Plans to cut spad numbers in Northern Ireland move forward

Bill that would also make advisers subject to the same disciplinary code as civil servants moves to next stage
Photo: PA

The number of special advisers in Northern Ireland is set to be cut, and those that remain will be subject to the same disciplinary code as civil servants, under a bill backed by assembly members yesterday.

Long-anticipated reforms to the use of spads in Northern Ireland are a step closer after assembly members voted the functioning of government bill through to the next stage of the legislative process.

The bill private member's bill, brought by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, aims to curb the influence of special advisers, reduce their numbers and increase their accountability following the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

The so-called Cash for Ash scheme – a programme intended to encourage the use of green energy in agriculture, but which went massively over budget and failed to prevent people abusing it – has been the subject of a recent public inquiry that uncovered several concerns about the conduct of civil servants and special advisers.

The bill would halve the number of special advisers ministers could have to four, and allow the first minister and deputy first ministers to appoint only one spad each. Allister has previously said that while most ministers do not employ eight advisers, leaving the option open had created "a public perception that this is all... just some great gravy train".

It would also make it a criminal offence for advisers to leak information or use non-government email accounts for government communications.

Communications were a major focus of the inquiry, which found many meetings had not been recorded properly and that private email accounts had been used to prevent messages being obtained using freedom of information legislation.

Allister said it was "important we set the standard of what is expected and put into legislation".

But the bill has so far proved controversial, with the then-head of the civil service David Sterling saying last year that it would be “inappropriate” to legislate on how many spads ministers can have. He said the first and deputy first ministers believed codes of conduct would be a better mechanism to deal with the issues involved.

Sterling also told a committee last summer that the plans could hamper efforts to "resume anything like normal business as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic".

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein opposes the bill, with party member and finance minister Conor Murphy calling it " not necessary" in yesterday's debate. 

A final debate will happen at Stormont next month on the bill, which could pass into law before Easter.

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