Is it time to reduce our number of MLAs?

So our MLAs are currently still engaging in yet another talks process and according to the BBC earlier in November, the DUP circulated a paper which again highlighted their support for the deflation of Stormont departments and a reduction in the number of MLAs.

While the DUP support a reduction in MLAs from the current number of 108 to something between 70 and 80, the Deputy First Minister wouldn’t cut back Stormont just as much as the DUP but does support slimming down Stormont to 90 MLAs.

Some arguments for reducing the number of MLAs in the Assembly are that for starters we simply have too many MLAs. We are over-represented. Another argument is that MLAs aren’t cheap and at a time when the budget is facing severe cuts that we can see being played out in society already – why shouldn’t our MLAs face some of the burden?

As much as we might like to talk about how much Northern Ireland has been transformed and progressed since 1998 the reality is that we are still at our roots a deeply divided society and it’s because of this that it would be a mistake to put Northern Ireland’s level of public representation on a diet.

Comparisons are often made between our region of the United Kingdom and others; for example Liam Clarke argued in June 2013 that we have a problem of gross over-representation.

An MP gets 65p for each person he or she represents while an MLA gets £2.64 – more than four times as much. In Scotland, an MSP gets £1.44 per constituent and in Wales an AM gets £1.08.
Nobody can justify this scale of over-representation.

I think it’s too simplistic to compare our region of the UK with the rest of the UK because crucially our society is so different.

The average salary of an MLA for the period 2013-2014 is £51,777 excluding the salary of our First Minister and Deputy First Minister but includes other office holders. The basic salary rate for 2013-2014 was £48,000 and this was the result of a pay rise in April 2014 which not all MLAs decided to take. (You can read more about that here

If we factor in the average MLA expense cost for the period April 2013 – March 2014 which was £77,599 and add this to the average MLA salary then we would roughly save around £2,328,768 on MLA salaries and expenses if the Assembly was to be reduced by 18 MLAs.

I think the ‘naughty corner’ of the Assembly is host to some of the finest MLAs in Stormont and if the number of MLAs are reduced, Stormont would undeniably suffer as a result. LucidTalk have some interesting polling on this front and they predict that out of John McCallister, Claire Sugden and Basil McCrea two of these incumbent MLAs would lose their seats. Stephen Agnew’s future would also be unsure.

Topically, Spotlight recently revealed how MLAs expenses were increased from £48,000 to £68,000 as a reward for the parties securing a deal at St Andrews. If all MLAs took a £4800 cut to their basic salary rate and MLA expenses were returned to the level of £48,000, this would make savings of £2,678,400.

Northern Ireland needs its ‘naughty corner’ and I fear that the Assembly would lose some of its most astute MLAs which may only result in the Assembly becoming a stadium for continuous DUP versus Sinn Fein mudslinging matches.

Before a decision is made on cutting back the number of MLAs in order to save money we should first have the conversation about retaining all 108 MLAs but to instead make cuts to how much money parties and MLAs are able to draw on from the public purse.