Annex B of the Independent Financial Review Panel’s most recent consultation document [the content of which I blogged about earlier] contains a table showing each MLA’s mileage expense claims for 2013/14 and 2014/15, along with the distance of their constituency office from Parliament Buildings.
- MLAs receive a standard rate of Motor Mileage Allowance for business travel by car. The rates that may be claimed are 45p per mile for the first 10,000 miles and 25p per mile thereafter.
- In general, travel from home to a constituency office is taxable as HMRC view payment for this commute as a benefit in kind [Ed – aren’t most employees expected to pay for their commute out of their salary?]; journeys to Parliament Buildings as well as travel for constituency work and other non-party political events is non-taxable. The figures shown are before tax.
- Ministers have been omitted since they have cars and drivers and as a consequence, their mileage claims are not directly comparable with the rest of their constituency colleagues.
- Some MLAs did not serve for the full period so they have been left out of the analysis.
- The MLAs are grouped alphabetically within their constituencies and followed by an constituency average figure for the MLAs included in the analysis.
- The constituencies are ordered by ascending average distance of MLA constituency offices from Parliament Buildings, using the figures provided by IFRP’s Annex B.
Logically, you’d expect mileage expenses to be smallest for MLAs serving urban constituencies on the doorstep of Parliament Buildings. And you’d expect mileage claims to be largest for MLAs serving large rural constituencies that are far away from the gates of Stormont estate.
In general this is the case. However, there are clear exceptions within individual constituencies. Some MLAs – particularly those representing East Belfast or North Down – do not claim mileage. (Nor do they claim back significant public transport expenses.) Daithí McKay does not claim any mileage despite his North Antrim colleagues typically claiming £4000-£5000.
NI Green Party leader and North Down representative Steven Agnew is another MLA who does not claim any mileage expenses. He explained to me:
I don’t claim for mileage for home to work travel as it’s not something most of my constituents could claim for their jobs. While I know there’s an argument for some that the nature of the job means they have to travel long distances as they can’t relocate from their constituency I don’t believe that’s a good argument for someone from Bangor.
He added: “On occasions where a staff members drives to meetings I would sign off on their mileage claims”.
Three MLAs listed are also MPs (Gregory Campbell, Alasdair McDonnell and Sammy Wilson) and this may affect the size and nature of their expense claims.
Some discrepancies between mileage claims by MLAs within the same constituency can be explained by Members who choose to live a long distance from the electorate they serve and make multiple trips between their home, constituency and Stormont. This is one scenario the financial panel are seeking to address through their mileage expenses reform proposals that would eliminate claims for travel from home to constituency offices and offer a flat rate of mileage expenses based on attendance at the Assembly and factoring in the size of their constituency and its distance from Stormont.
Mileage claims are self-authorised by MLAs and cannot be easily verified. Annex B shows some large shifts in the balance of non-taxable and taxable mileage claims between 2013/14 and 2014/15 by particular MLAs while the overall total has remained steady which would point to poor – or inconsistent – recording of journeys.
A annual £10,000 mileage claim equates to 32,000 miles travelled on Assembly business (10,000 miles at 45p and the remaining 22,000 miles at 25p).
Others anomalies are harder to explain.
Perhaps some work harder and travel further within their constituency? Perhaps say yes to far-flung engagements and engage outside their constituencies more readily than others?
What is certain is that the IFRP’s flat rate proposal per constituency will have a big impact on the level of mileage expenses some MLAs receive in constituencies such as North Antrim, Strangford … and even East Belfast.