I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is the third important piece of legislation to be brought before the House this week. The Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, which the House debated yesterday, and the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill, on which we have just concluded proceedings, focused on increasing clarity and confidence in Northern Ireland’s finances. This Bill will now look to increase public confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions.
The Bill addresses an issue of long-standing public concern: the pay and allowances of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is a subject in which interest among the public has increased with the time that Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved Executive—a period that now stands at 14 months.
The Secretary of State will know that our party supports the Bill. We believe that it is right to take the power to deal with MLA pay and to stop the proposed pay rise as agreed by the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. We would also ask the Government to look carefully at the situation in which Sinn Féin representatives get representative money in this place without being subject to the same rules as everybody else. The two should go together.
The right hon. Gentleman has raised that point with me on several occasions and it has been discussed in the House. I know the strength of feeling on the matter, but he will also know that it is a matter for the House, not for the Government. That is why we are dealing with the power to vary the pay and allowances of Members of the Legislative Assembly today.
The Secretary of State is right to indicate that the matter is for the House, not for the Government, but what is a matter for the Government is the ability of Northern Ireland political parties to raise funds outside the United Kingdom in international jurisdictions and wherever they so choose. She could take steps to close that loophole. Will she do so?
At Question Time, we had a question about the transparency of donations and I am pleased that the House has passed the order to start to increase such transparency. I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to see further work on that, but I ask that we should see how the order works first. If more needs to be done, we will need to look at that.
I am surprised but delighted when, during election campaigns, I continue to receive a salary, notwithstanding the fact that the House has been dissolved. What is the difference in principle between us receiving salaries when Parliament has been dissolved and Members of the Assembly receiving salaries when there is no Assembly? I do not mean to be difficult, but I would not want us to set an unhelpful and unwelcome precedent.
My right hon. Friend always asks helpful questions; he is not known for doing anything other. We are looking to have the power in this House to vary the salaries of Members who serve in the Northern Ireland Assembly—MLAs—in response to the fact that there has been no functioning Assembly for 14 months and the clear public concern about people receiving salaries when the Assembly is not sitting. He is correct, of course, that Members of Parliament receive a salary for the period in which an election runs, but I believe that the rules are different for the period when Parliament is dissolved as opposed to when it is sitting. I understand his concerns, but I assure him that this relates specifically to MLAs’ pay, not MPs’ pay.
I encourage my right hon. Friend not to be distracted because a number of important points have been made by right hon. and hon. Members, but the Bill is very tight and, as she rightly says, responds to public concern. In my experience, and I suspect in hers too, that public concern goes right across the divide in Northern Ireland. She is right to pursue this matter, because the public expect these salaries to be dealt with. In my understanding, that is the sole purpose of the Bill. Everything else can be discussed electively, but it must not distract the Secretary of State.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, for his intervention. He is right that the Bill responds public concern, which has been raised with me and with him as Chair of the Committee, and with its members. I am sure that it has also been raised with Members of Parliament here who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland.
The Bill will grant the power to vary pay and allowances for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and, as I have just said, it is clear from my conversations with the public and stakeholders that there is broad desire for action to be taken in this regard. The Assembly has not sat since 13 March 2017—its first meeting after the 2 March election—but its Members continue to be paid their full salaries.
MLAs’ salaries and allowances are rightly a devolved matter. The normal process for setting MLA pay and allowances is for the Independent Financial Review Panel—a body set up by the Assembly for this purpose—to make determinations on pay and allowances. The panel would normally do that ahead of each Assembly election to cover the newly elected Assembly, although it is also empowered to make changes to reflect extraordinary circumstances. The last panel determination was made in March 2016 before the election in May that year. As no Members have been appointed since the first panel’s term of office ended in 2016, there is at present nobody in Northern Ireland with the power to change MLA pay to reflect the current extraordinary circumstances.
From my conversations and from opinion polling, it is clear that the public want to see somebody with the power to act. That is what the Bill will leave me in a position to do. In short, it will put me in the same position as the panel ordinarily would be in, giving me, as Secretary of State, the power to set out the pay and allowances of MLAs by means of a determination.
When the Secretary of State last made a statement to the House covering this particular issue, she made it clear that she wanted the Northern Ireland parties to make “full and final representations” to her on it, but she did not clarify when the closure date was for full and final representations. Will she confirm today that that date is before the end of this month and that she will therefore be free to cut MLAs’ salaries before the end of March?
The hon. Lady is right that I did not set a specific date. I hope that representations will be made and will continue to be made and that the fact that we have this Bill before us will encourage people to come forward and make representations. I am also clear that the reason for introducing it this week—I will come to this later—is to ensure that the pay rise that would have gone through automatically on 1 April is stopped, and that we can then take a decision about pay. I will come to my position—what I am minded to do—but she is right that I have not made a final decision on a date.
I thank the Secretary of State for being so generous in taking a second intervention so quickly. Will she also confirm in the House, for the record, that all representations made from Northern Ireland political parties will be published, so that the public can see that the general consensus across the political parties is that they want to see MLAs’ salaries cut?
Of course I am happy to publish any representations made to me, although that might not be appropriate for some, for specific reasons, and information might need to be redacted. I cannot envisage any such reasons now, however, and I will of course ensure as much publicity and transparency as possible.
One important difference between the panel’s powers and those in the Bill is that, although the panel also makes determinations on pensions, the Bill includes an explicit protection for MLAs’ pensions so that they are not affected by any changes to MLAs’ pay.
