Entirely unrelated to Sinn Féin’s opposition to welfare reform… Last week a Deputy District Magistrate in Londonderry acquitted Sinn Féin Councillor Colin Kelly on charges of fraudulently claiming over £19,000 in Housing Benefit and Job Seekers Allowance between November 2010 and March 2014 – when he was a member of Derry City Council. He is currently a councillor on the new Derry City and Strabane District Council for which the basic allowance is £14,200 p.a. – up from the previous allowance of £9,835 a year. His defence makes for interesting reading.
From a 16 July Belfast Live report
At a contested hearing today at Derry Magistrate’s Court defence counsel Mr Stephen Mooney said the facts were not in dispute but the issue was whether there was any element of dishonesty in Cllr Kelly’s actions.
Giving evidence on his own behalf Cllr Kelly said he had been claiming Job Seekers Allowance since 2008.
He said he was co-opted onto Derry City Council in 2010 and received an allowance which went straight into a bank account to which he had no access whatsoever.
In answer to Mr Mooney the councillor said that he had no ‘card, no cheque book no access at all’ to this particular account and that all his allowance went straight to Sinn Fein.
He told the court he had been re-elected to the council in 2011 and 2014 and received expenses from the party for his travel and his telephone.
Which is odd for a number of reasons. [No Average Industrial Wage?! – Ed] Apparently not… And Local District Councillors are entitled to claim, from the Council, expenses for travel and other costs. Derry City Council appear to have been reticent about publishing the details of councillor expenses, but the figures for Strabane District Council are available.
In 2013/14 Strabane councillors claimed between £246.35 and £6,200.82 in travel expenses [pdf file], a total of £36,488.52, at an average of £2,280.53 per councillor. If Councillor Kelly claimed travel expenses from Derry City Council, it may have gone straight to that Sinn Féin account too.
Even without additional expenses, the basic councillors allowance for 3.5 years amounts to roughly £34,400. [That’s a nice profit for the party! – Ed] Indeed.
Back to the report from the court,
The Sinn Fein councillor said that when he became aware of the situation that he might be doing something wrong he tried to rectify it and had been paying back £85 a month since the start of this year.
Which, in the case of £19,000, would take him 223.5 months, or over 18 years to repay… His current basic allowance as a councillor is £14,200 a year.
The Belfast Live report again
In response to questions from prosecution counsel Mr Conor Gillespie the councillor said he had ‘made a mistake’ in not declaring he was doing unpaid work.
He added that as he was not receiving any money personally he did not believe there had been a change in circumstances.
Except that the work wasn’t ‘unpaid’. He had chosen to donate his ‘pay’ to Sinn Féin. And continued to claim benefits to supplement that decision.
In summing up Mr Mooney for the Sinn Fein councillor said that 95% of the Crown case had been proved but ‘there has to be dishonesty’.
He told the judge: “If your worship entertains any reasonable doubt about that the defendant is entitled to the credit for that.”
Deputy District Judge Brian Archer said Kelly had been in receipt of money that had not been declared.
He said if the money had been paid directly to Kelly he would have convicted but added that he had ‘a lurking doubt’ and the prosecution had not proved their case.
Acquitting the councillor of the offences the judge said that in light of the fact that the money was paid to Sinn Fein the party should consider repaying the outstanding debt.
The Belfast Live report ends with a quote about that point from a Sinn Féin spokesperson
When asked about the judge’s remarks about the party repaying the money Cllr Kelly said that was a matter for the party.
A Sinn Féin spokesperson told Belfast Live: “Sinn Féin were not in court today. Councillor Kelly was, and he was acquitted of all charges.”