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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 19 December 2000 (continued)

Assembly Members' Salaries Determination


Rev Robert Coulter (Assembly Commission):

I beg to move

That the Northern Ireland Assembly (Members' Salaries) Determination 2000 (NIA 27/00) be approved.

My Colleague, Mr Fee, when he presented last year's salary Determination, referred to his role as a "poisoned chalice". I hope that I will not have to lift such a chalice on this occasion, and I assure the House that I will be abstaining from any strong or spirited beverages.

I do not intend to make a lengthy preamble, but I will respond to some of the recent press coverage on this issue which, at best, has been grossly inaccurate. The proposed rise of 2·9% in salaries is below and not, as reported, above the rate of inflation, which is 3·2%. Today, the Assembly is not voting for a Members' pay rise above the increases to be awarded to their support staff. It is for individual Members as employers to agree pay rises for their own staff. I am confident that all Members will act fairly on this issue.

Furthermore, the Assembly is not passing the task of determining Members' salaries over to an independent body. Under section 47(7) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Assembly may not delegate the function of making a Determination on salaries and allowances.

The Commission is proposing in paragraph 3 of the salaries Determination that salaries be uprated annually by a percentage rise recommended by the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB) for the senior Civil Service pay bands. It will always be in the Assembly's gift to vote on different arrangements for the Determination of Members' salaries and allowances. However, as with the allowances Determination, the salaries Determination is designed to keep in line with SSRB recommendations and to achieve parity with arrangements in Westminster, Scotland and Wales.

The SSRB recommended that Assembly salaries should be uprated each year, in line with the average movement in the nine senior Civil Service pay bands below that of permanent secretary. For 2000-01, the increase is 2·9%, which compares favourably with the current inflation rate of 3·2% and an average rise in public-sector pay levels of 3·4%.

As I have already said, the Determination provides at paragraph 3 for an annual uprating of salaries, so that there is no requirement to present salaries Determinations on an annual basis. Certain minor flaws in the 1999 Determination, with regard to dual- and triple-mandate Members, have been corrected in this new Determination. The Commission has recommended that the new salary should take effect from 29 May 2000, the date of the reinstatement of the Assembly following suspension.

I note from the amendments put down by several Members that retrospection is a matter of concern. In bringing forward this Determination, the Commission is trying to ensure parity with other United Kingdom legislatures, where pay rises of 2·9% took effect from 1 April 2000.

I commend the salaries Determination to the Assembly.

Mr Speaker:

Three amendments have been submitted, and I have selected all of them. They all address the date of implementation, but have different dates from that in the motion. I intend to deal with them in chronological order.

Each Member who has tabled an amendment will be asked if he wishes to move it. When all such Members have spoken, a debate may ensue if other Members wish to speak. Then, as usual, in reverse order, each Member who has moved an amendment will be given an opportunity to wind up. The mover of the motion will then wind up, and we will vote on the amendments in chronological order.

If an amendment is taken - if, therefore, it is made by the Assembly - the subsequent amendments will fall, because those amendments, if passed, would not make sense. They would simply be wrecking amendments. They would simply add dates. If the first amendment is made, the other two amendments fall; if the first one falls and the second amendment is made, then the third one falls; if the first two amendments fall, the third amendment may be made, and so on.

If Members are clear, as I trust they are, on a matter of such interest to them, I will take the amendments now in chronological order.

Mr Ford:

I beg to move the following amendment: At the end add

"subject to the date in paragraph 1(4) being amended to 19 December 2000".

I concur with many of the remarks made by Mr Coulter on behalf of the Commission. I am pleased that even the British Broadcasting Corporation now seems to have recognised that the Commission is recommending only that which was recommended by the SSRB, and that it is a rate of increase below that of inflation.

There is a wider recognition by the media that Members are starting to do the job for which they were elected. However, it would be naive and a tad optimistic to suggest that the people of Northern Ireland think that Members are fulfilling the responsibilities that they were elected to do. That is why Mr Close and myself tabled the amendment. I make no apology for supporting much of the Determination.