With the panel’s 2016 determination continuing to operate, and without action by someone empowered to make a new determination, a £500 per year increase in the salaries of all MLAs will automatically apply from 1 April. That is linked to the level of inflation the previous September. The criteria for an increase was met in 2017, so the increase will apply automatically at the start of next month. I am clear that it is not appropriate for this increase to apply in the present circumstances.
In advice provided to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk of the Northern Ireland Assembly, recommended that the increase not take place. Further, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly has written to me on behalf of the Assembly Commission saying that it is its view that the rise would not be appropriate and that it would be appropriate for me to take action to stop it. If granted the power to do so by the Bill, I will introduce a short determination to do just that.
More broadly, in his December 2017 advice, Mr Reaney provided his independent assessment of what action should be taken on MLA pay and allowances in the current circumstances. As part of that advice, he also recommended stopping the £500 increase. The advice was, however, more wide ranging. He made a series of recommendations, including for a 27.5% reduction in MLAs’ salaries. That was a considered case based on his assessment, following discussions with the parties and other stakeholders, and reflected pay that took account of all the important work that many Members continued to do in the absence of an Assembly. That is, at this stage, a recommendation I am minded to follow.
As we have just discussed, I set it out last week that I wished to seek final representations from the parties before I took action. I continue to encourage those representations so that we can hear views from all sides before introducing a determination on wider changes to pay and allowances under the Bill. I cannot act to put a determination in place, however, until the Bill has been passed by both Houses and received Royal Assent. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members across the House and in the other place will support the Bill and allow me to take action on this matter.
The Bill itself makes no change to MLAs’ pay or allowances. It merely grants me the power to make a determination during this period without an Executive.
Does the Secretary of State have a view on what should happen to the salaries of those who work for MLAs? They have no choice, and we should be sympathetic to that.
I have said in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and elsewhere that I agree with the point my hon. and gallant Friend makes. The staff, who work extraordinarily hard on behalf of MLAs’ constituents, should not suffer as a result of our being unable to form an Executive and get the Assembly sitting. As Members of this Parliament, we know the work we do in this place and for our constituents outside, but we also know how hard our staff work, and they should not be prejudiced by the Bill. I do not intend, therefore, to take any action with regard to staff salaries. They should continue to be paid, given how incredibly hard they work for MLAs’ constituents.
Will the Secretary of State take it from me that many people in Northern Ireland will be grateful she is doing that? As we heard in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee whenever the former Finance Minister, Alex Easton, came and answered questions from the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)—it became known as the Alex Easton section—the staff of hard-working MLAs work day and night to deliver the best deal possible for constituents, so this is very good news. We welcome the salary reduction, but people on the ground should not suffer as a result.
I give way to the shadow Secretary of State.
I too, welcome what I think I heard from the Secretary of State, but may I clarify one point? Is she saying that she does not intend to enact Trevor Reaney’s recommendation that the staff budget should be cut from £50,000 to £37,500? If that is what she has decided, it is an excellent decision.
That is exactly what I am saying. As I have said, I know how hard my staff work, and I am sure that the staff of all of us in this place work incredibly hard for our constituents. The position of the staff at Stormont should not be prejudiced by what is happening with their political masters.
I have great sympathy with what the Secretary of State has said about not cutting allowances for staff. They should not be punished because the MLAs are not sitting and have not sat for 14 months. However, the Secretary of State said that she was “minded” to follow Trevor Reaney’s recommendation, delivered on 20 December 2017. Does that translate into cutting MLAs’ salaries when she is given the power to do so today? That is what the people of Northern Ireland want to know.
Yes, I am minded to cut the salaries of MLAs in line with the Trevor Reaney recommendation, on the basis that that is the only evidence that I have and the only advice that I have. However, I am open to recommendations and representations from others. I want to put on record my thanks to Mr Reaney for the work that he did, but if others believe that something different should be done, I shall welcome their representations.
I welcome the Bill. In the statement that was made last week, it was indicated that there would be consultation with the parties. I welcome that as well, but when will the consultation start?
I do not intend to consult the parties explicitly. What I have said is that I would welcome representations from the parties to provide me with the evidence and the views that I need to make a final decision about the level at which we should set MLAs’ salaries.
I have spent many hours in the Stormont Parliament building over the last few weeks, along with some Opposition Members. It is a wonderful building, and it is right for it to be full of MLAs and their staff, working and delivering on behalf of the people who elected them. We know how different this place is during recesses from how it is when Parliament is sitting. I want to see that place alive, as it should be.
I absolutely agree with what the Secretary of State has said about constituency staff. They work incredibly hard, and they are in their present position through no fault of their own, so I welcome that decision. I ask her to recognise, however, that there are also very hard-working constituency MLAs, many of whom—including those in my party—want to get back to work but cannot because there are red lines. One of them is my constituency colleague Mr Christopher Stalford, who works very hard in South Belfast alongside me.
Those are issues that Mr Reaney looked at. He looked at the work that the MLAs are not doing because the Assembly is not sitting, but also at the work they do for their constituents, and tried to find a balance. That is why I would welcome representations from others, so that I can be sure that the decision that is made is a fair decision that reflects properly the contribution that MLAs make to their constituents even in the absence of an Assembly.
