New laws needed to change MLA salaries and allowances, says Brokenshire
Up to £14m paid to MLAs in salaries, expenses and pension contributions cannot be stopped without new legislation being passed by Westminster - despite the Assembly having been collapsed for nine months.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire revealed that primary legislation is required to change salaries and allowances for members of the Assembly in response to a Parliamentary Question asked by Independent North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon.
In April Mr Brokenshire told the House of Commons that he would keep "all options under consideration" in his efforts to see a new Executive formed - but agreed that withholding politicians' pay "might crystallise minds".
However, responding to Lady Hermon's question, Mr Brokenshire said his "overriding priority" was to see devolution restored to Northern Ireland.
He also said that primary legislation was needed to change salaries and allowances of MLAs.
"Salaries and allowances for members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are the responsibility of the Assembly and, under the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Act (NI) 2011, are determined by the Independent Financial Review Panel," he said.
"Any change to this arrangement at Westminster would require primary legislation.
"The government's overriding priority remains supporting the restoration of devolved government, as Northern Ireland's future is best served by local decision-making based on partnership and agreement."
Lady Hermon said she was unhappy with the response.
She said: "I found the Secretary of State's reply intensely irritating. What I wanted was a straight answer rather than being given platitudes. He should be sending a strong signal to the DUP and Sinn Fein that cutting the salaries of MLAs and their staff allowances is being actively considered by the government."
The basic salary for the 90 MLAs elected in March is £49,500 following a £500 pay rise in April, creating a pay bill of £4,455,000.
However Alan McQuillan, who sat on the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), told the Belfast Telegraph he believes the total bill tops £14m a year when expenses and pension contributions are taken into account.
MLAs can also claim up to £8,500 to rent a constituency office and up to £50,000 to employ staff, as well as travel expenses up to £850 a year for a Belfast constituency to £7,450 for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
MLAs have not sat at Stormont since the institutions collapsed in January following the resignation of the former deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness.
Talks have stumbled on for much of this year, most recently restarting this week, with little to show for them.
"It's not just that the MLAs are not sitting, you have all those staff at Stormont sitting idle," Mr McQuillan said.
"The budget for running Stormont is £45m a year, and it is delivering zilch."
The former PSNI Assistant Chief Constable said there are no members of the IFRP currently in place because the DUP and Sinn Fein could not agree how to replace them.
"The panel was set up under legislation. When the panel came to the end of its life, we all ended our contracts and the Assembly was supposed to replace us," he said.
"What then happened was Sinn Fein and the DUP could not agree on how to do it. So there are no panel members in place. If panel members were in place it would be possible for members to take action to deal with this.
"Until they either pass new legislation or get new panel members in place, nothing can be done about it."
But Mr McQuillan also argued that he feels the Secretary of State was being "a little bit disingenuous" in his response to Lady Hermon's question, and argued that Westminster could stop MLA salaries within a couple of weeks if needed.
"The power to make these payments comes from two sections of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) which are controlled by Westminster, not the devolved administration," he said.
"And if the Secretary of State was minded to temporarily repeal those sections of the Northern Ireland Act, the authority to make those payments to MLAs would cease to exist.
"If the Secretary of State chose to do that, it could be done in a couple of weeks.
"In my view it could be done very quickly if the Secretary of State was minded to take that step. He clearly isn't."
Mr McQuillan added his view was that the MLA salaries should be cut, summing it up as "no play, no pay".