Belfast Telegraph

Stormont MLAs are split over plan to raise wages but cut their allowances

By Noel McAdam

Stormont parties are split over accepting or turning down an inflation-busting pay increase of 11% for MLAs.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP will flatly refuse the boost, due to come into effect next year.

On the unionist side of the Assembly the DUP has yet to make up its mind, while Ulster Unionists are to say yes to the pay hike.

Both they and Alliance seem set to leave it to individual Members to decide whether to offset part of the hike.

An independent pay review earlier this year concluded that office allowances at Stormont were high compared to the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.

It found, however, MLAs’ wages were low and estimated that cutting allowances and raising wages could make an overall saving of £3.16m — or £29,000 per MLA — by 2015. For MLAs who accept the increase, pay will go up to £48,000, an increase of £5,000.

Ministers and office holders were also awarded increases.

Constituency office allowances, however, are to fall from £75,857 a year to £69,238 per MLA.

DUP: Don’t know

A spokesman said: “The DUP has always believed that it was inappropriate for elected representatives to dictate what their salary is, but that this should be decided upon and implemented by an independent body.

“The party has not taken a final decision, however, on the most recent salary recommendations which are not due for implementation until the beginning of the next financial year.

“All DUP MLAs are required to provide a full-time, professionally staffed and accessible advice centre service.

“A number of DUP MLAs have to subsidise the running of their constituency service due to changes to the office cost allowance. This comes at a time when demand has increased.”

Sinn Fein: No

One recommendation of the panel would effectively end the practice of Sinn Fein MLAs paying their wages into a pooled account held by the party and then receiving the so-called industrial wage of around £23,000. The report said that, legally, salaries must be paid to an individual Member’s bank account so that there is a clear audit trail.

The party has said: “We believe it would be hypocritical for MLAs to be contemplating an increase in the current economic climate when everyone else is expected to cope with the effects of recession. It is our view that current remuneration is adequate.

“However, we have misgivings about the proposed increase in MLA salaries set alongside a reduction in office cost allowances.

“One reading of this suggests that constituency service monies will be used to finance an increase in MLA salaries. This would not be acceptable to Sinn Fein. This amounts to removing monies from frontline constituency work and placing it in pockets of MLAs.”

UUP: Yes

A statement said: “It is a matter for the individual MLA, who is in the best position to judge whether his/her workload justifies accepting all or part of the award. Understand a number of our MLAs wish to use the money to subsidise their office cost allowance and retain or expand employment in their offices.

“We do expect to see a reduction in the number of MLAs, which should pay for the increase.

“We are not convinced that turning down the increase means the money will be spent wisely, by leaving it in the centre, given the obvious inefficiencies of the devolved Government.

“We favour scrutiny and transparency, so the taxpayer can have confidence that their money is being spent wisely.”

SDLP: No

A spokesman said: “We are not accepting the pay increase, pure and simple.

“We believe that the reduction in office cost allowances will jeopardise the jobs of staff particularly in constituency offices who work tirelessly for the needs of voters, and is particularly wrong at a time when they face an increased workload because of welfare cuts.”

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell previously said: “Our MLAs have agreed to decline the pay rise. Some of them are suffering severely because the commission has in effect robbed Peter to pay Paul by moving the money out of office cost allowances.

“Our priority is to ensure that we deliver a service to our constituents. The commission has reduced our ability to do so by trimming allowances.”

Alliance: No decision

An Alliance spokesman said: “The changes to MLAs’ salaries do not come into effect until the next financial year, therefore a final decision does not have to be made until the spring.

“These pay changes will have differing impacts on MLAs depending on different additional responsibilities they have, so MLAs may make individual decisions based on own circumstances.”

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