Northern Ireland

Stormont: £15m paid in MLA salaries 'unacceptable'

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Media caption'These sums are unacceptable'

It is "unacceptable" that almost £15m has been paid to MLAs in salaries since the collapse of Stormont, the Northern Ireland secretary has said.

Julian Smith pledged to review the wages if he "feels things are not going in the right direction".

He was responding to concerns from North Down MP Lady Hermon during his first appearance before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

It was confirmed that £14.9m has been spent on MLAs' pay since January 2017.

Lady Hermon said it was "unsustainable and indefensible" that MLAs were to get their full salaries while "schools and hospitals are under so much pressure".

She singled out the Northern Ireland Assembly speaker, who she said earns £55,850 a year in spite of only attending one sitting in the chamber lasting less than an hour.

Image caption Northern Ireland has been without a functioning executive since January 2017

In response, Mr Smith said: "These sums of money for an institution not doing its job are completely unacceptable."

But he also said he would defend the constituency work that MLAs were doing and warned that "other options for governance in Northern Ireland are significantly worse".

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee chairman Simon Hoare also criticised the salaries, suggesting they should be used as leverage to get MLAs back to work at the assembly and "not just stuffing their mouths with gold".

Mr Smith said it was a "tragedy" that "thousands of decisions were not being taken" because the parties cannot agree to return to power-sharing.

In response to a question from the DUP MP Gregory Campbell, the secretary of state said there were "no plans" for legislation for the Irish language to be introduced at Westminster.

Image caption Lady Hermon was critical of the level of pay given to MLAs' during the Stormont deadlock

Mr Smith also came under pressure from Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs over the prime minister's Brexit deal, which Mr Smith insisted was a "win win" for Northern Ireland as it gave it the best of "both worlds".

He added it was a "big achievement to get a deal, which keeps the border as open as it is today".

Mr Smith admitted some information would be required on goods moving across the Irish Sea but added the government was working to reduce any disruption.

He was challenged by the DUP's Ian Paisley, who asked how the Mr Smith would feel if goods travelling from his home in north Yorkshire to London needed to be checked for paperwork.

Mr Paisley added that is what businesses in Northern Ireland would be required to do on goods travelling to Great Britain under the prime minister's deal.