Just how much is your MLA worth?
- 15 March 2012
- From the section Northern Ireland
Both the BBC's Good Morning Ulster and Nolan show teams report that their text lines have never been busier than after the publication of the Independent Financial Review Panel's determination on MLAs' salaries and expenses.
Ask a member of the public if they back a pay rise for a politician, and 99 times out 100 the answer will be no.
When the Stormont parties label the £5,000 pay rise on basic MLA salaries as "unacceptable", it is worth pointing out that they approved the creation of the independent panel in the first place.
There is never a good time for politicians to vote themselves a wage rise. Although historically they tend to try to get away with it immediately after an election, when there is plenty of time before they have to start knocking on doors again.
So they appointed a three-strong team, who will never have to stand for re-election, to take the flak.
As a voter you can throw as many stones at that independent team as you want, but you should be aware that you are playing a part in a pre-choreographed exercise. It will be hard to find any MLA openly arguing for more pay, even though the panel say that 24 of the 31 politicians who responded to their confidential survey believed they should get a higher salary.
So far, MLAs declaring they will definitely use the panel's suggested voluntary salary sacrifice scheme are thin on the ground.
The panel has performed a skilful manoeuvre in approving a wage increase and yet devising a package which they calculate will save the taxpayer £3m over three years. They have achieved this by robbing the Stormont office costs 'Peter' to pay the MLA salary 'Paul'.
Many parties have made the apparently reasonable response that front-line constituency services should not be reduced to create an extra bulge in MLA wallets.
Some politicians are hinting that they will take the extra cash but then put it back into their office allowances. If this happens let's hope the use of that cash will show up clearly in each MLA's accounts.
Around 2007, when devolution was restored following the St Andrews deal, Stormont office allowances increased dramatically from £48,000 to nearly £70,000. One point the panel makes is that the audit trail in relation to Stormont expenses has been inadequate.
In some cases parties have billed MLAs for non-specific services - in others the MLA's office is owned by their party, leading to the suspicion that any rent paid is viewed as a subvention to the party rather than a fair market rate.
The panel calls for "utmost transparency so that it can be clearly seen that public money is not being channelled improperly to political parties or any other individual or organisation".
One panel stipulation concerning MLA office rent is that "the ultimate financial beneficiary of rent paid for premises must be visible and resident (or if a company, registered) within the European Union". This recommendation obviously raises a question about whether any Stormont landlords in the past have been offshore entities, and where and when they paid tax.
Some MLAs have complained that the headline rise on their basic salary does not tell the full story, as cuts to other extra payments (for example to assembly committee vice chairs, Stormont commission members or double-jobbing MLAs) mean that in fact they will take home less cash, not more. For this level of detail it is well worth looking at the full report.
In defence of the Stormont MLAs, the pay increase still does not close the gap between their salaries and that of their Scottish or Welsh counterparts. However, the panel did not conclude that their work was comparable, given the higher ratio of elected representatives to voters.
A table in the panel's report shows that, at current rates, MLAs cost £2.64 per constituent, whilst Scottish MSPs cost £1.44 and Welsh AMs £1.08. MPs are cheaper still, at just 65p per head.
Obviously this calculation would change if and when the number of Stormont politicians is reduced from 108 to either 96 or 80 - a change which is likely as part and parcel of the latest boundary review.
Such a reduction would inevitably cut overall salary costs, but the future size of the assembly was outside the Independent Financial Review Panel's remit.