New academic research shows that MLAs claim to spend, on average, 28 working hours a week on constituency business – yet they continue to be paid their full salaries as if they were also working as legislators.
The research by University of Liverpool PhD candidate Sean Haughey finds that Stormont politicians spend more time on constituency work than on their parliamentary duties as legislators and key parts of the scrutiny of the civil service, which took up 23 hours of their time each week.
The research backs up the argument of many MLAs that although Stormont has been moribund since January they have still been heavily involved in other aspects of their role. However, it also emphasises that even based on what MLAs say, they are – at best – performing about two-thirds of the role.
Mr Haughey, whose research has been published in The Journal of Legislative Studies, found that the DUP’s MLAs (32 hours) were the most constituency-oriented – working on issues such as representing their constituents in complaints about benefit payments or in attempting to attract investment to their constituency – compared to 25.6 hours for SDLP and Sinn Fein MLAs.
The article said: “That nationalist MLAs do not outperform their unionist counterparts in constituency service provision might come as something of a surprise. A perception has developed in Northern Ireland that unionist MLAs are not quite as engaged in local community work as nationalist MLAs. Our results suggest the opposite.”
One MLA told Mr Haughey: “I would actually sacrifice some of the work here [Stormont] to help constituents ... I don’t have any ambition other than my constituency.”
A DUP MLA said: “If they [constituents] want something done, no matter how small it is, I do it. I could say ‘there are other places where you could do that’ but I don’t.”
But some MLAs were critical of the extent to which their colleagues focus on their constituencies in the hope of being seen to have a high profile.
One MLA said that some colleagues would not contemplate missing a funeral in the constituency, even if the occasion coincided with a vote on legislation.
The research was based on interviews with 12 representatives of Stormont’s five main parties and 49 responses from MLAs to a postal survey in 2015 and 2016.
Last month the News Letter revealed that MLAs have cost taxpayers more than £10 million in salaries, expenses (largely office expenses) and other payments since Stormont collapsed in January.
There has been mounting pressure in Northern Ireland for pay to be cut or stopped, with several MLAs saying publicly that they are “embarrassed” to be paid while not doing a key part of their jobs.
However, speaking in the Commons last week, Labour shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith urged the government to “resist ... short term pressure to cut MLAs’ pay? Cutting politician pay is always a popular thing to argue for. But we need, Mr deputy speaker, this generation of Northern Irish politicians to work and talk together to try and bring about power-sharing.”