MLAs’ pay: heat turned up on SF over MPs’ allowances

Lagan Valley MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Lagan Valley MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

With an announcement on the cutting of MLAs’ pay now expected shortly, the DUP has said Sinn Fein MPs should also face cuts to the money they are entitled to whilst not turning up to Parliament.

Yesterday, both the Northern Ireland Office and the DUP gave the clearest indication yet that a decision on reducing Assembly members’ salaries could be imminent.

The Northern Ireland Office told the News Letter an update on the situation will come “shortly”, while DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he expects the news “fairly soon”.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley has already indicated she is inclined to cut MLA pay by over one-quarter.

But Sir Jeffrey, MP for Lagan Valley, said his party has also been pressing the government about curbing allowances for Sinn Fein’s seven absentee MPs – adding he believes the government is “not unsympathetic” to the idea.

“One of the things we’re asking the government at Westminster to look at is the allowances paid to Sinn Fein MPs who don’t take their seats at Westminster,” he said.

“We believe that’s what’s good for one set of public representatives should be good for another. And if MLAs are going to have their salaries reduced because Stormont is not functioning properly and they are unable to take part in debates at Stormont, we believe that MPs who refuse to take their seats at Westminster should not receive the same allowances as MPs who do.”

As for MLAs, he said if and when a pay cut comes “it’s going to be difficult; there’s no doubt Assembly members – like any other people – have family commitments, they’ve got financial obligations”.

Calls to curb the pay of MLAs – who earn £49,500 per annum – have been made for well over a year.

Stormont collapsed in January 2017 when Martin McGuinness resigned. Ever since, Northern Ireland has essentially been without a parliament or government.

In December 2017, former Assembly chief executive Trevor Reaney delivered a report on what should happen to MLAs’ salaries whilst the political gridlock continued, suggesting a cut of 27.5% .

Karen Bradley, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, had said in March this year that she is “minded” to make this cut.

Then on March 21, a bill giving her the power to curb MLAs’ pay was passed. It has not been clear since then if or how she would use that power.

But yesterday on BBC Talkback, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said “the SoS now has the authority to proceed ... the DUP is certainly not standing in the way of her acting”.

He added: “I’d expect that’d come fairly soon.”

Asked when she will make a decision on MLAs’ pay, the Northern Ireland Office said yesterday Mrs Bradley “is minded to reduce pay in line with the recommendations by Mr Reaney, and will provide a further update on this issue of MLA salaries shortly”.

But Sir Jeffrey indicated that such a cut should also add impetus to the calls to rein in the amount of funding available to abstentionist republican MPs at Westminster.

“They do get paid significant allowances for Westminster, and those are the allowances we’re targeting,” he said.

Whilst Sinn Fein MPs are not entitled to claim the £77,379 in basic salary, they are entitled to each claim a grant of up to £24,880 per annum for office costs for example, as well as for accommodation and staff costs.

Although Sir Jeffrey said that ultimately curbing access to such cash for Sinn Fein would be a matter for parliament, he added: “I think the government is not unsympathetic to this.”

Sinn Fein responded last night by saying its MPs “provide excellent representation”, despite not taking their seats.

It added that they “only receive costs which are directly related to the first-class constituency service they provide ... however, it is no surprise that the DUP wish to discriminate against the 240,000 people who vote for Sinn Fein”.