Ben Lowry: The staffing cost allowances for Stormont MLAs should be cut, not increased

MLAs will have an even greater personal stake in maintaining the system than they did before and ensuring that Sinn Fein, who want to say that Northern Ireland cannot work as an entity, are kept happyMLAs will have an even greater personal stake in maintaining the system than they did before and ensuring that Sinn Fein, who want to say that Northern Ireland cannot work as an entity, are kept happy
MLAs will have an even greater personal stake in maintaining the system than they did before and ensuring that Sinn Fein, who want to say that Northern Ireland cannot work as an entity, are kept happy
Some critics of the increase in pay for MLA staff cite possible abuses of the expenses system.

Yet Stormont has not had an expenses scandal, unlike Westminster, where MPs of all parties exploited expenses until exposure by journalists in 2009.

There are different reasons to be concerned about the planned rise in Stormont staffing allowances.

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First, it highlights and indeed worsens a Stormont shortcoming that has been evident since 1998 – that local politicians will not take tough spending decisions, or ever reform the public sector.

On the contrary, the response to Covid has shown that the preferred MLA approach is always to spend yet more money, and proudly announce grants to help various sectors. Such spending might be necessary in a crisis but there is never an explanation of any savings that might be made to pay for it.

A second problem is that it tilts politics away from the direction in which it needs to head, which is towards less bureaucracy and better politicians.

There have always been talented Stormont MLAs, but they are outnumbered by mediocre ones.

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The RHI scandal revealed many problems with governance in Northern Ireland, one of which was that many political witnesses who appeared before the inquiry were notably less impressive than the investigators who interrogated them.

Yet this is not surprising given the way in which society values the two groups. It would be impossible to find a senior lawyer to engage in major, long-running legal work for an MLA’s pay of £49,000 a year. Pay expectations at the top of the legal world are such that there is a struggle to fill high court judgeships, despite a salary of £190,000 a year.

The Senior Salaries Review Body wants to lift the pay of such judicial posts in the UK to £240,000 to attract QCs to these judgeships (which have immense prestige and typically result in the recipient getting a knighthood or damehood).

Judges earn four times an MLA but still it is too little for QCs.

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For years I have argued for higher Stormont and Westminster pay.

This is not because I consider £49,000 or £74,000 (for an MP) to be low salaries, but because many key people in society do think that.

Some important walks of life have always had modest pay by professional standards, such as the church and academia and indeed media (barely any print journalists earn as much as an MLA).

But politics is the most influential of them. MLAs do not have to be paid like judges but their pay should edge up higher. Few QCs go into politics as Jim Allister has done (his scrutiny of devolution in a week is better than that of some backbenchers combined in a year).

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Job insecurity also deters would-be politicians (Danny Kennedy, the respected former MLA and minister, was unemployed for a year after he lost his MLA seat in 2017).

Westminster MPs should earn closer to what a GP earns, circa £100,000. Representing a constituency in the House of Commons is as important a job as a family doctor.

But if MLA pay should rise, their expenses should fall. They need secretaries, not bureaucracies.

MLA staff will soon earn up to £36,100 a year, a huge rise from £22,750. It is absurd when we need better MLAs to pump money at their staff and slash the pay differential they have over their admin.

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It also means that some support staff will earn almost as much as an experienced doctor (registrars, who are emerging medical experts, start on £38,000 per year).

One argument for the rise is that such staff are surrounded by better paid civil servant officials. But this is partly because politicians have allowed that surrounding civil service bureaucracy to grow.

Some grades of the NI civil service, such as Administrative Officer (AO) level, they are better paid than their counterparts in England.

AO is the most numerous grade of the civil service so the higher pay is expensive to fund. It reduces funds for frontline services such as the NHS, which was already under pressure due to political cowardice (healthcare has not been reformed, as experts have recommended for 20 years, because politicians fear being seen to close hospitals).

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Devolved politicians will not reform the public sector and certainly won’t cut staffing or pay if it is ever needed in a particular sphere. The MLA allowance increase will instead expand the inefficiency.

There is a further problem with this proposed change.

It means that MLAs will have a greater stake in the system and a greater incentive to keep it going. In a normal system that would not be a problem but here we have a party, Sinn Fein, that has a vested interest in saying Northern Ireland does not, and cannot, work as an entity.

Republicans are also disciplined on pay and expenses, and submit much of their salary to the party. If they again collapse, they have less to lose. Other parties can only respond to this by conceding their demands, as they did in January.

The allowances increase thus could make Stormont even less stable than it was before.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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