Impact of the Kelly Report on Northern Ireland

Analysis of the impact Sir Christopher Kelly’s report into MPs expenses will have on Northern Ireland’s MPs.

The publication of the report into MPs’ expenses, pay and staffing arrangements by Sir Christopher Kelly and his Committee on Standards in Public Life has been dubbed by Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg as an “opportunity to start restoring people’s trust in the work of MPs”. Indeed, in a rare sign of political unity, Prime Minister’s Questions saw all three main party leaders united in accepting Kelly’s recommendations in full as a key step to restoring people’s faith in Parliament.

However, one anomaly remains, namely Sinn Féin’s five Westminster MPs.

Despite maintaining a policy that they will not take up their seats in the House of Commons, in May the Telegraph reported that Sinn Féin MPs claimed up to £500,000 in public funds to cover the costs of flats in London. This followed a decision by the House of Commons in 2001 to pass a motion, proposed by Robin Cook, which effectively allows Sinn Féin members to use all Parliamentary facilities and allowances.

In response to criticisms of the size of the second home allowances they were claiming, in August, Sinn Féin MP for Newry and Armagh Connor Murphy told the Belfast Telegraph:

“The party has taken the decision not to renew these leases and instead our MPs will use hotel accommodation when in London on constituency business.”

Given the extent of the public’s anger against MPs and their use of expenses, Sir Christopher had the opportunity to take a firm stand against those MPs prepared to use public funds to cover the costs of living away from home, despite not being prepared to become full and active members of the House of Commons.

His report said:

“It is difficult to believe that paying rent for permanent accommodation when the MP concerned is only an occasional visitor to London can reasonably be regarded as representing value for money.”

However, the Committee on Standards in Public Life seems to suggest that whilst Sinn Féin cannot use public money for the rent on a flat, it “welcomes the Sinn Féin decision to claim only hotel expenses”.

Such inconsistencies in Kelly’s report, are as he suggests, based largely on political decisions made by Parliament itself in 2001, with suggestions that the decision to allow Sinn Féin’s MPs to access allowances were based on making progress on the peace process. Given the great progress made since the 2001 vote, with a relatively stable coalition executive in Stormont now putting dialogue ahead of violence, and given the sheer public backlash against the MPs’ expenses regime, it would perhaps be a good time to review the treatment of those MPs who simply fail to represent their constituents properly in the chamber of the House of Commons.

In other developments likely to be of interest in Belfast, the Kelly committee’s recommendation that MPs be banned from employing members of their own family are likely to have a substantial impact on the Democratic Unionist Party couple, Iris and Peter Robinson, both MPs, who between them are reported to employ four family members.

Furthermore, Kelly has advised that the practice by which some MPs also sit in a devolved legislature at the same time, know as double jobbing, be brought to an end in 2011, a recommendation that will have an impact on 16 joint MPs/MLAs.

Reacting to the report, Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said:

“The final systemic problems that have arisen come from the fact that Members of Parliament have been setting their own pay and conditions, have been setting their own allowances.

“It would be entirely wrong if MPs were to unpick the recommendations.”

This despite Mr Robinson’s wife, Strangford MP Iris Robinson, telling Northern Ireland paper The Newsletter that the expenses scandal had become close to a “witch hunt” on MPs.

For the SDLP, leader Mark Durkan – whilst welcoming moves to abolish dual mandates – believes that the 2011 target suggested by Sir Christopher for ending the practice was too long.

Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy added:

“This is an abuse created by some parties in Northern Ireland. It is the DUP and Sinn Féin who are the culprits, abusing public trust and confidence by allowing all of their MPs to double- or triple-job in the Assembly.”

Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations will now be considered by the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which was established to take decisions on allowances, expenses and pay out of MPs’ hands.

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4 Responses to “Impact of the Kelly Report on Northern Ireland”

  1. Conor McGinn

    RT @leftfootfwd Impact of the Kelly Report on Northern Ireland: –> What a silly and totally inaccurate article

  2. Conor McGinn

    It’s a real pity that most of this article is devoted to attacking Sinn Féin (on a false premise) and only one sentence devoted to the really important part of what Kelly said in relation to Northern Ireland.

    In relation to SF: they are an Irish republican party who stand on an abstentionist platform. Anyone who votes for SF in a Westminster election does so in the knowledge that, if elected, their MP will not take his/her seat in the House of Commons. Abstentionism has played a significant role in Irish politics going right back to 1918, and SF’s stance in relation to the British Parliament and the oath of allegiance is a legitimate one in their and their electorate’s eyes. I personally think they are wrong in their stance, and that it is both short-sighted and illogical to sit in the NI Assembly but not the UK Parliament. I do, however, think it is outrageous to deny SF’s abstentionist MPs proper facilities and support to work on behalf of their constituents. They are entitled to the same in this regard as other MPs, and should also be subject to the same rules as their Parliamentary colleagues in relations property/rent and expenses.

    The important point of Kelly’s report in relation to NI – which the article all but ignored – is about the end of the dual mandate or ‘double-jobbing’. 16 of the 18 NI MPs are also MLAs, and several of them are also Ministers or Committee Chairs in the NI Assembly. This is totally unacceptable. Further to that, at least one NI MP is a local councillor, MLA and an MP! The Review of Public Administration in NI recommended that the 26 local councils (for a population of 1.5m who also have an Assembly of 108 members across 18 constituencies) are cut to 11. This is due to happen in 2011, which is the cut-off point that Kelly gave for ‘double-jobbing’ to end. Last night SF selected an MLA and Minister to stand for a Parliamentary seat in North Belfast. DUP MPs who are MLAs have yet to indicate which seat they will give up. The Ulster Unionists have selected sitting MLAs to fight Westminster seats. To date, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan is the only politician to definitively state that he will be choosing one office (his colleague Alasdair McDonnell has not). The onus now is on NI political parties to indicate what their MPs will do. And that’s where the pressure needs to be applied to get straight answers, straight away.

  3. Tom Griffin

    “it would perhaps be a good time to review the treatment of those MPs who simply fail to represent their constituents properly in the chamber of the House of Commons.”

    SF have been standing on an abstentionist platform for nearly a hundred years now. The people who vote for them know what they’re getting. If they don’t actually want an MP who will take their seat, is it anyone’s business to second-guess them?

  4. Ed Jacobs

    Thanks for all the comments. On the double jobbing rule, I’m in complete agreement. Given the low esteem the public have for politicians, it doesn’t make any sense having some drawing two salaries. Especially those with ministerial responsibilities. Surely being First Minister of the province should be a full time job of its own.

    On Sinn Fein – its a difficult one. Yes, when people elected them they knew exactly what they were doing. However, is it right that a party that does not take its seats in the house or swear the oath of allegiance should also be allowed to draw UK taxpayers money. Given that they can’t actually attend debates in the chamber or select committees, why do they need a base in London at all? Just some thoughts to consider as part of the wider national debate on restoring trust in politics.

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