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£12m: that's what our MLAs are really costing

By David Gordon and Chris Thornton

Assembly finances were back under scrutiny today as it emerged payouts to MLAs are expected to top £12 million this year - including a golden handshake to one ousted member that amounted to £15,000 for less than two months.

A UK-wide comparison also shows that basic Assembly wages cost almost twice as much per head of population as the Scottish parliament and nearly four times as much as Westminster pay.

Paying the basic salaries of Assembly members costs £2.59 per person in Northern Ireland.

By comparison, the Scottish Parliament's wages cost £1.32 for every person in Scotland, the Welsh Assembly's pay is 94p per head in Wales and Westminster pay costs 65p for every UK resident.

Last year, when MLAs had no responsibilities for governing Northern Ireland, Assembly wages and salaries cost £8.7 million, according to tallies released to the Belfast Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act.

That bill is expected to break £12 million this year, because allowances have been increased and pay has returned to 2002 levels with the restoration of devolution.

One allowance - for running constituency offices - has already increased by 45%.

The total bill for the Assembly in 2007 will include resettlement payments to MLAs who lost their seats - including one who collected £15,000 after serving for less than two months.

SDLP member Marietta Farrell was appointed to the Assembly in January, 57 days before the March election. She lost her seat, which entitled her to collect the resettlement money.

Individually, Assembly members are the lowest paid parliamentarians in the UK, earning £41,321 a year.

But because there is a relatively large number of them - 108 for a population of 1.7 million people - their total wages are higher than the salary bill for the Welsh Assembly, which governs over one million more people.

Assembly pay is due to be reviewed by the Senior Salaries Review Body, which recommends pay levels for parliamentarians and senior public servants.

Full reports: page 10

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