The SDLP is the only party at Stormont to have refused a £5,000 pay increase, it has been confirmed.
Thirteen of its 14 MLAs have declined the salary boost — the exception being party leader Alasdair McDonnell who is not entitled because he is also an MP.
A number of individuals, however, among them Ulster Unionist Michael Copeland, are believed to be set to turn down the award recommended by an independent panel.
But East Belfast MLA Mr Copeland explained yesterday he still has a number of issues to sort out in relation to taxation and national insurance, adding: “I cannot in all conscience take the pay increase.”
His comment came after a Freedom of Information request released to the Nolan Show indicated that 95 of the 108 MLAs have received the first month of their new £48,000 salaries, an increase of £222.
The SDLP’s Mark H Durkan said, however: “At this time of great austerity when people in work are facing pay freezes, pay-cuts and pay-offs and those out of work and with disabilities are facing cuts to their benefits, (we) thought it was unacceptable and immoral for elected representatives to accept a pay rise.
“People are struggling daily to make ends meet and businesses are facing tough decisions around budgeting.
“The independent panel which recommended the pay rise is completely out of touch not only with the public mood but also with public need.”
Sinn Fein, however, insisted while accepting the increase its 29 MLAs remain on an ‘industrial wage’ of around £21,000, with the remainder going into central coffers for constituency services.
The party’s Raymond McCartney told the BBC NI Nolan Show, which submitted the FoI request, that the decision of the panel to increase salaries by £5,000 while office cost allowances would be also reduced by £5,000 had been “very logical”.
“We took a decision to protect our constituency service, which we take great pride in, and therefore we said yes, we would take the salary and that would be contributed to the party,” he added.
Gregory Campbell, of the DUP, who like Mr McDonnell is both an MLA and an MP, argued: “Each individual MLA has a decision to make about what they want to do with their pay.
“If you have an independent body, let them get on with it, let them make their recommendation and then you have to live with it.”
Mr Durkan said his party was still making representations so that the salary increases it has side-stepped can be redirected to constituency offices and a number of what he called “worthy projects” in Londonderry.
“That request has been turned down,” he said.
Earlier this year, however, the SDLP leader apologised after suggesting MLAs were entitled to more generous pension provisions and a small salary increase — comments criticised by his own party members, including deputy leader Dolores Kelly.
Under the panels’ recommendations, the basic MLA salary will rise from £43,101 to £48,000 with the biggest hike of 16.4% to £92,000 going to House Speaker Willie Hay, who also has use of an official residence near Stormont.
An independent panel recommended an 11% increase in the basic salary of Assembly members to £48,000. But at the same time office cost allowances which are paid to MLAs are being reduced by