Conall McDevitt is just the latest MLA to have questions to answer about how he allocated taxpayers’ money on “research services” to family members. His case is a serious one, given his own self-promotion as some kind of moral guardian, because it further reduces the public’s faith in politics and, notably, because it is a further kick in the teeth for voluntary and community organisations forced to account in detail for every penny of public money they spend.
To be clear, there is actually no real problem with MLAs paying money to family members if they can demonstrate those family members provide value for money. The problem comes when the work is unaccounted for – passed off merely as “secretarial work” or some such paid at extortionate rates. The reason no party dares raise it is that all parties know they could be caught out.
In Mr McDevitt’s case, the problem is very specific: he denied that any family members had gained from the taxpayer money he allocated for “research and secretarial services”, but then it turned out one of them ran a research company which received 14 grand over a period of a little more than a year. His argument now is that the money was then transferred from that company to the actual researchers – in other words, that it was merely “resting” in his family member’s company’s account before being moved on. That is, of course, simply unbelievable. This is just the latest case of an MLA shuffling money about to family members in an entirely unaccountable way – which is particularly galling in this case, given Mr McDevitt’s constant quest for prominence in the media to talk about others.
However, even more galling than that is that MLAs can get away with this unaccountability while overseeing funding of a Third Sector which, in the vast majority of cases, has to account in often ludicrous detail for every penny it spends. Indeed, MLAs like to attract media attention by making a show of any wastage of public funds, most obviously in the Public Accounts Committee, without any reference to the potential validity of risks taken or the amount of time spent on bureaucracy and audit trails which could be spent on real work of value.
Perhaps it is time MLAs provided an audit trail of the value of their own work, while at the same time reducing red tape to enable the Third Sector to get on with real delivery rather than nutty bureaucracy?