Once an Executive is formed, the power to make a determination will return to being an entirely devolved matter. A future panel would of course be free to make a new determination, applying to all future periods, if it saw fit. That would supersede any determination made under the Bill. To ensure that we do not again find ourselves in a situation in which MLAs remain on full pay when there is no Executive, with no panel determination covering that situation, the Bill allows a determination made under it to apply again. Let me make it clear that it is the determination that would apply again. The power to make a new determination would, in those circumstances, remain devolved.
Therefore, overall, the focus of the Bill is narrow, and I consider taking the power to set MLA pay a necessary step to uphold public confidence in Northern Ireland in the absence of an Executive and a sitting Assembly. As an immediate step, if granted the power set out in the Bill, I intend to act to stop the £500 per year inflationary increase applying to MLAs’ salaries from 1 April. Beyond that, I am minded at this stage to follow the recommendations made by Mr Trevor Reaney, but am open to receiving representations before making my final decision. I commend the Bill to the House.
We accept the need for a cut in MLAs’ salaries. The last Labour Government did that on three occasions when there was a similar period of the Assembly not sitting; in the first instance, we cut it from £43,000 to £29,000; in the second instance, we cut it to £21,000; and there was a third cut in 2006. I therefore have one note of caution for those who imagine this will prompt the Assembly and its parties to instantly come together: pay was cut three times and it did not necessarily work—I am not sure that it was the third cut that pushed the parties over the edge to do the deal. None the less, there is widespread support for this measure in the House and in Northern Ireland.
We recognise that, as Trevor Reaney said, legislative work is not the only aspect of MLAs’ work. Just as for MPs, there is a huge amount of work for them to do in their constituencies and elsewhere. Mr Reaney estimates between 50% and 60% of MLAs’ work is constituency-based, not legislative. However, clearly they are not doing their job in its entirety and therefore it is entirely justifiable that their salaries are cut.
We support the way in which the Secretary of State intends to do this, if she follows Trevor Reaney’s proposed mechanism of a phased step basis. That makes sense given that people have to make adjustments: MLAs have mortgages and families, and it is entirely fair, and compatible with employment legislation, that a measured step-wise approach is taken. I welcome the news that the Secretary of State will not enact Mr Reaney’s recommendation in respect of MLAs’ staff, however. As many Members have already remarked, they continue to work extremely hard and the fact that the Assembly is not sitting is no fault of theirs. Therefore, it is right that the budget is maintained.
Finally, I have a question. I am not sure whether I am misreading the Bill or whether I have read this in the notes somewhere and now cannot find it, but I understood that we were going to address in the Bill the anomaly whereby Members of the Assembly who cease to be Members of the Assembly yet are members of the Assembly Commission continue to be paid. That has been a concern and a cause of great consternation and surprise in Northern Ireland. Is that being dealt with in this Bill, and if not, will it be dealt with at some point?
This is a bit like déjà vu all over again.
We, too, accept the Secretary of State’s points with regard to the need for this Bill. I have little to add to my comments in the last two debates, particularly on my dismay at the fast-tracking of today’s legislation and my view that these decisions should properly be taken in the devolved legislature. I am, however, very pleased to note the Secretary of State’s points regarding MLAs’ allowances and staff costs not being cut. At least, constituents will therefore continue to be well-served from constituency offices. I certainly acknowledge the strength of feeling of the public of Northern Ireland on this issue, so we will not oppose the Bill.
I am delighted to see how much time there is for me to go through this Bill’s provisions, but I think you will appreciate, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we are in danger of permitting my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) an inordinate amount of time for his Adjournment debate.
May I just say that most Members of Parliament will now want to intervene on the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson)?
That is exactly what I was going to say, because I fear there will be nobody in this Chamber to intervene at all, and therefore God bless “PARLY” tweets, because that will be empty—devoid of anything to say—this evening.
Perhaps the Deputy Speaker could give us some guidance on whether my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford will be allowed to intervene on himself during the Adjournment debate.
I am sure that, if there is nobody else here, he definitely will.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Last night, you were concerned that we were descending into talk of bunkers; today we are perhaps going bonkers. But we will get there.
My parliamentary leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), has outlined our support for the Bill. We think that this is a necessary step that the public of Northern Ireland expect us to take. Indeed, there has been a great deal of frustration over the length of time it has taken to get to this point. The only greater level of frustration is that we do not have an Assembly and that all 90 Members of our legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland will be affected as a consequence of the actions of a minority within it. We cannot overlook that fact when we address the contents of the Bill.
Other Members will mention hard-working MLAs. Mention has been made of one from North Down and of another from Belfast South. My colleagues Joanne Bunting and Robin Newton are also hard-working Members of the Legislative Assembly. I would go further, however, and say that all five representatives in my constituency of Belfast East are hard-working representatives for their constituents—not just the Democratic Unionists but the Alliance party representatives and an Ulster Unionist as well. The same is true of Green representatives and of Social Democratic and Labour party representatives in Northern Ireland. All those representatives would have a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly established and working again tomorrow. They all stood because they believe in their constituents, in our country and in democracy, yet they are frustrated from doing their jobs. There might be a tad of frustration at the length of time it has taken to see action on MLAs’ pay, but MLAs and the public more generally want the MLAs to be active for their constituents and for their communities. Those MLAs want to get on with the job.
We are where we are, however, and there are a couple of questions about the Bill that I would like to raise with the Secretary of State. It has been clearly outlined that, should it be required, any determination on the basis of this legislation would be capable of being made again, even after the restoration and potential subsequent decline of an Executive.
