Will the curb on MLA expenses spell the end of constituency offices?

So MLAs get an 11% rise in salary, not from themselves, but from an Independent Financial Review Panel. Thus the DUP and Sinn Fein are arguing that it is wrong, (though don’t hold your breath for any of them to hand it back) because for once it was not them who were responsible for the decision.

As Liam Clarke notes, this is way better than anyone out in the real world is likely to get for sometime to come. But he also has the telling detail:

The rise has caused consternation at a time when MLAs are freezing public sector pay and the median wage here is given in the report as £18,720. However, the review team say that the increase is self-financing and will show a profit of £3.16m, or £29,000 per MLA, between now and 2015. This is achieved largely through cuts in offices allowances which will fall from £75,857 a year to £69,238 by 2012, saving £1.8m.

What Pat McCartan and his panel have done is to bite a bullet that the House of Commons has been afraid to do for nearly thirty years and switched the money from stupidly high rates of subsidy via the expenses regime to the MLA’s salary. If this had been the case, there would have been scandal over toilet seats and duck houses.

And there will be no meaningful snouts in the trough league tables for the malign tabloid journo to hit the politician over the head with every year. Nor, let’s hope, embarrassing headlines regarding the over-exploitation of free facilities.

The BelTel editorial does make a useful related value for money point one respect:

Northern Ireland is grossly over-represented at Stormont – we have one MLA for every 16,000 constituents, compared to one to 50,000 in Scotland and one to 40,000 in Wales. Cut the number of MLAs from 108 to 80 and the economics of increased salaries begins to make sense.

Quite so.

One thing to watch will be any future effects on the extraordinary levels of party infrastructure across Northern Ireland. It’s currently deductable directly from expenses. Now it will have to come from individual salary packets (with the exception of Sinn Fein, who where feasible centralise all MLA resources for the party).

So how long before some of those lovely town centre MLA offices begin to disappear, if it has to come directly out of the MLA’s take home pay? The custom in the rest of the democratic world is to host clinics in libraries and other such public of semi public buildings.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty