The leaders of the Assembly’s self-styled ‘opposition’ parties have defended accepting a salary hike for MLAs of £5,000.
Newly formed NI21 and Traditional Unionist Voice insist the cash will be used to maintain party services — rather than for personal or family gain.
The small parties’ comments came after it was confirmed the SDLP is the only Stormont party to have refused the increase to £48,000 — which came into effect this month. But all the main parties — the DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists and Alliance — have said ‘yes’ to the pay boost which came into effect this month.
An independent panel recommended an 11% increase in the basic salary of Assembly members to £48,000. But, at the same time, office cost allowances which are paid to MLAs are being reduced by an equivalent £5,000.
A Freedom of Information request revealed that 95 of the 108 Assembly members have received the first payment — an increase of £222 a month.
Hardline unionist Jim Allister has accepted the £5,000 boost, even though he doesn’t believe MLAs have earned it.
But the TUV leader insisted every penny of the increase will be put towards his office running costs. His approach to the pay hike issue is the same as Sinn Fein, which insists its MLAs earn only an industrial wage of around £21,000.
“I don’t care who else is making the argument,” Mr Allister said. “When I became an MLA on a salary of £43,000, I was given, like other MLAs, £75,000 which I used to maximise the staff I employ and service I provide.
“That has now gone down to £69,000 but rather than reduce the service or my staff I will ensure that every penny of the increase and more goes into keeping up the operation.”
He also reiterated: “I don't think the work output of Stormont requires a salary increase; indeed given the quality of most MLAs, many of them are earning well above the salary level they could expect in the real world. In my view it was wrong that the office/secretarial funding was cut to fund a salary increase.”
NI21 leader Basil McCrea said he and his party partner John McCallister are also using the increase to help build up the new party.
“There are only the two of us so we will not be surrendering the increase but also not taking it for personal gain, but using it to build up the party,” the Lagan Valley MLA said.
Mr McCrea lost more than £10,000 from his annual salary in resigning from the Ulster Unionists, because he lost his chair of the Employment and Learning Department scrutiny committee.
“MLAs work hard and for long hours and to that extent are value for money,” insisted Mr McCrea.