Yesterday, the Shadow minister for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson promised that a Conservative Government would not allow Sinn Fein to claim expenses unless it takes up its seat in the House of Commons.
This announcement came after two weeks of publicity and debate about MPs expenses which began with the publication of the expense claims of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. In the course that publicity, concerns have arisen over the expense claims of Northern Ireland MPs and MLAs.
In 2007/08, Sinn Fein MPs claimed £681,235 in Commons expenses. There was further publicity about the expense claims of Sinn Fein MLAs and the fact that Sinn Fein as a party levy expenses from its MPs as well as part of their representative’s salary. Sinn Fein’s deputy First Minister, Martin McGuiness has robustly defended Sinn Fein’s conduct.
“That money does not go into our pockets. It employs people. It rents buildings. It buys computers. It does all sorts of things in the interests of the citizens”, he said
There is no doubt that overall, there needs to be an overhall of the system under which MPs, MLAs, MSPs and MWPs are allowed to claim expenses. Mr. Paterson is absolutely right that failure to take up seats should be linked to expense claims. However, the proposal looks too arbitrary. I also believe that the issue needs to be looked at together with all other issues arising out of the expense claims of elected representatives.
Looking at the list of MPs claims, it is not just Sinn Fein which make blanket claims for housing expenses. So also do many other MPs. That is clear from the fact that many of the claims are in round numbers. One has to be concerned about verification that the expense has been properly made.
It is suggested that there should be a new rule which obliges all MPs to have their expenses specially audited by accountants specially appointed by Parliament. A set of rules and guidelines should be drawn up which these accountants should have to follow, including the criteria for allowing / disallowing an expense. It is also suggested that such accountants would have the power to reduce the claim. An appeal system should be in place to enable the MP to challenge a decision of the accountant.
In relation to the “double jobbing” of MPs and MLAs it is hoped that such a system would at least catch out some of the dubious claims made by some of these representatives. However, the audit would need to be broadened to cover MLA expenses. It is therefore suggested that an accountant with power to audit MPs expenses should have a similar power to audit the expenses of MLAs at the same time.
The problem of Sinn Fein’s representation is a special category. The job of an MP is not just to represent their constituents inside the parliament building. However, a large part of it is. I do not know what is the non-parliament representation proportion It is suggested that proportion should be agreed and arrived at by MPs as a guiding “rule of thumb”. Applying that rule, an MP should have his salary proportionately reduced if he does not take up his seat. In relation to expenses, such an MP should never be allowed to claim the cost of accommodation or any travel cost outside their constituency unless he takes up his seat. In relation to the expense of representing constituents, if there has been a levy by the political party of the MP, an expense should be allowed on the basis of expenditure by the party but only if that party can strictly prove that the expense has been paid directly for the legitimate purpose of MPs representation.
Those are my suggestions for settling the problem of MPs expenses. Not all will agree with them. However, it is submitted that having a set of rules and an audit procedure would take “the sting” out of these controversies. With such a system in place, it is hard to see how expense claims would remain newsworthy.
It is bad for our country if our MPs and MLAs are distracted by having to justify their expenses. We need them to concentrate on their proper jobs.
Filed under: Assembly, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Double Jobbing, Jackie Smith, Labour Party, Martin McGuiness, MP's Expenses, Northern ireland, Northern Ireland politics, Sinn Fein, Stormont | Tagged: Assembly, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Policy, Double Jobbing, Jackie Smith, Jacqui Smith, Labour Party, Martin McGuiness, MP's Expenses, Northern ireland, Northern Ireland politics, Owen Paterson, Sinn Fein, Stormont | 2 Comments »