1.15 pm

In future, Members will no longer be directly involved in this haggling over money, and salaries will be linked, like those of the other authorities in the United Kingdom, to the public-sector pay scale. This is an appropriate way of saying that Members are seeking to distance themselves from the matter as much as possible. However, Members have to face up to the decision that must be taken today.

The people of Northern Ireland do not believe that Members have yet done the work that they are here to do, although they might accept that Members are starting to do it, having heard the long and detailed Budget debate. There is still much to be done on such issues as the Programme for Government and the playing of a full role in new legislation. This morning Members once again failed to advance one Bill, so we are still not fulfilling all that we should be.

That is why the Alliance Party believes that it is inappropriate for the pay increase to be backdated to 29 May. It should become effective from today because we are taking the decision today, and we are seen to be taking our responsibilities from this time.

I would have no difficulty with the concept of applying the 1 January date, but I would have some difficulty in suggesting that we take the pay rise on 31 March, given that Members are due next year's rise on 1 April. Two annual rises in two days would be a bit much for anybody to stomach.

The amendment says that we should take our pay rise from today on the basis of independent settling and not on our own decisions. I ask Members to support it.

Mr Hussey:

I beg not to move the amendment standing in my name.

Mr C Murphy:

I beg to move the following amendment: At the end add

"subject to the date in paragraph 1(4) being amended to 31 March 2001".

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It appears that Mr Ford's stomach has become more delicate since the Alliance Party accepted and supported the backdating part of this proposal at the Commission. He has suddenly developed a distaste for backpayments.

It was not possible to amend the date to any later than 31 March because the report applied to this financial year. Therefore that was the furthest date that could be provided.

Since the Assembly Commission voted on this issue and since Friday, when the media began to shine the spotlight on it, the ghosts of Christmas appear to have visited some of the parties and that is evident from some of the amendments. The SDLP, UUP and Alliance Party voted for what is contained in the motion, but since the spotlight has been shone on it -

Mr Ford:

Does the Member accept that Commission members do not have a party role? The decision that they make has no reference to their Colleagues.

Mr C Murphy:

That argument occurred before when it was alleged that a Sinn Féin Member had voted in the shadow Commission, thereby linking Sinn Féin to that vote. Members cannot have it both ways. Either a party representative is representing his party on the Commission, or he is not. I am sure that representatives of the Alliance Party consult, as most party representatives do, with their party on matters of such importance.

Therefore I assume that the Alliance Party backed this matter in the Commission, and I did not hear from any members of the Alliance Party on Friday. Perhaps they were not listening to the media when this was debated. I did not hear any reticence about the proposals until this morning.

There is a similar case concerning the UUP. In the media on Friday a UUP Member tried to defend the backdating of the pre-Christmas lump sum that they were preparing to receive. Once again, we see the UUP moving to distance itself from the Christmas bonus.

Mr Fee:

It is grossly unfair to suggest that the members of the Commission act as party representatives, particularly when Mrs E Bell represents all the smaller parties and, as far as is possible, consults all of them. The Commission makes its decisions under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under the direction of the Assembly. The Assembly has voted twice in the past to act in line with the SSRB. Today, Members can decide on these amendments, but the Commission was simply fulfilling its responsibility to the House.

Mr C Murphy:

During the sitting of the Shadow Commission we informed the Member that we did not support the recommendations of the SSRB. He said that Sinn Féin supported it in the Commission, but people cannot have it both ways. Either a party Member is identified with his party on the Commission, or not. I accept that the commissioners act on behalf of the whole Assembly, but if Members vote in the Commission to give themselves pre-Christmas lump sums, the parties cannot then attempt to distance themselves from it.

Members queued up yesterday to take pot-shots at Sinn Féin over our proposed amendment to the Budget motion, and claimed that we had supported it in other forums. People cannot have it both ways. In effect, the lump sum proposed by the Commission would give Members a pre-Christmas bonus of between £500 and £1500. Even Jeffrey, in his "letter to Santa", which was subsequently plagiarised by the First Minister, would not have been so audacious in his request.

Sinn Féin has no difficulty with linking the salaries to annual increases that reflect inflation because that is a common trade union argument. We have argued that this should be the case for pensions, allowances and benefits. We do, however, have a difficulty with people proposing to give themselves a lump sum backdated to 29 May.

