Northern Ireland news

Fewer than half of MLAs return £1k pay rise through agreed process

Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast. Picture by Peter Morrison/PA
Brendan Hughes

FEWER than half of MLAs are using processes they set up to donate a contentious £1,000 pay rise to public funds or charity.

The wage increase caused public outcry when it emerged in January just days after Stormont returned from a three-year absence.

The five main parties had said they "recognised the public concern" and methods were agreed by which MLAs could return or donate their pay uplift.

However, at its peak just 38 of the 90 assembly members have used these processes each month.

In January, it emerged MLAs' standard annual salary would increase from £49,500 to £50,500. A further £500 uplift occurred in April, bringing their wage to £51,000.

Prior to this, MLA pay had been cut by the British government due to the collapse of devolution.

With the institutions restored, Stormont automatically returned to the salary rules set in 2016 by the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), which has not yet been reappointed.

The Assembly Commission – a body comprising of representatives from the five main parties – met in January to examine the issue.

The parties had said that despite opposing the pay rises, they legally could not be halted.

It was agreed that MLAs could either return the uplift to the public purse through a consolidated fund, or donate it to charity through a 'Give As You Earn' scheme (GAYE).

MLAs could also opt to receive the money and donate it to charity themselves, but this would be subject to tax.

Between January and July, £14,659.56 has been contributed by MLAs to the consolidated fund. The highest number of MLAs to contribute was 26 in both June and July.

GAYE payments by MLAs totalled £5,673.72. May, June and July had the highest number of contributors, each with 12.

The details were uncovered by The Irish News through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: "In light of the controversy at the time I am surprised that more MLAs are not availing of this scheme.

"Of course MLAs may be donating the money directly themselves but why would they do that when they could be making the contributions pre-tax?"

The North Antrim MLA also hit out at the Assembly Commission refusing to release similar information in February when he tabled a written Assembly Question.

In January when the process was agreed, a joint statement from the five main parties said that "salary increases should not be retained by MLAs until the review of the work of the IFRP is completed or until the end of the mandate".

In its FOI response, the Assembly Commission said MLAs forwarded cheques or made bank transfers to the consolidated fund but did not necessarily specify why.

It said the figures are based on unidentified receipts being presumed to be salary returns in respect of the pay rises.

One GAYE contribution for £50 could not be attributed to a particular MLA due to the lack of detail on the bank transfer, it added.

The main parties were asked why few MLAs are availing of the processes agreed for donating their salary uplifts.

All five said their MLAs were making donations.

A DUP spokesman said its MLAs, in common with other main parties, "agreed they would donate any additional sum to local causes and charities".

A Sinn Féin spokesperson said its MLAs "each agreed to return the increases to public funds" and are "committed to paying back the increases from the last financial year and this financial year".

An SDLP spokesman said: "SDLP MLAs are all contributing the amount of the pay rise to a range of local charities either through the GAYE process or as individual donations after tax."

A UUP spokesman said: "The Ulster Unionist Party supported the announcement when it was made in January. How individual MLAs make their donations is a private matter for them.

"Some were already making donations to charity before the January announcement and continue to do so while others took up the use of the new scheme."

An Alliance spokesman said: "All Alliance MLAs return their pay increase, whether to the consolidated fund (i.e. the public purse), the Give as You Earn scheme or directly to a charity of their choice."

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