Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why all this splashing out on entertaining when Stormont can't even govern?

There is a growing perception that the contract between the elector and the elected is broken, says Liam Clarke

Liam Clarke
Liam Clarke

Strictly speaking Peter Weir of the DUP is right – the drain on public funding caused by Stormont's £50,000 a week entertainment bill is not the 'big ticket item'. It pales into insignificance compared to the £1.8m every week we lose to the Treasury because the Executive has failed to agree welfare reform.

Mr Weir is quite correct, but at the same time misses the point. The £50,000 a week is just a drop in the ocean compared to the financial crisis created by political inaction. It is precisely because the Executive is handling public finances so badly, and imposing such deep unplanned cuts, that the level of entertainment spending is so galling.

Politicians just don't get this simple point as they suck on the mints that are provided free for them from the public purse during a long summer recess that most of their constituents can only dream of. £50,000 a week may be small change in terms of Stormont waste but it's a lot more than most voters earn. The average salary for full-time workers here is £27,697 – almost £6,000 below the UK average of £33,288.

Wages have fallen nearly 7% between 2007 and 2013, the worst period of belt-tightening in more than a generation.

But in just two years, the administration that presided over this austerity has seen its entertainment bill go up by 22%. Worse still, the figures are being disclosed, after long delay, while we are being warned by politicians of a looming budgetary black hole.

The entertainment bill will rise further when the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) finally discloses, through gritted teeth, what it has been spending.

At OFMDFM the huge bureaucracy is not far behind the staff numbers of the White House. Its vast machine is good at running round in circles to delay decisions and at leading those who inquire into its workings a merry dance. It bats away requests for information, whether from contrarian MLAs like Jim Allister or from the public through Freedom of Information requests.

It is wrong to blame the civil servants for this state of affairs. They are acting on political direction and at present the First and Deputy First Ministers are in such a stand-off that they are providing no clear collective line. Instead they are going toe to toe on almost every issue that comes up and seldom give a united line.

They are engaged in a tiresome blame game. They are both losing because it feeds public disillusionment with the political process. The two leaders are now surrounded by more layers of courtiers, yes-men and paid supporters than any direct rule minister ever was.

Between them they have eight special advisers (Spads) – political appointees not civil servants. Their wages are not disclosed but £80,000 a head is not considered excessive. Spads are able people, many would be paid more in the private sector, but they are presiding over a system that is producing stalemate at public expense.

Not all MLAs are as able as the Spads but most trousered an 11% pay rise. The exceptions are the nationalist parties. The SDLP refused the rise while Sinn Fein MLAs draw an allowance pegged to the average industrial wage – although the party keeps the rest for itself.

Our MLAs are individually paid less than their counterparts in Westminster, Scotland or Wales. Yet there are so many of them for just 1.8 million people that they cost each of us far more proportionately.

A Westminster MP gets 65p for each person he or she represents but an MLA gets £2.64, more than four times as much. In Scotland, an MSP gets £1.44 per constituent and in Wales an Assembly member gets £1.08.

All this is feeding a public perception of waste, privilege and inaction within the Stormont bubble. There is the feeling that, compared to the people they represent, politicians are on the pig's back financially with subsidised pensions the public can only dream of and free personal insurance to cover everything from accidents to libel.

There is a sense that the contract between the elected and the elector is being broken. Devolution promised to bring government closer to the people but that is not how it feels.

Rising hospitality costs may not be quite the last straw, but it is another straw in the wind –and it is testing public patience.