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14 March 2008

Procedures on checks carried out by the Assembly on MLAs expense claims.

The Northern Ireland Assembly checks all claims made by all Members in respect of both Office Costs Allowance (OCA) and Members’ travel claims. No claim is paid without scrutiny by Assembly Secretariat staff. These checks were continuously in place during 2006 and 2007.

For OCA claims, the predominant check is that the expenditure comes with the terms of the OCA regime. As is usual for a claims processing office, a series of further administrative checks take place. These include checks that appropriate supporting documentation has been provided, that the amount claimed tallies with the supporting documentation, that the Member has certified that the claim is a proper charge to his or her OCA and that the Member has sufficient funds within his or her allowance to make the payment.

Contractual payments made from OCA (most notably in respect of office rent and support staff salaries) are processed electronically on a recurring basis. For items of this nature, the checks are mostly “front-end”; at the commencement of a lease or when a member of support staff is engaged. A Member will provide details of the contractually committed amounts and will certify that future amounts should be paid according to the contract (e.g. each month for staff salaries or monthly/quarterly for rents).

Similarly, travel claims are scrutinised to ensure that both the miles claimed are reasonable and that the destinations visited are allowable for the receipt of travel expenses. In addition to the usual administrative checks noted above, there are a number of further checks for travel claims. These relate to the number of miles claimed in a given tax year as the rate of mileage allowance (and the tax treatment of the allowance) depends on the number of miles claimed.

The Northern Ireland Assembly does not hold details of the nature of the checks carried out by its auditors, the Northern Ireland Audit Office. In each of the last two financial years (2005/06 and 2006/07), the Comptroller and Auditor General has issued an unqualified audit opinion on the Assembly’s accounts.

The Northern Ireland Assembly does not systematically record data on the number of queries raised by staff in relation to OCA or travel claims as any such queries are generally raised by Assembly Secretariat staff on an ad-hoc basis directly with a Member or his or her support staff. Queries will usually arise for routine matters. For example, Members are required to notify the Assembly Secretariat of all phone numbers to be paid from OCA. If a phone bill is presented without this notification, this is queried and the relevant notification received before the bill is paid. For claims where their may be some question as to whether an amount can be paid from OCA, raising a query directly with the Member or his or her support staff is not an invitation to debate the merits of the claim. If it can be shown that the claim is inappropriate, it is not paid.


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