MORE than £70 million of public money was paid to support politicians at Stormont during the last five-year term of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The wage bill for MLAs accounted for just over £28.2 million which equates to around 40 per cent of the full amount, while expenses and the costs for offices and staff reached over £41.1 million.
An additional £3.8 million was shared between political parties through Stormont’s Financial Assistance for Political Parties Scheme.
While the total figure of £74.2million is comprised of other costs as detailed below, it does not include the high wages paid separately by departments to special ministerial advisers.
The Detail has analysed the funding to political parties and politicians who were elected or co-opted as MLAs into the Assembly's 108 seats during the 2011-2016 term.
Our findings show this five-year period cost the public purse more than £74 million for an Assembly which was repeatedly challenged for its failure to deliver on its commitments.
The Assembly collapsed in January against a background of major political tension which focused on the DUP's handling of the multi-million pound Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. Tomorrow is the deadline for political negotiations on restoring Stormont where Sinn Féin is pinning the return to power sharing on the delivery of outstanding issues such as the Irish Language Act.
But the talks are the latest in a series held across the last two decades to stabilise the faltering institutions formed under the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
Critics have said that the key objectives over the last 20 years of dealing with the violent past and building a shared future have been undermined by a failure to reach agreement on legacy issues or to prioritise reconciliation.
More recently the Assembly's record was challenged after an analysis by The Detail found that Stormont failed to meet nearly half of the targets it set itself in its 2011-2015 Programme for Government.
- Failure to meet statutory commitments to reduce child poverty
- Failure to reduce levels of serious crime
- Stalemate over developing the former Maze prison site for regeneration and job creation
- Controversy over a special £80 million fund for deprived communities
In addition, decision-makers failed to deliver key infrastructure projects that could have helped address regional disparities between western and eastern areas of Northern Ireland.
There was also controversy over the use of an Assembly veto, designed to protect minorities, but which was used as a device to block same-sex marriage.
The absence of access to abortion is another major unresolved issue which means thousands of women have travelled from Northern Ireland to elsewhere in the UK for terminations.
Ministers have defended the Assembly's overall record and separate political parties would also make arguments about the individual contribution they made to the Assembly.
However their combined efforts to deliver stability have been threatened by the UK's departure from the European Union.
In addition to the questions over the Assembly's performance and the outcome of the latest negotiations, today's findings also highlight the potential financial loss to politicians if Stormont is not restored.
The Detail’s confirmation of the scale of the public funding directed to MLAs also follows calls by former members of an independent watchdog for a change in how political parties are financed by the state.
The DUP’s 42 elected or co-opted members collectively received the most cash during the 2011-2016 Assembly term with a share of £24.1 million to cover MLA and support staff salaries, office costs and travel expenses.
The party was awarded an additional £934,000 through a scheme designed to help members perform their Assembly duties by funding research, training, media and administrative support services.
The second highest amount of funding went to Sinn Féin’s 37 elected or co-opted members who were paid just under £19.3 million in total, with a further £815,000 in financial aid given to the party.
The Detail has compiled information from the Assembly website to show the earnings of each MLA, as well as funding to parties through a separate financial scheme.
Click here to view the information.
During the last full Assembly term 130 MLAs were paid a basic annual salary of up to £48,000 with those given extra responsibilities earning additional income, for example through ministerial or committee chair roles.
This meant some MLAs, such as the DUP’s Simon Hamilton or Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín who both held ministerial positions, received nearly twice the value of their annual basic salary.
Sinn Féin has a policy of paying all its elected representatives and staff an average working wage but said last year that this will have to be reviewed in light of new changes to rules around MLA remuneration.
The basic salary for MLAs - which is lower than elsewhere in the UK and the Republic of Ireland - was increased to £49,000 in May last year and again to £49,500 in April. Further annual rises of up to £500 are planned in line with inflation.
The positions of First and Deputy First Ministers each brought an annual salary of up to £120,000 during the last full Assembly term, which includes the basic salary.
A comparison of elected representatives' pay across the UK and the Republic of Ireland:
MLAs are also funded to cover office costs, including support staff salaries, as well as travel and other expenses. In most cases, this brought the total annual amount paid to support them to over £100,000 per Assembly member.
New rules around the remuneration of MLAs, introduced in May last year, state they are allowed to claim up to £50,000 each year to cover the salaries of up to two support staff.
