Three of Peter Robinson’s publicly funded special advisers are being paid salaries of almost £92,000 a year, it can be revealed.
A fourth DUP special adviser (Spad) in the First Minister’s department – Gavin Robinson – was being paid £75,000 last year before he left the role to campaign ahead of his election as East Belfast MP last week.
The Spad salaries are so high that Mr Robinson – who was by far the lowest paid – took a pay cut to become an MP, a position which carries a salary of £67,000.
Yesterday it emerged that Mr Robinson is being replaced by the controversial Spad Stephen Brimstone, whose party colleague Jenny Palmer alleged that he put huge pressure on her to change her vote at a key Housing Executive board meeting.
Mrs Palmer alleged that Mr Brimstone told her “the party comes first”. But Mr Brimstone has said that although he now struggles to recall exactly what he said two years ago, he would have been unlikely to have used phrases such as that.
The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) – which has eight Spads, as many as the entire Welsh government – has fought a long and determined rearguard action in an attempt not to reveal how much its eight Spads are paid.
Since the restoration of devolution almost eight years ago, OFMDFM has refused numerous Freedom of Information requests and Assembly questions about the issue.
Even after David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010 and pledged to increase transparency around Spads by voluntarily publishing their exact salaries, Stormont has refused to follow suit.
This newspaper has made a series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests which the department has refused.
However, in recent months Sinn Fein voluntarily revealed – although it did not publicise the information, which was buried in an obscure corner of its website – the salaries of Martin McGuinness’s Spads.
And two months ago the Information Commissioner’s Office – which polices the FoI law – ordered Stormont Castle to release exact salaries for its eight Spads.
The information was released on Monday – two working days after Thursday’s general election – in response to an individual who made the request via the public website whatdotheyknow.com, which simplifies the process of making an FoI request.
Initially, the department had claimed that the exact salaries could not be released as they constituted “personal information” and instead would only say that they were paid between £58,452 and £91,809.
The department said that the salaries had been set “in line with their experience and skills”.
But the Information Commissioner ruled that as Whitehall now routinely releases this information “the commissioner sees no reason why OFMDFM should take a different approach in this case, and finds that disclosure of the special advisers’ salaries at the time of the request is indeed required to meet the legitimate interest in this case”.
The commissioner ordered that the information – which had originally been requested over a year ago – should be released within 35 calendar days, something which would have meant that the information was in the public domain before the election, but that did not happen.
The information released on Monday shows that last year Mr Robinson’s two main Spads – barrister Richard Bullick and former accountant Timothy Johnston – were being paid the absolute maximum for a Spad, £91,809.
A third DUP Spad, former lawyer Emma Pengelly, is also being paid the top rate of £91,809.
The fourth DUP Spad – who at that point was Gavin Robinson – was being paid £75,000.
The three Sinn Fein Spads at the time were also being well paid, although none of them were on the maximum salary.
Dara O’Hagan was being paid £87,812, Vincent Parker (who has now left) was also getting £87,812, while Aine McCabe was getting £84,054.
Sinn Fein says that its Spads only keep ‘the average industrial wage’ and pay the rest of their salary to the party.
Spads costing taxpayers £1.9m annually
Earlier this year it emerged that Stormont’s 19 Spads are costing taxpayers almost £2 million a year.
The small army of advisers last year cost a total of £1,967,240 in salaries, national insurance contributions, pension contributions and severance payments.
The figure, which was the first time that a total bill for Stormont’s Spads had been published, was forced on Stormont as part of Jim Allister’s Special Advisers Bill (also known as Ann’s Law), which makes the Executive annually publish the total cost of its political advisers.
In 2011 the News Letter revealed that a nine per cent hike in Spad salaries was approved by then finance minister Sammy Wilson just weeks after the Assembly election, despite cuts across the public sector at the time.
Salaries for many of the Spad roles have more than doubled since devolved government returned to Northern Ireland after the Belfast Agreement of 1998.