Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have given their backing to new restrictions on special advisers at Stormont which will set a limit on numbers and the imposition of new disciplinary processes and procedures.
The measures are contained in a private member’s bill proposed by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, which passed its final stage in the assembly yesterday and is due to receive royal assent in the coming weeks.
Allister’s Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was driven by failings exposed in the Renewable Heat Incentive affair – the so-called cash-for-ash scandal – which racked up a £490m subsidy bill and was the subject of a damning inquiry report last year.
The bill will reduce the number of spads in Northern Ireland’s Executive Office from eight to six; make ministers responsible and accountable for their spads by law; cap salaries of spads at £90,000; and create a statutory duty to make and keep proper records of ministerial decisions.
It will also make spads subject to the processes and procedures of the disciplinary code that operates in the civil service; create a criminal offence for cases in which a minister or spad discloses official information that financially or improperly benefits third parties; and require the recording and publishing of ministerial and spads' declarations of interest.
Allister told yesterday’s final-stage debate that he was not an opponent of special advisers, but believed the framework within which they operated needed “controlling and setting”.
He said there had previously been “some runaway episodes” in the payment of spads and that setting an upper limit of grade 5 in the Northern Ireland Civil Service was “sufficiently generous”.
He added: “Importantly, the bill would prevent, again from an experience exposed in the RHI inquiry, the civil service facilitating anyone other than the officially appointed spad with the facilities that should be due to a spad.”
Allister conceded that while the bill would cut the number of spads, the figure would not be by as much as he would have liked.
“It reduces them from eight to six in the Executive Office and would remove from office any surplus,” he said.
“There had been a surplus in respect of a Sinn Féin junior minister's spad. The bill takes away the power of junior ministers to appoint spads.”
Allister told MLAs he understood that the junior minister’s spad had resigned meaning that there were now only six spads in the Executive Office.
“However, if there should be more than six, three months after royal assent, the surplus spads would lose their position,” he said.
Finance minister Conor Murphy opposed the bill, along with fellow Sinn Féin MLAs, describing it as “unnecessary and disproportionate”.
“It is unnecessary because the requirements that it places on civil servants, special advisers and ministers already largely exist,” he said.
“They exist in the ministerial code of conduct, the guidance for ministers, the code of conduct for special advisers, the letter of appointment for special advisers and the civil service code of ethics, all of which were subject to in-depth consideration as part of the party political talks by the five parties involved in the discussions in advance of the executive returning to government.”
The bill passed with the backing of the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, among others.