MLA’s Pay Review – Is it needed?

It’s natural, given the economic climate we currently suffer, that when considering the merits of any political decision there is a focus on cost in particular. Of course, that’s not a wholly unhealthy thing to consider and indeed for the most part it’s essential, but there is a danger that this focus leads to wrong decisions made for the wrong reasons.

Last week, when it was announced that an independent panel would be convened to review the pay and rewards of our MLA’s, the news immediately focused on the cost of this panel. The BBC headline was “£100,000 to decide on Northern Ireland MLA’s pay”. The headline and subsequent story fail to take into account whether the panel is actually needed or not. In truth, if you accept the panel is needed, then the cost doesn’t seem overly excessive or at least it doesn’t if you know how much such reviews can cost in the private sector.

So, is the panel needed? There are two things to consider: Are MLA’s paid the right amount and does it need a panel to decide this?

Members in our devolved administration are paid less than their counterparts in Wales & Scotland and significantly less than our elected reps in Westminster. Why? Well, there’s no shortage of people who will happily argue that they don’t actually do very much as it is so if anything should be paid even less. It’s an argument not lacking in evidence but unfortunately it’s not valid in this context.

MLA’s, like MP’s, are paid a sum suitable for the position they hold and when considering how much that sum should be, the individual and their current performance must not be considered. It is the duties, responsibilities & expected performance that are key here.

For me, I expect a lot from my legislators and I would think others would too. Why would we not expect those who craft our laws and govern us to be above average and why then would we want them to be paid anything but an above average wage? I want the brightest and the best attracted to politics and elected office and to do that requires an incentive over and above that of a duty to serve.

Undoubtedly, there is a feeling that Stormont underperforms and as such no pay rises are justified but the cold hard truth is that, with so many MLA’s being re-elected, the only people who get to decide if MLA’s are not performing have decided that actually; they are. You can argue all you like about poor choice of candidates or voter apathy but the public had a chance to boot out supposed under-performers and by and large, didn’t. So with all due respect to the electorate, shut up about it or, next time, do something about it – that’s how it is supposed to work.

Now, do we really need an independent panel set up to assess the pay and rewards? Undoubtedly, yes. It removes any suggestion of MLA’s giving themselves a nice big pay rise and provides genuine accountability and don’t forget, there’s always the chance that the panel will recommend they are should be paid less and, quite brilliantly, if that’s what the panel recommends, there’s nothing the Assembly can do about it.

 

  • PFX

    I agree totally that an independant review panel is required but the BBC’s reporting was a sloppy piece of jouranlism which focused on big numbers and shock value rather than what they actually meant.

    The information is all freely available online on Assembly’s website and was covered by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Bill. Granted, it’s a bit dry but will allow those who wish, to be more fully informed.

    What we’re essentially going to see is a ‘pay and grading’ type review as has been seen for the civil service and NI Assembly staff.

    Personally, I think MLA’s pay is nowhere near excessive though there’s certainly a question over value for money in some cases. I’m not sure most people who complain about it actually know what the wage is but an independant review is surely favourable to allowing MLAs to make their own pay award?

    Should the decision of the panel be in favour of the MLAs, it would be crass to accept a pay rise considering the hundreds of staff who support them are subject to an ongoing pay freeze (those on £20k+).

  • It would be interesting to have an independent review of MLA performance. I know that happens at election time, but would be intriguing to see what experienced MPs would make of the relative performance and maturity of devolved representatives across the UK.

  • Pete Baker

    Now, do we really need an independent panel set up to assess the pay and rewards? Undoubtedly, yes. It removes any suggestion of MLA’s giving themselves a nice big pay rise and provides genuine accountability…

    Actually, an ‘independent’ panel removes no suggestion of a big pay rise at all.

    It just removes, in theory, responsibility for such a pay rise from those MLAs, and in the process allows the ‘it wasn’t us’ defence.

    And accountibility goes with that defence as well. If the Assembly can do nothing about it, then it wasn’t their fault!

    It also allows for an abandonment of election pledges.

    The MLAs pay hasn’t been increased for some time. But comparisons with other devolved institutions fail due to the number of representatives, and the number of those represented, involved.

    And there is already an ‘independent’ panel to review those salaries.

    The difference would appear to be the current need for MLAs to own the recommendations by voting for them.

    Accountability?! How are ye!

  • Pete, I didn’t say that an independent panel removes the suggestion of a big pay rise, I said it removes the suggestion that MLA’s were rewarding themselves, which it does.

    As for accountability, I’m not sure what you offer as an alternative? What is your suggestion for a pay review of MLA’s that meets your standards of accountability? By ‘owning’ the review through voting for it? How is that in any way improved accountability?

    I agree that it allows for abandonment of election pledges, but really, who actually bought into those pledges in the first place?

  • jthree

    In the year to April 2010 the median gross annual earnings for full-time employees in NI was £22,644, 12.5% lower than the equivalent figure in the UK (£25,879).

    Male median earnings (ie. those bang on the middle of the scale) are £23,667. The equivalent female figure of £20,788.

