ULSTER Unionist MLA Ross Hussey has confirmed that he will be forced to relocate his Omagh constituency office after yesterday’s announcement of a radical shake-up in the way expenses are paid at Stormont.
Among the more significant changes confirmed by the Independent Financial Review Panel, is a new £8,500 annual rent cap on constituency offices from May.
The cap will have implications for a number of MLAs, none more so than Ross Hussey, who currently pays £20,000 a year in rent each year for his 2,000 sq ft Market Street premises, which includes a lift.
He told the UH that, should he be re-elected, he will have no option but to look for a new office.
“We’ll have to move to smaller premises,” said the MLA, who confirmed he was already trawling the newspapers looking for a new suitable location for his West Tyrone base.
Branding the new rule as “ridiculous”, he continued, “I don’t think anyone in Omagh pays £8,500 in rent.
“I argued that we as MLAs are required to have offices which are conveniently situated and disabled friendly.
“I was told the responsibility lies with me. How you are supposed to do that with the rent they are suggesting? I don’t know.”
Mr Hussey said the new cap made it likely that MLAs would seek offices on upper floors of buildings or move out of town centres.
Elsewhere, the DUP’s Tom Buchanan will have to find just over £5,000 a year from somewhere if he is to stay in his Dublin Road office.
The SDLP, which has offices in Strabane and Omagh, are within the limit, and given the fact the party does not claim for renting out its Omagh office, it should avoid the new rule whereby only one constituency office will be funded.
However the new rules, described as “radical” by chairman of the IFRP, Pat McCartan, could see Sinn Féin adopt a major rethink on how it organises expenses, particularly on the rules surrounded shared offices and support staff.
The party has traditionally pooled its resources in West Tyrone among its three MLAs and MP Pat Doherty.
The wide sweeping changes also include new rules for salaries, travel allowance, recruitment and support staff.
Nepotism has also been tackled.
MLAs can only hire one close relative and cannot claim expenses for renting premises from connected individuals, groups or parties.
While the basic salary for MLAs will rise from £48,000 to £49,000, the IFRP have tightened the belt in other areas.
Scrapped is the system where MLAs were previously entitled to claim up to £67,000 annual expenses.
Now, MLAs will only be allowed to employ a maximum of two full-time members of staff, with a total wage cap of £50,000.
The IFRP also said all future jobs with MLAs must be publicly advertised, with appointments made on merit.
The new rules also require constituency offices to be called ‘party advice centres’, with any party logo accompanied by the Assembly logo.