Belfast Telegraph

'Absolute disgrace' - Lady Hermon's verdict on MLA salaries scandal

By Brett Campbell

The Secretary of State's indecision over whether to slash MLAs' pay is "utterly bizarre", according to a former public standards watchdog.

Sir Alistair Graham called on Karen Bradley to take urgent action after it emerged that taxpayers have handed over £9 million in Assembly Members' salaries during the past 18 months despite Stormont being suspended.

"This should have been done after an independent panel made its recommendations," he said.

"It's utterly bizarre that the Secretary of State will not proceed in that direction."

Expenses and pension contributions are not included in the £9m figure, which was revealed as Ms Bradley faced tough questions from MPs at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee yesterday.

The Secretary of State also indicated that at least one party has opposed moves to implement salary cuts of nearly £14,000 for all 90 elected MLAs.

"I asked for representations on what we should do from parties and MLAs," she said.

"However, this is people's employment and lives and mortgage payments, and I'm mindful MLAs still work for their constituents on the whole.

"I am still considering the position."

When pressed on who objected, Ms Bradley said it would "not be appropriate" to name parties or individuals.

All the main parties later denied asking for the cuts not to go ahead.

Sir Alistair Graham said those denials made the situation even more strange.

"If all of the political parties represented in the Assembly are calling for the cuts to be implemented then why hasn't that happened?" he asked.

"With no immediate prospect of a return to devolution, the Secretary of State should take action and treat this as a matter of urgency."

During the questioning, MPs reminded Ms Bradley of her own words from March 21 when she said she was "minded" to cut MLAs' pay after conceding a broad desire for such a course of action existed. But despite the collapse of all efforts to restore the power-sharing Executive, nothing has been done.

North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon branded the situation an "absolute disgrace" and questioned why Ms Bradley was "prevaricating" and "treading water" on an issue which has sparked such high levels of public outrage.

Ms Bradley, who insisted that she is "extraordinarily" aware of public sentiment, also told Labour MP Kate Hoey that it would "not be helpful to put timelines or deadlines" on when she might consider introducing a return to direct rule.

A Government spokesperson said it is a matter for the political parties to state their position on what the Secretary of State made clear yesterday.

But last night all of the major Stormont parties denied expressing opposition to the cuts when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph.

Instead, they voiced full support for last December's recommendations from an independent panel set up by Ms Bradley's predecessor James Brokenshire.

The DUP insisted it had demonstrated consistency in its support for cutting MLA salaries.

"It is not sustainable to maintain current pay arrangements if there is no prospect of devolution returning," the party said.

The DUP also took the opportunity to slam Sinn Fein's abstentionist MPs for picking up allowances while at the same time refusing to take their seats in the House of Commons. "Similarly, it is not sustainable for Sinn Fein MPs to receive allowances from Westminster when they do not carry out the full duties of an MP," it said.

Sinn Fein reiterated its support for cuts to be implemented in accordance with the proposals from former Assembly chief executive Trevor Rainey nearly eight months ago.

His recommendations included a plan to cut pay in two stages to around three quarters of the current £49,500 salary.

"We have stated that fact very clearly to Karen Bradley on more than one occasion," Sinn Fein said.

The SDLP also denied opposing a reduction in pay while the Assembly is suspended.

"The SDLP has indicated, both publicly and privately, that we support a cut to MLA pay, even before it was proposed by Trevor Rainey's report," it said.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said his party also wants to see the proposals implemented.

"On every occasion that we met the Secretary of State I made it clear that there is no opposition to reducing MLA pay in line with Mr Rainey's recommendations," he said.

The TUV said that its only MLA Jim Allister has been on the record advocating cuts from the beginning and previously called for such a move while giving evidence before the NI Affairs Committee.

"In fact, Mr Allister feels so strongly that he refuses to take the travel allowance which makes up one of the components of MLAs' pay," it added. "In his case this amounts to around £5,000 per annum."

Alliance said the party has been clear that the current pay situation is "untenable" and must be addressed.

"Naomi Long was among the first to suggest a cut was needed when she argued that if MLAs cannot carry out 100% of their roles then they shouldn't receive 100% of their pay," the party added.

"Alliance has continued to raise the issue of MLA pay with the Secretary of State for over a year and we are surprised she has opted not to take action which is long overdue."

It added that while the party's MLAs are committed to restoring the Assembly, the Secretary of State should get on with implementing the report which is sitting in front of her.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew confirmed that no one from his party has ever lobbied Ms Bradley for MLAs to retain full pay.

"It is difficult for MLAs to face constant speculation over their salaries. The Secretary of State must take decisive action on this matter," he said.

Belfast Telegraph

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