SPECIAL advisers, or Spads as they’re generally known, are a rather unique type of civil servant. Appointed directly by ministers, they aren’t required to go through a competitive recruitment process and their role is openly political.
Spads do operate within certain limits; for instance they can’t get involved in campaigning during elections, but they’re bound by no requirements of impartiality. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it means that, effectively, the taxpayer foots the bill so that ministers can receive highly political advice.
Obviously such an arrangement should carry with it some pretty strict responsibilities, because while parties and ministers pick Spads, it’s the public that pays for them. At Stormont, though, the special adviser role seems be shrouded in secrecy and recently it has attracted one controversy after another.
There was widespread revulsion earlier this year when Sinn Féin culture minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, chose a convicted killer, Mary McArdle, to be her Spad. Quite understandably the family of Mary Travers felt the appointment was an unacceptable insult to their loved one’s memory.
The public has a right to expect that only people of good character and standing should be given special advisers’ posts, which come with a healthy salary.
In the instance of Mary McArdle, it’s pretty clear that that precept wasn’t kept to. The appointment was a hurtful and unnecessary reminder of a terrible crime and it seemed, to many people, like a reward for an act of violence.
Where public tax money is used we also have a right to expect it to be spent as sensibly and efficiently as possible, but in the case of special advisers at Stormont, prudence doesn’t seem to be a major consideration.
The First and Deputy First Ministers’ Office alone has eight special advisers, with the 11 remaining departments boasting one each. By comparison, Owen Paterson, a member of the UK cabinet, has a single Spad and Alex Salmond, the First Minister in Scotland, makes do with one part time adviser.
Recently the News Letter reported that the maximum salary for Spads in Northern Ireland would rise to £90,000 a year. That is substantially higher than the wages of all but a handful of special advisers to the Westminster administration, which governs over 60 million people.
If you tot up the figures, Spads at Stormont could be costing us approaching £7 million over the lifetime of an Assembly. In fact, we can’t know the total cost to the public purse because their salaries are kept secret!
In contrast, when David Cameron became prime minister, his government published a complete list of its special advisers, including exact details of their pay grades and salaries. That’s a healthy attitude to transparency, but it’s also simply what the public deserves. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, the executive is falling far short of these standards.
There really isn’t any excuse for this lack of openness. The Stormont executive has got to catch up with Westminster and provide a full list of special advisers and their salaries. This is basic information which we all have a right to know.
We also need to ask whether it is really necessary for Northern Ireland to have 19 Spads when Scotland, a country with a population three times as large, can make do with 11.
Where taxpayers’ money is being spent, secrecy is no longer acceptable. The new government at Westminster has breathed a new spirit of openness and accountability through public life. People in Northern Ireland deserve the same approach at Stormont.
Owen Polley is a blogger and runs the Conservatives NI office