Northern Ireland

Foster: voters need to know MLAs are not 'fighting for themselves'

Arlene Foster Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Arlene Foster said the electorate need to be confident MLAs are fighting for them and not for themselves

The first minister has said Northern Ireland politicians need to strive to regain the confidence of voters.

Arlene Foster's comments followed a week of disagreements over expenses payments.

In a speech on Friday, the DUP leader called for "a completely independent system" for administering expenses.

She said the electorate "need to be confident that we're one of them, fighting for them and not for ourselves".

Mrs Foster added: "If people are going to vote for us, they need to have confidence in us."

On Friday, the Assembly Commission and the Stormont expenses watchdog issued a joint statement on expenses payments.

It said the two bodies are committed to working together to sort out the differences.

Image caption On Friday, the Assembly Commission and the Stormont expenses watchdog issued a joint statement saying they were committed to working together

In her speech to DUP members in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Mrs Foster expressed frustration that the issue was preventing her from communicating her vision for Northern Ireland.

She said that she left the stability of a career in the legal profession "because [she] believed in a cause".

"I wanted to make Northern Ireland a better place. I still have that vision," she said.

"At the minute, no-one can hear about my vision for Northern Ireland because the administration of expenses is the main issue.

"As leader of this party, I am not going to let an issue like this destabilise our strategy.

"How we deal with this will reflect on how we deal with other matters of government."

The first minister said that she plans to send a letter to DUP assembly candidates and other party leaders appealing for a new system to deal with financial matters in the new term.

"The DUP has consistently argued that politicians should have absolutely no role in either deciding the level of their pay or expenses, or in administering the system by which those expenses are paid.

"The completely independent system at Westminster may not be perfect, but it has instilled public confidence that failures of the past will not be repeated."

At present, an independent Stormont regulator determines the level of MLAs' pay and Office Cost Allowances.

However, claims are submitted to, and processed by staff within the assembly.

'Dents public confidence'

Mrs Foster suggested that this "creates confusion and dents public confidence".

"We need a completely independent system, just as there is in Westminster, where expenses are taken entirely out of the hands of MLAs and of staff working for the Northern Ireland Assembly," she said.

"The DUP proposed exactly this kind of system 18 months ago. Sadly, other parties did not agree with us at that time.

"If other parties will not join me in reforming the system, I will take steps on the floor of the House to have this put in place. I accept IPSA is more expensive and bureaucratic but it is essential that people can have confidence."

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