Northern Ireland

MLA expenses: Assembly votes for commission to set allowances

Assembly chamber on Tuesday 30 June

Assembly members (MLAs) have voted to give the commission which runs the assembly building the authority to set the allowances paid to cover assembly members' office and staff costs.

The proposal was backed by the DUP, Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

The UUP, Alliance, Greens and People Before Profit supported an amendment from TUV leader Jim Allister.

It proposed giving an independent body the role of setting future allowances, subject to some Commission guidance.

However the Traditional Unionist Voice leader's amendment was rejected by a vote of 67 to 20, with one abstention.

Proposing the new plan, the Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Keith Buchanan said the current rules - set by a financial review panel whose members were not replaced in 2016 - did not recognise the economic realities facing MLAs, one sixth of whom are having to pay for the rates on their offices in part from their own pockets.

Mr Buchanan said the proposed changes would provide for staff in MLAs' constituency offices to be paid fairly and have reasonable terms of employment in line with other public sector workers.

The commission's plan will see an independent body continuing to set politicians' pay and pensions, but the commission itself taking responsibility for MLA allowances.

Image caption Mr Allister said salaries and allowance should be set by an independent body

However Mr Allister argued those behind the new expenses proposal had short memories and had forgotten the lessons from past abuses of the Stormont expenses system.

He said in his view the old financial review panel had made some ridiculous decisions, in particular concerning what was allowed to appear on MLAs' office signage.

But, Mr Allister said, the principle should remain that both the politicians' salaries and their allowances should be set by an independent body.

The motion under debate was signed by the representatives of all the five main Stormont parties who sit on the Assembly Commission.

But Alliance's Kellie Armstrong said her party had always argued in favour of a Westminster-style independent system and she and her colleagues would back Mr Allister's amendment as a way to try to achieve that.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption MLA expenses were investigated by the BBC Spotlight programme in 2014

The Ulster Unionist's Doug Beattie declared that the pay and conditions of MLA staff were scandalous.

However, he said the Ulster Unionists (UUP)also regarded the Jim Allister amendment as a reason to push back and delay and explore whether another way forward could be found.

In a letter to Speaker Alex Maskey, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was "right that the Assembly Commission seeks to put a more equitable system in place.

However, he added that it was "important for public confidence in the devolved institutions, however, that the scope of these proposals is limited to fair pay and conditions for staff".

The letter added that "there should be no move to unpick the higher standards that have been agreed for MLA allowances as they relate to paying family members, commissioning external research or paying 'connected individuals'".

The Green MLA Clare Bailey and People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll backed the Jim Allister amendment - Mr Carroll questioned whether the commission's expenses proposal was in line with the promises on transparency made in the New Decade New Approach deal which secured the restoration of devolution.

Image caption Clare Bailey of the Green Party backed Mr Allister's amendment

The ex -UP MLA Jim Wells and the ex-Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn both backed the Assembly Commission proposal.

Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd challenged those MLAs not prepared to back the change to look their own staff in the eye and tell them they didn't take an opportunity to right a wrong when it came to their terms and conditions.

Mr O'Dowd insisted the Jim Allister amendment did not represent a "middle way" but would just be a recipe for delay.

After Mr Allister's amendment was defeated, the assembly approved the commission's expenses proposal on an oral vote in the chamber.

The Stormont expenses system was the subject of a detailed BBC Spotlight investigation in 2014 which found MLAs paying money to shadowy research firms, mileage claims being made on behalf of MLAs who didn't drive and staff charging the assembly for oil in excess of that required to heat their constituency office.

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