I beg to move
That this Assembly notes that Members' salaries and pensions are determined by an independent body and that there should be no change to that arrangement; agrees that alternative provision should be made for Members' allowances; and, in accordance with section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, resolves that the Assembly Commission may determine the allowances payable to Members of the Assembly, the date from which such allowances are payable, which may be a date before or after the making of the determination or this resolution, and that the Commission shall publish any such determination.
Members should be clear: just because an amendment has been selected for debate does not necessarily mean that there is, currently, legal basis for its implementation. I am advised that the amendment purports to confer power on the Commission to issue guidance under section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but that that is not a power that the Assembly has under section 47. Nevertheless, I am satisfied, having taken everything into consideration, that it is in order for me to use my discretion to select the amendment for debate and that these matters can be discussed. Therefore the amendment stands. Its intent can be explored further by all Members who wish to contribute to the debate.
The Business Committee has agreed to allocate one and a half hours for the debate, with 10 minutes to move the motion, 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech, and five minutes for all other Members who wish to speak. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. All parties represented on the Commission have engaged on this matter for a considerable time in order to reach a consensus, and the motion reflects that consensus, as agreed by all five parties. The motion will enable the Assembly Commission to ensure that Members can legitimately purchase basic items to help them to deliver service to our constituents, that an MLA's contact details can be promoted on the constituency office, and, most notably, to ensure that the terms and conditions of employment of the staff who work in our offices are fair and reasonable.
From discussions with a wide range of Members across the House, I know that there is considerable support for that point. We are talking about the things that every Member needs to deliver a constituency service that meets the needs of our constituents: rent and rates for offices, the electricity, gas and phone bills, and staff salaries. For expenditure on constituency offices, a Member cannot claim a single penny of what are termed "allowances" in the 1998 Act unless a Member has already incurred that expenditure. In fact, the rents and rates bills, and the salaries for support staff, are paid directly to parties, be that to a landlord for rent, employees, or Land and Property Services. The Assembly is absolutely not being asked — I repeat not — to confer a function on the Commission to determine the salaries or pensions payable to Members or former Members. That function should, of course, fall to an entirely independent body.
The Commission intends to bring forward a Bill, subject to the will of the Assembly, that will change the remit and scope of the independent financial review panel (IFRP) to focus solely on Members' salaries and pensions, with a possible change to the name of the body to reflect its revised responsibilities. Members will know that the scrutiny of claims is rigorous and comprehensive; that will not change. I know that every Member, and every party, agrees that all our expenditure must be made according to the rules that have been put in place.
It is reasonable for people inside and outside the House to ask why the motion has been moved at this time. Members will be aware that the Assembly established the independent financial review panel in 2011. While the panel made significant improvements to the overall system, it is felt that the rules set out in the determination of March 2016 failed to grasp the realities that Members face as we try to deliver services to our constituents. The determination certainly did not provide our employees with fair and reasonable terms and conditions of employment for the difficult work that they undertake.
In 2015, even before the most recent determination was issued by the panel, the Commission began to review a range of options for the reform of the system of providing financial support for Members. It is the Commission's position, achieved through consensus from all five parties, that the support that can be made available to Members, especially to upgrade our constituency service, can best be delivered from within the Building.
Issues were raised by Members from all sides of the House. However, the changes to the terms and conditions of employment for support staff that Members were required to adopt is probably the issue that has caused the most concern for Members as responsible employers.
The last determination dramatically reduced sick and maternity pay for employees, even for those who were off work at that time due to illness or maternity, which is a highly unusual practice. Annual leave was also reduced for those employees to the minimum statutory level.
The terms have to be adopted by Members if staff salaries are to be recovered and are considerably less than the terms offered by most public and private-sector employers.
Other issues included the prohibition on letting constituents know our telephone number and email address from our office signage. While that might be a small thing, I have yet to hear any rational explanation for why that is the case or why it is desirable to have the prohibition in place.
The formula for assessing the level of rates for an office that can be paid in any year is another issue. Members may wish to know that almost one sixth of Members in this House had to pay, personally, part of the rates bill for their office in the 2019-2020 financial year. Members will also be aware of the bar on operating a surgery somewhere else in the constituency, maybe by renting a room or a hall once a week or once a month. Again, the purpose of that prohibition is unclear.
The current determinations provision, if untouched, will prevent Members recovering the cost of any expenditure incurred with a supplier who is resident in the United Kingdom once the implementation period for the UK's exit from the EU ends. When we look at the other legislatures across the British Isles, we see a variety of systems in place to assess the types and levels of expenditure that elected Members can recover. In Dublin, TDs' allowances are determined by a statutory instrument made by the Minister for Finance. At Westminster, MPs' allowances are set by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. In Wales, they are set by the independent Remuneration Board, and, in Scotland, allowances for MSPs are set by the equivalent of the Assembly Commission. There is no single mechanism for determining the allowances paid to elected Members.
Should the Assembly resolve today to confer on the Commission the function of determining the allowances payable to Members, the Commission would bring forward and publish a new determination to deal with the aforementioned problems. Any such determination would continue to apply best practice and ensure value for money for the public purse. Let us be clear: this is the only mechanism presently available to create a new determination. If the motion is not carried, the current determination will remain in place until a successor panel is appointed and a new determination is made.
I want to briefly address the amendment tabled by Mr Allister. Members may wish to note that the only functions that can be conferred on the Commission by the Assembly under section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are to determine the salaries and/or allowances that are payable to Members. The Assembly cannot confer a function under section 47 of the 1998 Act for the Commission to direct the panel; indeed, section 3 of the 2011 Act that facilitated the formation of the panel codifies the independence of the panel. In short, the Commission has no power to direct the panel.
When considering the matter, the Commission identified a possible scenario in which the 2011 Act could be amended to require the panel to align the terms and conditions for Members' support staff to a reasonable comparator. While that might resolve the issues relating to terms and conditions of employment for a member of staff, it will not resolve any of the other issues that Members and parties have raised about the 2016 determination.
