I started by saying that this was a poisoned chalice, but I did not think that I would have to drink so much from it. Members need to be clear on a number of issues. The Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 has been superseded, and I understand that the Assembly has no authority, without further action, to pay the salaries of Members.
Members need to resolve this matter, or they will not be paid. The level of remuneration has not been set by the Assembly. Members, quite rightly, unanimously decided on 22 February 1999 that the level of remuneration would be set by the SSRB. Indeed, it was Mr McCartney who said that it would be prudent to let an independent body decide on future increases.
It was explicitly on the basis of that advice that the Assembly Commission, in exercising its duty under section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, recommended to Members in February that the opinion of the SSRB be accepted, and every Member who attended that meeting agreed.
It is therefore with some personal annoyance that I find, at the last minute, that Members are not just asking the Commission to disregard its legal obligation to make provision for Members, the Secretariat, and everyone else -
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to establish whether referring this matter to the incoming Commission would stop salaries being paid. I too praised the work of the Commission. I accept that Mr Fee has a poisoned chalice. However, this is a matter of social justice.
I cannot rule on the technical question contained in the point of order. You will have to take the word of the Member presenting.
The Commission is not necessarily being asked - nor is the Assembly - not to make an order that salaries be paid. That is within the Commission's authority. Can the Assembly not decide to continue to pay the salaries at the existing rate and agree to debate this matter again when the appropriate salary will be determined?
I will respond to that as it is a point of order. It is not possible for the Assembly so to decide. For the Assembly to be able to agree that, notice of an amendment would have to have been given one hour before the sitting began. This matter can only be accepted, rejected or, by leave of the House, taken back. It is not possible for the House to make an amendment at this stage.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If the House rejects the motion is there anything to stop us immediately putting it down again for another day - even Wednesday of this week - to enable us to deal with the matter de novo? It could be put down as an amendment to the motion, and it could include a provision for any payments to be backdated.
It is possible to vote such a determination down and for matters to be brought back to a subsequent sitting. However, I cannot give an undertaking that such a sitting would take place this week - it would probably have to be next week and before the recess, which begins on 17 December.
I would like Mr Fee to clarify a couple of points. Mr Adams - identified by Mr McCartney as a shrewd politician - asked for a deferment because it would not look good, given the social difficulties, to have this as the first item of business. How long a deferment does Mr Adams believe to be necessary? How long will it be until the social circumstances of the people outside are such that Assembly Members consider it wise to vote for an increase in their salaries?
Mr McCartney, without realising it, has insulted more Members today than he normally does. And when I say "insulted" I mean insulted. There are nuances that you may have to look at from the point of view of the greater protection of Members here.
First, Mr McCartney said that the Assembly was created under dubious Executive authority. If I am not mistaken, the Assembly was created by the will of the people of Northern Ireland. Of course, Mr McCartney is entitled to his opinion, but when he talks about unemployed people and about the flotsam and jetsam, I wonder what he really means. In the past, Mr McCartney's forte was to ensure that, for example, a person who had lost a leg got the minimum compensation from those whose moral responsibility it was to pay out. That is what Mr McCartney did, for he is an exalted barrister.
Will the Member give way?
I cannot give way, for I am being given way to. Mr McCartney is an exalted, learned man who does not know that an amendment must be put down one hour before the sitting.
I agree with Mr Ervine that today Mr McCartney has insulted more people than usual. That he used my remarks to do so, I take as a compliment of sorts.
The Official Report will show what I said. It is not a matter of its not being nice to have this as the first item of business. It is a matter of its being socially wrong for us to draw such huge salaries - even though we may deserve them for the work that we do - when others down the line are being treated so badly by the system. How long will it take to rectify this? It probably will not be rectified until we are part of an Irish Republic.
That will never happen, Gerry.
I happen to think that you should be an egalitarian politician - but there you are.
We tried to get this motion deferred until next Monday. I wanted the Commission to reflect upon the matter and discuss it further, but it appears that that will not happen. Fair enough.
Members should not use interventions as a substitute for speeches. An intervention ought to be directed, through the Speaker, to the Member who has the Floor. I have given reasonable latitude, but I urge Members to abide by this convention.
Most Members will agree that this has been one of the cheapest, most cynical political stunts that the Assembly has ever witnessed - and no doubt this is only the beginning. We have heard two of the better-off people in society crying crocodile tears, weeping for the unemployed and the disadvantaged. Doubtless Mr Adams will throw open the doors of his holiday home in Donegal to the oppressed and the disadvantaged of west Belfast, and Mr McCartney will do the same with his villa in France.
Order. Interventions are an opportunity, given by the Member who is speaking, for a brief remark. They are not a means of starting a debate all over again when the Member who moved the motion is winding up.
Mr Adams, my father spent 20 years working on a building site. In three years you have spent more money on suits than my father could afford during those 20 years when he was slogging his guts out.
Order. Members must also recall that they should not address other Members directly.
Apologies, Mr Speaker.
I will not immediately assume that the matters refer to the Chair, but they should be addressed to the Chair.
