#SpotlightNI: Dodgy deals and private societies which turn out not to be what they seem…

Here’s a conversation involving Peter Weir of the DUP and Francie Molloy both trying to find ways to defend the otherwise indefensive on Spotlight last night…

Now, I’m not a fan of expenses stories, but listening Peter Weir you would come to the conclusion that there was nothing to see here. Interestingly he cites a ‘public service’ argument conveniently ignoring the fact that the benefit which accrued in Ms Foster’s administration of her ‘free’ office accrued to her.

That means she is bang to rights. The Ballymena case was already reasonably well known. The rent was capped because the party (locally) was in a hurry to pay off the mortgage on the property over an expensively short term.

Step forward former Assembly speaker now mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy (and by the sounds of the Spotlight programme also the guy answering the phone in Cookstown (12.25), and who told the Spotlight researcher that the Tyrone Cultural Society which owned the premises there did “not really” hold dances and the like to lecturing the documentary maker for not checking to see that they do do dancing after all…

The larger question here is who is responsible for oversight of all this publicly purchased but very privately owned real estate… And how is charity law administered in Northern Ireland?

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  • Last of the Libertines

    In the case of the ownership of the constituency office in Gulladuff, Francie Molloy made a point that seems to me to have some merit.

    Spotlight was strongly implying that the South Derry Cultural Society was a front for SF: in effect, SF owned the building and was indirectly receiving public funds as rent. However, it was also made clear that it is entirely permissible, as long as it’s declared, for a political party to own a building, use it as a constituency office and still receive an allowance for rent.

    Why then would SF go to the hassle of setting up a fake society to get rent payments when they would be getting the same payments anyway if, as alleged, they own the building? Or have they done it in such a way to get an increased payment? I must admit, my knowledge of public expenses is poor so I might have missed something entirely obvious here.

  • streetlegal

    I think I heard Ian Paisley Jnr saying on the radio that he intends to sue the BBC over the allegations raised by Spotlight. That will be a case worth following when it comes to court.

  • chrisjones2

    If you set up as a charity youn potentially avoid rates and tax and get grants …so we need to see what was going on

  • James

    Or perhaps “if” it comes to court?

  • chrisjones2

    I think he said he would sue anyone who alleged malpractice. The BBC didnt. They said ‘oh…look at this’ and let people take their own view .

    Strangely there has been almost no comment at all on the (perfectly legal) transactions in Fermanagh that expose some politically very interesting links and the ‘whoops I forgot to declare it until you wrote to me episode’

    I am sure many other Fermanagh tenants will be flocking to rent buildings for just £17 a week

  • Emperical observer

    And these are the people lecturing the disabled and sick about welfare reform. They should hang their heads in shame. Resignations are the minimum response required. No wonder there’s a a shortfall of money with this Craic going on. And where do they claim the shortfall from, whom else but the easy target of the disabled. The doors should be locked at stormont and the keys thrown away. If any other public servant behaved in such a manner they would be sacked on the spot. There has to be transparency on this whole fiasco and anyone found guilty of criminal behaviour should face the full rigours of the law just like any other citizens.

  • “The Ballymena case was already reasonably well known.”

    And, for the record, as well as for those with short attention spans, blogged at the time.

  • barnshee

    Were EC funds used to fund a building exclusively used by one political party/community?
    Was this legal?

  • MF

    What does SF class as a industrial wage

  • Comrade Stalin

    it was also made clear that it is entirely permissible, as long as it’s declared,

    It is important to reiterate this. It is entirely legal to claim for rent on property that is owned by a party. It is for voters to make a decision as to whether this is appropriate or not. The important part is that it is declared so that it is in full public view.

    That fact aside there are some issues – the Spotlight investigation suggested there is an issue around what constitutes a fair rent – the DUP office in Ballymena was apparently claiming rent significantly above what it should have been.

    This problem could be resolved by having a requirement that an independent surveyor, appointed by the assembly, validate all office rents being claimed under OCA and that this survey take place with each rent review.

    Why then would SF go to the hassle of setting up a fake society to get rent payments when they would be getting the same payments anyway if, as alleged, they own the building?

    The fake society is apparently registered with HMRC as a charity, which means it won’t pay any tax or rates. That’s a fairly serious problem, and in principle amounts to potential fraud if the society is spending its money in a non-charitable way. This is a matter for HMRC, and not the Assembly. And I’m noticing, in general, that HMRC seem to steer well clear of the question of whether or not politicians are abusing their expenses claims, and seem to leave this matter to be determined by the appropriate authorities.

