are privately happy with the present arrangement.

  • chrisjones2

    Does that include ‘inflated rent’ paid to front organisations?

  • chrisjones2

    “the bigger the burden on the British taxpayer the better ”

    except that its a set pot of money so every MLAs expenses would pay for say 3 hip operations or 7 youth clubs for a year or drug counselling for 30 addicts for 6 months

    Now which would you rather have?

  • Tacapall

    Thats British laws and British politics for you Chris if you dont like it then dont vote in British elections.

  • I don’t think you can regulate the quality of use. There are MLAs who will use them as a place where they work hard, serving their constituents. There are others where the MLA will go through the motions, except when it’s a case where s/he sees an opportunity to enhance his/her profile. And I think David’s right: few people are motivated totally by one force. MLAs act with at least an occasional glance at how this will affect re-election prospects – they’d be fools if they didn’t. But they can at the same time be acting with the interests of their constituents at heart. It’s too cynical and simple – to dismiss them all as a parcel of rogues.

  • Tacapall

    Are we still talking about expenses here Jude ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Ultimately it comes down to the electorate. If you care about expenses fiddling, make sure you vote for an MLA who spends carefully. If you care about other stuff, then ignore it.

    Provided there is nothing illegal going on, and all the details are declared properly on the register of member’s interests (which now shows details of any family members employed) this is above board. There may be a transparency angle required in the member’s register, for example to show if any property being rented is owned by a fellow party member or by the party itself. But provided the public can see this and use this information to inform their voting decision I don’t see much of an issue.

    Now on the other hand if there is actual fraud, ie members purchasing supplies or other goods for personal use and claiming this from their OCA – that’s a problem, not least because HMRC will view this as illegal tax avoidance, aside from the fraud implications. It will be interesting to see if Spotlight discusses any allegations of this type.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Define “inflated”. You would have to show that the rent is substantially outside of the market rate. A surveyor would answer this.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I’d rather have the MLA I elect allocated the funds to run his office well, and as an elector it is my right to have my own opinion of what value for money is.

  • Tacapall

    Comrade would a politician who claimed back in expenses a £1 charity donation be classed as value for money ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    I would have guessed it illegal to make a charity donation using expenses under HMRC rules.

  • NMS

    Each Irish Minister is allowed a maximum of three staff as advisors, including a Press Officer. There seems to be a bit of problem in UKNI!

  • Tacapall

    “Prior to his London property purchase, Mr Wilson claimed for hotel expenses.In a one month period in the spring of 2005, his hotel expenses came to £820.25, with one of the hotel bills including £2.25 for “mini bar Pringles” and a £1 “charity donation”.

    How low can you go.

  • Bryan Magee

    On the whole I think there are too many advice centres and constituency offices. Perhaps it is because there are so many MLAs per constituency. Can’t people ask questions by email or phone rather than having a “shop”? Why would I need to walk into an advice centre? Why are they so often on prime retail locations? It does feel like a waste of money when you add together all these offices and ask how much they cost per constituency.

    I have never used them or been into one of them – are people using them to lobby their MLA on how to vote? Why not just shoot them an email?

    In Ballymena you have the DUP’s swanky office next to the town hall on the main street, you have the TUV’s one on a prominent street in Harryville, and the same goes for the UUP’s one which looks rather nicely appointed.

    Danny Kinahan said he was sacrificing his salary increase to maintain two such units in his constituency. I would say to Danny that I would rather that he keep the money, just speaking personally!

  • Comrade Stalin

    You could go considerably lower than claiming a £1 charity donation.

    Apart from suggesting that the claimant is a bit cheap, I see nothing improper about that set of claims. Apart from the charity donation any employer would refund the same bill. £820 over a one month period in London (probably a few nights stay separated out) is actually not that bad.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Whole bunch of issues there, but a cull on the number of assembly seats certainly seems reasonable.

    Actually I frequently do get help from representatives via email. But if you’re discussing things that are confidential or sensitive, it isn’t appropriate.

  • Yes, Tacapali – that is, are constituency offices worth the money. My point is that so much depends on the quality and integrity of the MLA, and I’m not sure you can legislate (no pun intended) for that.

  • Bryan Magee

    deleted post

  • Shibboleth

    Do we know the parties differing positions on a cull of seats?

