Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Hain hiked MLAs’ office payouts by 45% despite advice

Secretary of State Peter Hain overruled Civil Service advice and increased MLA office expenses by 45% after the 2007 power-sharing deal, it has been revealed.

And his plan was tabled and implemented within a few days in a bid to divert criticism from Northern Ireland's incoming devolved administration.

He hiked the annual office expenses total for MLAs from £48,000 to £70,000, just as devolution returned in May 2007.

Papers released under Freedom of Information show that the official advice to Mr Hain was for a new £60,000 total — on the basis that this would bring Stormont into line with Westminster increases. But the then Secretary of State pushed ahead with a plan for a new £70,000 total.

The 45% increase related to the Office Cost Allowance (OCA) — which funds the running and staffing of MLA constituency offices and makes up the vast bulk of the Assembly expenses bill.

It had been stuck at £48,000 since 2002.

Proposals from Mr Hain for a major increase were outlined in a high-level Government email, circulated among Stormont officials on May 2, 2007, just six days before devolution returned.

It said the Secretary of State envisaged the MLA total rising from £48,000 to £58,000, with an additional “incidental expenses fund” being created to provide each member with up to £15,000 more per year.

The May 2 email also stated: “In order that this doesn't become a negative issue for the new Assembly and Executive, he'd like to be able to do it all before devolution next week.”

A Ministerial briefing paper subsequently drawn up by officials noted that “incidental expenses” were already incorporated in the existing Assembly system.

It advised: “Paying MLAs a new incidental expenses fund would in effect be duplicating that which already exists.

“Currently the Westminster allowances amount to up to £107.6k per annum, comprising £87.2k staff allowance and £20.4k incidental expenses fund.

“When the Assembly set its own OCA rate at £48k in June 2002, it did so in full knowledge of the relativity with Westminster allowances which at that time were £90.5k.

“On the basis that the Westminster allowances have increased by 19% between 2002 and 2007 and that this relativity should be maintained, a similar increase applied to OCA would therefore produce a revised allowance of £59.3k.

“Consequently, we would recommend that the OCA be increased to up to £60k per annum.”

But that recommendation was not accepted by Mr Hain.

An email from a civil servant on May 3 said the Secretary of State was “minded” to increase the OCA “to about £70,000 rather than £60,000”.

The official's email stated: “A bit more difficult to justify I guess given that it would be a bigger percentage increase than Westminster but as they are not directly pegged I don't think this is too much of a problem.”

A new Ministerial briefing paper was then drafted, stating: “Taking into account also your wish to increase the OCA in absolute terms, this would point to an increase in the OCA to up to £70k per annum.”

A legal determination was signed by the Secretary of State on May 4, increasing the MLA office expenses from £48,000 to £70,000.

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