A major shake-up of the Stormont Assembly’s salaries and expenses system has brought good and bad news for MLAs, with a £1,000 pay rise offset by a crackdown on rent and mileage claims and the hiring of friends or family members.
The body that sets payment rules, the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), has heralded the changes as a “new beginning” for a framework that has often been the source of public criticism.
Pat McCartan, chairman of the IFRP, said: “The panel has made radical changes to expenses that will provide professional, fair and equitable support for each MLA, and will enhance public confidence in our politicians.
“Our decisions set the rates for salaries, pensions and expenses to support each MLA and their work for the next five years. The panel expects that these decisions will amount to savings of between £1.5 million and £2.0 million in the Assembly’s budget over the next five years.”
After May’s Assembly election, basic pay for MLAs will increase from £48,000 to £49,000. The panel said the uplift was the first in a number of years and reflected inflation.
While the majority of members will be paid more, albeit their minimum pension contribution is rising from 7 to 9%, the salaries of some office holders will be cut.
The Speaker’s salary is being reduced from £92,000 to £87,000, with deputy speakers’ pay dropping from £57,000 to £55,000. Junior ministers’ pay will fall from £60,000 to £55,000.
The current £67,161 MLA entitlement for total office costs has been scrapped, with new limits on rents and staff salaries introduced.
A cap of £8,500 rent per annum per office (plus 40% for rates) has been introduced, with that sum decreasing to £6,000 if the office is shared with another MLA, or £4,000 if it is shared with an MP.
MLAs will not be able to claim public money for renting an office for his or her own political party or another “connected” individual or group.
Members will also be subject to tight restrictions on how they can brand their offices, with a ban on attempts to portray them as party “advice centres”.
Strict new signage rules are being introduced, which will require the inclusion of the official Assembly logo, and no party adverts or posters will be allowed to be displayed openly.
There will be a £50,000 limit on the total salaries paid to support staff, with not more than two full-time employees allowed.
Controversy has long surrounded MLAs hiring family members. The IFRP has insisted that all future appointments are made on the merit principle following an open competition. Independent HR oversight will be introduced to ensure that happens.
MLAs will only be allowed to hire one staff member who is related or “connected” to them going forward.
The current mileage claim system will be replaced with a fixed cost based on the distance from the constituency to Stormont and the number of days the MLA attends Parliament Buildings.
A spokeswoman for the Assembly said all the changes will be implemented by May.
“There will be a considerable amount of work over the next few weeks to prepare for the changes necessary to implement the new (IFRP) determination and to brief members on its provisions in time for their return to the Assembly after the election,” she added.