Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

It's not the money that's the problem, it's the number of MLAs being paid

MLAs have been criticised over the pay increase
MLAs have been criticised over the pay increase

As our MLAs head off for their summer hols most of them will be able to stick salary increases of £5,000 a year or more in their wallets or handbags.

The SDLP is the only party where all members have refused the pay rise. Of the other 95 MLAs only one, Michael Copeland of the UUP, said that he wouldn't take it – though a Freedom of Information request revealed that he hasn't, so far, got round to turning it down.

In a sense we shouldn't begrudge them the money. We need to attract the best people into public service and we need to pay them for their time.

But the fact is that few of their constituents are getting anything like that, no matter how hard they work. Many wages are frozen or are rising below the rate of inflation.

Being shielded from recession and compensated if you lose an election breeds a sense of entitlement which needs to be cut down to size. The number of people voting is falling steadily and there is a palpable cynicism about politicians and their pay.

Most people think there are too many paid politicians and they are right. We have the trappings of a full blown country and a palatial parliament building where our 108 MLAs sit. Wales, which is about twice our size, has only 60 Assembly Members (AMs) in its parliament. The old pre-Troubles Stormont, widely derided as a sort of political sleepy hollow, had only 50 members.

One table in the pay review which led to the recent increase provides comparisons with elsewhere. In Westminster an MP is paid £65,738 and, before the current increase, our MLAs got £43,101 – just 65.6% of the Westminster total.

But how that translates into how much a politician gets paid per constituent is very different.

An MP gets 65p for each person he or she represents while an MLA gets £2.64 – more than four times as much. In Scotland, an MSP gets £1.44 per constituent and in Wales an AM gets £1.08.

Nobody can justify this scale of over-representation.

Party funding is also fairly generous. Take NI21, our newest party with just two MLAs, for instance. According to the Assembly rules, it should be entitled to an allowance of £52,686.85, and other payments, such as whip's allowances, would bring that up to £80,674.85 to run an office.

NI21 shouldn't be singled out, but their case illustrates the considerable subsidies available to parties here.

And it doesn't stop at parties. The highest paid person in the Assembly is the Speaker, Willie Hay. He accepted a 16.4% rise to £92,000, and he also gets the use of an official residence near Stormont.

He will soon be replaced by Mitchel McLaughlin under a rotation deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein. In his case, most of the money will go to Sinn Fein. That party's politicians are permitted to claim an allowance of only about £21,000 no matter what their salary is.

All of this – taking payments to politicians, their staff and their parties into account – cost us £48m a year before the current pay rise.

This money doesn't appear out of thin air. It comes out of Westminster's block grant to Northern Ireland and could be available to spend on health, roads and jobs.

If we reduced the size of our political class by 30% it would cut away a lot of dead wood and speed up decision making. The savings would be enough to pay our politicians properly and still leave useful sums to spend on public services.

It would also raise the status of politicians in the eyes of voters.

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