Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland opposition leaders should receive a salary of £68,000, review panel says

Image caption The figure of £68.000 is the recommendation of the panel that was tasked with setting MLAs' expenses and salaries

Leaders of the opposition at Stormont should receive a salary of £68,000 and should get support staff.

That figure is the recommendation of the panel that was tasked with setting MLAs' expenses and salaries.

After the assembly election, the UUP and SDLP said they would not go into the executive and went into opposition.

Now the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) has written to assembly speaker Robin Newton saying pay must reflect the reality of opposition.

At present MLAs are paid £49,000 a year, whilst ministers below the level of first and deputy first ministers are on £87,000.

The review panel recommends opposition leaders, who are entitled to a seat in the executive but who do not take one, should get £68,000.

The panel, whose term of office ended last week, also recommends opposition leaders should get support staff.

Panel member Alan McQuillan told the BBC: "Our responsibility was to look at expenses and salaries payable to people and to make sure they were fair in comparison to the jobs they did."

He added: "They were quite clearly new jobs. They had additional responsibilities.

"We thought it would be fair to pitch them somewhere between the salary of a Minister and an ordinary MLA. So we thought they needed more salary but we also felt to do their job effectively they needed additional expenses."

Image caption Mike Nesbitt announced in May that the UUP would go into opposition at Stormont

The panel's proposals have received a cold response from the political parties.

On Tuesday, the UUP said they were sceptical of the need for an increased salary for opposition leaders. A spokeswoman told the BBC they wanted extra resources for support and research.

A DUP spokesman said: "Provision for opposition research funding has already been made. The question of further funding is a matter for the parties in the assembly but we are not persuaded of the need to fund specific opposition posts where there is little additional responsibility."

A Sinn Féin representative said: "The proposal for increases in salaries and resources for opposition leaders, as mooted by former members of the IFRP, is not included in the Fresh Start Agreement".

Image caption Colum Eastwood also announced the SDLP would go into opposition

The SDLP declined to comment.

The letter to Assembly speaker Robin Newton from the chairperson of the Independent Financial Review Panel, Pat McCartan, is one of the last acts of the organisation. The body has been wound up after its term of office ended last week.

It will now be up to MLAs to consider a replacement body and make alternative arrangements. Key decisions lie ahead, especially now that Stormont has a formal opposition.

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