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    Had to watch the BBC fall flat on their face again- maybe someday they will find prove-a dissident is a good enough adviser these days-

    Is the BBC going to tell us how much this programme cost and how much it paid some of those they interviewed / rang around for them / give them advice-what’s the going rate to look like a loser on TV-

    And the programme asked for a inquiry -( somebody else to do the journalist work for them-) have they no neck-

  • LordSummerisle

    My local MLA claimed £5, 349.50 last year on travel. He is old enough for a free travel pass… I just wonder why he does not make use of the pass rather than sup from the gravey train. A gravey train as you know is larger and slower than a boat and you can help yourself more often.

  • sean treacy

    Michael Henry,the people of Dungiven will be laughing that the only “evidence” the BBC could provide was from failed RSF candidate McGonigal who left SF in 1986.McGonigal who lives 20 miles from Guladuff and whose organisation does not have one member in south Derry.He never set foot in Guladuff in 30 years but is presented as an expert witness.

  • Dixie Elliott

    Who needs bank robberies when you’re a perfectly corrupt political party?

  • Dixie Elliott

    I’m laughing at you dragging the old ‘dissident’ shit into what was a clear case of corruption on a grand scale.

    If that person left the SF Mafia in 1986 why was he a trustee of one of the buildings rented out by SF?

    Adamsites…..everybody has it in for them lol

  • Dixie Elliott

    This is another fine mess…

  • Dixie Elliott

    Aye right. The old dastardly dissident again….lol.

    Next week should be good. The research company which couldn’t be researched because….well erm. Watch and see.

  • Dixie Elliott

    Just in Case….

  • Bryan Magee

    An excellent Spotlight.

    Note that the SDLP, Alliance, Greens, and TUV appear to have come out with no allegations, and while the UUP were criticised for spending a lot in West Tyrone, they seem to have done everything above board.

    The DUP and Sinn Féin on the other hand have questions to answer.

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    You would think the BBC found a smoking gun instead of what was wrote in public forms-

    ” I get people “- Lol- they all follow you pipe piper “-

  • chrisjones2

    Now now. DOnt mock. Gerry says all the money goes to provide irish dancing and flower arranging classes – at least he did when he didnt know the BBC had called the Historical Societies and been told it was all just ‘political’

    Still never mind. We will have another story along for the lunchtime news

  • chrisjones2

    The only ones on their faces were SF Foster and Paisley

    WHat’s it like supporting a party that covers up rate and runs bogus charities Mickey?

  • chrisjones2

    Yeah …follow the money and what ‘was wrote’ in public forms was lies to get charity status and defraud the public

  • chrisjones2

    Clearly last nights programme was carefully worded by the lawyers but what this shows is a complete free for all. Some of the issues relevaed seem to show that criminal offences may have happened in claims and in forging public records and setting up bogus organizations

    Who will now investigate? PSNI? The auditors?

    Don’t hold your breath…they are all in it together on the Hill.

    Cant wait to see next weeks programme – they seem to have enough allegations / material for a mini series

  • Rapunsell

    The South Derry Cultural and Heritage Society is on the deemed list of organisations recognised by HMRC as charitable for tax purposes.
    From the Spotlight investigation it does seem that there are further questions to be answered and the NI Charity Commission needs to investigate and has the powers to do so immediately.
    1. Is the organisation being properly operated as a charity in respect of its own rules and those pertaining to the running of charities in NI
    2. As all charities will be required to register with the new commission and supply and make available for public consideration certain key documents – it should not be too difficult nor do I see any reason that it should it not be forthcoming that the society will make available its governing documents and annual accounts available for public scrutiny
    3. This would begin to help answer the question as to what the organisation is and what it does , whether or not it is a bona fide charity or a party political front
    These questions may also apply to the other cultural organisations – I haven’t checked if they are on the various lists.
    It may well be that these are bona fide organisations but my concern is over their lack of transparency and accountability. Any bona fide organisation getting tax benefits for charitable purposes/public benefit should have no problem with transparency and it seems peculiar that the BBC weren’t able to obtain governing documents and accounts easily?

  • Nevin

    “So it’s down to the messy business of finding the right balance and setting the right controls over spending.

    I’m sure I’ll not be the only one watching Spotlight tonight with interest.” .. David

    Some of the Slugger old hands will recall Nevin’s favourite address; it’s now an emporium for the sale of customised jewellery.

    I hope fellow commenters don’t mind if I widen the lens a little in defence of our elected representatives. In this age of austerity, last night’s Spotlight programme could not have come at a worse time; two of the MLAs named in the programme have been slogging their guts out to save the Dalriada Hospital in Ballycastle from imminent closure. The two along with three other MLAs – a five party collective – shared a platform in Dunluce School, Bushmills, one of a series of meetings to protest against the hatchet-job actions of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust. I saw no MSM folks nor any members of the Belfast bubble.