Today's motion is much clearer and, in the Commission's view, offers the most effective approach to determining the allowances that should be payable to Members, allied with the robust and effective scrutiny of all claims that is already in place and the Commission's ability to adapt more quickly to external circumstances and the changing needs of Members than an external body. The Commission is firmly of the view that the motion sets out the best way forward.
The motion is about setting reasonable and fair levels of financial support for offices and conditions of employment for constituency staff in a way that fully understands the challenges that Members face each and every day. All parties represented on the Commission have engaged in the matter for a considerable time to reach a consensus position. The motion reflects that consensus position. On the basis of the views of all parties represented on the Commission, I commend the motion to the House.
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "salaries" and insert: ", allowances and pensions are determined by an independent body and that there should be no change to that arrangement, save that, in accordance with section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Assembly Commission can issue guidance to the independent body on the subject of allowances, with the exception of the quantum thereof, but only in circumstances where the implementation of the arrangements set by the independent body are causing practical difficulties or inequities, and the Commission shall publish all such guidance."
Those who tabled the motion must have short memories. I do not think that the public have. The public well remember that, when the system that is proposed in the motion was in operation, namely that MLAs controlled, through the Commission, their own expenses, it was abused and the product was scandal. In the face of a tide of public outrage, the Assembly passed the Act in 2011 and, in doing that, recognised that it was untenable for Members to be in control of their salaries, pensions or allowances. Today, we are asked to retreat from that and recreate the circumstances that gave rise to such scandalous behaviour as Sinn Féin Members pouring £700,000 of their expenses — unknown, it was claimed, by some of their MLAs — into a body called Research Services Ireland Limited, headed by Sinn Féin's finance director. When the BBC's 'Spotlight' did a programme, they could find no website for Research Services Ireland. They could find no phone number. They could find not even one sheet of paper of research ever produced. It was a scam. It was a rip-off of public money.
Michelle O'Neill, the current deputy First Minister, paid £18,000 of rent to a so-called cultural society for an office in Gulladuff: the South Derry Cultural and Heritage Society. One of the six trustees of the hall for which the money was paid let the cat out of the bag. A Mr Michael McGonagle claimed that Sinn Féin had raised the money to buy the building 30 years ago, and here was a Sinn Féin MLA, now the deputy First Minister, paying £18,000 per year — a colossal rent — to that supposed cultural society. Mr McGonagle went on to say that he had never heard of the South Derry Cultural and Heritage Society and that, as a trustee, he had never received any rent for the use of the building. Those are facts as established.
We had the Church Street office in Ballymena and the scandal of £50,000 in one year claimed by a father and son — Members of this Assembly — to go into an office of which the first director was Seymour Sweeney of "I know of him" fame. He was replaced as sole director by Ian Paisley Jr's father-in-law, who was then replaced by a DUP councillor who, when asked by 'The Belfast Telegraph' about the matter, said:
"I haven’t a clue. I know flip all about it ... I know nothing about it, I’m only the landlord."
He later told BBC 'Spotlight', however, that the sole beneficiary of the rent was the bank. What does that mean? That means that rent for expenses was being used to pay off a mortgage to create a party asset.
There was the Sinn Féin MLA who could not drive and who, apparently, was making a claim for £5,000 in mileage allowance. He said that he had never signed the form; someone else had done it for him. We had £9,000 claimed for oil in a former Speaker's constituency office that was not used there. We had an MLA who claimed £7,000 for electrical equipment to create a paper-free office — iPads, laptops and computers — and then went on to claim £8,200 in stamps for his paperless office. What a farce. Such are the circumstances to which we are invited to return.
I know that the panel has been guilty of some of the most irrational decisions, such as not being able to put your phone number on your office signage — I tried to take them to the ombudsman over that — or not being allowed more than one office; I suffered from that. I know that they made some ridiculous decisions and were most bumptious in trying to defend them. However, the principle here is whether we, as MLAs, should set our own salary. No. Should we set our own allowances? No. So why do we want to do it, particularly in circumstances where the body to which we want to give the powers did nothing about the £700,000 to Research Services Ireland, the Ballymena Church Street office or the fictitious claims to cultural societies? It swept it all under the carpet. Those are the circumstances that we want to recreate.
I respectfully suggest to the House that we are headed very much in the wrong direction. That is why I say that we need to leave the quantum — the amount — of the expenses with the independent panel but we need to take enhanced powers to give guidance to that panel when it makes irrational, unjustifiable or absurd decisions.
I heard the proposer of the motion say that there is no legal power. Has he never read section 2(4) of the 2011 Act? It says:
"The Panel may consider any other matter which is relevant to the discharge of its functions, either on its own initiative or at the written request of the Commission."
The Commission already has the power to write to the panel to say, "You made a decision about not MLAs not being able to put their phone number on their office signage. Would you please reconsider that for the following reasons?". It can make a written request to say, "You have made a decision that is prejudicial to the maternity or paternity leave rights or sickness rights of our staff. Would you please look afresh at it?". The power is there. Why is it not being exercised? Indeed, why has the panel never been reappointed? Why is it that a panel that ran out of office in 2016 has never been replaced? Did some people want the situation to fester so that they could reach this point of saying, "We have to do something about it"?
The Member who proposed the motion left me unclear about what he intends. He said, at one point, that the Assembly Commission would bring forward a Bill to change the range and scope of the panel, and then, towards the end, he said that the Commission would bring forward a new determination. Which is it? Are you just going to wipe out the panel or override it by a determination on foot of a mere resolution of the House? There is legislation. Are you going to change the legislation to do the very things that, you said, you would not do a few years ago? We need some clarity. Are you thinking that, by mere determination, you can override the decisions made under the 2011 Act, or are you going to change the 2011 Act?
