Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Issues that still need to be tackled

The Senior Salaries Review Body has performed a valuable service to the Assembly with its newly-published report on MLA pay.

Its independent study has recommended a not insignificant salary lift, involving special increases totalling £3,000 as well as annual rises.

The package would narrow the gap that has developed between MLAs and their counterparts in Scotland and Wales. It would be phased in over four years with the largest lump sum addition of £1,500 coming at the end of this period.

This gradualist approach is much less likely to provoke public outcry than a one-off deal.

Part of the package would be dependent on annual increases paid to MPs and it is therefore impossible to put an exact figure on its total value.

But a rough estimate suggests it could be worth in the region of 15% overall across the four years.

The vast majority of employees in Northern Ireland would kick the door down to get an offer like that - particularly in the current economic climate.

Stormont politicians should, of course, be paid at a rate in keeping with their key leadership role in our society. Even the most trenchant critics of our MLAs are unlikely to argue that their salaries should remain permanently fixed at the present figure.

It is hardly a great time for the Assembly to debate the SSRB proposals, given both the serious downturn in the economy and the recent five-month break in Executive meetings.

But it may be that MLAs will still conclude that the Review Body's carefully constructed proposals are worth adopting. Our politicians should realise

that the best way to deflect public scepticism on their remuneration is to prove that the Assembly is a relevant and functional institution.

The peace and stability secured by the political progress is deeply appreciated and should never be taken for granted. But voters are entitled to more than just an "absence of war" and have every right to demand good government from Stormont

It is also worth noting that there are a few stings in the tail in the SSRB report. The report downgraded its assessment of where MLA pay should be set - from 82% of an MP's salary to 75%.

It also proposed a thorough review of double jobbing by Northern Ireland politicians.

In a striking comment, the research paper that informed the SSRB's conclusions stated: "We see no reason for MLAs who are also Members of Parliament to be paid more than their Westminster salary."

The Review Body also touched on some of the accountability issues that the Belfast Telegraph highlighted in its Open Stormont campaign earlier this year. It made a sensible recommendation for annual audit checks on a random sample of MLA expenses. In addition, the report backed independent valuations on constituency office rental expenses paid out by the Assembly. But it said such a measure should only apply when MLAs move offices or renew rental agreements. That seems unnecessarily timid.

The SSRB did not address the fact that members can claim rental expenses for offices owned by relatives. The Assembly can still tackle this issue itself - something it should have done long ago.

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