    However, the real heroes of the campaign have been the caring staff in the hospital and the MS folks who benefit massively from the respite service offered; patients in receipt of palliative care or intermediate treatment were too ill to attend; the hale and the hearty have either mostly sat at the comfort of their fireside or in the pub. Our MLAs had come down from Stormont for the 7 pm meeting and were still trying to figure out their next collective moves at 10 pm.

    The Minister is finally showing a measure of independence from his own advisers but who still may not be prepared to put a brake on the activities of the Trust. I spotted the latter’s Board changing its standing orders at the end of October and, as a consequence, avoiding a public meeting prior to closure. [Follow the links for additional detail]

    BBC Spotlight has rightly had a go at the topic of expenses but I must say its timing has been reckless; just imagine the demoralising effect it will have had on those vulnerable members of society who have been campaigning so hard, with the fulsome support of their elected representatives. Perhaps the BBC should also look at the cost of the multiple layers of governance that exist within our public service so that more of taxpayers’ money could trickle down to those who really need it – the clients and the lions in the front-line services.

  • Bryan Magee

    The funny part of the Spotlight – which had LOL moments – was the innocent person asking innocently what type of thing the “Cultural Society” did…”could I join it, does it do dancing?” And the SF representative struggling to come up with an answer… er… “Er, no it does well…..[long pause]…[another long pause]….its more political history”. That was inspired journalism!

  • chrisjones2

    As the DUP In Ballymena for their defintion

  • chrisjones2

    …and the deeds and the records

    By the way …where did SF get the money to build that opulent centre in the first place? How was it funded?

    Then there were the phone calls to the staff re what the Cultural Society does —— ‘no you cant join and its more political’ —— but political organsiations cannot be charities.

    Its clear this is an utter scam

  • chrisjones2

    Key question is, where is all the money going. Its not in NI SF’s accounts but these surely cannot be false.I am sure it hasn’t been spent on knees ups down the Old Ballot Box and Armalite – so where does it all go? Down south perhaps to support the party there?

    And why do SF not want to declare all these assets in the North? What are they hiding / afraid of?

  • Metro

    Funny you should say that. You should take a look at what MLAs get versus the tiny funding CAB offices get, particularly in Belfast

  • Metro

    Without getting into the details here, there is clearly an issue of transparency here and if this was a properly functioning democracy, with full accountability, we would have had investigations being launched this morning and people stepping aside until those investigations are complete. “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy” Kafka…

  • Rapunsell

    I think it would be instructive for Spotlight to research who else is and has been renting space and making payments to these cultural societies – I heard a whisper this morning that Eu peace money has made its way to the landlords vis property being rented by peace programme funded organisations . The question is who is the landlord? Was this another channel to obtain public and eu funds for party political purposes.

  • barnshee

    Lets see the accounts-then put the tax man on the case
    A tax scrutiny of the owners of the buildings will smoke out any “fronting”

  • sean treacy

    According to Francie Molloy on “Good morning Ulster” ,the chief witness for Spotlight once called for McGuinness to be executed.! A man with those views surely would have no axe to grind.Francie also said the BBC parked a 40 ft crane with some clown atop outside Guladuff as part of their “undercover investigation”! They will be using drones next to check that the ceili dancers are doing their steps next ! They could have walked in the open door any night to see the various classes and cultural activities taking place.

  • delphindelphin

    “It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.”
    ― Franz Kafka, The Trial

  • barnshee

    it’s too cynical and simple – to dismiss them all as a parcel of rogues.

    You left out accurate

  • barnshee

    Who built the building
    How was it funded
    How much of it is rented to SF
    What other Income is received by the “Cultural Society”
    What is total income of the “society”

  • chrisjones2

    It may have passed you by but we have a huge financial crisis. There are different ways of providing the same (and often better healthcare) but this may mean the service is 20 minutes more down the road

    Critising the challene to MLAs as reclkeless is plain stupid

  • chrisjones2

    Thats why when they phoned up and asked they were told:

    * its political
    * theres no Irish dancing or that
    * you cant join the Society

    Now Francie says it is al;l flower arranging and funerals

    But who paid to build this?

    And tell me, are protestants from the area welcome to drop in as well? Might the shrine to murderers at the back of the building not be a bit of a deterrent to those not yet ethnically cleansed?

