NI Assembly Commission misleads the Assembly, and the public

When the BBC reported the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission’s written answers to some ‘stupid’ questions from TUV leader Jim Allister on Friday they used the headline “Sinn Féin MLAs who claimed almost £700,000 in expenses ‘did nothing wrong‘”.  There was also a report broadcast, “Sinn Féin cleared in expenses investigation“.

The NI Assembly Commission is chaired by the Speaker, currently Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin, and consists of one MLA from each of the Executive parties – who have a vote according to the number of MLAs in their respective parties.

On Sunday Pat McCartan, chair of the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), intervened to point out that the Assembly Commission’s answers were factually inaccurate.

The claims were made by Sinn Féin MLAs through Stormont expenses to pay Research Services Ireland (RSI) over a 10-year period.

The commission also cleared the party of wrongdoing in paying office rent to three cultural societies.

Mr McCartan, chair of the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), told the BBC’s Sunday Politics that £150,000 should not have been paid.

We made a determination which started from 1 April 2012 and which outlawed payments made to companies like RSI,” he said.

“Yet it appears from information I now have that payments have been made up to the end of December of that year.

“That is contrary to the determination. And the commission, if it thinks these were okay, is quite wrong.” [added emphasis]

Here’s what the Assembly Commission told Jim Allister about the Research Services Ireland payments

The Commission reviewed the content of the two BBC Spotlight programmes. That review confirmed that payments for research services, as reported in the programme, were made for admissible expenditure up to and including the 2012/13 financial year. As such, no recovery has been sought. No payments to Research Services Ireland for work undertaken after 31 December 2012 have been made as a result of changes to the system of financial support for Members that were introduced by the Independent Financial Review Panel from 1 January 2013. [added emphasis]

And on the “payment of rent to non-existent cultural societies

The Commission reviewed the content of the two BBC Spotlight programmes. That review confirmed that payments for rent, as reported in the programme, were made for admissible expenditure. As such, no recovery has been sought.

Despite the Assembly Commission’s response to Jim Allister, and the BBC’s initial reporting, what doesn’t appear to have happened is any investigation into the substance of the allegations made in the 2014 BBC NI Spotlight programme, namely whether any actual research was carried out by Research Services Ireland – as the BBC noted at the time, RSI was “run by Seamus Drumm and Sinead Walsh, who are in charge of running Sinn Féin’s finance department in Northern Ireland”.  Nor was there any assessment of the status of those “cultural societies”.

From the minutes of the Assembly Commission we learn that, on the 25 November 2014

The Clerk/Chief Executive provided Members with an overview of the issues arising from the first BBC Spotlight documentary on Members expenses which was broadcast on 18 November 2014.  Members discussed the issues in the documentary and possible actions required. Members also sought further information relating to the management responses of the internal audit investigations conducted on the matter and it was agreed that this would be brought to the next meeting, including the proposal to update the database of Members’ signatures. It was agreed that a further paper to be brought to a future Commission meeting outlining a range of costed options for refining and improving Assembly Members financial systems, including details on comparative models within each of the other UK legislatures and the Oireachtas. It was agreed to give further consideration to these issues following the broadcast of the second documentary.

The Commission discussed the BBC Spotlight Programme over the course of two subsequent meetings, on the 1 December 2014, and then on the 21 January 2015, where

Richard Stewart, Director of Corporate Services, provided the Commission with an overview of his paper regarding the Members’ Expenses System. Members agreed that due to length and range of issues discussed, that further time and, if required, a meeting with Mr Stewart for clarification was the preferred way to proceed. This will allow Members time to consult with their respective parties.

At the next meeting, on 18 February 2015, the Commission decided

The Commission agreed that a retrospective review of OCE payments would be costly and time consuming and unlikely to produce any beneficial outcome.

The main question arising from the IFRP’s intervention is why payments continued to made for claims for Sinn Féin’s Research Services Ireland after 1 April 2012.  As Pat McCartan told the BBC

We made a determination which started from 1 April 2012 and which outlawed payments made to companies like RSI,” he said. [added emphasis]

“Yet it appears from information I now have that payments have been made up to the end of December of that year.

“That is contrary to the determination. And the commission, if it thinks these were okay, is quite wrong.”

That March 2012 determination is available on the IFRP website.  Here’s a direct link to the pdf file [161Kb].