If it is helpful, I can tell the hon. Gentleman the way this will work. Once the Executive are formed, the power to make decisions will move back to the panel, because it can be re-formed, but if the Executive were to collapse again, we in this House would retain the ability to make a determination here without the need for further legislation.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but clause 1(3) gives me cause for concern. It states clearly:
“The power to make a determination under subsection (1) or (2) ceases on the first occasion”
that the Bill is used to make a determination and an Executive are re-formed. If that power ceases when an Executive are re-formed, how can another determination be made? I have read the explanatory notes, and I see that the intention is that a determination can be made, but that seems to jar with the fact that the power will cease on the first occasion it is used when an Executive are re-formed. I understand that this question might not be able to be answered quickly, but if there is an intervention to be made, I will take it. If not, I will move on, but I hope that we can get some clarification on this as we continue our consideration of the Bill.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right to indicate that she will immediately take steps under this legislation, if it is passed, to stop the £500 increase that is due to MLAs’ pay in April. That is a sensible decision, and I think that the court of public opinion would be aghast if Assembly Members were to receive another £500 increase.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The first determination does cease at the point that the Executive are re-formed, but we still have the power to make further determinations in this place if the Executive subsequently collapse. This determination will cease, so we may then need to make a separate determination.
I thank the Secretary of State. That is exactly what was outlined earlier, but it still does not solve the problem of the terminology and the language. Clause 1(3) states that the
“power to make a determination”—
a fresh or new determination—
“under subsection (1) or (2) ceases on the first occasion after the passing of this Act”
when an Executive are formed. I accept that the determination itself could be renewed, but I seek clarification on whether there is the power to do so. I may be completely misunderstanding things, but the Secretary of State is indicating that the power will exist to make a new determination, yet subsection (3) indicates that the power “ceases”, so I would be grateful for some clarity.
I know that this is very technical, but I am trying to resolve this today, rather than have to come back to the hon. Gentleman. The intention is that a determination made in the current period would reapply in any future period, but the sunset clause means that the power cannot be used. Does that make sense?
It may be easier if we write to the hon. Gentleman with exactly how it works. The intention as set out is how we intend things to work, but it may be easier if we write to him with the technical details.
That would be useful. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I parsed such issues last night to the point that he questioned my sincerity because of the breadth of the smile on my face. It is useful to seek clarity on the Floor of the House, because the House’s intention needs to be clear should there ever be cause for judicial consideration, and I think what the Secretary of State has said is making things clear. I do not claim to be an expert on such matters, but there is an issue with the wording of subsection (3), and I will take the opportunity, once I have concluded my remarks, to withdraw from the Chamber—if that is appropriate—for a discussion with the officials should there be any need to raise the issue again in Committee.
If a determination was made to reduce pay by a third, for example, is the hon. Gentleman’s understanding that that determination would lapse when the Executive re-formed? If the Executive fell again, that cut of a third could be reactivated, but the power would not be there to change that third to a half or to something else. Whatever is done now is what will happen if the Executive ever collapse again, but we cannot change the amount.
As I have outlined, my concern is that the power ceases once we make the determination and the Executive are re-formed. That is the difficulty. It is not that there would not be the intention or the willingness; it is that the legislation, as currently drafted, removes the power.
We do intend that to be the case—I recognise that we are going around the houses slightly—and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman speak to my officials. We would be very happy to go through things. If there is confusion or if something needs to be made clear, we can either put something in the Library or say something in the other place when the legislation is debated there.
I know that you did not expect that exchange of views, Mr Deputy Speaker, but this is important. If we are to pass legislation for Northern Ireland when we have a democratic deficit at home and if we are to use this accelerated process, it is important that we have the opportunity at least to probe and consider things to iron out the contents of any Bill that affects the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right to take the important step of bringing to a close the idea that MLAs will receive a pay increase of £500, and the public will support her. However, we are left in an invidious position by making a decision today without knowing how it will be rectified. If MLAs were doing their job today, the only reason why they would be getting an inflationary increase is that inflation and the cost of living are there and the value of the job has been assessed such that the salary should not just be fixed but increased in line with inflation.
I would love to know what happens when the Assembly is restored. Would Assembly Members receive adequate restitution if their pay rose in line with inflation, as it would for any other worker or public servant in this country? Will the Assembly be placed in an invidious position where, to secure the true value of MLA jobs, one of their first acts will be to rectify the decision not to introduce an increase in April? The indication that the Secretary of State gave today is right, but I am concerned that if that continued for an indefinite period the value and worth of salary attached to the role of MLA would be continually diminished.
Those are extremely good technical points, but I am assured that the determination that would be made to stop the £500 increase and a further determination to reduce pay would apply for the period in which an Executive are not formed. If the Executive are reformed, MLA pay will be at the rate it should be, including the £500 increase.
I am grateful for that clarification, which is important in two respects. During the stasis in Northern Ireland, we should not allow a diminution in the value of the role of MLAs or in the worth of their work. More importantly, it should not be for MLAs to set it back again.
That leads me neatly on to the representations that the Secretary of State has invited on whether she should proceed with Trevor Reaney’s outline proposals. Inviting representations is preferable to a full consultation, because all of us in public life recognise that MLAs, Members of Parliament, local councillors, Ministers and parties should not make determinations about their own pay. Having heard what the Secretary of State has said in our exchanges, I believe that she is mindful of that and does not wish to have a full consultation with parties in which they would determine how she should proceed. I believe that she will proceed in the full knowledge that she has our backing in taking appropriate steps today.