  • Dan

    10-12 times a week, I pass the MLA office were the 2012/13 claim was £70,485.51.
    I’ve done that for four or five years.
    Never once…not a single time…..have I seen anyone going into or leaving that office.
    There’s another two MLA offices around the corner.
    Scandalous wage of public money,

  • sean treacy

    Irish dancing classes have taken place in Guladuff several times a week for well over a decade.If anyone doubts this it would be very simple to ask anyone connected to the Irish dancing fraternity in South Derry.You are like Noel Thompson who also said that someone in Guladuff denied dancing classes took place.FACT apart from Disso McGonigle , nobodywas interviewed concerning Guladuff on last nights programme.No taped phonecall was broadcast from anyone in Guladuff .Oafs like you and Thompson were obviously only half listening and yes the hall is used by people from all backgrounds.

  • Zeno3

    Thanks, that’s a more detailed report than the one I saw. And there was me thinking they were just wasting the money.

  • Metro

    Kafka couldn’t have made up what happens here…

  • NMS

    The accusations are clearly of corruption, no more no less. One hopes the assembly will refer the issues raised to PSNI.

  • NMS

    Dixie, You might like the headline, see

  • barnshee

    WTF has

    “Irish dancing classes have taken place in Guladuff several times a week for well over a decade.”

    Got to do with

    Who built the building
    How was it funded
    How much of it is rented to SF
    What other Income is received by the “Cultural Society”
    What is total income of the “society”

    I presume the hall is hired /used by the Irish dance group ?

    In the same way -when the hall was hired to /used by SF

    (and similar SF “conferences” ) I presume SF( the party) paid a commercial rate for the facilities. If on the other hand the “cultural society” simply supply facilities to SF then its charitable status invalid.

    Proper accounts will tell all

  • streetlegal

    Congratulations to the Spotlight Team for another great expose of the ongoing corruption within the Stormont system. Spotlight seems to be the last bastion of investigative journalism – no wonder the politcians are squealing.

  • chrisjones2

    Is that the flight for Mary Lous recent flight to Australia

  • chrisjones2

    “very simple to ask anyone connected to the Irish dancing fraternity in South Derry.”

    Given that the Shinners have been doing their own Irish dancing around ‘visiting’ anyone who might have dared speak to the BBC I am sure they will be delighted to be open and transparent

    So in that spirit

    Who built the building?
    How was it funded?
    How much of it is rented to SF?
    What other Income is received by the “Cultural Society”?
    What is total income of the “society”?

    Where are the accounts?
    Does it pay VAT
    Does it pay rates?
    If not why not?
    Where are all the retained profits and where did the rest go?
    Why do the Trustees not know this?
    Who is the Manager?
    How is he or she paid? Is this through PAYE?

  • Thomas Girvan

    Do you never get fed up brown nosing Gerry Adams?

  • chrisjones2

    Given that so much rent was paid for this did the MLA get three quotes for different properties in the area?

  • sean treacy

    Im sure cultural societies in nationalist communities will supply you and your fellow loyalists with all the answers when the various loyal and masonic orders go to the media and do likewise I would love to know who funds and manages the various sectarian groups who decide who can buy land or property for example.

  • barnshee

    “Im sure cultural societies in nationalist communities will supply you and your fellow loyalists with all the answers when the various loyal and masonic orders go to the media and do likewise ”

    Have a look

    Charities are normally transparent when it comes to which charities are supported I look forward to the Gulladuff disclosures of the charities supported

  • Dixie Elliott

    Chris the most recent person moved to Stormont as a SPAD by the Adamsites proves, if you know him, that it’s another scam. A tattle-tail and message boy would have been his job description before he left that job for Stormont….

  • Comrade Stalin

    The Spotlight programme showed no evidence of any criminal offence being committed, with the very remote possibility of party spending regulations, but that would only be if the “charities” were proven to be spending money in aid of a party.

  • Nevin

    “Critising the challene to MLAs as reclkeless is plain stupid”

    Chris, I didn’t 😉

  • chrisjones2

    Arlene Foster criticises ‘parasitical’ BBC over investigation

    ….but Arlene ……you give them so much to gorge on, don’t you. And its not about a £75000 house – its about the way public money was used. And even if it was perfectly legal and within the non-existent rules, was it wise and was it value for money for the taxpayers?

    and do you then adopt the same standard in supporting your Shinner colleagues on their activities?