If you want to do something, you have to change the 2011 Act —
I thank the House for the opportunity to contribute briefly to what is an important debate. As we have heard already, the public are, rightly, annoyed about the prospect of any increases to expenditure. However, clarification needs to be put into the public domain as to what the motion is about. It is not about Members' pay, and we cannot blame the public for being angry, especially after we had been locked out of the institutions — certainly against our will — for the last number of years. There is no change to Members' pay and nor should there be. Members' pay will still be independently determined and that should always be the case. The SDLP would not support the motion if that was the case. The motion is about how we treat members of staff, deal with complex problems and offer a service to the public every day.
There is a real lack of common sense in the current determination and Mr Allister was right to touch on that in his contribution, even around signage, phone numbers or a very small crest on a door — very simple things that were fineable under the current determination. Even a broken-down printer could not be repaired locally; you had to send for someone to come from Belfast at a cost to the public purse that made no sense whatsoever. When you tried to have those discussions, you were shot down and told, "It is in the determination". That made things very frustrating for a lot of Assembly Members to continue in their duties.
Many of us in the Chamber proudly support the advancement of workers' rights. Each and every day, I hear Members of the House speak about the importance of protecting those rights. In order for the public to have confidence in us, we need to ensure that we practise what we preach. We are in a situation where our staff are being failed because their rights are not being protected under the current determination. Whilst I understand and appreciate the reasons for the determination, given the previous abuses of some in relation to MLAs' expenses, it is vital that we, as employers and as MLAs, protect the rights of our staff.
I am not proud that we give our staff the minimum legal amount of sick and maternity pay. I am not proud that annual leave is at the minimum statutory level. I am not proud that, under the current rules of the determination, there are staff in MLA offices who could be earning less than the living wage and are struggling. I know full well that we are living in very tough times and that every penny of public spend needs to be accounted for, but I stand here today for my staff and the hard-working staff of many other Assembly Members in offices who deserve fair pay and fair terms and conditions. My office could not run without my staff working more hours than they are paid for, alongside the many volunteers who, daily, help me in my duties as a public representative. They are making an invaluable difference to the communities that I am elected to serve, and all that I want for them is fairness.
We are not seeking a dilution of scrutiny or accountability; the opposite is true. The proposed measures will demand enhanced scrutiny of every penny that is spent in this place. My party is committed to robust transparency measures to ensure that there is no return to the abuse of public money, as was clearly outlined very articulately by Mr Allister, in relation to Research Services Ireland. I have mentioned that in the House on many occasions in previous contributions. The SDLP will be making that position clear and at the Assembly Commission as well.
Now, more than ever, constituency offices are needed to help the many vulnerable people who contact us each and every week and the many businesses that are struggling to make ends meet and to support those who are seeking to improve our communities. The motion is about MLAs deciding what we want to be responsible for, which is the well-being of our staff, and for running an effective and efficient office that delivers for people. That is vital in supporting our communities at this time. It is not an easy debate, but there are issues with the determination that need to be addressed. Our staff deserve fairness. We cannot go out into the public domain and stand up for the rights of workers if we are not going to practise what we preach ourselves. That is our reason for supporting the change and the motion.
I sense a nervousness about the motion in the House and in wider society. We ought always to be mindful that, as an Assembly, we must have the confidence of our society. If we do not have that confidence, we will always fail.
The Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) determination felt flawed; it felt irrational. It felt like all MLAs were being punished because of the abuses of some. It felt like a collective punishment meted out to every single one of us.
Mr Allister raised a compelling argument about abuses of the system as it stood. That resonates within the society that we represent, and we must be mindful of that.
We have looked at the ludicrous position whereby we cannot put our telephone number on our signage. So, for the last three months, when your offices have been closed and the shutters were down, nobody has seen the phone number that would enable them to call you. That is the irrational piece in all of this.
The issue has been debated at length by the Assembly Commission, and it is right to bring it before the Assembly for debate: for people to make their arguments, for people to make decisions on the basis of those arguments and to try to explore whether, through the motion or the amendment, there are other ways of achieving the same thing.
Personally, I do not need any extra expenses. My office does not need any extra expenses. I cut my cloth to meet what I have, as every other business does. I have been working quite happily since I became an MLA in 2016. However, I have a real concern about the pay and conditions of my staff. They do not have the right pay and conditions. Their pay is scandalous. They deal with civil servants who get paid nearly twice as much as they do.
The Ulster Unionist Party's Chief Whip, who sits on the Commission, wanted to adopt a NIPSA model. That was not deemed cost-effective, but at least people were exploring other ways of doing this. I know that other parties did similarly — in fact, I think that other parties did similarly before coming up with the motion. So, it is right that the motion is before us and that we debate it and put our points across. However, let us not just throw out Mr Allister's amendment because it does not match what we have gone through and talked about. Let us use it to test our ability to talk and think, and maybe to push back and postpone what we are trying to do here, in order to have the confidence, transparency and accountability that we have been lacking for quite some time.
I said it before: Mr Allister puts forward a compelling argument. Nothing stops us creating a new panel, and nothing stops us having a new determination. I am not saying that we should set aside the IFRP determination, but it certainly needs to be amendable. As an MLA, my nervousness about the motion and the nervousness of my party is that, in the months and years to come, it will be abused, we will forget the lessons that we learned in the past, and we will lose that confidence. We will lose that confidence individually and, as a House, collectively.
I go back to where I started: it is right to debate this in the Chamber and to get your points of view across, no matter how popular or unpopular they are. We need to do that, and, if we have to change direction, we have to change direction. I believe that Mr Allister's amendment enables us to change direction. I think that it enables us to look at this in the long term and to create a new panel that can make a new determination. Therefore, my party and I will support the amendment.
Interesting issues were raised by the other Members who have spoken. I attended a Commission meeting at which this matter was debated. Alliance has maintained throughout that it would prefer that an independent body look at all aspects of payments to MLAs: salaries, pensions and allowances, even though the allowances do not go into our pockets, which some people do not seem to understand, but are to pay our staff and our rent. However, we were voted down that day, and, that day, the collegiate approach was the motion that is before us.
Thank you very much. On the day that I was there, there was a call around the room and each of the parties was to say yes or no to whether they would support having an independent body like the body in Westminster. The Alliance Party was the only one to support that, and everyone else decided that changes needed to be made.
