Concerns have been raised over the value for money provided by our Assembly after it emerged some MLAs are not turning up for debates and important committee business.
Despite costing tens of millions of pounds every year in salaries and expenses, an investigation by this newspaper has discovered scores of empty seats at Stormont.
The debating chamber has been barely a third full at times while some MLAs are skipping more than half of committee meetings they are supposed to attend.
One influential campaign group has questioned if we are getting value from our politicians, who are due an 11% wage hike next year.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance branded some MLAs’ contributions at the Assembly as “half-hearted”.
Stormont has also drawn criticism from its own members, with some branding it “bloated” and “wasteful”.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the its current make-up was not providing good value.
“If you measure the cost of the Assembly against its output, it is quite clear that we’re not getting value for money,” he said.
“It is all rooted in the fact that it is a dysfunctional place and is grossly overpopulated.”
Mr Allister has backed calls for a slimmed-down Assembly.
“The public would be delighted to see some of the squander and waste cut out of Stormont,” he added.
“It could be well slimmed-down and there would be nothing but benefit. Certainly there wouldn’t be any detriment.”
Other members insist a lot of hard work is done behind the scenes.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone described how he faces a two and a half hour round trip to Stormont several times a week for debates and committee hearings, adding to an already heavy workload in his Mid-Ulster constituency.
Today the Belfast Telegraph begins a two-part series examining the work of MLAs and their role.
With 108 members, Stormont is proportionately the biggest legislature in the UK with one MLA for every 16,565 people.
In Scotland the ratio is one to 50,107 and in Wales it is one Assembly Member to every 40,481 people.
So, equivalent to our size, Northern Ireland has three times as many assembly members as Wales and nearly two and a half times more than Scotland.
An MLA's basic pay is currently £43,101. Last year, they also claimed £8m in expenses and allowances.
That bill is set to increase after an independent panel ruled that members’ pay should rise by almost £5,000 from next April.
A poll of delegates at the weekend’s SDLP conference, conducted by this newspaper, found 52% backed leader Alasdair McDonnell’s call that MLAs should not take the rise.
MLAs have been bracing themselves for a cut from 108 seats to 90 as a result of the national Boundary Commission review, reducing each Assembly constituency from six seats to five.
But that may not happen now because the Liberal Democrats are refusing to co-operate after their coalition partners the Conservatives torpedoed House of Lords reform.
There is broad cross-party support for a smaller Assembly, and First Minister Peter Robinson has previously called for the number of MLAs to be cut to 75 with a similar-scale reduction in Executive departments.
The average member’s week is split between the debating chamber, the committee rooms and their constituency office.
Although each element has an important role in our democracy, some are not making full use of the institutions.
This newspaper looked at a typical week in the Assembly — October 22 to 26 — where the debating chamber was barely a third full at points.
Some MLAs are also not showing up for committee meetings — the main mechanism for scrutinising legislation and holding ministers to account.
Although the average attendance is 81%, it masks wildly different rates.
Ten MLAs attended less than 50% of committee meetings during a 15-month period from May 2011 to August 2012. Another eight had attendance rates between 50% and 60%.
UKIP MLA David McNarry said some politicians could be working a lot harder.
“It is a matter of how you want to do this job,” he said.
“It is not difficult to sit on your backside and do nothing and I happen to believe there are quite a number of MLAs not under stress or pressure.
“That happens in the bigger parties and that is what they choose to do.”
Debates, votes and committees ... a week behind Stormont’s doors
By Adrian Rutherford
It is one of our most recognisable landmarks and is rarely out of the news.
But what actually goes on behind the doors of Parliament Buildings?
Quite a lot, actually. The Assembly sits each Monday and Tuesday when not in recess, while MLAs also attend a raft of committee meetings and constituency events.
The Belfast Telegraph examines a typical Assembly week — Monday, October 22 to Friday, October 26 — to discover what goes on behind the scenes.
Monday, October 22
The day began with a meeting of the British Irish Parliamentary Association, including an address by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.
The Assembly sat from noon, beginning with a ministerial statement on welfare reform from Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, who announced there would be some flexibility in the implementation of reforms in Northern Ireland.
The afternoon continued with Executive committee business, including the Air Passenger Duty (Setting of Rate) Bill and Superannuation Bill.
At 2pm the Assembly began debating unemployment, following a motion by SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, concluding at 5pm with a vote on the matter.
Tuesday, October 23
Similar to the previous day, it began with a meeting of the British Irish Parliamentary Association with the Assembly’s plenary session opening at 10.30am.
It started with a ministerial statement, this time from Justice Minister David Ford, in which he proposed raising the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland from 10 to 12.
It was followed by another statement, from Education Minister John O’Dowd, on a recent North-South Ministerial Council meeting.
Next on the agenda was Executive committee business, including the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.
