MLA pay rise, despite just 46 minutes in Assembly chamber

MLAs received a £500 salary increase in March '“ and are in line for a similar increase in six months' time, despite not having sat in the Assembly since March.

This is the only time that MLAs have sat in the Assembly chamber since January  and it lasted just 46 minutes
This is the only time that MLAs have sat in the Assembly chamber since January  and it lasted just 46 minutes

Stormont sources yesterday confirmed the increases to the News Letter but said that MLAs were not directly responsible because they had effectively sub-contracted the decision to an independent panel.

Since they last sat in the Assembly on March 13 – the first time they had been in the chamber since January – to sign in, MLAs and their staff have cost more than £6 million in salaries and expenses.

There is particular frustration among MLAs from the smaller parties because there is nothing which they can do to resurrect power-sharing. Rather, the nature of the joint offices of first minister and deputy first minister mean that the Assembly cannot do its work if either the DUP or Sinn Féin refuse to take up their posts in the Executive.

The increases to salaries are on the instructions of the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), the body to which MLAs handed over control of their salaries and expenses in 2011 so that they would no longer vote on the issue.

However, the IFRP irked many MLAs by cutting their expenses and attempting to halt what it viewed as nepotism and what it described as “widespread diversion of funds for constituency work to the coffers of the political parties”.

When the panel’s term expired last June, MLAs did not replace them, meaning that MLAs cannot set their own salaries or expenses without passing legislation but that the one body legally obligated to do so now has no members.

The panel’s final determination stated that MLAs’ salaries should increase by £500 a year if the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rate of inflation was at 1% the previous September.

That means that from next April MLAs will be paid £50,000.

Despite the increase, MLAs’ spending power will fall because the CPI puts inflation at 2.7%, meaning that they would need a 2.7% increase to remain where they are in real terms.

Pat McCartan, who chaired the IFRP until last year, called on the Secretary of State to outline a tough stance which would see no MLA being paid a penny by this time next year if the Assembly is not back.

Mr McCartan told the News Letter that MLAs were entitled to “three months’ notice like any normal employee” and therefore the government should move to clarify for them and for the public what will happen to their salaries if direct rule is implemented.

He said that if there had been no return of devolution by Christmas the government should notify MLAs that in three months their salaries will be cut by 25%, followed by 50% three months after that and then finally to zero three months later, next September.

Mr McCartan said that the wider political situation is now “just ridiculous and untenable”.

The former chairman of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said that since 1972 he had sat on school boards of governors and that in those 45 years he had “never known a worse time”.

Referring to the funding crisis in education and the fact that civil servants are now running Northern Ireland with no democratic oversight, he said: “We are literally being treated with contempt.

“We on school boards are the volunteers expected to take the painful decisions to declare redundancies when people in the department are well paid to take decisions.”

An Assembly spokeswoman said that MLAs’ pay was set by the IFRP and “as required, the Assembly Commission will implement the determination in full and abide by its provisions”.

Failure of panel, says Allister

The Independent Financial Review Panel failed to anticipate that the Assembly could collapse and that salaries should be cut in such a scenario, an MLA last night said.

Jim Allister said that the panel had “made no provision for a non-operative Assembly” but that despite that fact the Secretary fo State should now act to override the current provisions.

“This is a failure of the IFRP,” the North Antrim MLA said.

“They failed to anticipate or provide for the circumstances in which there is no operating Assembly, both in regard to pay increases or pay decreases that should flow from that situation.”

Mr Allister said it was “indefensible” that MLAs were continuing to be paid as if they were working as normal. He said that although an MLA’s job entails “an unending constituency role whether there is an Assembly or not” it was also about being a member of a legislative Assembly and “if the Assembly is not meeting to legislate then he is not fulfilling that aspect of the job” so the public expectation of what should happen to their salaries was correct.