We have in front of us a motion that the Alliance Party, on a collegiate approach, could support, but we will take any available opportunity to support an independent body to look over all of the money that goes to MLAs.
Today is the International Day of Parliamentarism. The United Nations General Assembly resolution states that the International Day of Parliamentarism should celebrate giving confidence to the public, and its resolution states the need for transparency. We would not give our staff the power to dictate their own salaries, but we would be giving ourselves that power. We are saying that we are going to set out salaries for our staff. We are the employers, but we are using public money. They need to be reviewed. The treatment of staff in MLAs' offices by the existing determination is deplorable and would not be put up with in any other place. An independent body such as there is in Westminster would be appropriate.
We were not successful in the Commission, and that is why we say today that we could have gone with the motion, but there is an opportunity with the amendment. The amendment gives us the opportunity to look at an independent body and to bring into scope someone else who will help scrutinise and set standards for payments to MLAs.
I appreciate the Member giving way. The Member has articulated the view that she wants an independent panel to deal with these issues because of the failures of the previous independent panel. She acknowledges all of those failures. If the previous panel did not treat our staff fairly, what confidence can MLAs have that a new panel would treat their staff fairly?
The Member has helped me to confirm why it is so important. The previous panel was not independent. It was brought forward through a recruitment process that determined people who could not be on the panel, but did not determine people who should have been on the panel. Where was the expertise in accountancy, HR or HMRC issues? It was not there. We have the opportunity now to have an independent body like the one at Westminster — a body that will include all of the professional qualifications that we need to ensure fairness for our staff and the public.
If you let me carry on, I will bring you in in a moment. The recruitment of the panel would be key. We can no longer allow our staff to be treated like second-class citizens because people wanted to get at the MLAs. We need people with expertise in business management and HMRC issues. In the period in which the IFRP has not been in place, the Commission has handed over the management of the determination to staff in this place. That has been unfair, because that determination has been unpleasant to deal with, and staff have had to deal with MLAs in that. We should, therefore, be looking at the amendment; we should be considering alternatives. We should be looking at transparency, and we should be above and beyond.
I appreciate the Member giving way again. She has indicated that another independent panel should have the professional expertise to look at this issue. Is she saying that the former chairman of the Belfast Health Trust and the assistant Chief Constable did not have the requisite qualifications to consider all of those areas around HR and financial accountability, given what was on their CV?
I was not here when that panel was chosen. I can go only by what happened when that panel brought forward its determination: when HMRC had to come to this place and say that the way in which the panel was paying expenses to MLAS was wrong; when there was a recoupment of costs from all MLAs, as otherwise this place would have faced a fantastic tax bill. Something, therefore, was going wrong. When the Alliance Party has an opportunity to go for an independent body, we will take it.
We respect the collegiate approach of the Commission, but I am sure that everybody can respect the fact that, as a party, we have been pushing for this. We put it in our written submission and said it at the Commission meetings. We were not given the opportunity to take that forward. We would be happy enough to vote for the motion as it stands, but, when there is the opportunity for an amendment for an independent body, we will take that.
I contribute to the debate as one who has been around the Building for a very long time. I served on the Assembly Commission for 14 years. I have been an Assembly Member's pension scheme trustee for 16 years. I have served on the Audit Committee, and I have been a Member of the House for 26 years. There are people in the Chamber who were not even born when I was first elected to the Assembly. Therefore, I speak with some experience.
In our wisdom, we appointed an independent review panel, and there were two individuals on that panel who had absolutely no time for public representatives, and it showed in their determination. Where they lost my respect in totality was when they had clearly botched the report and made major errors, they did not admit it but tried to defend the indefensible. We had a situation where a very experienced and respected Member of the Assembly was fined almost £10,000 out of his pension because he had the temerity to put his phone number on his sign.
How dare we put our phone number on our signs so that our constituents, particularly during lockdown, can come and find out how to contact us? Would there be a major democratic deficit, would a tragedy occur, if our constituents could find out our phone numbers? What did the two spokes-gentlemen do, when they were asked about this mistake? They defended it when they knew it was wrong. Then they told us we could not have our email address on our office signs because, obviously, that would bring democracy crashing around our ankles. Their argument was that an email address could read something like, "jim_wells_themostwonderfulmlasincetimebegan.com". They said that it could be abused. Why could they not accept that, if we all had our Assembly ".gov.uk" email addresses on our signs, it would have avoided that? However, again, they defended the indefensible.
We had a situation in North Down where a young lady, who went off on maternity leave, was forced to return, as a result of the determination, because of the change in the regulations, which are much less favourable to fathers and mothers. It goes on and on. Indeed, there is a case at the moment where an MLA is facing a £20,000 fine for something so minor that most employers would have shrugged their shoulders and forgotten about it.
We have so many issues where they have got it wrong. Unlike the honourable Member for North Antrim, I have no confidence whatsoever that another panel can deal with this situation. We are not, and I repeat not — I hope that the public and the BBC get this, because the reporting of it has been far from accurate, in my opinion — asking for a pay rise, and we should not. We are not asking for a change in our pensions. We are asking for fundamental fair treatment of our staff, none of whom have had a pay rise for five years. They have had their pensions slashed and basic rights undermined, and there is nothing we can do about it. That is the difficulty.
I have to say that Mr Allister was very eloquent. He raised some points about the appalling abuses of the past, and I agree with him. However, he should remember that there is a fundamental difference between now and 2011. Every penny that we spend, in our office cost allowance, will be published and scrutinised by the press. A few years ago, a local newspaper contacted me and asked, "Mr Wells, how can you justify spending £1.50 a week on a local newspaper?" I said, "That is your newspaper." He said, "That is a very good use of taxpayers' money." The point is that that is how minute the available detail is at the moment.
We have learnt our lessons. There is no problem, for instance, with the Commission setting a limit on the amount of rent that can be paid. However, we have the obscenity, at the moment, whereby MLAs have to forcibly go to their landlords and plead with them to increase their rents, so that they can recoup the rates that are payable, because they are tied to the level of rents. We have the obscenity where Members cannot share offices because of the punitive controls that are placed upon them for doing so. They have got it completely wrong.