    Growth in NI median earnings for all employees was 0.6% over the year to April 2010. The growth in UK earnings was 1.8%.

    10% of full-time employees in NI earned more than £42,406 per year, while 10% earned less than £12,764.

    MLAs’ basic pay is about £43,000 – so even with no increase they remain comfortably in the top 10% of earners in NI.

  • DC

    @jthree

    interesting figures – on that basis there should indeed be a pay review but MLAs salaries should be decreased.

    Don’t forget MLAs don’t pay full fare for their dinners and coffees etc, all that is subsidised.

    Also, their travel expenses are paid for by the taxpayer which adds thousands onto the main salary. I wonder if MLAs can claim back vehicle repair and MOTs as part and parcel of the ‘expenses’ incurred by them when carrying out their ‘job’ representing ‘the people’?

    Also, I think pay reviews should happen towards the end of the assembly term – like during the last 6 months – and any increases awarded can then be backdated to the start of the term; for it is only at the end of the term that the court of public opinion can give its best judgement on performance and on whether any increases in pay should be given to MLAs.

  • @jthree & DC

    I take it you both totally disagree with my point that MLAs’ should receive above average salaries?

  • DC

    Ministers should do, but MLAs need to be kept in line with the people that they represent and they need to be kept hungry in order to strive for the region.

    At the moment, above average rewards for minimal effort is a drag on productivity – the MLAs have produced little on the progressive front.

    Once productivity is proven, then a pay review should be carried out at the end of the term.

    Or, the CPI index could be used but tempered if NI median earnings for all employees was well below the CPI rate.

    Jthree mentions an 0.6% increase – this sounds about right – you don’t need a big panel to pull out that kind of statistic. Jthree has done it – was he paid 100k? – maybe he’s actually the chair of the panel?

  • Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a system that pays MLA’s on their performance? Although that would mean that 90% would need Social Security assistance.

  • DC

    @Austen

    Arguably they are on that already – it’s called the Super Brew!

  • @DC

    In the piece above I wrote that those who have the responsibility to judge MLA performance – the electorate – did so and emphatically re-elected them, with a few exceptions. Consequently, moaning about performance is the real non productive behaviour.

    @Austen

    It would, but unfortunately, it’s impossible which is kind of my point!

  • DC

    the electorate – did so and emphatically re-elected them, with a few exceptions.

    That’s because the electorate had no option as part of the vote to reduce the salaries, just wait till the government carries out a pay freeze on civil servants across the board, then come back to me about ‘non productive behaviour’.

    I’ll see you in four years Ed.

  • jthree

    ‘I take it you both totally disagree with my point that MLAs’ should receive above average salaries?’

    Don’t make that assumption at all.

    I merely point out that MLAs base pay is already comfortably above the average pay for Northern Ireland – that £43k also puts them in the 80th percentile of UK gross annual pay. Just over £46k is the 90th percentile for the UK.

  • DC

    @jthree

    I’m with you on that – but I would propose a slight reduction based on your figures.

  • @jthree

    Thanks for pointing it out with, apparently, no opinion added and I apologise for assuming otherwise. However, I should point out that it is largely irrelevant. When deciding on how much they should get paid, it’s not just a case of paying above the average, it’s about paying in line with that level of seniority. Doctors & Lawyers don’t get merely get paid above the average do they?

    @DC

    Of course they don’t have that option as part of the vote, when have they ever? But they had the option to turf out any under performers and by and large that didn’t happen so to harp on about under performance is futile and therefore non productive.

  • DC

    Why should ‘the governed’ receive pay freezes and experience relative decline in pay and quality of life while at the same time ‘the governors’ get pay increases for inflicting all of this on us?

    Hopefully the consent of the governed will disappear next election and performance issues like those raised above can and will be addressed.

  • DC

    Of course they don’t have that option as part of the vote, when have they ever?

    Well then you have constructed a fallacy, which is my point.

    Democracy is the only choice and it isn’t a perfect system especially Stormont’s mandatory coalition – alternating between governments in an in/out fashion (like Westminster) isn’t possible here; but, none the less, if the populace were permitted to choose an increase or no change in MLAs pay as a stand alone question, the answer would be so obvious you really wouldn’t even need to ask your question.

    Therefore, given today’s hard up times, the pay panel isn’t necessary for this term.

  • Neil

    Cost of living is relevant too. The average wage here is 20% lower than in London: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=285

    So one would think as the public can obviously get by on 20% less cash our MLAs could do the same.

  • Pete Baker

    Ed

    You appear to be missing the point.

    You have claimed that the proposed independent review “provides genuine accountability”. But you haven’t explained how.

    I’ve pointed out that MLAs salaries were already reviewed by an independent body whose recommendations were then subjected to Assembly approval.

    The difference is that they’ve removed the only element of accountibility that did exist – namely the requirement of MLAs to openly support or reject those recommendations, in a vote, and take the electoral consequences.