This measure is necessary because we do not have a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. Even though a programme for government was agreed in October 2016, apparently agreement could not be reached two months later, and the Assembly was brought down as a result of selfish, particular, political, partisan pursuits by one party— Sinn Féin—which, for the past 14 months, has held the people of Northern Ireland and MLAs, along with their willingness and desire for a devolved Assembly, to ransom. It has done so against the needs of its own community for health reform. It has done so against the desires of its community when it comes to inspiring children, investing in their future, supporting education and reorganising our schools in Northern Ireland. It has done so against the wishes of all those who believe in community regeneration, as we do, and who believe in community development, as we do. We see the consequences of its actions coming down the tracks in cuts to neighbourhood renewal in my constituency and other urban areas affected by social deprivation. We cannot do anything about that in Parliament or in the Assembly, because Sinn Féin will not allow it.
That is pathetic. It is a disgrace that, while over the past 14 months in Parliament we have reflected on how shabby that is and how we would far rather have local government, there has been no pressure on Sinn Féin. Who decides that we need to coerce engagement or move on with those who continue to frustrate the development of peace, democracy and parliamentary representation in Northern Ireland? That is not a decision for today, but it is going to have to come, and I encourage the Secretary of State to be bold on it.
I asked the Secretary of State earlier about dark money. How do we get people to recognise that if they are not prepared to take up the reins of government in Northern Ireland, this UK Parliament will take the steps for them? Acting on Sinn Féin’s dark money is one way of doing that. For generations, millions of dollars have been flooding into Northern Ireland from the United States—and not just from there. In two weeks’ time, there will be a fundraiser for the Easter rising celebrations in Canada. At least $20,000—given the ticket sale price and the number of spaces available—will be raised there for Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland. Why do I say “Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland”? The answer is clear: the Irish Republic has had the courage to ban foreign donations to political parties within the 26 counties, and in Great Britain we have had the courage to ban foreign donations to political parties, but in Northern Ireland the door has been left open for Sinn Féin to benefit from dark money. We do not need to theorise or speculate about that, or to believe in conspiracy theories, because Sinn Féin’s own fundraisers in the US tell us that they pay for the literature in Northern Ireland election campaigns and pay the phone bills in constituency offices of Sinn Féin Members in Northern Ireland. These people raising money in Canada, America and Australia are continually funding the pursuits of a political party in this United Kingdom via the only part of the UK where this loophole has been allowed to remain open.
My hon. Friend is right to press this issue with the Government. He will be aware that the website openDemocracy has written volumes about the Democratic Unionist party and donations we received in the Brexit referendum campaign, which we have declared to the Electoral Commission and which have been found to be totally valid and to have met all the lawful requirements of the UK. I have challenged openDemocracy to investigate the millions and millions of dollars in dark money that Sinn Féin brings into this United Kingdom to finance election campaigns here. I have asked it when it is going to investigate this issue and the reply is, “If you have the evidence and you pass it on to us, we will consider it.” Any organisation or website claiming to be balanced and fair-minded and wanting to probe in the interests of democracy should be examining this issue.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and I agree wholeheartedly. If a website wishes to indicate that it is investigatory, it should be jumping at the chance, heading off with its nose on the scent, following the trail and pursuing this money, which is coming in and corrupting democracy in this country. Although Members are kindly listening to this point in the Chamber, as they have for years upon years, I have yet to hear any definitive political will from colleagues throughout the House to deal with it. Many of them have raised questions about political transparency and donations attached to other parties, but precious few have ever sought to lance this boil and get us to a place where the same rules apply in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that this House has turned a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands of pounds obtained by Members who do not take up their seats in this place yet benefit from the money available in this House? Most Sinn Féin MPs will claim, and have claimed, more on expenses for living in London than I have claimed, yet they do not attend this House. We do not have any action taken by the House as a whole on that. It is another loophole that ought to be looked at; this is another source of finance that Sinn Féin obtains that should be closed. Perhaps that is the way of putting pressure on Sinn Féin, because it seems to be keen on getting money from abroad, using electoral loopholes and getting money from this House even when its Members refuse to sit in it.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have focused on the dark money coming from abroad because it is something on which the Government can act; my right hon. Friend raises the representation money in this House, which is a matter for this House. Again, the same conditions apply: one might get a friendly smile or an acknowledgement of sorts—one almost of comfort rather than encouragement—for raising this issue, but we will put it to the test and table a motion for discussion by the House.
My right hon. Friend referred to hundreds of thousands of pounds. I got my figures from my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who in turn got them from the Leader of the House, and they have been published and are a matter of record. We are considering taking steps to reduce MLAs’ salaries because Sinn Féin have not allowed them to do their work, but it is important that we also look at the money that Sinn Féin MPs get for doing work in this House, which they do not attend. In 2007-08, they got £90,036. In 2008-09, they got £93,639. In 2009-10, they got £94,482. In 2010-11, they got £95,195. In 2011-12, they got £101,004. In 2012-13, they got £105,850. In 2013-14, they got £109,135. In 2014-15, they got £112,076. In 2015-16, they got £99,415, and in 2016-17, they got £97,556.