I thank the Member for giving way. He makes a valid point about the sharing of offices. In my constituency, my colleague and I share an office with the Member of Parliament. It would be to the detriment of the taxpayer if my colleague in the House and I were to open up our own office and access greater amounts of taxpayers' money. We are saving the taxpayer money by sharing an office, but are, then, penalised for it by the determination.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the extra minute. Clearly, the panel, when they made that determination, got it wrong, but have they ever had the honesty to go on 'Talkback' or 'The Nolan Show' etc and actually admit that they got it wrong? That is why I have lost all respect for that determination.
What we are doing here is not feathering our own nests, but looking after the people who have had to deal with the abuse and the irate constituents who have come in to complain. Many of those staff have drifted off, saying, "If that is how we are going to be treated by the legislators of Northern Ireland, we are no longer interested in working for them". Those are the people who count. I believe that we, as MLAs, must stand by them even if that is unpopular with the public.
I support everything that my colleague Mr Jim Wells said. He has clearly articulated some of the many issues with which all Members in the Chamber will agree. Today, we stand with our staff, who have put in a huge number of hours and a huge amount of effort for very little thanks. We need to look at those determinations.
I must say that I am bewildered but, I suppose, not overly surprised by the reactions of some Members in the House. Mr Butler has signed the motion, as has Mr Blair, yet they, obviously, do not speak to their party colleagues. Clearly, there is a communication issue.
I just want to make it clear that, when I gave my speech on behalf of the Alliance Party, I said that we had worked with a collegiate approach in the Commission but that, when there was an opportunity for an amendment after the Commission had put forward its motion, we chose to back the amendment. Therefore, there is no issue with Mr Blair's having signed the motion.
I thank the Member for that intervention. However, the Alliance Party's position is far from clear, because it has one position behind closed doors and another one publicly. Unfortunately, that has been the case with more than just this issue, but that is a matter for the Alliance Party. The public will judge that for themselves, as, indeed, will the staff of our Assembly offices.
The people of Northern Ireland have the right to a clear and reasonable explanation of exactly what has been proposed. My party remains firmly of the view that MLAs should have no role in setting their salary or, indeed, their pension. They must continue to be set independently. Nobody is questioning for one second the fact that that is done independently. However, we also acknowledge that striving for the highest standards in public office means enabling the highest quality of representation. That is why I entered politics; to get results for my constituents and to make a lasting difference. It is, however, a matter of regret that the use of an independent body to decide office and staff allowances has hindered rather than helped that cause; not our cause per se, but that of the people whom we collectively represent. Local communities deserve constituency services that are flexible and responsive to their needs. They are also entitled to have appropriately skilled staff working on their behalf. Sadly, the current circumstances and system do not allow for that.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that there are two fundamental principles that people never seem to bear in mind, or of which they seldom take account? One is that two full-time equivalents, or 74 working hours per week, puts Members in a situation where they have zero flexibility with staffing and that, in times of staff sickness or leave, that often results in lone working, when members of staff, who are often female, are left in a vulnerable position? Secondly, does the Member agree that it is deeply unfair that a very experienced member of staff who happens to move to work for another Member must automatically go the bottom of their pay scale?
I agree completely with the Member. Those are disgraceful situations that would not be tolerated anywhere else. Again, although the House is absolutely unanimous on those issues, when it comes to it, it is unwilling to deal with them. That is deeply regrettable, given the fact that all parties have supported the motion. It is an unacceptable position and one that we must rectify.
The reality is that different constituencies across the country have different needs. The singular approach that was decided independently cannot appreciate or address those issues. That is why we support the changes put forward in the motion. We do not believe that the measures set out in the selected amendment would have the necessary impact or influence in addressing core concerns around the level of service afforded to the public. Indeed, we all had the opportunity to write to the Commission. We all had the opportunity to raise the concerns, but that alone clearly had no impact on the independent panel.
The independent panel met with MLAs. It knew the issues, but as Mr Wells clearly articulated, it did not take those views into consideration. Obviously, setting up a new independent panel, hoping that we will get the right result for our staff, is not the way forward because, as some Members have said, that did not work out well in the past.
I want to emphasise the fact that MLAs will not receive —.
It is also important that we discuss staff safety. Throughout the last mandate, there was a series of incidents in MLAs' offices where staff did not felt safe. In my office in Omagh, that happened to one of my members of staff who was on her own because we could not provide cover for the person who was off, and she suffered a threat that day. Surely, there needs to be some allowance for staff safety as well.
I thank the Member for that. I completely agree. Staff safety is something that we have had to deal with in our office on many occasions, and it is frightening. We owe it to our very hardworking staff who have been on the front line throughout the COVID-19 crisis. They deserve the respect. This is not about MLAs; this is about our staff and showing support and appreciation for them. I urge everybody to support the motion and agree to get behind it.
I was elected in 2016 after the financial review happened and after the stories of the expenses scandals had broken. The public lost so much faith and trust in us. There is no doubt that there are problems with the independent financial review determination and how we can access and use our office cost expenditure. They are much bigger than putting a phone number on a sign. Ms Bunting was absolutely right when she pointed out the restrictions in flexibility that we can allow our staff: the maximum working hours, the setting of salaries, and, if there are any changes, they go back to the bottom of the pay scale or even have to reapply through open competition for their own job. There are many problems with that, but, again, we have to remember why we are here.
There are even issues around setting a cap on office rental costs. That applies to everyone equally right across Northern Ireland. It is a very different rate and rent setting in Strabane high street, for example, from South Belfast, but that is not taken into consideration either. Our staff are treated differently. Every single staff contract that I have signed since being elected, I have handed it back to the staff with a recommendation that if they are not already in a trade union, they should join one and that they should challenge me on it. To date, they have all been so nice that they have not done that, but I still recommend that they do.
