21 March 2018
Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill

Shailesh Vara winds up the debate on the Second Reading of the Bill aimed at increasing public confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions 2018-19 in the absence of a restored Northern Ireland Executive.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Shailesh Vara)

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.

Gavin Robinson

Even if I was wrong?

Mr Vara

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.

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