Stormont parties outline process to pay back MLA salary rise

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By David Young, PA

Stormont parties have agreed a process to hand back a controversial pay rise.

The move comes after the Assembly authorities determined that it was legally impossible to stop the £1,000 salary increase being implemented.

Instead of preventing the rise coming into effect, the five main parties have outlined how MLAs can divert the money back into the public purse or donate it to charity.

Under the scheme, MLAs who want to pay back the money can choose to have the £1,000 taken out of their gross pay, before tax, and direct it into the public coffers by way of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.

Alternately, they can participate in a payroll charitable initiative, such as Pay as You Give, which will see the full £1,000 donated to worthy causes in the UK.

Members may wish to accept the money in their pay packet and then donate it to a charity of their choice. The downside of that is the sum would be lesser, as tax will have been taken off.

The options plan was drawn up after the Assembly Commission, the devolved legislature's corporate body, determined that it had no legal power to halt the rise, because the responsibility to set MLA pay rested with an independent body.

Sinn Fein chief whip John O'Dowd said the independence of the Independent Financial Review Panel was paramount.

"The next issue we wanted to answer was how we ensure that MLAs did not profit from the inflationary increase that was awarded by that body and we have put in place a very simple mechanism where the MLAs can return that money," he said.

SDLP chief whip Colin McGrath said the commission was unable to stop the rise being implemented.

"That money is going to come to us, that is set in law," he said.

"But the parties have worked hard together today and have now set in stone a process which will enable us to give that money back."

Mr McGrath said a new salary review panel was due to be constituted.

"Should that panel not make any determinations before the end of this mandate each of the increases that come in on the first of April will move into this scheme, so there will be extra money for charities or extra money for the public purse. Because it is unjustifiable at this stage that it goes to MLAs."

Assembly speaker Alex Maskey welcomed the joint position adopted by the parties.

"I am encouraged by the constructive cooperation which the parties have shown to deal resolutely with this difficult issue," he said.

The salary of an Assembly member rose from £49,500 to £50,500 when the Assembly resumed business earlier this month.

The inflation-linked increase should have been introduced in stages over the lifespan of the three-year political crisis, but the Government blocked those rises pending the return of devolution.

The salary is due to rise by another £500 in April.

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