Does the Member agree that we are also in a situation where not only are the terms and conditions infinitely better in the Northern Ireland Civil Service but they are infinitely better for Assembly staff? Party staff and our local MLA staff have the worst terms and conditions of everybody who works in this sector.
Thank you. Those issues have been very well made in this Chamber, but what I am hearing is an awful lot about having no trust and no faith in an independent financial review panel because the only one that we have had to date got it so wrong.
Sometimes, the House gets it wrong. Sometimes people in the House get it wrong, yet we always have another chance to get it right. That should never stop us from ever trying to keep getting it right. We have had no independent financial review panel since June 2016. It has not existed. So, what is going on in that process? Why have we been left all those years with no one there?
We really, really need to keep public confidence and public trust in us, because we have not done an awful lot to get over the absolute scandal of 2015 and 2016. We need our independence, and we need to keep building trust, and I believe that we can do both. The Green Party will support the amendment to the motion.
It is worth remembering the consternation that the MPs' expenses scandal and the local version caused across communities here a few years ago. People were outraged in the middle of economic austerity, when they were told that they had to tighten their belts, that MLAs — some of them, at least — were involved in unsavoury financial practice, to put it nicely. Never again should we tolerate a system in which people can funnel extremely large sums of public money into research companies that did not do any research, if they even existed in any real sense at all, or questionable heating bills, claiming multiple times for offices and much, much more, as we have heard. I hazard a guess that, if somebody on benefits were accused of that kind of activity, they would probably be in jail now or facing a small claims court case. The same did not happen to MLAs or party reps.
The motion says that "alternative provision should be made" but does not state clearly what that is or should be, and we are left to believe that it will simply be the Assembly Commission itself deciding. Again, are we to have blind faith that a fair and transparent system will be set up if we just take the word of the bigger parties on the issue? Where is the accountability with the proposed alternative system? 'New Decade, New Approach' states:
"The parties have therefore agreed to an ambitious package of measures to strengthen transparency and governance arrangements in the Assembly and Executive in line with international best practice."
Not here, not with this proposal. I am not sure whether the proposal that we are discussing was agreed as part of New Decade, New Approach, but we can safely say that it certainly does not represent a transparent or best-practice arrangement. Many people will be left scratching their heads at that assertion. It falls well short of best practice to have a situation, it seems, where MLAs can decide constituency expenses for themselves and their fellow MLAs. Many would take the view that that does not appear to be an open system and that it could be exploited in favour of MLAs.
It is worth mentioning that many workers would welcome the opportunity to set their own expenses in relation to office costs and support staff but, of course, cannot. Why should there be a different arrangement for MLAs? The last survey showed that at least 15 MLAs employ family members in different roles relating to constituency work and research activities. Can we honestly say that there will be no conflicts of interest in MLAs setting the allowances and wages of, if not their own, then their party colleagues' relatives? How can we accurately and truly declare this to be an independent, transparent or fair system? Again, I am sure most workers, such as the health workers who had to go on strike recently for fair pay, would love to have family members setting their wages, conditions, allowances and so on.
To emphasise, I believe that all workers deserve a fair wage. I am open to a fair system that treats office staff and other staff who work in the political sphere in a fair and equal way, but the proposed system does not do that. It is worth remembering that we are looking into an economic abyss, with many people unfortunately losing their jobs, and we will have a situation where it is one rule for MLAs setting their own expenses and allowances while people lose their jobs and go onto the dole queue.
We still do not know the clear political rationale for the proposal. Presumably, there have been discussions about the current level of expenses at the Assembly Commission. Can anyone clarify whether that has been the case? If so, have Members indicated their willingness to increase that or to reduce it? Otherwise, what is the point in changing the set-up? The Assembly needs to avoid another situation in which Stormont operates a slush fund for political parties. I do not see how the proposal, coming from the bigger parties, will address the possibility of that happening again. I oppose the motion, and I support the amendment.
I say straight off that I support the motion. I have a fair bit of sympathy with Mr Allister's amendment, but, frankly, the motion goes straight to the heart of the matter, whereas there seems to be some doubt about Mr Allister's amendment, its legality and its enforceability. I will just talk about the motion.
It is a no-brainer that we need an independent review panel to deal with our salaries and pensions. As chair of the pension trustees for many years up until a few months ago, I had some dealings with the panel on the subject of pensions, but, naturally, we ranged more broadly than that in those discussions. Quite frankly, Members, I agree with Mr Wells completely. I might as well have spoken to the nearest oak tree as speak to that panel. They did not want to know about amendments and did not want to know about the glaring inconsistencies in their determination on allowances. There were one or two points, which I will not dwell on, to do with pensions that they could have tidied up. If a new panel is established — I hope that it will be — I hope that it will talk to us again about the pensions side of things. I will have one or two suggestions for it.
I also suggest that, if we are to have an independent panel, it might do no harm if there were a retired MLA with no axe to grind advising it, rather than a sitting MLA. I am not looking at myself, because I have not retired, but who knows? That has been suggested before, and it has merit.
Members have mentioned most of what I wanted to raise on allowances, but, if this goes ahead, the Commission will have a valid template to work from. It is not all bad, but it needs tidied and it needs inconsistencies dealt with in a way that the previous panel refused point-blank to listen to us about. The question of signage is much rehearsed. Apart from not being able to put your phone number or email address on a sign, you are not allowed to have a protruding sign that people can see much more easily when they are driving down the street. Apparently, that is a mortal sin as well. You can put your phone number on your window, apparently, and your email address, but, if you had a bomb at your office, as I did, you probably would not want to leave the shutter up so that people could see the phone number. So it goes on.
There is a question about mileage. Let me say straight away that I do not claim home-to-Stormont mileage because, the past few years, it has been too complicated. If I were a Member from one of the more extended constituencies — East Antrim, perhaps — and I lived somewhere near Cushendun, I would get the same mileage allowance as a Member who lived in Jordanstown. I would find that ironic. One Member would be getting too much, and one would be getting too little. Pointing to something called a "centroid" in the middle of the constituency does not solve the problem, but that is the way that it is at the moment.