    I believe there are also rules about how money can be spent in aid of a political party, as this in effect becomes a donation which may in turn be required to be reported if this “charity” is undertaking work that could be of political benefit to SF. This is a matter for the Electoral Commission and potentially the police (again, not the Assembly).

  • Comrade Stalin

    No wonder there’s a a shortfall of money with this Craic going on

    The issue is less about the money being spent and more about the lack of transparency surrounding it.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Last night’s Spotlight programme was excellent as usual, although I must take issue with a point raised by Seamus Close.

    Close said words to the effect that a £60,000 OCA limit is too high, and he never claimed more than £30,000.

    I have no experience myself of being an MLA of course, but if I was elected and I wanted to serve my constituents, I would be looking for ways to spend every penny of assistance funding that was granted to me to do that job. The additional money above what Seamus spent could be used, for example, to appoint an additional member of administrative staff.

    If you’ve got two staff instead of one to help you, you can be twice as effective as a local representative. Twice as many letters written, twice as many phonecalls being answered etc. Your staff could even pay visits to constituents to sort out minor bits of information or deal with matters in the name of the MLA that don’t require the MLA’s direct intervention. For example a letter written to the council to complain about bin collection rotas only needs the MLA’s signature on the bottom.

    Seamus was right that it is, of course, a nonsense to claim for a huge office with a lift and a big meeting room upstairs. But an MLA spending less than is allocated is delivering, by choice, a poorer service.

  • kalista63

    Is no one bothered that Arlene is still dealing with people ensuring that themmuns don’t buy property in her area?

    What a mark of our society is it that that isn’t a story all of its own?

  • sean treacy

    Am I wrong or did Seamus Close of the high moral ground not employ his wife out of assembly expenses,a practice which seems to be prevalent in the alliance and SDLP.

  • chrisjones2

    On a 2300 sq ft office or employong relatives?

  • chrisjones2

    Sean Do SF pay all their staff North and South exactly the same amount

  • sean treacy

    Dunno,if the aiw is the same North and South ,I presume they do.The EURO and cost of living might influence it but I honestly dont know as I dont know any of the TDS or their staff.

  • Rapunsell

    It’s a matter for investigation by the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland – which is a judicial body with serious powers in respect of removing charity trustees and dealing with assets. Either the bbc did not do its job very well and/or this society has serious questions to answer . It should and must make available it’s governing documents and produce annual reports and accounts setting out its charitable activity and expenditure.

    I’m surprised at the silence of the charity commission on the questions raised by the programme. They do not need a complaint AFAIK to institute an investigation. Of course this might now be happening away from public gaze

  • Comrade Stalin

    Is the Charity Commission even up and running yet ? To my knowledge there were delays in it starting up and its powers have not been enabled yet. (that’s from memory)

    I only ask because Spotlight said last night that the charitable status was granted by HMRC, there was no mention of the CCNI at any point in the programme.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I don’t care if MLAs employ relatives if they do a good job, and ultimately every voter makes a judgement of the MLA’s effectiveness at the ballot box.

    Voters in Northern Ireland need to stop looking to the system to enforce standards that they don’t enforce themselves when they’re electing their representatives.

  • CCNI is up and running.

  • You might be referring to Alliance’s Trevor Lunn who employed his wife as a researcher.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I thought of that too. I’m kind of hoping that an organization stupid enough to buy up land it doesn’t really need will ultimately bankrupt itself.

  • Comrade Stalin

    There is one Sinn Féin MLA who employs a family member, IIRC.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Strictly speaking, it could be legally actionable to claim that someone deliberately did not register an interest, rather than failed to register by error of omission.

  • sean treacy

    No SF MLA employs a family member.

  • Thomas Girvan

    You obviously haven’t studied economics.
    It is pretty basic, but the concept of “marginal utility of labour”, means that what you get back from extra staff employed reduces proportionately with every extra member employed.
    In other words keep it lean and keen.
    The other point I would make is that Ian Junior, on Telly, tried to justify claiming a higher rent because it would get the mortgage paid off quicker.
    Apparently that is to give less money to the banks.
    So it is in the taxpayer’s interest to pay off a mortgage that will end up belonging to someone who knows flip all about the trust.
    I didn’t realise that, that was what expenses are for.
    I thought it was against the rules.
    Does that mean that when the taxpayer has paid enough to pay off the mortgage ,that we will get the building rent free in perpetuity?
    It is a joke, and Ian Paisley must think that people are as stupid as he is.

