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Time to cut MLA'S numbers not their pay

(by Liam Clarke, News Letter)

"Better fewer but better" – that was the approach that Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, adopted to reforming the state apparatus under communism. It wouldn't be a bad slogan for our own Executive as they face into an age of cuts.

Lenin's rallying cry drifted back to me when I read Alex Attwood's decision to cut his ministerial salary by 5% and his proposal to cut civil service pensions. His comments followed a call by Sinn Féin for 15% salary cuts across the assembly.

It may strike a chord with voters who, in last week's poll, commissioned by the Assembly itself, showed very little confidence or interest in the devolved institutions. 27% expressed any degree of trust in politicians, with only 1% trusting them highly. It wasn't a matter of apathy; although 61% said they took either very little interest or no interest in the Assembly, a large majority (66%) said they were interested in local issues.

This all adds to a steady loss of confidence in the institutions and it is reflected in the fact that just half of the population intend to vote in the next Assembly election. That is a scary figure because, on past form, people are more likely to say they will vote and then forget about it on the day, than to say they won't vote and then do so on impulse.

So it's understandable that politicians should be tempted to put on the hair shirts when it comes to pay in the hope of winning sympathy from the voters. The problem is that this could end up in a race to the bottom which will satisfy nobody.

Which brings me back to "better fewer but better"? The problem with our politicians is not that they are too well paid, it is that there are too many of them – and too many duffers have been elected to make up the numbers. As a rule of thumb if you are an MLA and you can't believe your luck at the salary you are getting, then you probably shouldn't be one.

Anyone who watches proceedings at Stormont can see that not all members are up to the job. It's not just that 108 MLAs and ten ministries are too many for a little place like this. The headcount was inflated to balance the interests of various traditions and factions whose support was deemed necessary to the success of devolution. It wasn't just that the big nationalist and unionist blocs had to be satisfied with the carve up; there had to be enough seats to ensure that the loyalist parties and the Women's Coalition would have seats.

The Treasury didn't count the cost of peace. During negotiations it was worth paying whatever it took to support the fragile new institutions, but is it worth it now? To quote Attwood 's former leader Mark Durkan, it may be time to get rid of some of the "ugly scaffolding" erected at the time of the Good Friday and St Andrew's agreements.

The DUP has shown courage in tackling this issue with its proposals for a 75 member Assembly. I believe it could go closer to the 52 who sat in the old Stormont parliament. When we pay for so many politicians, and so many teams of advisers, we are buying deadlock and indecision. We need to pay enough money to attract people of ability into politics, but we don't need so many making up the numbers.

More ugly scaffolding exists in the form of quangos created to make direct rule more accountable. They should be chopped and amalgamated. There are also too many checks and balances and veto powers for efficient government. They need to be trimmed back if decision making is to work and confidence in Stormont is to be restored.

Perhaps it is even time that we could think about having an opposition in the Assembly. It will be necessary to retain cross community government for some time but it's questionable whether every single party should be represented at the top table.

I believe that these would be popular ideas with voters for any party who put them forward in May. In the meantime a similar approach should be taken to cuts – the soft option of top slicing budgets will bleed essential services to death and lower the quality of life.

Whole programmes and areas of vanity spending need to be taken out. That has to happen alongside the strongest possible representations to Westminster for more funds to protect services and investment. The government's programme is too hard and too harsh, the trades unions are right on that.

However, the executive can make the best case for more help if it shows it is spending the funds it has to maximum effect and is prepared to take hard decisions, not just make gestures.

Refusing to strike a budget or trying to buy time with tokenistic gestures on MLAs pay just won't cut it either locally or in London.

October 28, 2010

This article appeared in the October 26, 2010 edition of the News Letter.



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