Assembly Members are quite well paid, and we all accept that every elected representative has a difficult job and is entitled to an appropriate level of pay. Members should send out a strong signal by saying that they will forego the backdating of this pay and not accept any pre-Christmas pay rise. In effect, that is what Mr Ford's amendment does. He scurried away from the backdating of the pay, but he is voting for a pre-Christmas pay rise. If we forego that by voting in favour of the 31 March 2001 option, we will send out a signal that the gravy train is not operating in the Assembly, contrary to the signal that has consistently been sent out since the Assembly began. The last time we debated the SSRB proposals, I said that if a substantial pay cut had been proposed, Members might not have been so willing to accept it. The same applies in this instance. We should reject the clause in the Assembly Commission's recommendation that we backdate this to 29 May. We should also reject the pre-Christmas pay rise proposed by Mr Ford, and we should accept the amendment and bring this report into effect from 31 March.

Ms Morrice:

It has been useful to listen to the debate this morning and to take into consideration our opinion on this. We agree that there should be an annual upgrading of salaries and allowances in line with normal practices in any workplace. We accept that this matter has now been taken out of the Assembly's hands and given to the SSRB. That was an important decision for the Assembly. The decision is made once and for all. We do not agree that it should be backdated; that is inappropriate. We agree that we should wait until the annual upgrading of salaries, as foreseen in this Determination; that is important.

Members will have heard mentioned the salaries of those who are "double jobbing" - that is the term we use to describe Members who sit in the Assembly and at Westminster. Paragraphs 2(1), 2(2) and 2(3) provide for the salaries of Assembly Members who are also Members of Parliament at Westminster and Strasbourg to be reduced to take account of this "double jobbing."

Mr Speaker, are you aware that the Disqualifications Act 2000 which has been passed in the House of Commons allows for Assembly Members to become TDs? Why is there no reference to the need for salaries to also be reduced in such cases, in the same way as for Members of Parliament or Members of the European Parliament? Can either the Assembly or the Commission do anything about that?

Mr Speaker:

I should respond to that myself, since it is a matter of the authority and competence of the Assembly. The Member is right that in section 47(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provision is made for a reduction in salary if the Assembly Member is also a Member of either House of the Westminster Parliament or of the European Parliament and is receiving a salary for that. If he or she is a Member of the Oireachtas, there is no such provision for the Assembly salary to be reduced. If such a reduction were sought, section 47(4) of the 1998 Act would have to be amended to refer to membership of the Oireachtas, consequently the salaries Determination would have to include such a reference.

It is regrettable that since this anomaly arose from the Disqualification Act 2000 no opportunity was taken during the passing of that Bill to address the matter, the more so since the Assembly itself cannot legislate on the matter. It is a good example of why this Assembly should be consulted on any legislation that affects it, but it is not a matter that the Assembly itself can address. I hope that that clarifies the matter for both the Member and the House.

Mr McCartney:

I do not agree with the awarding or the acceptance of any pay increase. The amendment that comes nearest to my own view is that advanced by Sinn Féin. After the Act of Union in 1800, Lord Castlereagh said that he had purchased the fee simple of Irish political corruption. I wonder whether it has to be repurchased in every generation.

This Assembly has 108 Members to represent roughly 1·65 million people. The Scottish Parliament, which represents 5 million people, has 129. On a pro-rata basis with Northern Ireland, it would have over 300 Members. The Welsh Assembly has 60 Members and represents a population of just under 3 million. There can be no doubt, and very few people would argue, that some of the 108 Members - and that number was chosen specifically to include as many people from as many different parties as possible, some of them of questionable genealogy as far as democracy is concerned.

I have heard it said - I have not checked the figures - that at the date of the Assembly election, some 30 of the 108 Members who grace this Chamber were unemployed. How many Members of this Assembly can honestly put their hand on their heart and say that they were in receipt of a bigger salary than the £29,000 that was originally granted before this Assembly voted itself an increase of over 30% and brought it up to the current £39,000? Here this Assembly is arranging to increase its salary again.

The argument to which everybody has clung to justify this is that the Assembly is not actually fixing the amount.

