Revealed: How taxpayers pay for party spin doctors

The Assembly only released the information after an appeal to the Freedom of Information watchdog
The Assembly only released the information after an appeal to the Freedom of Information watchdog

Five political parties are paying the salaries of their spin doctors directly from public funds under a previously hidden arrangement, the News Letter can reveal.

The parties are using a little-known fund – the Financial Assistance for Political Parties (FAPP) Scheme – to fund a total of 10 press officers, some of whom appear to be on significant salaries but whose exact salaries the Assembly has refused to disclose.

Even to those who know of the FAPP scheme, details of spending on press officers was hidden under the blanket category of ‘support staffing costs’ and has only emerged now after an 11-month battle by the News Letter to have the information made public under the Freedom of Information Act.

The disclosures revealed today raise huge questions as to whether public money should be used to fund party staff who are involved in attacking other parties, election campaigning and work on matters which are nothing to do with the Assembly, such as press releases for councillors, MPs or MEPs.

In total, Stormont’s parties are sharing more than £860,000 a year from the FAPP scheme, with the money allocated based on party strengths and meant to be used exclusively “for the purpose of assisting [MLAs] ... to perform their Assembly duties”.

The DUP and the SDLP appear to be funding their entire press office salaries from the scheme.

Just one party – the Greens – voluntarily released full details of the name and salary of the press officer funded under the arrangement.

The other parties funding press officers from the scheme are the UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party.

Sinn Fein is the only major party not using to scheme to employ press officers but rather using its allocation of the money to employ several managers, administrators and an economic adviser.

By contrast to Stormont’s continued refusal to name the staff funded by taxpayers under the scheme, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords proactively publish the name of MPs’ secretaries and research assistants.

Eleven months ago, the News Letter asked the Assembly for the invoices which led to hundreds of thousands of pounds being paid to Assembly parties under the FAPP scheme.

The Assembly would not release the information requested, arguing that it was “personal data” and that under the Data Protection Act it would be “unfair” to release it.

The Assembly said that “the support staff would not expect that information relating to their salary would be disclosed”.

However, the Assembly did release some of the job titles (though not which party they related to) and said that “staffing costs include basic salaries, ERNI, pension payments, childcare and overtime”.

It said that “the party sets the rate of pay, drafts the job description and decides on the title of the role” and that staff are employed on both full-time and part-time hours.

The News Letter appealed that decision – first to the Assembly and then to the Information Commissioner.

We argued that there is legitimate public concern about this scheme and how it has been operating, particularly at a time when many budgets are being cut because of a shortage of public money.

The News Letter also argued that the names of staff should be released, saying that it is difficult to argue that a director of communications, who exists to publicise his or her parties’ activities, expects their name to be withheld.

The Assembly upheld its initial decision, saying that it would be “distressing” for the party staff to have their exact salaries made public.

However, after the intervention of the Information Commissioner – the FoI watchdog – the Assembly has now agreed to release further information (though not exact salaries or names).

The only individual who the News Letter can be absolutely certain is funded from the scheme is the DUP’s director of communications, John Robinson, as that unique title is listed in the documents released.

The Assembly said that salaries for all the FAPP-funded posts ranged from 14 people on less than £5,000 (for a part-time role) to three people on “over £35,000”.

Each party’s share of FAPP cash (2014)

DUP – £208,900; administrative and party development officer, Assembly business employee, director of communications, senior Assembly research officer, press and communications officer.

Sinn Fein – £178,100; administration and research manager, financial manager, senior administrator, economic advisor, administrator.

UUP – £123,600; Assembly party manager, junior press officer, policy officer x 2, senior press officer.

SDLP – £127,450; administrative officer, administrator, Assembly group manager and chief administrator, Assembly group policy and research officer, press officer x 2, senior press officer.

Alliance – £92,300; assistant press & communications officer, communications and press officer, head of policy.

TUV – £29,700; research and Assembly assistant

Greens – £29,700; communications and events officer

Ukip – £29,700; advisor, assistant office manager, office assistant x 2, party support Stormont office manager, political advisor

NI21 – £47,934; Assembly research assistant, assistant researcher, researcher x 3

(For each party, not all of the money went on staffing – some went on items, eg stationary)

Total: £867,384