Friday, 15 May 2009

Have you filled out your expenses form?

SOMETIMES satirising public representatives can be like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel. Usually it is because some of our local politicians only open their mouths to change feet.

This week…well the pen proves to be mightier than the sword. That is the pen that fills in the expense forms.

If in doubt retaliate first

Double jobbing sounds worse than it is. No scrub that, it is worse than it sounds. Basically the practice of double jobbing, as it relates to our elected representatives, is such that an MLA can also be a councillor, or an MP; sometimes even all three (triple jobbing).

The DUP, in particular have been stung by criticism of late of the practice. Party leader Peter Robinson this week decided to announce an end to double jobbing. Well, not an end as such.

Some MLAs will cease being councillors. Some MPs will cease being MLAs. And, it is to be a gradual process; no immediate clearing of the decks.

At the same time as announcing this, the party published a policy paper, which they claimed was designed to show how money could be saved through greater efficiency.

For the chop were the number of NI government departments, the number of MLAs (less double jobbing…) and a number of ‘quangos’.

It could – for the most cynical – been a move to show how the DUP were a party driven by thrift rather than a party which spends a lot of money. More on that later…

Amongst the targets for the DUP hack and slash policy were the Parade’s Commission (not a favourite body of the DUP) and the Civic Forum (also not on the DUP favourites list).

They also proposed that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission and the Commissioner for Children and Young People should be merged into a single body. Again, these are organisations that the DUP have been known to criticise, both in terms of their very existence and what they do.

Perhaps it is more telling the quangos that were left off the hit list - the Victims Commissioners, the Older Person’s Advocate and the dozens of other quangos helpfully listed online by the Department of Finance and Personnel.

A gift for the DUP?

Lady Syliva Hermon is the only Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament. She went on the radio to explain why she had over-claimed more than £2,700 from the Westminster fees office for rent on a London flat between 2005 and 2006.

Whether intentional or not, she also then spoke out against the Ulster Unionist hook-up with the Tories.

A collective sigh of ‘oops’ could be heard round the body politick.

There were few that doubted Lady Sylvia’s reservations over the alliance with David Cameron’s Conservatives, but it was now laid bare.

Cue, barely restrained delight from the DUP, suggestions from the BBC that ‘Conservative’ MPs’ expenses claims had been the last straw and a measured response from Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey who argued that the good lady should not be disciplined.

Members of the DUP must have been sitting back with a sense of contentment, as the Conservatives and Unionists euro election campaign was momentarily derailed by the North Down MP’s revelations.

…and then came Friday

ONLY a suspicious mind would say that the DUP policy on government savings was because they wanted to deflect from the MPs expenses story that was heading down the tracks towards the Members of Parliament for East Belfast and Strangford.

Only a suspicious mind would have queried the statistics that Peter Robinson trotted out to explain the £400 per month on food claimed by his wife and fellow MP and MLA, Iris.

Only a suspicious mind would have queried Mr Robinson’s claim that this amounted to about £73 per month and at London prices this was reasonable.

Well, then we can only conclude that there are a lot of suspicious minds out there.

The ire of an annoyed and angered populace was sounded on the airwaves. Online the eating expenses were analysed and dissected. Particular focus of political rivals and fuming voters was how the £73+ per week related to the time spent at Westminster. That is the House of Commons that sits for about half a year. That is the Westminster that Mr and Mrs Robinson don’t attend on Monday and Tuesdays as these are when the Assembly meets in plenary session.

Naturally all of this was to be expected

What was less expected was how mild the media interrogation was of our Peter Robinson on Friday morning. If the average radio caller and bloggers can work out that the £73+ a week does not relate to actual Parliamentary attendance by the First Minister then why were these questions not posed of half of our First Minister?

On a more hopeful note, Mr Robinson said that there will be reform of the much talked about ‘rules’ for expenses, and that his party may go further than what is proposed.
He cited one potential avenue - publishing MPs expenses online.

Which, the more seasoned commentators have pointed out, should have done years ago, rather than having to be forced into reform through legal challenges and newspaper revelations.

You can get better deals online

A word of advice for our MPs - you can get better deals online.

Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik bought a flat screen TV on expenses for about £2,000.

Walk into a high street store and you can get a pretty impressive TV for that amount of money.

But, as viewers of Channel Five’s Gadget Show can testify, buy online and you can save dozens if not hundreds of pounds on flat screen TVs…unless you are buying a really extravagant TV that is well beyond what you would need to have to catch up on the BBC Parliamentary Channel.

In other news…

Yes there has been other news!

The cost of public inquiries on the past won’t be laid on Stormont’s already strained budget when policing and justice is devolved, prompting a collecting sigh of relief amongst MLAs. And it will keep the barristers happy as there will be less chance of an MLA asking how much they claim on expenses during these inquiries…

…there has also been a European election campaign ongoing, with the three sitting MEPs defending their turf from the newcomers. While Jim Allister has been rubbing his hands with glee at the DUP and UCUNF discomfort, other candidates have been ploughing away.

…and in the education debate there was no other news

More traffic cluttering the internet highway

As many people may know the explosion of social media has been extraordinary. So much so the political parties are determined to show how hip, trendy and 'down with the kids' they really are.

Facebook is beginning to creak under the weight of fanboy, political party and individual politician pages.

The tweeple at twitter are twoubled by the number of politicos twittering off their tweets, including a number of the EU candidates.

Flickr is being inundated with photographs at a phenomenal rate, and just don't even mention youtube. Mind youtube is one of the most aptly named application with so many politicians on it and being so engaging, many insomniacs have finally had a nights sleep.

And to add to the internet's woes, new boy at Chambré Public Affairs, Ivor Whitten, has jumped unashamedly on the bandwagon. Slugger he ain't but his site,, seems to be shaping up quite nicely. Yes, before you ask he is also a at Ivor joins the Chambré team from the British Medical Association where he was Assembly and Research Officer for over 5 years. Go easy on him, he is only new.