  • Thomas Girvan

    Some hope. it is all waffle, throwing up a smokescreen to disguise the issues.

  • Thomas Girvan

    You are right there , sure Iris Robinson was the missus of Peter and half of the family were on the payroll and they all did/do a great job.
    Not only did Iris do a great job as MP. and councillor etc. but she also won the Nobel Prize for discovering the cure for homosexuality!

  • Thomas Girvan

    £5,000 per day for every tanker load re laundered.

  • Dixie Elliott

    This is the Northern section of Adamsism which has the brass neck to accuse FF, FG and Labour of being corrupt in the South….

    Clearly the shinners don’t really want to be a threat to the establishment in the South they just want their cut….

  • Zeno3

    Maybe Comrade Stalin did make a slight mistake on the expected rise in productivity of doubling the workforce, but his point still stands. Two people will be more productive that one. The quality and continuity of the service provided will be guaranteed to improve since there is cover in place to deal with sickness and holiday leave. More time can be allocated to each case. It’s a no brainer.

  • Mister_Joe

    Yes, if you employ two people instead of one, you don’t get twice the value because they spend half the time just chatting (or gossiping) with each other.

  • Thomas Girvan

    If you want to get away from people then these constituency offices are the place to go.
    They are all over the place and I have never seen anyone going into one.
    Political parties should have one to serve all their representatives in a particular town or area,
    (no, I don’t mean that each of the MLAs should all claim the maximum for the same building as in Ballymena!)
    In Comber there are two of these offices on opposite sides of the one street.
    And of course, Daithi McKay has two offices, side by side, one private and one public.
    It is scandalous the amount of public money wasted on these things, meanwhile public services continue to close on a daily basis.
    No wonder less and less people are voting.

  • chrisjones2

    Who owns them?

  • chrisjones2

    And every time anyone asked pertinent questions they got a full open and prompt answer

  • chrisjones2

    The Charity Commission is a mess.Underfunded and overwhelmed

  • chrisjones2

    I help run a charity. They wont implement part of the Act for another 5 years as they cant cope. Many on the Hill are very happy with this

  • chrisjones2

    Its very simple. She forgot for 8 years until the BBC reminded her

  • chrisjones2

    How many employ the relatives of other MLAs?

    How many relatives are employed by the Party?

    SF has always been controlled by a clique of clan members

  • chrisjones2

    Is it really? Where did all those high rents go?

  • chrisjones2

    Unless it persuades prods to sell at a lower price to keep themuns out

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The last time I checked, the terms and conditions for anyone setting up a charity in N.I. certainly appeared to be considerably less tight than elsewere.

  • Thomas Girvan

    Well, the person who takes out the mortgage will get it when it’s all paid up.
    In the Ballymena case there is a company set up that has one trustee as I understand it. He seems to be a local farmer who is a DUP supporter.
    It will become the company’s property when it is all paid up, even though it has been paid for by public money, it will not be public property, and will still be able to charge rent from the MLAs’ expenses.
    Formerly the recipient of the money was Ian Paisley’s father-in-law. but he had to get off side when the arrangement was exposed during the expenses scandal.

  • Thomas Girvan

    What if they don’t do a good job?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Interesting! You’d wonder why it is not the other way round! No I know why, I’ve been posting about the use of defamation actions by important people to inhibit rape claims elsewere on Slugger. But the failure to punitivly hold those not registering interests to account, (“errors of omission” are seldom acceptable defense in dealings with HMRC for one example) means that the public do not know how to assess the importance for them of the private activities of those they elect. To be really thorough, you’d really need to know what interests their extended families had too. But that would be unwaranted exposure of their private lifes, would it not? The sooner the better!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear, Comrade, “ultimately every voter makes a judgement of the MLA’s effectiveness at the ballot box”….is that some kind of joke? I thought I was the guy who uses levity as a norm!

    Certainly they should, but it would be interesting to discover, if an effective questionaire could be put together, who actually does!

  • chrisjones2

    Well they told the Irish Times a few months back that junior staff in the Dail were paid €15000 – just above the minimum wage – whereas in de Nurth the all seem to get £25k

    Odd that fro an All Ireland Party innit

  • chrisjones2

    Sean

    You haven’t answered?

  • chrisjones2

    Exactly. As CCNI is new you might ask why

  • chrisjones2

    …or both

  • Nope. Easier in England.