    I have sympathy with the argument that MLAs, along with other representatives, feel restricted by public pressure when rewarding themselves what they think they should be worth – whether that’s recommended independently or not.

    But that’s democratic accountability for you.

    And it upheld the primacy of the Assembly in the devolved legislature.

  • @DC

    I’m not sure where I have constructed this fallacy.

    I would strongly object to the public voting on the issue of pay for the very reason you state.

  • DC

    @Ed

    You said people have the chance to remove the politicians at the next election, but it isn’t really on the basis of performance. NI hasn’t developed into that sort of government – one that revolves around policy competence and the running of the economy and public services. It isn’t as sophisticated in that regard. So the MLAs should be content with receiving high pay, albeit slightly less than in other regions; but NI is a relatively poorer region, this is reflected across the range of jobs where payment is less when compared to other parts of the UK. Stormont should be no different.

  • @DC

    It is entirely on the basis of performance. That is the electorate’s opportunity to vote for those who have performed or replace them. That the electorate choose not to do so or vote for different reasons is, when considering the pay of MLAs’, irrelevant.

    Also, I purposely didn’t state whether I think there should be a pay rise or not, just that I think it’s right a review is carried out to ensure the level is correct. It should be within the remit of the review panel to take into account the things you have rightly highlighted as factors.

  • DC

    I just don’t think it’s the right time to review pay given the circumstances – the state of public finances and potential job losses – because a review never really decides to pay less, so an increase could well be on the cards.

  • Framer

    The NI Assembly was a giant, expensive toy that London used to tie the parties into devolution so, in that sense, it should be milked for as much as can be got out of it.

    It is also true that if you create a miniature provincial parliament it has to mirror and, if not mirroring, will demand to mimic, every aspect of the Mother of Parliaments particularly in relation to committees etc.

    That said, there are 108 MLAs whose quality or originality is revealed in their near total inability to scrutinise, let alone originate, legislation.

    The Welsh equivalent is half the size for twice the population.

    The constituency work of the 108 MLAs used to be done by 18 MPs. Now there are seven times as many politicians each with a squad of well-paid staff.

    It is safe to say that most constituency offices I have observed lack activity.

    I am willing to receive the consultants’ £100,000 and conclude, after due consideration, that MLA pay and expenses should be cut by 50%.

  • It actually is possible to measure MLAs skills and abilities (rather than the performance, which is constrained by the systems in which they work). As someone who has taught on the professional Doctorate in Governance at Queen’s, I’d be happy to write some examination questions that all the MLAs could take, to show how well they have learned the skills of governing in the 21st century (e.g. on understanding statistics).

    To be fair, we should give new MLAs six months to learn the job before offering them the tests and certificates. They start off as a representative sample of the electorate, but everyone can and should learn how to do their job. Maybe Learning Pool could come up with a on-line training course for councillors and MLAs, alongside their ones for the officials.

  • jthree

    @ Ed Simpson ‘Doctors & Lawyers don’t get merely get paid above the average do they?’

    Let’s return then to the DETI Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2010 and the Average Earnings by Occupation chapter.

    The information is presented as mean and median gross weekly pay. I’ve used the median so far, so I’ll multiply the weekly figures by 52.

    Professional Occupations £35,724

    Managers and Senior Officials £31,148

    So MLAs are paid above – well above – the median level of the professions and senior managers.

    However, they want to cut it they are well paid by Northern Ireland standards. Though perhaps if you spend time with Perm Secs, QCs and property tycoons you get a distorted sense of what most people earn.

  • joeCanuck

    No; there is no need for a panel. It’s a cop out. The MLAs will be hoping that the panel will suggest an increase in remuneration (that the MLAs would not dare suggest themselves) and will then happily vote for it. They shouldn’t be allowed to vote an increase for themselves but for the next lot arriving after an election. They should be paid fairly of course; I would recommend some linkage to senior Civil Serants and that their salaries would rise or fall in lockstep with the CSs.

  • Crubeen

    Considering that 45% of the electorate didn’t vote last time I think that sums up the public perception of “our” politicians as a bunch of tyre kickers.

    Now, if they were to convince the electorate that they were worth an increase they would have to increase that turnout … leet’s say that every 2% increase in turnout generated a 1% increase in salary OR let’s establish a nominal salary sum of say £60 k and they receive the percentage of thatequivalent to turnout in the constituency which they represent.

  • youngpolitico

    Cut the number of MLA’s and make their pay the national average!

  • Alias

    They say that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. But if you get the monkeys anyway, why not start paying peanuts?

  • Dear pleb

    While I totally agree with Alias I am afraid I am allergic to peanuts as well as a range of other commodities. To pre-empt any allergic attacks my private consultant recommends that I draw down paper notes, to which I have a proven affinity, and with which I can experiment to exchange for commodites which do not have a deleterious effect on my health. And while yes in a perfect world I agree I should be paid peanuts, and I am deeply reluctant to forego peanuts, and will indeed suffer withdrawal from peanuts, I simply do not have a choice other than to follow the medical advice.

    Yours sincerely