Belfast Telegraph

Demand for a halt to MLAs' £1m-a-month wage bill

James Brokenshire ‘must grasp nettle and start process to cut off pay for MLAs’

By Suzanne Breen

The government must introduce emergency legislation to stop MLAs' salaries and expenses, the panel which sets Stormont politicians' pay has said.

Alan McQuillan, Pat McCartan and Dr Etta Campbell have told Secretary of State James Brokenshire that spending £1 million a month on MLAs can't be justified when the institutions aren't functioning.

They are warning him that public confidence in politics here will plummet if he doesn't take swift action.

The former Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) members have claimed that even paying MLAs a reduced salary and expenses rate can't be justified while the Assembly is mothballed.

Mr McQuillan, a former PSNI Assistant Chief Constable, last night told the Belfast Telegraph: "The time for shilly-shallying is over. The Secretary of State must grasp the nettle on this issue. Last week, he published emergency legislation to clear the way for the collection of rates in Northern Ireland.

"He must now be decisive and move this week in the House of Commons to begin the process of stopping MLAs' pay."

Following the announcement of the Westminster election last week, Mr Brokenshire extended the deadline for a talks deal to June 29.

Mr McQuillan said: "We all want the talks to succeed but, if they don't, then the Secretary of State must turn off the tap.

"MLAs should now be given three months' notice for themselves and their staff. That is the maximum statutory period and, I believe, very fair.

"If there is a deal by June 29, the redundancy notice will of course not come into effect.

"But serving it now sends a very clear message to the politicians that they can't be paid indefinitely if Stormont isn't functioning."

Mr McQuillan stated that the government couldn't continue to sit on the fence on the issue given the huge amount of public funds involved.

"MLAs' expenses and salaries are costing us £1 million a month," he said. "On top of that, the operating cost of running Stormont in terms of the building and other staff is £2.5 million a month.

"Given that the institutions aren't functioning, those costs could also be greatly reduced.

"The government must not continue to spend £3.5 million a month when devolution isn't actually operating."

When devolution was suspended in 2002, MLAs continued to receive 70% of their salaries and expenses for the next five years. Mr McQuillan said that must not happen again.

"The public wants value for money. They are sick of the squabbling and failure to reach agreement on things that can be sorted. People believe that if the politicians can't resolve the issues, then there's no point in having them," he added.

Former IFRP chairman Pat McCartan said: "The public mood is quite clear. Nobody wants to keep on paying politicians for a role they aren't fulfilling. Ordinary people are tired and impatient with it all. They are far more advanced than the government in knowing how to deal with the situation. I haven't met a single person who says, 'Keep on paying the MLAs for as long as it takes'."

A former chairman of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Mr McCartan added: "In any other area of employment, notice would already have been served and the contracts terminated of those not doing what they were paid to do.

"In the circumstances, the three months paid notice we are recommending is generous."

Mr McCartan said that if devolution wasn't functioning, there was no need for MLAs to be paid expenses to run their constituency offices.

"We have 18 MPs, 462 councillors, and three MEPs to meet the public's needs. We are not an under-represented place and there are no burning issues which only MLAs can deal with," he commented.

In a four-page letter sent to the Secretary of State last month, the three former IFRP panel members set out their views on stopping MLAs' pay.

In a two paragraph letter of reply seen by this newspaper, the Secretary of State thanked the trio for contacting him but said that MLAs' salaries and expenses remain an issue for Stormont, not Westminster.

Mr McQuillan said: "James Brokenshire is technically right but he has the power to change this.

"On Friday, he began the process of introducing legislation to the House of Commons to provide for the setting of a Northern Ireland regional rate and enable household bills to be issued.

"If he can change the law in order to collect money, he can do the same to save public money. He has the power to do that very easily. He needs to exercise it."

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