  • Metro

    There are easy ways to check out the SF rent payments. Was a cheque written? To whom? Whose name is on the bank account? Where is the money now? Was tax claimed on this income? Is that person exempt from paying rates? A simple forensic audit could sort this out quickly. The same goes for Paisley rent payments.

  • Rapunsell

    http://www.charitycommissionni.org.uk/our-regulatory-work/concerns-about-charities/
    The CCNI is up and running and has investigatory and regulatory powers and indeed this society and any others on the HMRC deemed list fall under their authority.

  • sean treacy

    apparently I have been summoned to the star chamber to account for SF mlas employing relatives.As far as I can recall the best that the partys enemies could ever come up with was that a single MLA employed a brother in law of another MLA. Talk about clutching at straws!

  • chrisjones2

    But supervision is much tighter in England and if you are on the HMRC deemed list here you just shuffle across with no checks. In England you also have to show public benefit

  • chrisjones2

    Whatever they pay their staff?

  • Fobhristi

    “SF has always been controlled by a clique of clan members”

    A few examples of what you’re claiming here would go a long way

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Easier to set up on paper perhaps over the water, but more stringent demamds made as to what is considered to actually be a charity. As chrisjones2 says below, you actualy have to be providing a recognisable public benefit. Here, you have only to be a church, or a gospel hall, or something similar. There still seems to be considerable lasitude in the interpretation of the word “charity” in the wee six.

  • Rapunsell

    But if you’re on the deemed list you are subject to the regulatory powers of the commission here. All it takes for an investigation is for someone to make a confidential complaint to the commission

  • Thomas Girvan

    Next week’s episode of Spotlight aka “Who wants to be a MLAionaire?” should be good.
    Just for fun why not have a wee quiz to see which parties have the snouts deepest in the Stormont trough?
    Here is my guess based upon proportionality.
    1. DUP
    2.Ulster Unionists
    3 SDLP
    4.Alliance
    5. Sinn Fein
    Now, if they were horses in a race, you really would be on your way to being a millionaire to predict the 5 horses in order.
    We’ll see!

  • Last of the Libertines

    I don’t think there is anything particularly “clear” seeing as Spotlight seems to have raised more questions than it answered.

  • Lionel Hutz

    I think that the big issue is how public money is funding expensive community advice units with a parties brand on it. In some areas, the voluntary sector and citizens advice is being effectively politicized. The program looked at Ross Hussey’s offices in Omagh, which from the outside look very impressive. Around the corner, the DUP have a similar sized office doing the same thing. At the top of the the town, Sinn Fein have a fairly large HQ also, with a gift shop. I think Joe Byrne, SDLP, has a first floor office out the road to Enniskillen. If these services are needed, then a proper citizens advice bureau should be built without political affiliation. I recognize the need for parties to have constituency offices to consult with their constituents about more substantial matters but why are MLAs filling out DLA forms? What does that have to do with the functions of being a member of a legislative assembly?

    How is ever going to possible for other parties effectively oppose the parties in stormont when they are given this given kind of leg up with public money?

  • babyface finlayson

    The company mentioned in the News Letter, Sevastapol Developments is hard to find any information about. Its director is Desmond Mackin who I think may be a former IRA man.

    The company is in default for not presenting any accounts for last year.

    A google search does not seem to bring it up at all.

  • Comrade Stalin

    You obviously haven’t studied economics.
    It is pretty basic, but the concept of “marginal utility of labour”, means that what you get back from extra staff employed reduces proportionately with every extra member employed.

    I have an A level in Economics, but that was nearly 20 years ago. Nonetheless, congratulations for your studying of of the subject. I hereby appoint you as Chief Poobah of Economics for Slugger O’Toole.

    I hate to waste any more of your valuable time, as I’m sure you’re on the way to Sweden to pick up a Nobel Prize in Economics any time around now, but perhaps you could explain something to me.

    Why does my local butcher employ two or three extra persons to help when it’s busy on Saturday ?
    Why does the guy painting my house apparently, erroneously, persist with the belief that having an extra guy with him will enable him to get it done twice as fast ?
    In fact, why does any organization, anywhere, employ more than two people ? You seem to be saying this is a bad idea.

    Or were you too busy being a pompous buffoon to contribute something that was actually relevant ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Zeno, I didn’t really make a mistake. Two people of equivalent capability will do twice as much

    The Lord High Poobah of Economics up there is referring to a scalability law that applies in circumstances where you hire so many additional people that the extra overheads (extra management, paperwork, HR overheads, etc etc) mean that the marginal amount of additional work done by hiring an additional employee diminishes significantly over time. A point which is almost completely irrelevant in an office which has one additional employee in it.