1.30 pm

However, the Assembly is agreeing and fixing the criteria by which that amount is measured. It is done on the basis of taking the average of the salaries of the nine fairly high-ranking civil servants beneath the rank of permanent secretary, and determining the percentage increase. In this case it is 2·9%. Having set the criteria for working out what one is going to get at a fairly high level, one then adopts the "holier than thou" attitude of saying, "Well, it is not us that is awarding it; it is being awarded by the SSRB." However, the SSRB decision is based upon criteria that have been approved by the Assembly.

The public are looking at this Assembly, and appreciating that the running of the Assembly and the 11 Departments - there were formerly six - is costing over £670 million this year and is budgeted for £750 million next year. That sum, which now includes 11 Departments, is coming out of the block grant - the block grant that provides money for the Departments of the Minister of Health, the Minister of Education and the Minister of the Environment. Everybody knows that, for example, the Health Department is grossly underfunded. Everybody knows that many of the buildings providing educational facilities for our children in Northern Ireland are grossly defective and need a great deal of capital investment.

I am not suggesting that the 2·9%, backdated, discounted or otherwise, will make a vast contribution to those Departments. However, it shows that the Assembly is conscious of the lack of money affecting many people in Northern Ireland. Some people are not having heart bypass operations, people who are having children in maternity facilities that really have very little to rejoice about, and children, particularly in rural areas, who are in school buildings that are really Victorian in their design and facilities. They will now say that Members of the Assembly, who have scarcely broken ground in delivering anything in Northern Ireland, are, for the second time in a year, voting themselves a substantial and significant salary increase.

I, for my part, have no great affection for this - [Interruption]. I am told that I do not need it. That might be right, but is the fact that one needs it a justification for taking it? That is the point.

Mr Neeson:

Which Committee is the Member on?

Mr McCartney:

I am not on any Committee, and I am coming to that point - [Interruption].

We have howls from the people who want the money.

Come on, howl. Howl for your salaries. Howl for your increases. Put down those who would question for a second that one should not fill one's own pockets. That is democracy at work. That is the picture that Members are projecting to the people of Northern Ireland. It does not matter that Members howl, sneer or ask questions about which Committees I am on. Sticks and stones may break bones but words will certainly not hurt me. However, the words that Members use and the attitude that Members display on the television cameras will go out to the people of Northern Ireland, and they will be watching Members howling to fill their purses.

Ms McWilliams:

Does the member remember Holywood?

Mr McCartney:

I remember all about Holywood. To get back to the fundamental issue, I think that what this Assembly should do is say that we are entitled to this money according to the decisions and deliberations of the SSRB, but that entitlement does not justify acceptance. Members should say "Certainly not. We are not going to take this." Indeed, I question whether there should not be a moratorium on salaries for at least the next two years.

Would anybody be seriously hurt if he did not get his 2·9% this year and again next year? Would it not show a good example to the people who see enormous sums being spent on this place? Someone asked me the other day "If they vote this increase through, Mr McCartney, will you be taking it?" That is a very pertinent question. The answer is yes; I will be taking it. However, I will not be keeping it. If this is voted through - and I am entitled to any increase along with everyone else - it will be divided equally between the Belfast City Mission, St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. I think that at Christmas instead of Members voting themselves a big backdated bonus, as recommended by the Commission, they should be thinking about those who do not enjoy all the facilities and benefits that they do.

I am not speaking as a party politician; I am speaking as someone who, whatever committee he serves on, may from time to time serve the purpose of jogging the consciences of others who do.

Mr Attwood:

I want to make four or five points.

Mr McCartney says that people will draw conclusions about the Assembly based upon the salaries Determination which may go through today. If they do, those conclusions will be based upon a shallow premise. However, I think that people will look at yesterday's debate and say that it was characterised by a voice from the Government, such as Mr Durkan's, and a voice close to the Government, such as Mr P Robinson's. The quality of their contributions, and their statements on the future society that they want to construct, will have a greater affect on people's conclusions about the Assembly than the vagaries of the salaries Determination on which we are about to vote.

