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.