Would the honourable Member also say that one of the errors of the determination is that we cannot pay staff travel allowance as they carry out their functions, for instance for attending a planning appeal or a social security tribunal? We are forbidden from claiming for and paying them a small mileage rate for attendance at those events.
Thank you. That is one that I had not thought of, but I take the point.
Twenty-eight days sounds like a reasonable, average type of holiday allowance for constituency staff until you take off the 11 statutory days that have to be counted in that. In fact, they only really get 17 days plus days when the office is closed anyway. That is not reasonable. It is not sensible.
The pay scales are set in stone. If I were to retire, a senior member of staff would have to become redundant straight away. The next MLA would, perhaps, move into the same office with the same staff, once you had gone through a totally independent and transparent selection procedure, of course. That person would have to take a £5,000 drop if they were at the top of the scale to retake their own job. If they did not do it, you would lose all the experience that they have garnered. In my case, I have had the same staff for over 13 years. I could go on.
With regard to rent and rates, we need a rent cap, but we do not need a rates cap alongside it. The differential across the country in that respect is stark. If somebody can find an office at £8,500 a year in some areas of Belfast, in particular, and other big cities, good luck to them, because they will then hit the rates cap. I see Mr Stalford nodding at that fact.
There is plenty to be going on with. I encourage the Commission to take this forward but caution them that we are under scrutiny. Everybody is watching this and watching what they do. The things that need to be done are not necessarily totally dramatic; they are to tidy-up wrongs and make this a better place for us to work —
I am disappointed that, in the course of the debate, we have not had any clarity on the key question from the proponents of the motion. Do they want us to move forward on the basis of amending the 2011 Act and legislating to do that, which is above board and in order, or do they want the Commission to supersede the legislation — a remarkable suggestion — override it and create a determination of their own? I hope that, when we come to the winding-up speech, we will have an indication of which course it is setting, because both were pointed to by the proposer of the motion.
I understand the temptation to hide behind making this all about staff. I have as many concerns as any other Member about the foolishness of the determination that was issued by the panel. There is a fundamental question here: do we value and want to have independence in governing the amount of our allowances, or do we want to take that ourselves? When the House last did that, it was grossly abused. There is a middle way, and it is quite simple. Pursuant to the amendment, we should introduce a Bill to amend the 2011 Act, to strengthen the powers of the Commission to give guidance and direction to the panel on practical issues and on inequities that they create.
I will in a moment.
That is the middle way: to commit ourselves to legislation to do that but to leave the setting of the quantum of the allowances exclusively with that panel.
We seem to have got to a position where we had one bad panel, so to speak, so we never appointed another one to see if anything could be done better. We never issued any directions under the 2011 Act. We were happy to let it all fester. Creating a situation where we use the abuses of the panel of the past simply to supersede the panel and take it all back and obliterate the independence is the wrong way to go. I ask those who tabled the motion to take the motion back to the Commission, without pushing it to a vote, to consider the alternatives, to consider amending the 2011 Act, to give the Commission authority to intervene where it is right. Why do you not do that? If you do that, I will not press my amendment. Trying to keep the Assembly in the dark about what you really intend to do and then, maybe next week, issuing a sudden finding that changes all of this is, legally, very questionable, given the 2011 Act. Is that the intent?
I am saying to the Assembly Commission, or those members of it who are pushing this, let us go for the middle way; let us amend the 2011 Act to curb the excesses of the panel, give the Commission the status that it should have and strengthen its ability to give some direction, where it is necessary to do so. If we did that we would capture public confidence rather than squander public confidence, which is what this motion, unamended, undoubtedly will do.
I give way to Mr Wells.
First of all we did not have a poor panel, we had a dreadful panel. Secondly, as Mr Lunn quite rightly said, attempts were made by Commission members and individual MLAs to try to influence the decision made by the independent panel, but the panel totally ignored them. If we go down the route that the Member is suggesting exactly the same could happen again. The panel could say, "we are independent, we have a right to make a decision and, frankly, we are going to ignore what you say".
That, of course, is why I suggested that we need to amend the 2011 Act to give the Commission the status to indicate guidance to the panel. The problem is that we had a panel that did very many foolish things, but the Commission never seems to have challenged them under the terms of clause 24.
Now we are in a situation where the motion is saying to get rid of all the independence — all of it. That is the essence of it. The motion is taking away any independence, scrutiny and surveillance of expenses and giving it all to the MLAs, through the Commission. It is going back to where we were. I am simply cautioning this House that to go back to where we were is a dark place. It is a dark place open to abuse and scandal.
I thank the Members who contributed to today's debate and I will try to cover the points made and the questions posed by Members. I suspect that the best way to sum up today's debate is that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.
Let me be clear that success, in this case, is about rectifying the wrong of the past and all the Commission parties have debated this at length over many years, and more intensely since the Assembly resumed, because all the parties around the table wanted to rectify the wrong. There may be different versions of what happened at Commission meetings and different opinions on what happened at them, but no one, and I mean no one, can deny that there is a motion before the House today, signed by all the parties on the Commission, so what was right on Friday, has to be right on Tuesday.
I appreciate that the Member does not want to get too much into what was discussed, but I am sincerely baffled by the claim of the Alliance Party that there was a vote that was voted down by the other four parties. That did not happen. Is that your recollection?
I do not want to get into Commission meetings, but I have no recollection of a vote. I certainly have evidence in front of me of a motion before the House.
Members, you have been informed by some why they think that the amendment is competent, but I think that it is unworkable. Those who want to back the amendment, and they are perfectly entitled to do so, cannot back it with the view that it is going to bring a resolution to all the issues that have been expressed across the Chamber this morning, and by many Members over many years. That will not resolve the issue.
The fact is that when you go back to your constituency offices and meet your constituency office manager and your other members of staff, you will have to look them in the eye and tell them that you had the opportunity to right the wrong and you did not take it. If you back Mr Allister's amendment, it will not solve the issues of workers' terms and conditions, or pay. Go back to your staff in your constituency offices, and some of your staff may be sitting in offices in this Building, sit down in front of them, look them in the eye and say, "I had the opportunity to correct a wrong, but I backed an amendment in the full knowledge that it would fail".
