David Sterling at committee of the executive hearing
Proposed measures to cut down the number of special advisers appointed by ministers in Northern Ireland could make the executive less efficient and make it harder to return to business as usual after the coronavirus crisis, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has said.
David Sterling, who will retire in August, told MLAs on the Committee for the Executive Office last week that it would be “inappropriate” to legislate on the number of spads available to ministers.
And he said the plans, which would come into force next March, could hamper efforts to "resume anything like normal business as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic".
He was advising on a bill intended to toughen up rules on the conduct of special advisers, ministers and officials and improve the functioning of the assembly.
Among other things, the functioning of government (miscellaneous provisions) bill includes a provision allowing Northern Ireland’s first minister and deputy first ministers to appoint only one special adviser each.
The existing rules allow them each to appoint up to four special advisers, and they currently each have three. Sterling said the two believed this level of support to be “necessary”, and that proposing an “arbitrary limit” failed to account for the wide-ranging role their advisers played.
“We would all recognise that the number of special advisers in the Executive Office has been the subject of comment. However, the very distinct roles of the first minister and deputy first minister make their work – and by extension the work of their special advisers – wider and more complex than that of other ministers,” he told the committee.
The conduct of spads, ministers and civil servants has come under particular scrutiny in the last few years as an inquiry into the so-called “cash for ash” scandal has unfolded. The probe into the Renewable Heat Incentive – a programme intended to encourage the use of green energy in agriculture, but which went massively over budget and failed to prevent people abusing the scheme – uncovered several concerns about the conduct of civil servants and special advisers.
Problems included records of official meetings not being kept properly, the use of private email accounts to prevent it being obtained using freedom of information legislation, and powerful spads playing political roles while being paid as temporary civil servants.
The bill would ban the use of private email accounts for official business, as well as cutting the number of aides.
Pressed on how many aides ministers should be allowed to have, Sterling said it would not be appropriate for him to give an exact figure – but stressed that “one would be just too few”.
“As a civil servant working alongside ministers and advisers, they are busy people and to reduce down to one would put quite a considerable burden on that one person,” he said.
Ultimately, the NICS head said, the Executive Office believed it would be “inappropriate to seek to determine in law the level of support which ministers should have, with no possibility of review in the light of need without recourse to further legislation”.
He noted that revised codes of conduct for spads and ministers had been put in place, and a civil service code of ethics was out for consultation with trade unions for consultation right now
The timing of the reform was also a concern for the EO, Sterling said. If exacted, the bill would see spad numbers reduced as of 31 March 2021 – a year before the current assembly’s mandate ends.
“If the assembly agreed such a reduction, we believe it would be detrimental to the efficient conduct and continuity of business to have this occur at a point well short of the mandate in 2022,” he said.
And he added: “If we were to resume anything like normal business as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, a considerable effort will be required on the part of all elements of this administration across the full range of issues facing us. And I think the sudden removal of the greater part of special adviser support for the first minister and deputy first minister would be unlikely to help in those circumstances.”
Usefulness of biennial report questionable
The bill would also require the first minister and deputy first minister to produce a biennial report every two years, and after consultation after a number of named bodies, present a report to the assembly on the functioning of government. They must also bring forward proposals to improve government working and performance targets.
But Sterling said performance against targets was already addressed in departmental reports and “any weaknesses in administration or accountability should already be in the public domain” through the reports of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and other bodies.
He said this data and oversight was already published more frequently than every two years, and so it was “unlikely that departments would wait for the publication of a biennial report to introduce measures to address weaknesses in its functioning”.