Mr McCartney also told us that Irish political corruption is being repurchased this afternoon. Well, I draw two conclusions from that. Either we are cheap at the price - because the Determination proposed by the Alliance Party will amount to £380 between now and the end of this financial year - or the contention is evidently ludicrous. Mr McCartney makes some incredibly powerful contributions inside and outside this Chamber, and this contention is at odds with the quality of many of his previous contributions.

Mr McCartney also said that 30 Members of the Assembly were unemployed before they came here. You move on to very dangerous territory when you bring that sort of argument on to the Floor of the Assembly. This is for two reasons: first you leave yourself vulnerable, and I know you did not mean this -

Mr McCartney:

Why would I say it if I did not mean it?

Mr Attwood:

Well, some people -

Mr Speaker:

Order. May I request all Members to address their comments through the Chair.

Mr Attwood:

Some of the people who are watching and listening to this debate - which, as the Member rightly pointed out, deserves to be heard - may misinterpret what he said. They might believe that it echoes a past when people did not qualify because of their religion, gender, sexuality or class. Those politics do not have any place here. But more importantly, people who are unemployed have the same right to stand for political office as people who are employed.

Mr McCartney:

Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood:

I will give way once I finish this point. They have an equal entitlement. On the other hand, to suggest that unemployed people who take up political office are in that office because of the money is demeaning to them and diminishes the contribution that they make to our society.

Mr McCartney:

The hon Member evidently did not understand the relevance of the point. The relevance of the point was in relation to the increases, and the point from which the increases were being given. If you were unemployed and are now on a salary of £39,000, whether you were fit to stand or not, is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether you need an increase on that at this stage.

Mr Attwood:

As politicians, we have a duty, and that duty should be based on principle. Principles inform the judgement that has been made by the Commission and, presumably, the amendment proposed by the Alliance Party. It is a valid principle to pay people what they are entitled to. There have been far too few examples of this having been done in the years of Tory misrule in this part of the island of Ireland and in Britain.

There is also the principle that when one makes an independent adjudication of what a politician, doctor or a nurse may be entitled to, it must be honoured. A time will come in this Chamber when we will have to make a judgement. Will we back a salary review recommendation for someone else in the public service? We will be tested and judged at that moment. However, by applying the principle to ourselves to uphold the independent assessment of what we are worth means that we will, in the future, apply a principle about what others are worth. That is why the amendment for the Alliance Party should be endorsed.

Mr Speaker:

As there are no further requests to speak, I call Mr C Murphy to make his winding-up speech.

Mr C Murphy:

From some of the impassioned defences made today, it appears that the light has been switched on in the shop, and people have been caught with their hands in the till.

I observed some of the parties before today's debate started. There were some hurried consultations between the Ulster Unionist party, members of the Commission, who were obviously not representing their own party, but happened to belong to the SDLP, and the Alliance party about the amendments and what parties would and would not accept. The Ulster Unionists obviously decided that they could live with an extra 10 or 12 days of a pay rise, instead of going for 1 January and withdraw their amendment. Nobody was fit to enquire what Sinn Féin thought. We also had an amendment tabled, but no one asked what we thought or what they were interested in when coming to an arrangement with the others. There was, it appeared, a hurried coalition of interest between some of the parties that had previously supported the backdated pay rise, and which are now supporting the pre-Christmas pay rise. They have scurried away from the proposal for a pre-Christmas bonus.

The DUP has very little to say on this matter. They said yesterday that their hands were clean in all of this, and obviously they have decided to keep their hands clean again today. They will adopt that position. I have noticed that when there is a debate on salaries in this Chamber, their Front Bench is always empty. The DUP always appears to be able to distance itself by sitting further towards the back of the Chamber in the hope that somehow they will not be involved in the debate. They will, however, take the pay rise or whatever bonus comes along, but they will not get involved in the debate, so it will not be their fault.

We are faced with a choice. The Commission has proposed a pre-Christmas bonus for Members. Mr Ford's amendment withdraws that but gives us a pre-Christmas pay rise. I think that we should support my amendment. It sends out a signal that we recognise that there is a great deal of hardship in this society, and that many face a very bleak Christmas. We have a responsibility to send such a signal to show that we will play our part by not giving ourselves a pre-Christmas bonus or a pre-Christmas pay rise. We must demonstrate that we have a responsibility to those people, and that we will accept that responsibility.