At 12.15pm Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff proposed a private member’s motion on cross-border education, which continued until the session was suspended at 12.28pm.
After lunch there were oral questions for the Environment and Finance and Personnel ministers, Alex Attwood and Sammy Wilson.
Once these were concluded, the debate resumed on the cross-border education motion.
It ended with a vote — backed 52-28 — calling on the Minister for Employment and Learning and the Minister for Education to work closely with the Department of Education to remove the barriers which limit student flows within the island of Ireland.
The day finished with another debate, this time on traffic issues in Hillsborough.
Five committees sat at various points including those for Social Development and Agriculture and Rural Development.
Wednesday, October 24
With no business in the Assembly chamber, Wednesday was dominated by committee business.
The Education Committee had briefings on the Education and Training Inspectorate’s annual report and problems with computer based assessments.
Meanwhile the Finance Committee discussed rating issues, including a review of small business rate relief, and tax incentives for enterprise zones.
Also sitting on Wednesday morning was the Committee for Employment and Learning.
Three more committees sat during the afternoon, including health, which involved an evidence session from senior fire service officials following issues raised in a recent audit. There was also a sitting of the Public Accounts Committee, which examined rate levy and collection and heard evidence from various civil servants.
Thursday, October 25
The day was again dominated by committee business, including the Social Development Committee which heard evidence relating to the Welfare Reform Bill.
A sitting of the Environment Committee focused on a recent Marine Bill, including matters relating to Marine Conservation Zones.
Also sitting on Thursday morning was the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
The afternoon was dominated by Justice Committee business, including discussions on the controversial Marie Stopes Clinic which has opened in Belfast.
The committee also heard evidence on various criminal justice inspection reports, including policing in the community and anti-social behaviour.
Friday, October 26
No Assembly sessions or committee meetings are held on Fridays. This is generally a day which MLAs will use to catch up on constituency business.
Only 10 members of Stormont were ever-present at various sessions
By Adrian Rutherford
Assembly members routinely miss important committee business at Stormont, with some failing to turn up half of the time.
In some cases, attendance rates dipped as low as 12% with only a handful of members showing up for their full quota of meetings.
It means that one of the most important mechanisms for scrutinising legislation and holding ministers to account is being wasted by some.
This newspaper examined attendance at committee meetings over a 15-month period, and found only 10 MLAs managed to attend 100% of their various sessions.
Overall, the average attendance rate was more heartening at 81%.
The committees help ensure that government is kept accountable to the public, allowing MLAs to scrutinise the work of ministers and civil servants.
One example involved the problems at Ulster Bank, where senior executives were hauled before MLAs to explain the crisis.
Attendance rates are kept for Stormont’s 12 statutory committees — one for each of the departments — and five standing committees.
Our investigation is based on MLAs who were members of a committee for a minimum of five meetings.
Ten MLAs attended less than 50% of committee meetings during the period from May 2011 to August 2012.
Eight more had attendance rates between 50% and 60%.
Robert Oxley, the campaign manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said some statistics were not acceptable.
“Taxpayers are paying for politicians to be doing their jobs and will be angry to see half-hearted attempts from some,” he said.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the figures raised key questions.
“Some MLAs must feel they have other, more important things to do because they aren’t turning up,” he said.
The lowest attender was SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone (below), who turned up to just 12% of the meetings held by the Committee on Standards and Privileges. He left the committee in April.
“The committee would usually sit for around 30 minutes at a time. To attend it meant a round trip which would take two and a half hours out of time I needed to spend in the constituency,” Mr McGlone said.
“I was also a member of the Public Accounts Committee and there was a clear conflict of interest with many of the matters being discussed at the standards and privileges meetings.”
DUP MLA Jonathan Craig, who sits on the same committee, turned up to 33% of meetings — four of a possible 12.
A party spokesman said Mr Craig had clashing commitments due to his Policing Board work.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, who sat on the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee until September 2011, had an attendance record of 28% — two of seven meetings.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said the party took attendance at Stormont committees very seriously.
“If there are absences it has been due to clashes between other committees that require a greater level of time to be given over,” he added.
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell, who sat on the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee until April, attended just 29% of meetings — nine of a possible 31.
By contrast 10 MLAs had 100% records for their committee meetings.
These included DUP representative Michelle McIlveen and Ulster Unionist Party pair Danny Kinahan and Roy Beggs.
We analysed attendance for committee meetings over 15 months between May 2011 and August this year. Only MLAs who were members of a committee for at least five meetings were examined. Four of the 10 MLAs with the lowest attendance continue to sit on their committees — Jonathan Craig (standards and privileges), Sue Ramsey (enterprise, however she was temporarily replaced), Stewart Dickson (assembly and executive review) and Chris Hazard (agriculture)