When we are considering cutting MLAs’ salaries because they are frustrated in doing their work by Sinn Féin Members, it is appropriate that we bear in mind that this House has agreed to a situation in which over the past 10 years Sinn Féin have been given just under £1 million for representation work that they do not do. That is a scandal. The Secretary of State will be well aware of the public criticism and concern about making sure that we do something about MLAs’ pay, but where is the enthusiasm and encouragement in this Chamber to deal decisively with the loopholes in respect of representation money and dark money from foreign countries?
Order. I think the point has been very well made. It would not be for this Bill to change that; it would be done in other ways. It would helpful if we tried to deal with things that the Bill can deal with.
I am grateful for that indication, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think I have fairly outlined what the Government can do and what is a matter for this House but not for this debate, so we shall leave it there.
We must consider how we get to the stage at which MLAs’ salaries no longer have to be reduced, and I should say for the Secretary of State’s benefit that a poll was published today that indicates the level of support among members of political parties for the positions that the parties have taken. Some 80% of our electorate do not believe that an Irish language Act should be delivered. They believe in our position and have strengthened their resolve in our position since September last year. That is the political climate in which the Minister, the Secretary of State and others will have to resolve things. They are going to need a steely determination and a level of resolve that has not been seen in the past decade from the Northern Ireland Office. In dealing with Northern Ireland’s complexities and a divided community, they are going to need the willingness, fortitude and wherewithal to resolve things in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland—or if not everyone, at least everyone who wants to make it work. We stand ready to form an Executive tomorrow with no preconditions, no red lines and no partisan demands. What is more, almost every other party in Northern Ireland wishes for exactly the same thing.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I will try to resolve outside the Chamber some of the issues that I raised earlier on the Floor of the House. I am grateful to you, Sir, for giving me the time to expand on these issues in a way that is important for our consideration. It is important to press home not only the content of the Bill, but the issues that are pertinent to the current crisis, and, indeed, the resolve required to get to a better place in Northern Ireland.
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). I put on the record that I am absolutely delighted that, at long last, the Secretary of State has taken legal powers to herself, through this Bill this afternoon, to cut MLAs’ salaries. She has made it quite clear that she is not going to cut the staff allowances, with which I agree, but she must be decisive. She has been given the powers in this legislation, which will go through all its stages by the fast-track procedure, and she should not shy away from taking decisive decisions about cutting MLAs’ salaries. The fact that she has made it quite clear today that the £500 pay increase that was due to MLAs on 1 April will not go ahead is absolutely brilliant news. People in Northern Ireland will be thrilled and delighted by that, but she needs to go further.
The Secretary of State referred to the fact that there was “clear public concern”—it was such a nice phrase—about MLAs being paid their full salary since the Assembly and the Executive collapsed 14 months ago. “Clear public concern” is a very pleasant way of describing what has been mentioned to me in the clearest terms of fury by my constituents and people beyond North Down. They have expressed their rage, disgust, anger and fury about MLAs receiving their full salary. Therefore, beyond announcing today that the £500 increase will not go ahead on 1 April, the Secretary of State must not dither any longer about using the powers that she will be given and entrusted with today to cut MLAs’ salaries.
Reference has been made time and again to “hard-working MLAs.” I do not detract from that—we do have hard-working MLAs—but let us just look at that title. MLAs are Members of a legislative Assembly. They are supposed to be legislating and taking Executive decisions. They have not been doing that for 14 months.
The Assembly collapsed in January 2017. It was exceedingly good of Trevor Rainey, a very distinguished civil servant, to come out of retirement to do his independent report on salaries and allowances, reflecting the disrepute into which this issue has brought the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many people have expressed to me their view that, if this issue were not dealt with firmly, why on earth would we have a Northern Ireland Assembly? So the issue of MLAs’ salaries is corroding public confidence and public respect in the Assembly and I do not want to see that. I want to see the Assembly and the Executive restored for the betterment of all of our people in Northern Ireland. Although I do not wish to detract from those who have been described as hard-working MLAs, they are not doing the full range of functions for which they are receiving their full salary. If they are not legislating and not taking Executive decisions, they absolutely do not deserve to receive their full salaries.
I would be very interested in the hon. Lady’s opinion on two key matters under consideration. First, as the abbreviation MP means Member of Parliament, does she agree that those so-called Members of Parliament who do not take their seats and involve themselves in the legislative process should not be entitled to the allowances and payments that they currently receive? Secondly, she talks about the restoration of devolution, and the DUP agrees with her that it is important for the people of Northern Ireland. Does she have a view on the Irish language Act, and does she believe that Unionists should concede to it to get the Executive functioning again?
Let me take the right hon. Gentleman’s very helpful points one by one. In respect of Sinn Féin, if the right hon. Gentleman, as a sort of homework, cares to look—as I am sure he does—at the written questions that I have submitted, he will see a long line of questions to the Leader of the House asking that representative money to Sinn Féin be considered by this House. In my most recent written question to the Leader of the House, I asked her which parties she had consulted regarding the thousands and thousands of pounds of representative money that is paid to Sinn Féin. I was astounded, to put it mildly, when the reply came back that the Leader of the House had apparently had no discussions with any political parties about the reduction of representative money to Sinn Féin Members, who do not take their seats in this House. I would be delighted to join in common cause with the right hon. Gentleman on this issue, so that we might, in fact, take it further because it is quite outrageous.
