Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

'Special case' Stormont a costly custom to keep

Raising politicians' pay is always controversial - especially in the teeth of a recession and with the MPs' expenses scandal fresh in people's mind.

That is why our lot at Stormont set up an independent review to look at their remuneration.

The problem with independent reviews is that the results produced vary depending on the terms of reference set and the costs allowed for.

We saw that with the review of student funding, which switched its findings when new economic data was fed in.

In the case of MLAs, Pat McCartan, who sits on the review body, has given a broad hint that MLAs are likely to get a pay increase.

There is some "headroom", as he says, between the £43,000 paid to our MLAs and the £57,000 paid to Scottish MSPs, or the £54,000 received by Assembly Members in Wales.

There is a difference, though. Here we have one MLA per 16,565 of the population. In Scotland, the ratio is one to 50,107 and in Wales it is one AM to 40,481 people.

So, proportionate to our size, we have more than three times as many Assembly members as Wales and nearly two-and-a-half times more than Scotland.

This discrepancy could be factored into the pay equation. And the cost of such a bloated administration doesn't end with salaries.

As Jim Allister discovered through written questions, another £1.2m is fed into the MLAs' pension-pot. Then there are expenses.

Is it too much to ask that any increase in MLAs' pay should be self-financing? Pay increases could be linked to a reduction in numbers.

That is what is happening in both the private and public sector - it is called doing more with less.

It is argued that Northern Ireland is unique; this big government structure was established by the Good Friday Agreement and can't be interfered with.

That is like the 'custom and practice' case made by some trades unions use to resist change.

Just because something was necessary in the past doesn't mean that it remains sacrosanct forever.

We need to work out precisely how special we still are compared to other places. Maybe twice as many politicians proportionate to Scotland would suffice 13 years after the Good Friday Agreement, instead of the current three-to-one ratio.

Cutting dead wood might improve the quality of our representation. You only have to compare our plodding Assembly debates, where members read out long speeches and ministers answer planted questions, to see that the standard is often far lower than the leaner, fitter administration in Edinburgh. Ian Paisley Jnr likened it to a school debating chamber.

We also pass very little legislation compared to Holyrood. Sittings are unproductive.

Mr McCartan says that many of our MLAs work 60 to 80 hours a week, but we have got to look at what is being achieved by that effort.

Those long hours may be a fulfilment of Parkinson's Law, which states that 'work expands to fill the time available for its completion'.

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