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Parties unite in anger at cuts to allowances for office costs

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Northern Ireland’s main political parties may be split over a controversial 11% pay hike suggestion.

But they have united in slamming a recommendation to fund it by cutting office cost allowances.

The Independent Financial Review Panel, which announced the determinations on Wednesday, has claimed money for the increase would come from “significant savings” elsewhere in the Executive.

These include a reduction in MLA office expenses which are being cut from £75,857 to £69,238.

“Throughout the consultation on these issues we maintained the position that there should be no increase to the salary arrangements for MLAs,” Sinn Fein’s Barry McElduff said.

“One reading of this suggests that constituency service monies will be used to finance an increase in MLA salaries. This would not be acceptable to Sinn Fein.

“This amounts to removing monies from front line constituency work and placing it in the pockets of MLAs. Sinn Fein will certainly not contemplate such an outcome.

“Sinn Fein MLAs take the average wage and contribute the rest of their salaries to the delivery and expansion of constituency services for those we represent.”

In Scotland, where the 129 MSPs receive a salary of £57,521 each, the allowance for office costs is around £59,000 — significantly lower than the new figure for Northern Ireland representatives.

Anyone who wishes to opt out of the pay rise will have to write to the panel individually informing them of their decision. However, chairman Pat McCartan said whether they accept the hike or not all MLAs would be subject to cuts in office allowances.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said: “The salary increase is not warranted for the workload of an MLA but I think that the cut in secretariat expenses is gravely unfair because that money goes back into serving the constituency.

“You only get it if you spend it on services. An MLA, if he is doing his job will have it fully committed through staff contracts. I have mine fully spent but this almost £6,000 cut that means any salary increase will have to go to make up the shortfall.

“It will hit members who are single MLAs in their constituency particularly badly, because if there are two or three MLAs from one party in a constituency they will probably share an office and share staff.

“This increase would be paid automatically to me but I can see now that every penny of it will have to go towards making up the shortfall in office expenses.

“Being an MLA is not overly demanding. It is certainly less stressful than my previous job as a barrister where you are dealing with intricacies of legislation and cases where big decisions are taken on the advice that you give.

“And, as a criminal barrister you are very often the last man standing between someone and them going to jail — so the pressure is enormous.”

The panel found that 77% of MLAs believed they should get a pay rise. It is understood that only 31 of the 108 MLAs responded.

A DUP spokesman said: “The proposition that MLAs should have a salary increase funded at the expense of their constituency service is totally unacceptable.

“The DUP provides the largest number of advice centres and we want to maintain this vital frontline service.”

The anonymous survey also found that MLAs reported working an average 56-hour week.

Nine of the 31 MLAs who responded were also councillors.

Others held responsibilities on District Policing Partnerships, Assembly Private Secretaries and various community groups.

SDLP Leader Alisdair McDonnell said: “The SDLP is completely opposed to this decision to award an 11% pay increase to MLAs and this attack on constituency staff who provide an important service to people who find themselves in hardship.”

Outgoing Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott said: “Obviously it is an overall reduction in the amount of finance going to the Assembly.

“However, I would have preferred to have seen a better balance whereby the office costs would have been retained and Assembly members paid less.”

An Alliance spokesman said: “Given the current economic climate and with welfare reforms being introduced, our offices are facing more pressures, but funding for our constituency services will be decreased and this will have a detrimental impact on these services when needed most.”

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