Mr Fee, please continue.
A Chathaoirligh, on a point of order. I spoke last week about Members defaming, slandering and making comments willy-nilly. My party has not at any time during this debate brought up issues such as those that Mr McCartney has raised: Members employing people who are very close to them, or building little extensions to their houses and charging exorbitant rent. We did not mention matters like that. If Members want us to personalise this debate we will do so, but they should remember that when they slander or insult another Member, they will be treated likewise.
Mr Maskey has made a very clear, rational and important point. The rules of procedure are set in place to keep a degree of proper decorum. When Members transgress those rules by making direct and personal remarks, some of which, though not ones I have heard this morning, are unparliamentary and therefore out of order, other Members inevitably respond in like fashion, and that does not improve the proceedings at all. Mr Maskey's point is valid and ought to be borne in mind.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr McClelland has just removed himself from my guest list.
I would like some clarification of the paper to which the Member is speaking at the moment (NIA 3). To what extent did the SSRB decide the differential between the salary for being a Member of the Assembly and what is received by those who serve on the Commission?
The SSRB simply made permissive comments; it did not make any determination on the amounts. The shadow Assembly Commission, in conjunction with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Secretariat, and after consideration of the payments made to officers of other legislative Assemblies - Westminster, Scotland, Wales and the Dáil - made its recommendation.
Did the Commission as a body, and therefore all its members, agree with what has been presented here today?
The shadow Commission, which comprised members from the UUP, the DUP, the SDLP and Sinn Féin, a representative of the smaller parties and the Initial Presiding Officer, and which existed up to this morning, agreed this unanimously and reported it in February, when the Assembly also agreed it unanimously.
There are many issues for consideration, but I want to draw to a close. I have great sympathy with many of the Members who have spoken, but it appears, somehow, to have fallen to me personally to make a judgement on how to proceed. The Assembly must decide either to accept or to reject the Determination.
Sections 39 to 48 of the Northern Ireland Act deal with the responsibilities and the legal and statutory duties of the Assembly Commission. There has been no controversy about the provision we are making to pay the staff - from the Doorkeepers to the Committee Clerks. However, the Commission has a responsibility to the Members to set the salaries recommended by the SSRB, having taken professional advice. We can do no more.
We commend this Determination to the House.
This requires only a simple majority, and my judgement is that the Ayes have it. [Interruption]
If the Member wishes to challenge, he ought to do so in the normal manner, not sotto voce, and then there will be a Division.
Mr Speaker, I can be accused of many things, but never of being sotto voce.
Question agreed to.
That the Northern Ireland Assembly (Members' Salaries) Determination 1999 (NIA 3) be approved.
Rev Robert Coulter:
I beg to move
That the Northern Ireland Assembly (Members' Allowances) Determination 1999 (NIA 2) be approved.
Before presenting the Determination on Members' allowances, I would like to endorse the points made by Mr Fee. In his opening remarks he welcomed the new Commission members and expressed his appreciation of the work done by those who have left the Commission. The Commission is the Assembly's body corporate, and it is charged by the Northern Ireland Act with responsibility for ensuring that the Assembly is provided with the property, staff and services it requires. Over the past 14 months the shadow Commission met on 35 occasions.
As Mr Fee has reminded us, the two Determinations and the three Bills which have just been ordered to be printed are not about advancing the interests of Members. They are about the Commission's fulfilling its corporate responsibility. Staff are entitled to secure a wage and to contribute to a pension scheme, and elected Members and their staff are no different. The Commission has no legal basis on which to pay Members or establish a pension scheme. That is why these Determinations need to be made and the Bills introduced at this early stage.
Now let me move to the business in hand - the determination of Members' allowances. In his address, Mr Fee emphasised the centrality of the SSRB's report to the salaries Determination. For the most part the SSRB's recommendations were followed in the allowances Determination, though current practice at Westminster and in Scotland and Wales also provided useful reference points. Close examination of the report shows that the figures in the Determination are slightly higher to reflect the recommended rise to allow for the increase in the retail price index over the previous year.
At first glance Members may think that the allowances Determination is rather too short to deal with a range of complex issues. It contains the basic provisions for the scheme, though no detail on its operation and administration. Staff in the finance office are currently drawing up guidance for Members on what is and what is not allowable and on how staff should handle claims. Members will have an early opportunity to comment as the guidance will have to be formally adopted by the Assembly.
I propose to take the various allowances in the sequence in which they appear in the schedule to the determination. All travel allowances are in accordance with the SSRB's recommendations. Subsistence allowances are in line with those in Scotland and Wales, while the rates for meals mirror current Civil Service allowances, which are not liable to income tax. The total office cost allowances as recommended by the SSRB, though the determination does not apportion those allowances between salaries and other expenses. Arrangements have been put in place to enable the allowances to be front-ended. Members will be able to draw down what they require, provided that commitments to staff salaries, rent and rates for the year are met.
