Review of MLA Expenses: Party Leaders Endorse Guiding Principles

At a meeting chaired by the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Hay MLA, the leaders of all of the political parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed this evening to a set of ten “guiding principles” which should underpin a recently announced review of the expenses available to Assembly Members.

The ten principles (see below) will require the Assembly’s expenses system to continue to be based on the recovery of actual expenditure, not on an entitlement to allowances. They also include a commitment to openness and transparency and ensuring that any expenditure incurred by MLAs provides value for money. MLAs will also be expected to act within both the spirit and the letter of any rules set down.

The Speaker, William Hay, said: “We are reviewing the expenses arrangements for our Assembly Members. Although we have a completely different system than Westminster, I am aware that the recent negative publicity about how MPs claim expenses has dented public trust and confidence. I am pleased that the leaders of all the parties have enthusiastically agreed to recommend that these principles be used as the basis for our expenses system. I hope that the public will be encouraged that our local politicians are determined to ensure that the Assembly has an open, transparent and robust expenses system in which the public can have confidence.”

The principles are:

1. MLAs have a duty to observe the seven Nolan principles of public life in all aspects of incurring expenditure and claiming expenses.

2. MLAs have a right to be properly supported in carrying out their Assembly duties.

3. Any expenses claimed must be in respect of expenditure that has been wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred in respect of a Member’s Assembly duties.

4. The system for claiming expenses incurred by MLAs in performing their Assembly duties should be based on the recovery of actual expenditure, not on an entitlement to allowances.

5. Openness and transparency about expenditure incurred by Members will predominate, subject only to data protection, security considerations and inordinate or disproportionate costs.

6. Resources provided to enable MLAs to undertake their Assembly duties must not, directly or indirectly, benefit party political funding or be used for party political activities.

7. Arrangements should be avoided which may give rise to an accusation that an MLA – or someone close to an MLA – is obtaining an element of profit from public funds; or that public money is being diverted for the benefit of a political organisation.

8. MLAs will seek to ensure that any expenditure incurred provides value for money for the tax-payer.

9. MLAs will take personal responsibility for ensuring that any claims made in their name for expenses incurred in respect of their Assembly duties are correct and proper.

10. For all expenses claims, MLAs must act within the spirit of the rules as well as within the letter of the rules. The Assembly Commission will publish the rules and detailed guidance on the system for claiming expenses, and Assembly officials will provide any further guidance that may be required by Members.

Today’s agreement on principles follows a recent decision by the Assembly Commission to further improve transparency by publishing additional information on Members’ expenses. In September 2009, full details of every transaction made by an MLA (effective from April 2009) will be published on the Assembly’s website.

Committee Celebrates Townlands

Where do you call home? Is it Aughadarra? Could it be Ballymaguigan or maybe it’s Clatterknowles?

These were just some of the questions on the agenda at the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure major seminar at Parliament Buildings to promote and raise awareness of townland names.

Speaking before the event, Committee Chairperson, Barry McElduff, MLA, said: “This seminar is an important initiative aimed at highlighting the significance of townland names and also at holding government departments to account in terms of the promotion of townland names.

“They are a hugely important part of our heritage. People are massively interested in place, where they are from and their local identity.”

Mr McElduff, of the townland of Aghagogan, continued: “It is important not only to preserve townland names but to actively promote them within local communities. Townland names are in the common ownership of the entire community and all traditions. Everyone shares a great passion for them and they are an important part of our shared heritage.

“Many of our primary schools do excellent work in this area, as do sports clubs and community groups. District Councils play a significant role too in promoting their usage. ”

The seminar attracted experts from across Northern Ireland who highlighted the cultural and historical significance of our local townland names and why their preservation is crucial to maintaining and further strengthening our local communities.

The Armagh Rhymers will be celebrating townlands through the medium of verse, while women’s groups from Dromore and Termonmaguire in County Tyronewill be telling stories of their communities with a dazzling display of traditional patchwork quilts.
This event took place on 17 June in Parliament Buildings, Belfast – in the townland of Ballymiscaw.

