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Five main parties unite in deal that will see £1k pay rise either handed back or given to charity

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The scheme was outlined yesterday after a meeting of the Assembly Commission at Stormont (Steve Parsons/PA)

The scheme was outlined yesterday after a meeting of the Assembly Commission at Stormont (Steve Parsons/PA)

PA Archive/PA Images

The scheme was outlined yesterday after a meeting of the Assembly Commission at Stormont (Steve Parsons/PA)

Northern Ireland's five main parties have agreed a process that allows their MLAs to either give their £1,000 pay rise to charity or return it to the public purse.

The scheme was outlined yesterday after a meeting of the Assembly Commission at Stormont.

It determined that it was legally impossible to stop the salary increase being implemented.

Under the process to be adopted, MLAs who want to pay back the money can choose to have the £1,000 taken out of their gross pay before tax, and direct it into the public coffers via the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.

Alternatively, they can participate in a payroll charitable initiative, such as Pay as You Give, which will see the full £1,000 donated to worthy causes.

MLAs may wish to accept the money in their pay packet and then donate it to a charity of their choice. The downside of that is the sum would be lesser, as tax will have been taken off.

MLA salaries are rising from £49,500 to £50,500, with another £500 pay rise due in April.

In a joint statement the five parties said they recognised "the understandable public concern in relation to the payment of inflationary increases to MLA salaries".

They said: "No MLA or party sought or has supported an increase in MLA salaries and the inflationary increases arise automatically from the 2016 determination by the Independent Financial Review Panel.

"We would appreciate the cooperation of Assembly Commission staff to assist MLAs to put their individual arrangements in place if required as soon as possible to enable the return of the inflationary increases to salary."

Sinn Fein chief whip John O'Dowd said the independence of the Independent Financial Review Panel was paramount.

"The next issue we wanted to answer was how we ensure that MLAs did not profit from the inflationary increase that was awarded by that body and we have put in place a very simple mechanism where the MLAs can return that money," he said.

SDLP chief whip Colin McGrath said the commission was unable to stop the rise being implemented.

"That money is going to come to us, that is set in law," he said.

"But the parties have worked hard together today and have now set in stone a process which will enable us to give that money back."

Mr McGrath said a new salary review panel was due to be constituted.

"Should that panel not make any determinations before the end of this mandate, each of the increases that come in on the first of April will move into this scheme, so there will be extra money for charities or extra money for the public purse. Because it is unjustifiable at this stage that it goes to MLAs."

Mr McGrath said he had joined healthcare workers and public servants on picket lines fighting for fair pay in recent times.

"It's not appropriate, in my view, that MLAs should be gifted a pay increase after such a long period without an Assembly. It's right that the parties came together to create the mechanism for MLAs to return the increase to the public purse or to charity for the lifetime of this Assembly mandate or until a new independent panel conducts its own review.

"Public confidence in politics and politicians is low. We need to earn that trust back."

Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey welcomed the joint position adopted by the parties. I am encouraged by the constructive cooperation which the parties have shown to deal resolutely with this difficult issue," Mr Maskey said.

The Independent Financial Review Panel was established in 2011. It makes determinations in relation to the salaries, allowances and pensions payable to MLAs.

It meets at the beginning of every Assembly term and sets pay and increases for the next five years.

It last sat in March 2016 and set the current pay levels and increases up until April 2020. Even though its determination still applies, its members terms expired and were not renewed following the fall of devolution in 2017.

The panel is fully independent and is not subject to the control of either the Assembly or the Assembly Commission.

It decided that MLAs should receive a 1% pay rise each April if inflation was greater than 1%.

Former panel member Alan McQuillan said that all the parties had signed up to securing an annual pay rise if inflation was greater than 1%.

"None ever expressed any concern to us before about pay going up. Some did in the past raise questions when we put very tight controls on their expenses and on getting value for the money that was spent," he said.

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