    Scalability can go the other way too, ie with large gangs of people you can accomplish more work than you would if they were individuals working sequentially. But this is totally irrelevant too.

    The point about people chatting etc is silly. Clearly I’m assuming, as most people do, that the people being hired are not skivers. And if they’re skiving I’d be having a word with them.

    The more problems an MLA solves, the more votes he is likely to win. It is therefore in his interest not to employ people who spend all day chatting. To people who are

  • Comrade Stalin

    Thomas,

    Great. You don’t think offices are worthwhile. Then vote for an MLA who maintains a minimal staff. It is your business.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Thomas,

    For a chap who is well-studied in economics and surely a whole range of other things you seem to have a few problems getting to grips with basic facts.

    Your opinion, like my opinion, of Iris Robinson’s performance as an MP and her spending habits is irrelevant. A person stands for election on their record. If the electorate want corrupt politicians who game the expenses system are you suggesting that we should try to stop them ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    I’m confused as to what you think the joke is. What part of what I said do you have a problem with ?

    If you want to vote for a corrupt lazy idiot to represent you, who am I to stop you ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Fra McCann employs a niece of Paul and Alex Maskey. Strictly what Sean said is true.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Adams, Maskey, Murphy ..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    My dear fellow, voting for any one of these clowns implicates the voter in their pathetic attempts to ruin the wee six just that little bit more. I did not think that you could actually be seriously stating that “ultimately every voter makes a judgement of the MLA’s effectiveness at the ballot box” and, as I’d said, yes they should, but mostly no they don’t. Do you really think that EVERY voter carefully MAKE A JUDGEMENT with intellegent evaluation of the MLAs EFFECTIVENESS?EVERY voter?

    Now I might (if there was anyone in whom I could feel any confidence), you, despite the broad statements and the imprecise use of words on other postings might (I value your posts, really). Quite a few thinking people from both traditions posting on Slugger might, but most of the people I meet and speak to seem to “vote by standing order”. As long as this goes on the “system” (or rather individuals using the “system” and empowered by legislation) is our only hope to curb the bizarre excesses of our masters.

    Mick has been posting some valuable articles on the need for committed enthuastic engagement to an echoing silence elsewere on Slugger. Me, I’d be very happy if we had complete financial transparency (unlikely in my lifetime) and a system whereby citizens could directly (and enthuastically) challenge their representatives on posible corruption issues. Until that unlikely day we are simply helots at the mercy of our secular elect.

  • barnshee

    I think you have missed the point old chap

    “Why does my local butcher employ two or three extra persons to help when it’s busy on Saturday ? ”

    You should ask

    Why does he not employ them for the rest of the week?

    “Why does the guy painting my house apparently, erroneously, persist with the belief that having an extra guy with him will enable him to get it done twice as fast ?”

    You should ask why he does employ 2 3 or 4 extra ?

    Its economics old chap -congrats on the A leve(l tho I don`t think it was an A*)

  • Thomas Girvan

    To paraphrase an old saying,
    ” Don’t get angry, get educated!”

  • Thomas Girvan

    The point I was making was that nepotism is not an effective way of selecting a person for the job.
    I would say that politics in N.I. is pretty unique in that you can slot someone in to a constituency and wrap a flag around them and they will get elected.
    There’s a few of them in Stormont, I won’t insult your intelligence by naming them!

  • Thomas Girvan

    Q.U.B. actually.
    But I digress.
    If the butcher’s shop is privately owned and the owner relies upon making a profit then he will ensure that he will only employ the number of staff required to do the job.
    If, however, he is given as much money as he requests by a benefactor who is subsidised by a taxpayer who is in the dark, then he will more than likely employ more people to work together so they can have a wee cup of tea together, because there was never enough work for the first one to do in the first place, never mind two!

  • chrisjones2

    My five and the reasons are:

    1. Sinn Fein grafting for party and to channel funds to south / give jobs to ‘reformed’ soldiers
    2. DUP grafting for self and to support donors
    3 Alliance personal relationships / mates
    4 Ulster Unionists personal / laziness
    5 SDLP basicially stupidity rather than malice

  • Thomas Girvan

    “Don’t worry they will find something to do.
    It is called Parkinson’s Law.
    Basically,
    “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
    Look it up.

  • chrisjones2

    Nothing here is confidential