I am sorry, but I have a number of things to say; I may give way later in the debate.
The idea that there is a middle way is a myth. There are always alternatives, but the questions that you have to ask yourself are: what is workable and what do we need to do now to ensure that the terms and conditions and pay of our staff are rectified? What you need to do is back the Commission's motion. If you want to prolong the situation, back the amendment. If you want to move towards the 2011 Act, that can be done, but it will take about a year and it will take significant discussion. However, as a Commission member, given my experience around this motion, am I seriously expected to believe if I negotiated a Bill with other Commission members it would pass through the House? I would have serious doubts about that, given my experience over the past 72 hours. So, folks, the choice is simple: you either act now or you delay. That is the choice; there is no middle way.
Quite rightly, members of the public and some commentators want accountability in this area, and so they should. Mistakes were made in the past and things should have been done better, but there are things in the IFRP report that we should continue with. Many of the accountability mechanisms recommended in the report should be retained in any fresh Commission determination. It will not be the Commission managing MLA allowances and claims; it will be the finance branch of the Assembly. The body that will manage the claims and expenses of MLAs will be the same body that does it now; it will not be the Commission members. The finance body here had a very difficult task and I am sure faced challenges from many Members over the previous determination, but I have to say one thing; they stuck rigidly by the rules, and I am confident that they will continue to do so. So, it will not be the Commission managing the affairs of Members; it will be the finance branch of the Assembly.
Some Members have suggested that it is an unusual set-up for MLAs to set their own allowances, but it happens in Scotland. Is Mr Carroll suggesting that the Scottish model is unfair, that the Scottish model does not have accountability or that the Scottish model is being abused by MSPs? I have no account of that happening, and if he has an example I would like to hear it. The Scottish model is what we are following. We follow the Scottish model in many other areas; it seems to be the in thing to do. So, there is accountability at the heart of this.
Members have also said, and quite rightly, that the public are angry about this. Maybe they are not right, because I do not know if the public are angry about it. I know that some commentators are angry about it, but some of them have something in common with us: they are paid from the public purse. That is where what we have in common ends, because I do not know how much that they are paid and I do not know what expenses claims they make. I do not know anything about that. Quite rightly, MLAs are held to a higher standard, and over the past number of years we have learned lots of lessons from the mistakes of the past as well as the opportunities, and that should continue.
I have already expressed my disappointment at the parties that signed up to the motion but are now backtracking from it. It is up to them to explain that. Ms Armstrong said that today is International Day of Parliamentarism. What confidence does it give the general public when the Commission of the Assembly agrees a motion on Friday and walks away from it on Tuesday? The one thing that the public are not is stupid; the public will see through all of that. If political parties have genuine concerns —.
I will in one moment.
Do political parties have genuine concerns about the interests of the public or are they reacting to the latest commentary show, radio show, TV show, article or whatever it may be. As Mr Allister said, the public will not forget the past, and nor should they, but they will not be fooled either. They are not foolish; they will examine these matters. The public who come into our constituency offices on a daily basis or phone us appreciate the work that we do for them, but, nine times out of 10, the first people they make contact with are the staff in our constituency offices. Those staff have to deal with some very harrowing cases. We can all recount them. People sometimes come to us when they are at their very lowest, and those staff are paid low wages, have terrible terms and conditions and listen to casework that goes home with them at the end of the day.
Yes, and some of those who are criticising us for doing this would certainly not work under those terms and conditions. We owe it to the staff.
I am shocked at Mr Carroll. People Before Profit: the clue is in —.
No, I will not.
The clue is in the title: People Before Profit. Mr Carroll will go back to his office today and sit in front of his member of staff and say, "I had the opportunity to bring your terms and conditions into line with the other staff who work in this Building and I did not take it". How can he stand on picket lines and support —?
No, I will not. You had your chance.
How can he stand on picket lines for public-sector workers and demand proper terms and conditions when he has the opportunity to do it today for female workers in particular, who are terribly discriminated against in this institution? How can you stand on a picket line and say —
How can he stand on a picket line and tell them that he stands up for workers' pay? He has an opportunity today, as an employer — he is the employer, as everyone else in the Chamber is — to go through the Lobbies and vote to improve terms and conditions for staff.
I will close on this. I am happy, as a Commission member, that, as part of the terms and conditions of the next determination, those Members who want to be set to an independent body can have the ability to sign out of it. They can wait for the independent body, but I —
Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Order. Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. It is important that, during a Division, social distancing in the Chamber continue to be observed. In order to facilitate that, I ask Members to do the following: any Members in the Chamber who are not due to vote in person should consider leaving the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Those Members who wish to vote in the Lobbies on the opposite side of the Chamber to which they are sitting should leave the Chamber via the nearest door and enter the relevant Lobby via the Rotunda. Those remaining Members who are sitting closest to the Lobby doors should enter the Lobbies first, and any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. If a Member needs to vote in both Lobbies, he or she should not leave the Chamber.
I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, to follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks and to respect the need for social distancing.
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Butler, Mr Carroll, Mr Chambers, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr Muir, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Allister, Mr Beattie
Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms S Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Catney, Mr Clarke, Ms Dillon, Mrs Dodds, Ms Dolan, Mr Dunne, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Mr Givan, Ms Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Ms Hunter, Mr Irwin, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Miss McIlveen, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Middleton, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Gildernew, Mr Givan
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Blair
Question accordingly negatived.
I wish to pause for a few moments to allow any Member who may have left the Chamber to return.
Main Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes that Members' salaries and pensions are determined by an independent body and that there should be no change to that arrangement; agrees that alternative provision should be made for Members' allowances; and, in accordance with section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, resolves that the Assembly Commission may determine the allowances payable to Members of the Assembly, the date from which such allowances are payable, which may be a date before or after the making of the determination or this resolution, and that the Commission shall publish any such determination.