An attempt to reduce the “out of control” amount of public money spent on political special advisors (Spads) at Stormont has been rejected by both the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Legislation proposed by TUV leader Jim Allister would have halved the number of Spads in OFMDFM, and reduced their maximum salary from £92,000 to around £78,000.
Remuneration of special advisers has got wholly out of control
At present there are 19 special advisors attached to the 12 Executive departments.
Mr Allister said it was “preposterous” that the first and deputy first ministers had eight Spads between them – the same as the whole of the Welsh government. Scotland has 14.
However, with the DUP and Sinn Fein having a total of 52 MLAs to call on, out-voting the combined 33 MLAs from the UUP, SDLP and Alliance, the bill was defeated.
Speaking during yesterday’s debate, he said: “Provision for, and remuneration of special advisers has got wholly out of control.”
Mr Allister accused Sinn Fein of performing a U-turn having previously indicates it would support the new legislation.
“The cabal which controls this house has determined to kill this bill. It is obvious to me that the defeat of my bill today is part of a wider political game with the groundwork being laid for the DUP to go back into the Executive with Sinn Fein/IRA, regardless of the recent murder”.
Mr Allister added: “Sinn Féin has ridden to the rescue and done a deal with the DUP on this.”
Mike Nesbitt accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of “arrogance” over their approach to the proposals.
“Today Stormont witnessed self-interest hitting a new low as the DUP and Sinn Fein combined forces to vote down Jim Allister’s Special Advisers bill. “The arrogance of the two big parties was clear for all to see,” the Ulster Unionist leader said.
“We cannot be ignorant to the fact that the big topic among the public this last week has been about a Spad leaving an extremely well paid job and getting £45,000 ‘compensation’ despite the fact that she is walking into another well paid job as an assembly member.
“The DUP seem to think they have a blank cheque amongst their voter base.
“That is not the message we are getting on the doorsteps where we are being told that the DUP are demonstrating total disrespect for the electorate.
“There was a real irony to watch Sinn Fein, the party of the industrial wage, putting their hands up to defend £92,000 plus salaries,” Mr Nesbitt added.
Dominic Bradley of the SDLP said the two largest parties were “united in greed” as they voted down the bill.
Mr Bradley said: “At a time of severe austerity which threatens the sustainability of organisations across the north, and which has left thousands of families in financial crisis, it will be shocking to those we represent that ministerial special advisors continue to enjoy gold-plated salaries.
“It is an extravagance that cannot be justified and which we can ill afford.
“It was particularly galling to see the DUP benches packed to bursting point during the debate.
“They did not see fit to send these numbers to the SDLP debate on increasing resources for children with autism and special educational needs.
“But dare to question the resources for their advisors and it’s all hands to the pumps.”
Mr Bradley added: “Today was a low point for the two largest parties. They should reflect on their priorities over the time ahead, as I’m sure the public will reflect on who represents them.”
Alliance has also hit out at the DUP and Sinn Fein for “helping prevent more openness and transparency” which would “further reduce public confidence in politics”.
East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson said: “OFMDFM in particular needs reformed, as it currently contains eight SPADs.
“There is clearly something broken in the system when the Department with the smallest amount of practical responsibility has so many Spads, while other departments only have one.
“There is no doubt openness and transparency needs increased in political life. Efficiency also needs improved, especially when we seek to make savings in many other areas. Reform of the Spad system is an effective way to do this.”
Mr Dickson added: “But while the DUP and Sinn Fein continue to argue publicly over a number of issues, it appears the only thing they can agree on is to protect their ridiculous numbers of Spads.
“It is no wonder people are increasingly disillusioned with the political institutions when several parties vote against something clearly in the public interest.”
Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney defended his party’s position saying the TUV leader had failed to consult with others before bringing the bill forward.
“Special advisors in all departments provide an essential service to ministers and, in turn, the public. We have already put forward a proposal to reduce the salaries of all MLAs, ministers and advisors by 15 per cent. Special advisors in departments with Sinn Féin ministers, like all Sinn Féin representatives receive an average industrial wage.”
Mr McCartney accused the SDLP of “empty rhetoric” and added: “It appears that Jim Allister is attempting to legislate on this issue to settle old scores with his former colleagues in the DUP. We will not be part of his agenda.”
The DUP had not responded to a request for comment at time of going to press.