Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Scant evidence to show that Stormont politicians are worth money we fork out

However you cut it, rises of between 11% and 16% for Stormont politicians are going to raise hackles as we flounder in the depth of a recession.

Many voters are suffering a pay freeze, or even cuts, and this rise is going to politicians on twice the private sector average wage. It is also way above inflation. That stands at 3.3% using the retail price index or 2.7% measured by the consumer price index.

Stormont is big and bloated. The panel that recommended the increase noted this over-manning, but didn't address it.

It concentrated on the fact that MLAs' pay had not been raised since 2002 and that the £43,000 paid here lags behind the £57,000 paid in Scotland or the £54,000 received by Assembly Members in Wales.

The fact is they also have fewer responsibilities, and Stormont is so crowded that very little gets done.

We have one MLA per 16,565 of population, but in Scotland the ratio is one to 50,107 and in Wales it is one to 40,481 inhabitants. Wales has more than twice as many people as we do but only 60 members in its Assembly compared to our 108.

These are staggering disparities and folk living in the Stormont bubble don't seem to fully grasp them.

In cold cash, a Westminster MP costs each constituent 65p a year. The equivalent cost for each Welsh AM is £1.08 and in Scotland it is £1.44. A Stormont MLA costs each of us £2.64.

There is a similar disparity in allowances. These were so out of control that the panel cut office costs allowances (OCA) to pay for the salary rises. Most MLAs bemoan this loss and promise to use their pay rises to plug the gap. Some like Jo-Anne Dobson, a UUP MLA in Upper Bann, will even put the figures up on an Assembly website to prove the money is not sticking to her fingers.

We don't doubt her sincerity, but the fact is that the OCA is itself-proportionately far higher than the equivalent allowances elsewhere. It soared from just over £20,000 in 1998 to more than £73,583 this year and it will be reduced to £71,378 next year.

It is far higher than the bill for MLAs' pay and, as the panel noted, very high for the small number of constituents each MLA represents compared to Scotland and Wales.

At a time when most public and private sector organisations are forced to cut budgets, MLAs live in a protected company charge card culture.

Until now they could claim as much as they liked for office consumables, and the average take was £2,000. Now they are limited to £1,000 a year. That is hardly austerity.

There is no question that further cuts can and must be made. The best efficiency measure of all would be cutting the number of Members and departments to Scottish or Welsh levels. That would create political difficulties – but team Stormont is being well paid to solve them.

 

What the parties say...

Alliance

"These pay changes will have differing impacts on MLAs depending on the various different additional responsibilities they have, so MLAs may make individual decisions based on their own circumstances. In the meantime, some of our MLAs are looking into how we may be able to redirect any pay increase to offset the cut in office cost expenditure that may result in staff redundancies and a reduction in our constituency services to the public."

Sinn Fein

"Our MLAs donate a significant portion of their remuneration to the provision and maintenance of constituency services. This means that the net take-home salary of a Sinn Fein MLA is just over £20,000 – in around the average wage. This has long been the case. What has been proposed is the removal of £5,000 from the office cost allowance to fund an increase in MLAs' salaries by the same amount. This is a mistake. Our MLAs will continue on the same take home pay as before and any increase in salary will be donated directly back into the constituency service from which it was drawn."

DUP

"The matter of salaries was rightly taken out of MLAs' hands and placed into the hands of the Independent Financial Review Panel. DUP MLAs accept the proposal of this independent body. All our MLAs are required by the party to provide a full-time constituency service which is up to standards. This is monitored by the party. Some members, therefore, are having to use their own salary to subsidise the service they provide."

UUP

"It is up to individual MLAs. We would have preferred a freeze on pay, and a small increase in office cost allowances, instead of the office cost allowance being reduced. This would have facilitated Members offering an enhanced constituency service, providing job opportunities and work experience at a local level."

SDLP

"SDLP MLAs will not be accepting the pay rise being offered. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with workers and those most in need and remain committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society and doing our utmost to make Government work better for people."

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