In that determination it states under Office Costs Expenditure

[9.] (10) Subject to sub-paragraph (11), a member shall not be entitled to recover expenditure under sub-paragraph (1) in relation to any contract for goods and services entered into with a connected person after 1 April 2012.

Where sub-paragraph (1) is

(1) Subject to sub-paragraphs (3) to (14), a member shall be entitled to recover the expenditure which he incurs in any year in respect of research, secretarial, clerical or administrative assistance (including the provision of any equipment, facilities or services associated therewith) required by the member in connection with the carrying out of his Assembly duties.

and “a connected person” is defined as

a family member; „

a political party of which he is a member; „

a person with whom the member is connected within the meaning of section 252(2)(b), (c), (d) or (e) or section 254 of the Companies Act 2006; or 

any person from whom the member, his family member, or a political party of which the member is a member, derives a financial benefit; „

and for this purpose “financial benefit” shall not include: ƒ any benefit derived by his family member which arises in connection with the family member’s occupation; or ƒ any benefit which arises in connection with any shareholding that is a registrable interest under the Northern Ireland Assembly Code of Conduct and Guide Relating to the Conduct of Members, or, in the case of a shareholding held by a family member or political party, would be a registrable interest were it held by the member;

The “changes to the system of financial support for Members that were introduced by the Independent Financial Review Panel from 1 January 2013” referred to by the Assembly Commission was, in fact, an amendment to the March 2012 determination [pdf file 147Kb].  The accompanying press release from the IFRP explains the reasons for the amendment

Following the publication of the Panel’s first Determination in March 2012, talks were held with a number of political parties on the issue of the pooling of their support staff. This would allow a member of staff to be employed by one Assembly Member and to provide a service not only to that Member but also to a pool of Party colleagues.

The Panel considered this proposal in detail and has accepted that, subject to certain safeguards, this arrangement would:

• be an efficient and effective way of providing support to MLAs

• enable members to share specialist staff in an efficient and effective manner.

As currently drafted the March 2012 Determination does not facilitate such an arrangement. The Panel has therefore made a new Determination to amend the March 2012 Determination in order to enable a pooling arrangement to be put in place. The Assembly Commission and Assembly Members have been notified of this amendment. The Determination has been published on the Panel’s website. The new arrangements take effect on 1 January 2013 and will apply to the end of the current mandate. [added emphasis throughout]

That amendment specified

(5) A member shall be entitled to recover expenditure under sub-paragraph (1) in relation to any person providing research, secretarial, clerical or administrative assistance only if that person is: a) employed by the member; or b) employed by an employing member under a staff pooling arrangement in which both members participate.

(6) A member shall accordingly not be entitled to recover expenditure under sub-paragraph (1) in relation to any person providing research, secretarial, clerical or administrative assistance if that assistance is provided by virtue of any arrangement between the member and a third person save a staff pooling arrangement in which he participates.

Significantly, sub-paragraph (10) continued to state

(10) Subject to sub-paragraph (11), a member shall not be entitled to recover expenditure under sub-paragraph (1) in relation to any contract for goods and services entered into with a connected person. [added emphasis]

In addition to the payments for claims for Sinn Féin’s Research Services Ireland from 1 April 2012 to December 2012, payments also continued for claims by Sinn Féin, SDLP and UUP MLAs for secretarial and administrative services provided by their parties until December 2012 when all such claims ceased.  The details of MLAs’ Office Cost Expenditure for 2012/13 are available here.

Presumably the cost of pooled support staff is now contained within individual MLA’s Support Staff Costs.

Sinn Féin MLAs continue to claim for the “payment of rent to non-existent cultural societies“.

Alan McQuillan, who also sits on the Independent Financial Review Panel, was on Nolan this morning.  The conversation gets somewhat sidetracked by an apparent appeals process, but it’s worth listening to.

The BBC report now contains a response from a spokesperson for the Assembly Commission

A spokesperson for the Assembly Commission said: “Media reports over the weekend have stated that the Assembly Commission unlawfully made payments of approximately £150,000. This is simply not the case.

“The Independent Financial Review Panel made a determination in 2012, that stated an MLA could not recover expenditure in relation to a contract for goods or services with a connected person entered into on or after 1 April 2012.

“The £150,000 in this case was for goods or services relating to contracts made before this time. The real issue in this case is when the contract was signed and not when the payments were made.”

Up to a point, Lord Copper…