There are seven Sinn Féin Members of this House, who do not take their seats because of their political views. They receive representative money, which was invented—I stand to be corrected on this—in February 2006 by the then Prime Minister, and that irritates and grates on me, as an independent Member. As I am not a Member of a party, I receive no representative money, no additional Short money and no additional secretarial and administrative allowances, even though I do take my seat and represent my people from North Down. It is a bone of contention about which I feel very strongly and which I would like the House to address, so, yes, it is a good point for the right hon. Gentleman to raise.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked me to address the issue of the Irish language Act, which is deeply divisive in Northern Ireland. However, I commend his party leader, Arlene Foster, who we know has made valiant efforts in this regard. We know this because the draft document, indicating the detailed discussions that have been taking place between Sinn Féin and the leadership of the DUP, was put into the public domain by some journalists, including Eamonn Mallie. This was very encouraging.
It is a great regret to me that the Irish language Act seems to have been the issue that brought everything tumbling down. It is divisive, but given the great good will from the right hon. Gentleman’s party leader and from the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland—although I am sure that the leader of Sinn Féin for all the island will also have to be consulted and have her penny’s worth—I would like to think that the generosity and leadership that were definitely evidenced by the draft document could be evidenced again and that we could get our Assembly up and running again. The Secretary of State would then not have to worry about explaining to the hon. Member for Belfast East whether this determination will come down immediately that the Executive are restored or whether it could be reinvented if the Assembly were to crash again. I do not want to prepare for the Assembly crashing again. I want the Assembly and the Executive up and running, so that this place does not have to take back powers. I hope that that answers the questions of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley.
In the meantime, the Secretary of State has been bold today. I encourage her to continue in that vein and to be very bold in terms of following the excellent recommendations of Trevor Rainey, bearing in mind the disrepute into which the Assembly brings itself if MLAs continue to receive their full salary. That is not doing MLAs any good at all, despite their hard work.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to conclude this debate from the Back Benches.
I often feel like someone who is stuck on a merry-go-round and cannot get off. We have an election and Members are elected. They take their seats. An issue with a governmental scheme is raised. The opportunity is taken to collapse the Assembly and a new election is called. People are elected again and refuse to take their seats, not because of a heating scheme or because of a failure to build trust but because of a militant, politicised Irish language Act—nothing more, nothing less. Hospitals in chaos, schools in turmoil, and roads in ruin: all because of a militant, politicised Irish language Act. There is no discussion of the RHI scheme, only of a militant Irish language Act.
Here we are today discussing the cutting of MLAs’ pay, and all because of—let us all say it together—a militant Irish language Act. That is what this is about. We are not here to vote on giving the Secretary of State the ability to cut pay because the MLAs are incapable: quite the opposite; they are very, very capable. We have some of the most brilliant young minds, and bodies, trying to do the work but being prevented from doing so. I commend my colleagues Simon Hamilton, the former Economy Minister; Michelle McIlveen, the former Agriculture Minister; and Peter Weir, the former Education Minister. To be fair, we also have two other MLAs in my constituency: Mike Nesbitt from the Ulster Unionist party and Kellie Armstrong from the Alliance party. They all work extremely hard, but they are prevented from taking part in the Assembly.
When we were feeling the beast from the east in Northern Ireland, the girls in my office sent me pictures of them attempting to get in to work. An executive decision was then made by my parliamentary aide that the girls who had made it into the office could leave just before the amber warning took place at 3 pm to ensure that they were safe. I joked that I appreciated them using a half day’s annual leave to leave early. I did not mean it, of course—I just said it facetiously to give them a bit of a laugh. There was almost a revolution in the office, but that is by the bye. The options were open to me to penalise them, but obviously I was never going to do that because it would have been totally unfair. There is definitely a part of me which says that our MLAs, and those from all the other parties, are trying to do the work but being prevented from doing so, and it is unfair to penalise them for something out of their control. It would be easy to say that. However, returning to the office, if the girls were unable to come in for two days a week indefinitely, then I would obviously have to consider whether they would justify a full wage. Even though it was out of their control, I would have to come up with a new way of doing things. That is what this is all about.
I acknowledge that this is out of everyone’s hands—other than members of Sinn Féin, of course, whose only desire and aim is to break Northern Ireland and who do not care how this is achieved. Yet the consequence of these actions is that we must penalise all the MLAs. The constituency offices in my constituency are running at full speed. The MLAs are working extremely hard, as other Members of Parliament will confirm. I know that because I work very closely with my MLAs and the MLA team to handle the sheer volume of casework in the constituency that arises when there are no Ministers in place and no decisions taken by senior civil servants. There is no doubt in my mind that MLAs are continuing to work to the highest capacity that they can. I hear of them meeting constituency groups out of office hours, going above and beyond. They do that night and day. They are available Monday to Friday, and most weekends, too, as requested, yet they are paid to legislate at the Assembly and are not doing so. We recognise that, and that is why we are here to make this decision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) made a considerable contribution to the debate and outlined the case that we all adhere to. It is with a heavy heart that I support the cutting of MLAs’ pay, because it is simply not fair. They want to do the work but are prevented from doing so. In the same way that, if a drunken youth throws a brick through your window and you have to pay for the repair even though you did not do it, it is not fair. This is one of those times when life is not fair.
When someone in other areas of work cannot come to do the job, they do not get paid for that day, and that is what will have to happen here. It is coming very close to that. I have a real fear that the longer this goes on, the more good young men and young women we may lose from our legislature. We have tremendous young talent in all parties in the Assembly who can do great things. We do not want to lose them from the political process for years. It concerns me as an MP, as I am sure it concerns other Members, that those people, with their breadth and depth of talent, could go and get a job elsewhere, and we could lose them forever from the political process, which would mean we have to start again.
