Belfast Telegraph

MLAs facing £13,600 salary cut if Stormont is not restored

Report urges Brokenshire to slash pay by nearly £14k

By Victoria Leonard

The Secretary of State has been urged to slash Assembly Members' pay by almost £14,000 as the Stormont crisis approaches its first anniversary.

James Brokenshire has been advised to cut the salaries to 72.5% of their current level in light of the continued absence of a devolved administration.

The advice was prepared by the former clerk and chief executive of the Assembly Trevor Reaney in response to a request from Mr Brokenshire last month.

The report recommends that MLAs' annual salaries be reduced in two stages, with an immediate £7,425 (15%) cut from £49,500 to £42,075.

This would be followed by a further 12.5% reduction three months later - an additional decrease of £6,187.

In total, it would see MLAs' pay slashed by £13,612 - from £49,500 to £35,888.

Future annual pay increases for Assembly Members would also be deferred until Stormont is back in operation.

In addition, MLAs who receive extra pay for holding offices in the Assembly but who have remained in office despite the stalemate will have their pay cut.

It means DUP Speaker Robin Newton - who currently receives an annual salary of £87,500 - would face an immediate £25,465 pay cut, and another one of £6,187 three months later.

Therefore, his total salary would be reduced by £31,652 to £55,848.

Mr Newton has faced calls to quit from political opponents after he was accused of misleading the Assembly over his links to the UDA-linked Charter NI. He rejects the claims.

In addition, members of the Assembly Commission would see their salary ultimately drop from £55,500 to £40,688.

The report recommends addressing the "anomaly" that arose when the SDLP's Alex Attwood, who was not returned at the election in March 2017, continued to hold an Assembly Commission post.

He was also paid a full salary for the role, including an element MLAs receive, despite not being elected.

However, it is understood Mr Attwood repaid the MLA component of his salary. The report states: "This anomaly should be addressed in the current circumstances so that no individual receives a salary for being an MLA who is not so elected."

MLAs currently enjoy an annual £500 pay rise, but the report recommends that the rise due to be applied on April 1, 2018 would "not be appropriate until such times as the Assembly returns to full functioning".

The report recommends that no further permanent appointments of MLA staff are made until the restoration of the Assembly is confirmed.

It notes that 16 permanent staff have been taken on since September and, as at November 2017, a total of 214 staff were employed by MLAs.

But if the Secretary of State does not consider that there is the prospect of an imminent return of a fully functioning Assembly, MLAs' staffing allowance should be reduced from £50,000 to £37,500 at the end of March.

It is further recommended that the allowance for establishing a constituency office be halved from £2,000 to £1,000 per year until the Assembly's restoration.

Significantly, the report advises that a further review of salaries and allowances should be undertaken before the end of 2018 if no progress has been made in restoring the Assembly by then.

The report adds that, in the event of a transitional or interim Assembly being formed in the future, a "higher level of salary" of around £44,550 would "seem appropriate".

And it recommends that office holders' salaries be amended to 90% in this case. Should an early election be called while the reduced salaries recommended are in operation, the report advises sticking with them.

Mr Brokenshire said that he would "consider carefully" the advice before issuing a response.

He said: "I would like to thank Trevor Reaney for his thoughtful advice on the approach to the salaries and allowances of MLAs in the continued absence of an Executive or sitting Assembly.

"This is a matter of significant public concern and it is right to take a considered approach.

"This is why I asked Mr Reaney to provide me with this advice, which I will consider carefully before responding."

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said he had expected the pay cut advice to be much tougher and believed the public would feel the recommendations hadn't gone far enough.

"I would support MLAs' pay being cut by a third immediately. I don't think the public of Northern Ireland will be happy with this - they will be expecting something more draconian," he said.

"I'm an MLA but I'm more concerned about my staff.

"They are working twice as hard, but any cuts to constituency offices will mean a reduction in hours."

The DUP said: "MLAs should have no role in setting their pay and allowances.

"If there's no prospect of devolution returning then its inevitable that this will need to be considered by the Secretary of State."

Sinn Fein said: "Sinn Fein have stated in our submission to Mr Reaney as part of his review on MLA pay that if the Assembly is not re-established in the short term, then we are firmly of the view that the current arrangements needed to be reviewed."

Northern Ireland has been without a power-sharing administration since January as a result of the fallout over the RHI 'cash for ash' scandal.

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