A DUP MLA – who until she joined the Assembly last week was a special adviser (Spad) to Peter Robinson – has robustly defended the fact that Stormont pays Spads more than any other part of the UK.
Emma Pengelly, who was co-opted into the Assembly to replace South Belfast MLA Jimmy Spratt last week, had earned a basic salary of almost £92,000 in the post.
She was one of eight Spads in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and 19 across all Stormont departments.
The TUV leader Jim Allister has argued that employing so many advisers from public funds is unnecessary and he has brought forward a private member’s bill to cap both the pay and number of special advisers.
Stormont’s Spads cost almost £2 million a year in salaries, pensions, expenses and other payments. The report also showed that the upper pay band for Spads — who are temporary civil servants who are embedded within departments to provide party-political advice to ministers — was increased by £1,000 last year.
That figure was only revealed because of previous legislation introduced by Mr Allister which, as well as barring those with serious criminal convictions from serving as Spads, forced the Department of Finance to publish an annual report on the costs of the party appointees.
Salaries for many of the Spad roles have more than doubled since devolved government returned to Northern Ireland after the Belfast Agreement of 1998.
Yesterday Mr Allister appeared before the Finance Committee to outline his bill.
Mrs Pengelly took issue with some of Mr Allister’s proposals and asked him whether he would accept a £75,000 pay cap for barristers because so much of their work is paid from public funds via legal aid. Mr Allister rejected the comparison, saying that barristers work in the private sector.
Mrs Pengelly also defended the high ceiling for Spad pay — which can be higher than that of the minister — because it was necessary to attract talented individuals tot he roles.
However, Mr Allister responded: ”And so says someone who benefited..but didn’t want to tell us”.
Mrs Pengelly said she wanted to make clear to the committee that she had never heard any allegation of “corruption” in relation to Spad pay and said that all payments were within the rules.
Sinn Fein’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said that he believed the DUP could veto Mr Allister’s bill — something which the party could do by tabling a petition of concern.
• As Emma Pengelly locked horns with Jim Allister at the Finance Committee, her civil servant husband Richard, above, was under heavy fire from MLAs on the health committee. Mr Pengelly, who is permanent secretary at the Department of Health, annoyed the non-DUP members of the committee by saying he could not answer several questions.
He said it was unfair of the committee to criticise his inability to answer the questions as he had not been given advance warning. Mr Pengelly also faced close questioning from the SDLP’s Fearghal McKinney over his muted comments on the DUP’s decision to only put the health minister in post for a few hours each week.
The official said it would be inappropriate for a civil servant to comment on that. Meanwhile, the Finance Committee, of which Mr Pengelly’s wife is a member, agreed to call him as a witness to its NAMA inquiry.