This should allow for better financial planning and ease some of the cash-flow problems that a number of Members have had under the current arrangements. During the shadow period, when office cost allowances were paid monthly, the Commission made representations to the Minister asking for them to be paid on a six-month block basis. Unfortunately, because of the political uncertainty, the Minister was unable to accede to our request.
The SSRB recommended that
"the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly each determine the financial or other assistance to be available to Members with disabilities."
The Determination reflects the same level of assistance as exists in Scotland.
Recall expenses are in line with those for Westminster, Scotland and Wales, and travel arrangements for Members' employees are as recommended by the SSRB, with the allowances payable mirroring Civil Service rates, which do not attract a tax liability.
The allowances for staff pensions and redundancies follow the SSRB's recommendations, but it should be noted that there is no provision for the Assembly to run a dedicated pension scheme for Members' staff. Temporary secretarial allowances are in line with those at Westminster and in Wales, and Members holding a dual mandate will be pleased to note that the SSRB recommended that all allowances be payable to Members who are also MPs and/or MEPs.
This has been a detailed presentation, but it is important to assure Members that the Commission has tried to account for every eventuality using the SSRB report as its base.
I commend the Determination to the Assembly.
I wish to refer to paragraph 4 - the disability allowance section. So far as I know, none of us are eligible for the additional allowance for disability. The last person in this place who was eligible was Eileen Bell's predecessor, Bertie McConnell, who was an Assembly Member for North Down in the 1970s. Mr McConnell was totally blind. Notwithstanding what Mr Coulter said about the Scottish allowance, £10,000 is a modest sum for the professional services that would be required by a fully disabled Member, whether the handicap were physical, visual or auditory. Can the Commission re-examine whether that sum is an appropriate maximum before we come to a time when it might cause personal embarrassment?
The National Assembly for Wales has paid for some additional equipment for a Member's employee who suffers from a handicap. Can the Commission assure us that it will look at such a situation in a similarly favourable way should it arise here?
I had problems with the previous Determination, but I have little difficulty with this one, and I commend the work of the Commission. This Determination will ensure that parties such as the PUP can have full-time, fully operational offices staffed by people who are not members of our family. It is our party policy that such should be the case.
I have some concerns. I should like to look at the services that are funnelled through Members to constituency officers and, via their workers, to the broader populace. Whether we are dealing with Members' remuneration or Members' allowances, the Assembly is about the delivery of service.
There will be many cheap shots, and the newspapers will be full of comments about the large amount of money that is going to be paid to Assembly Members. However, we should not get upset. In jail every Christmas dinner menu was printed on Christmas Eve, as if to say that bad people like me should not have much time to anticipate a reasonable meal. Members must face the fact that their salaries and allowances will be brought to public notice. However, they will get over it, especially when they are spending the money.
My Colleague Billy Hutchinson and I have stated that we have full-time offices with full-time staff, which is beneficial and delivers a consistent service. Although we have three offices, we achieved only two portions of Members' allowances for office costs. That contrasts with Mr McCartney, who, by his own admission, has one office and complains about the costs that are drawn down by Westminster MPs and Members of the Assembly. Will he and the fat cats with Gallic holiday homes, who castigate us for wanting reasonable remuneration, lay their account books before us?
I am very conscious of the unemployed because I have been unemployed at times through illness. Many of those who have disparaged the unemployed in the past are cute on the subject of finance, especially when their bank balances are bulging.
I can now earn £38,000 a year, and I have to pinch myself to remind myself not to spend it all. Unlike many others, we are very much like Sinn Féin Members. It is not a case of "ourselves alone" because we have to help to keep others. We get an industrial wage and do not get the full benefit of the £38,000. Would that we did, for then I could speak to Mr McCartney in France and the many other places where he may be found. The media will go on the attack, and some of the cute attitudes and the empty Benches show that there is a certain doubt and a feeling of guilt.
I am a member of Belfast City Council, for which I am remunerated. I do not wish to make public the earnings of the directors and the chief executive, but I can say that the chief executive receives close to what we pay our two Prime Ministers. That is the amount paid to someone who makes no decisions but simply implements those that are made by others. Members of Belfast City Council had to determine his pay, and we had to ensure that he was properly remunerated.
Would we suggest that the chief executive of Belfast City Council should earn more than the Prime Minister? If we hope to attract into politics those who have avoided all the issues in the bear pit of political debate, pious attitudes about money will not work. We have to make it worth their while.
I have been unemployed, mostly through sickness, but I am convinced that my abilities could earn me far more than £38,000 a year. Had I not gone to jail but joined the Bar, perhaps we would have more than one exalted, wonderful black crow about the place.
Rev Robert Coulter:
The Commission followed closely the SSRB's recommendation 16, which says
"We recommend that the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly each determine the financial or other assistance to be available to Members with disabilities to enable them to carry out their Parliamentary/Assembly and constituency duties effectively."
The recommendation for a payment of £10,000 per session was based upon the Scottish precedent, and it is open to the Assembly to review the level of support and table an amendment in due course.
I commend the Determination to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Northern Ireland Assembly (Members' Allowances) Determination 1999 (NIA 2) be approved.
Adjourned at 12.46 pm.