Not getting a full wage may be okay for some people who have minimal costs, but for those who have full mortgages to pay and children to raise, a decision will be taken on whether they are better off in the paid job they had before trying to make a difference in the Assembly, with unsociable hours and massive pressure. That is the choice they made, and many will stand by that choice in the hope that decisions made in this place will shortly enable a full Assembly to be up and running, or clarify what we can expect from people who have been elected to do a job, yet are being prevented from doing it.
The thing that galls me most is that those who are responsible for no agreement are not here today to defend their cause. Their bodies have never darkened these green Benches, but they have darkened the halls of the House of Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East outlined clearly what benefits they have got out of that. They are never here to represent their people or their viewpoint, whatever that may be, and it is indefensible. They merrily continue to claim their expenses for not working in this place in Committees and so on like the rest of us, yet they have flights and so on paid. I am sorry, but at some stage, all Northern Ireland has to stop paying the price for their intransigency, and we must move forward.
The Bill provides the power to cut MLAs’ salary. That must be done, and done soon. The people are tired of inaction. I am tired of inaction, and it is important to note that the MLAs are tired, too. They want to do their job and are prevented from doing so. We should not for one second think that they are enjoying working outside of the Assembly. For a start, they are not working a three-day week. They are still working full-time, in the daytime and in some cases the night-time.
Furthermore, there is nothing enjoyable about meeting constituents and being questioned and asked to help when it is not possible to give them the help they need. They are not enjoying being lambasted by people who are beyond frustrated—and understandably so. They are not enjoying seeing some things happen and other things not happen. If the Assembly were allowed to meet, they would be allowed to do their work on that. They are not enjoying being held to account for something they are not responsible for, but they are doing their job, which is, more importantly, their passion.
We should give credit to all MLAs who work so very hard to create a working Northern Ireland where our children can be educated and have job prospects and housing, safe within the Union of this wonderful United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The future of our nation is in the balance, and that is why most are pushing through and keep trying, despite the unbelievable frustration.
In conclusion, Sinn Féin do not want to play ball. We should end the game and allow the pitch to be used by those prepared and anxious to play. Some time in the very near future, we will have to look at a different political process. If they do not want to be part of that process, they should step outside it and let those parties that want to be part of the process take over, have a Government and move forward. We should send the message today that direct rule looms, and indeed it is starting to happen today through this process. When your constituents feel that they are unrepresented, Sinn Féin, that is all on you and your militant, politicised Irish language Act.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) has been performing in Westminster Hall during most of this debate—he always performs so well—and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has already spoken, it falls to me to give a brief response to this excellent debate. As my hon. Friend said earlier, we fully support what the Government are proposing, and I echo the views of the hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
The hon. Member for Strangford said that this is being done with a heavy heart, but it is the right decision to cut MLAs’ salaries and we support it, and it is also the right decision not to cut the salaries of staff.
I thank all Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to the debate. While there has been some reluctance, there has clearly also been broad agreement that this is the right way forward.
Let me say at the outset that it remains our overriding priority—one that I know is shared by Members across the House—to see devolution restored. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, the ongoing payment of full salaries to Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a matter of public concern. The Bill will allow us to address that by empowering the Secretary of State to make a determination to change pay and allowances in the current period and to provide a safeguard against the present situation recurring.
I am grateful to the Members who have spoken, particularly the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). We often talk about Committee as the time when we undertake line-by-line scrutiny. In the hon. Gentleman’s case, the Secretary of State and I felt for a moment that we were in Committee, because his very sharp legal mind was going beyond line-by-line scrutiny to word-by-word scrutiny. That was certainly noted by all those present, but he clearly illustrated what a gain he is for this place and what a loss he is to the legal profession.
Even if I was wrong?
I was being charitable. The order of the day for this debate is very much that people should be brief—most were in line with that—and I will follow in that tradition.
We have taken advice on MLA pay and considered it, and we are now putting the Secretary of State in a position to act, pending any further representations from the Northern Ireland political parties. The previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), received and published Trevor Reaney’s advice in December, and the current Secretary of State has considered it very carefully.
We are now at a point where we simply cannot go on paying MLAs at their current full salary. As the Secretary of State made clear, we want to decide and finalise our approach by the end of this financial year. The measures in the Bill are necessary and proportionate in the interests of public finances, public services and public confidence in Northern Ireland, in the absence of a devolved Government. For those reasons, it is important that we are ready to act on MLA pay.
I stress again the Government’s commitment to the restoration of devolved government. That is our overriding priority, and the measures in the Bill do not undermine or contradict it, with powers remaining firmly in the devolved space. We will continue to support the Northern Ireland political parties and to work with the Irish Government towards resolving the differences that have stopped the parties reaching agreement. This Government are steadfast in their commitment to the Belfast agreement, and we will work tirelessly to see the devolved institutions restored. This Bill will allow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to vary the pay and allowances of MLAs in the light of the lack of a sitting Assembly.
I am mindful of the fact that I do not want to detain the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) or prevent him from saying all he has to say in his Adjournment debate. I know that he has prepared a three-hour speech, which he will now have to cut because of the length of this debate. I am determined that he should be able to have his say, and on that basis, I urge that the Bill be read a Second time.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).
Bill considered in Committee (Order, this day).
[Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Bill reported, without amendment.
Bill read the Third time and passed.