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.

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  • chrisjones2

    I disagree.A fundamental issue is that because MLAs need so few votes to get elected they immediately go to the lowest common denominator to get their quota.

    Halve the number of MLAs and constituences and we might start to force them to think more widely

  • Ian James Parsley

    I agree that the “naughty corner” has some astute MLAs, but frankly it’s about time the voters learned to value them. If they lose their seats, that’s the electorate’s fault. We get what we vote for.

    I can’t comprehend either why this is an “either/or”. Cut the number and cut the OCAs if that’s what you think provides value.

    By the way, I’m not sure why Ministers need the same OCA as everyone else, given they also have Special Advisers. There’s another saving.

    And, of course, there is another saving in going down to seven departments and basically abolishing OFMDFM (replaced with a small, coordinating “Executive Office” which would need a maximum two Special Advisers and about 25 staff).

  • Comrade Stalin

    Jim Allister and Stephen Agnew should both be safe if there is a reduction in the number of MLAs. Both have punched above their respective weights, especially Allister. I imagine, though, that Alliance are likely to target the second seat in North Down and Agnew will have a fight on his hands.

    Basil McCrea and John McCallister are both in danger even if the number of MLAs is not reduced. It’s not easy to fight an election as an independent. Were David McClarty still alive I suspect he would have retained his seat; the question for Claire Sugden is whether or not she can pull a Dawn Purvis and retain the McClarty personal vote.

  • Jag

    What practical difference would it make if you reduced the 108 down to 10 (ten)? There’d be 3 SF, 3 DUP, 1 SDLP, 1 UUP, 1 Alliance and one other.

    10 would cover the ministries and let the civil service do the rest. As for representation, people have local councillors, 18 Westminster MPs and say, 10, MLAs. Why isn’t that good enough?

    But what turkey is going to vote for Christmas?

  • Dan

    There’s absolutely no justification for the plundering of the public purse anymore. Cut the numbers of politicians and departments by half for starters. …. I’m afraid if its a choice between three nurses and say, one delores Kelly, well there’s only one winner.

  • chrisjones2

    Why not abolish all the constituencies and have one election for say 45 MLAs. That would force voters to think more and MLAs to seek a broader appeal

    I also don’t buy all this ‘in danger’ issue.They are in danger because people wont vote for them,!!!!

  • Mister_Joe
  • Tacapall

    “There’s absolutely no justification for the plundering of the public purse anymore”

    What if thats the only reason your actually in government, all’s fair in love and war an all that as long as its done legally and peacefully. The DUP look at Sinn Fein and shrug their shoulders, why not, they are only too happy to bite the hand that feeds them, people who would claim back a £1 charity donation aren’t all that worried about what the joe public think.

  • Ernekid

    Northern Ireland could very easily get by with an 80 member assembly. 16 constituencies with 5 members each. We could easily reduce the number of Executive departments down to 8. 7 departments and an OFMdFM acting as a coordination body between departments. Northern Ireland’s civil service is a bloated mess that needs to be cut down and reorganised.

  • Nevin

    “10 would cover the ministries and let the civil service do the rest.”

    Jag, were we to widen the focus, perhaps some pruning of the civil service would reap greater savings and ‘everyone round the table’ better governance.

    I’ve embedded myself in the #savethedal campaign, a campaign to protect the Dalriada Hospital in Ballycastle. I’ve tried to figure out the layers of administration that separate the Minister from The Dal: “Minister > Permanent Secretary [PS]> Departmental Board [DB]> Health and Social Care [HSC] Board > Northern Local Commissioning Group [LCG] > Northern Trust > The Dal.”

    Ministers are supposed to chair their Departmental Boards ie Minister, PS and non-Executive directors [NED] round the same table so that no-one can say they didn’t know all the facts. This hasn’t been done and Ministers may have been told different stories from those told to the NEDs; Ministers can also bully PSs without the NEDs being aware. MLAs may also have been told different stories by civil servants from those told to the Minister.

  • tmitch57

    Chris,
    You seem to be advocating going from a PR-STV franchise to a PR-list system as in Israel or on the continent. The PR-STV system is a compromise between the PR-list system in which MLAs would be just representatives of the parties that appoint them and the Westminster system in which they are in theory representatives of the constituents who elect them. I think that the PR-STV system is a good compromise as it keeps rough proportionality with the vote share and somewhat of a local representative. Going over to a pure PR-List system as you seem to advocate would turn over all power to the parties.

  • chrisjones2

    Well thats what happens now but I don’t see why We couldnt have an open ability for anyone to stand and voter shaving say 15 preferences to vote for That would give a balance between depth and the right to choose

  • Mister_Joe

    That didn’t work. It showed a series of photos of the Westminster Chamber of about 8 debates. 6 photos showed what you would have thought inmportant, Syria Iraq etc and all had, at most, 20 members present. The other two were about MPs salaries and expenses. In each of those, the Chamber was filled to capacity.

  • Bryan Magee

    With general moves to devolution to nations and city states I think its time to reduce the number of MPs (across all of UK) say to 500.

  • Biftergreenthumb

    “A fundamental issue is that because MLAs need so few votes to get elected they immediately go to the lowest common denominator to get their quota.”

    I’m not 100% sure I follow the logic here.

    Surely the more votes a politician needs to get elected the more they need to appeal to the lowest common denominator? I would have thought that the fewer votes you need the more you can step outside the mainstream. If we increased the number of MLAs so that each one needs less votes then we would end up with a greater diversity of political opinion because fringe parties are more likely to get elected. Is this not why we have so much representation in the first place i.e. to keep the smaller parties in the political process?

    Decreasing the number of MLA will squeeze out smaller parties strengthening the power of the Sinn Fein/DUP sectarian consensus.

  • Practically_Family

    I’d be inclined towards 150 or thereabouts.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    which is grossly misleading and if it’s the picture I’ve seen circulating the last few days…incorrect. The pictures are not of whats listed.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)
  • Mister_Joe

    Fair enough. Looks like I “was had”.

  • Mister_Joe

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