Mr Close:

I do not intend to deal in any depth with our amendment. The case has been made succinctly by my Colleague, Mr Ford.

1.45 pm

It is necessary to respond to some of the other Members' comments. The word "principle" has been bandied around, and I use that term deliberately. The labourer being worth his dues has been well recognised, and it is fitting for the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Members to accept an increase. We had difficulty in backdating it for obvious reasons. The Assembly was not fully functioning at that time. However, it is right that the appropriate increase, which was due some months ago, should be paid as and from now. I make no apology for that. We are following the standards of the SSRB. I find it interesting that Sinn Féin is making a big issue about a pre-Christmas increase. It has also attempted to mislead the public by deliberately using the bonus figures - £500 or £1,500, or whatever - while fully conscious of the fact that there is no bonus at all if the pay increase takes effect from today. That was an attempt to mislead. I also find it ironic that in rejecting a pre-Christmas -

Mr Maskey:

Does the Member accept that the pay rise referred to by Mr C Murphy represents a scale comprising Members who do not hold office right through to Ministers? That ranges from £500 to £1,500, even before the various allowances are counted. The figures cannot be ignored. They are presented by the Assembly Commission, of which the Alliance Party is a member, and which it supported.

Mr Close:

I apologise if I misunderstood Mr C Murphy's comments. I understood that he was referring to "bonus", and that he deliberately used the word "bonus". A bonus is over and above a pay increase. A bonus entails some degree of backdating, and that is what I understood him to say. If that is the case, I stand by my original comments.

I find it interesting that Sinn Féin rejects a pre-Christmas increase but is anxious to have a pre-Easter "rising" increase. Could that be coincidence? I wonder. I also find it interesting that there may be some pangs of guilt emanating from Sinn Féin, following what it did yesterday - crying about the poor people and needs, et cetera, yet happily going into the Lobbies and supporting an 8% increase in the regional rate.

Mr C Murphy:

The Member will know, if he was listening earlier, that I asserted - and the Speaker nodded in assent - that this could not have been done beyond the end of this financial year. Therefore the date was not to ensure a pre-Easter "rising" pay increase. I am not sure on what date Easter falls next year, but this was the latest date that we could give for these proposals. I made that point at the start, and it was acknowledged by the Speaker.

In relation to yesterday, if the Member was so exercised about the rise in the regional rate, why did he not bother to get in early enough to table an amendment to the motion.

Mr Close:

We will not rehearse those arguments again. The reason my party did not table an amendment, and subsequently voted against the 8% increase, has been well examined. It cannot be denied that the Member is proposing a pre-Easter increase.

Mr McCartney began his comments by complaining about there being 108 Members. Whether he likes it or not, those Members are here to fill what was referred to as a democratic deficit; to try to bring proper accountable government to the people; and to represent the people of Northern Ireland through the appropriate Departments. Any member of the public would accept that and would recognise the import of the 10 Departments and their respective statutory scrutiny Committees which, I believe, are doing a reasonable job.

Mr McCartney:

Does the Member accept that the number of Departments was determined not by -

Mr Speaker:

Order. I must intervene at this point, because the debate is moving from the salaries Determination to questions about the fundamental basis upon which the Assembly is set. I must call the Member who is speaking, and the Member who intervened, back to the salaries Determination.

Mr Close:

I apologise. Perhaps, in taking other Members' points, which are off the subject, I am being too charitable.

It is good practice, not only in public life but in general, to keep charitable acts to oneself. One should not use a public platform from which to extol "how great thou art".

Rev Robert Coulter:

As far as the Commission is concerned, we have carried out our statutory responsibility by bringing forward the salaries Determination. If the Assembly decides to amend the date on which the Determination will have effect, the Commission will be happy to concur.

Question, That the amendment in the name of Mr Ford be made, put and agreed to.

Main question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That the Northern Ireland Assembly (Members' Salaries) Determination 2000 (NIA 27/00) be approved subject to the date in paragraph 1(4) being amended to 19 December 2000.

Adjourned at 1.55 pm.

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