The combined total sum of £74.2 million paid out over five years includes £1.6 million in salary payments and support services for 28 MLAs who did not stand or who lost their seats at the May 2011 election.
This is, in part, to do with expenses for the previous year being processed in the 2011/2012 financial year but also because some politicians continued to be paid until the day of the election.
Each Stormont minister employs one special adviser, except for the Executive Office which has eight across the offices of First and Deputy First Minister. Their salaries are paid from separate departmental budgets which are not included in our findings.
On top of MLA salaries, expenses and office costs, funding is also directed to political parties through a separate Assembly scheme.
The Financial Assistance for Political Parties Scheme is designed to help members perform their Assembly duties and offers funding for additional support staff who are employed by the party, allocating payments based on the number of MLAs elected.
Payments are also made to cover costs associated with whips who are tasked with ensuring their colleagues are aware of their party’s stance on issues. Unlike salary income, this money is allocated to the party rather than the individual member.
Click here for more information on how much was paid out through the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Scheme during the 2011-2016 Assembly term.
WHAT IF STORMONT CANNOT BE RESTORED?
Although MLAs are paid less than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, they receive more money per head of the population.
This is according to the latest report by the Independent Financial Review Panel which determines how much politicians elected to Stormont are paid.
Last year the panel announced major changes to the way in which MLAs are paid for carrying out their Assembly duties, which included scrapping the current system for office costs and expenses remuneration and introducing caps on how much can be claimed.
Former members of the panel – whose appointments expired last June - wrote to Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire in March to argue that continuing to pay MLAs in the event of direct rule would be “unjustifiable”, and suggested payments should be stopped after three months.
The letter, signed by Pat McCartan, Dr Etta Campbell and Alan McQuillan, said: “If the Government is therefore forced to suspend the Assembly by order in council we strongly recommend that you consider strictly limiting the period for which members may draw salaries and expenses – perhaps to a period of three months to allow completion of any negotiations.
“We do not even see why expenses should be paid for this period as these are supposed to relate to the management of MLAs' constituency offices and without a functioning Assembly the work that can be done in these is very limited.”
Click here to read their letter in full.
An Assembly spokesperson confirmed to The Detail that politicians are currently being paid following the election on March 2 despite the fact Stormont has yet to reconvene.
The Detail asked the Northern Ireland Office what would happen to MLAs’ income if direct rule was implemented.
A spokesperson said: “The UK Government is not contemplating any outcome other than the resumption of strong and stable devolved government for Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland’s interests will best be served by strong and effective devolved partnership Government being restored as soon as possible.”
CALLS FOR REFORM
Meanwhile there have been calls for a change in the system which provides state funding to political parties represented at Stormont to help them perform their Assembly duties.
Former members of the Independent Financial Review Panel have advocated for a system more in line with Westminster’s Short Money scheme which only awards those parties not in Government, based on the number of MPs elected and votes won.
Currently all political parties at Stormont receive funding via the Financial Assistance to Political Parties (FAPP) Scheme which has been criticised for providing an unfair advantage to the bigger parties that also have elected representatives at Westminster and the Dáil.
Panel members Pat McCartan, Dr Etta Campbell and Alan McQuillan, who were behind major reforms of MLAs’ expenses, have highlighted past abuses of the system and called for the creation of a new body with more powers to investigate wrongdoing.
In a letter to Secretary of State James Brokenshire, they said: “We know that this proposal will be strongly opposed by all the major parties here who are keen to control any access to funds by smaller parties.
“Our reason for supporting this is simple – in our experience the vast majority of malpractice we have seen in the expenses system has been for the purposes of party funding, not personal gain.
“Northern Ireland is also unique in the UK in that the vast majority of FAPP money goes to the parties in power in the Executive whereas, at Westminster for example, the party in power does not get short money which funds the opposition’s ability to discharge its responsibilities.”
Former panel chairman Pat McCartan told The Detail: “FAPP monies were not our responsibility, but were the responsibility of the Assembly Commission. Consequently the amounts favour large parties and handicap small parties.
“Overall they are too little for democracy to work properly, particularly in comparison with the Republic of Ireland and other EU countries.”
Information on the amount paid to MLAs to cover salaries, expenses, office and staff costs between April 2016 and February 2017 can be found here.
- Click here to read about errors found by The Detail when it looked at the latest financial accounts from the DUP and Sinn Féin.