Struggles For Newly Qualified Teachers

Teacher recruitment and employment came up again in Enniskillen as one man suggested that newly qualified teachers were forced out of the country to find work because so many retired teachers were ‘subbing’ and keeping young teachers out of jobs.

Ex-teacher Tommy Gallagher, SDLP, said there was a problem when teachers took early retirement but there was nothing to stop them from coming back into the profession.
He said: “The individual school, the employer, can choose to bring those teachers back in to cover an absence. The difficulty is the number of young teachers on the unemployment register is rising all the time.”

He went on to say that the Department of Education should take steps to stop teachers who have taken retirement from coming back into jobs that could be filled by newly qualified teachers.

Tommy Gallagher thinks the Department haven’t acted strongly enough to protect the jobs of newly qualified teachers. What do you think?

Level Playing Field Needed In Teacher Recruitment

The question of teacher recruitment was raised in Enniskillen. It was implied that the current recruitment process can be unfair to young teachers.

Stephen Farry felt it was important that local authorities did have a hand in the recruitment process but it was important to ensure parity in the recruitment process. He said: “The critical thing is ensuring there’s a level playing field and there isn’t a closed shop in relation to schools going back to teachers they’ve known before.”

He also added that there was an ‘over-supply’ of trainee teachers and with a dwindling number of pupils, there was an imbalance between supply and demand, leading to challenging times ahead for teacher recruitment.

Do you think that there is sometimes a ‘closed-shop’ in teacher recruitment? Also, what do you think of the future of teacher training and recruitment if there is an over-supply of trainee teachers?

Community Leaders Need To Tackle Racism

One audience member in Enniskillen speculated that as the economy worsens that people’s frustrations will grow and anger will manifest itself in more attacks on migrants and ethnic minorities.

Tom Elliott, UUP, said that in such situations, community leaders are needed to influence people’s actions and behaviours on the ground. He didn’t believe that government itself would do anything but added that but politicians must actively work in the community to make the situation better:
He said: “It is about working together. There is a responsibility on us to do something locally and we can do that and help in community areas.”

Pat Doherty, SF, condemned any such attacks and echoed Tom Elliott’s statement that it is best tackled on a local, community level, saying: “The answer isn’t always a law and order answer. It’s the attitude of community, the attitude of councillors, and the attitude of MLAs. It’s how you change the attitude of society that will stop all this.”

Do you agree with the panel that these attacks are best tackled on a local level?

Increase In Racist Attacks In Rural Areas Needs Tackled

One person in Enniskillen was concerned that the trend for racist attacks has increased in rural areas. He asked the panel what had been done to safeguard migrant workers and ethnic minorities from these attacks.

Tommy Gallagher was aware that violent racist crime was on the increase in places like Fermanagh as all of Northern Ireland becomes more culturally diverse. He said: “At Assembly level, we need to work much faster on the shared future strategy that we have because we are facing a more diverse society. Progress on that is very slow and I think that’s a pity.”

Maurice Morrow said that his own borough council area had seen the sharpest rise in population due to immigration but he had noticed a decline in racist crime. He went on to condemn racism, saying: “We all deplore racist attacks. There is no place for them.”

Have you noticed an increase in racist attacks in your area? What do you think of Tommy Gallagher’s claim that more money is needed for community groups and activists on the ground to promote good relations in a multicultural society?

Clarification Over Planning Laws Sought In Enniskillen

The issue of gaining planning permission to build on your own land was raised again in Enniskillen. Tom Elliott mused that he’d be a rich man if was given a pound for every time he heard of the issue. He did sympathise with the person who asked the question though and suggested again that people west of the Bann, who have differing needs than more urban areas, should have different rules with regards PPS21.
Maurice Morrow said that although PPS21 isn’t perfect, it is ‘getting there’. He also commended the Minister for acting to ensure Northern Ireland’s countryside remains unspoilt but felt that there should be circumstances under which people could build on their own farmland.

Have you tried and failed to get planning permission on your own land as a result of PPS21? Do you agree with Lord Morrow that the Minister should be commended for his work so far?