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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