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I beg to move
In other circumstances, a Bill such as this would not be necessary, but the absence of self-restraint, self-control and self-regulation makes this Bill essential. Over recent times, the provision for and the remuneration of special advisers has got wholly out of control. I say that in the context of the benchmarks created by the provision for special advisers in the other devolved regions of the United Kingdom.
We are the smallest of the devolved regions, yet we have 19 special advisers. Wales, with its greater population, has eight, sometimes nine, but essentially eight special advisers. Scotland has 14. Not only that, but we pay them sums of money that are excessively out of kilter with those which are applicable elsewhere in the devolved regions. In Northern Ireland, the latest figures show that, last year, our 19 special advisers cost the taxpayer £2,016,362. That is an average cost of £106,000 per special adviser. That is what the average package per special adviser costs.
The figures for 2013-14 in Scotland and Wales paint a very different picture. They show that, in Wales, the average cost, in contrast to our £100,000-plus, was £58,500 each. That rose the following year because of an increase in number, which seemed to have been temporary, to £69,000, which is still well shy of the £100,000-plus cost in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, with its 14 special advisers, the average cost is £73,000. What is it about special advisers in Northern Ireland that makes them so special that they have to cost the taxpayer in excess of £100,000 — currently £106,000 — a year, in contrast to £50,000, £60,000 or £70,000 in the other devolved regions?
Yes, there is a role for special advisers, and the more specialist they are — some are and some are not — the more that role perhaps is to be valued, but there is something seriously wrong when, within this jurisdiction, we are overpaying in terms of the benchmark that exists elsewhere. That has been contributed to by deliberate political action in Northern Ireland. A freedom of information request, finally answered after two years, indicated that, in 2011, at the start of the mandate, there was a deliberate political decision to raise phenomenally the top line of special advisers.
Special advisers in Northern Ireland, supposedly in financial terms, fall under two bands — band A and band B. Band A embraces a salary range of between £37,000 and £53,000 a year. Band B embraces a salary range of between £59,000 and £92,000 a year. It evolved to £92,000 a year because of a political decision by the First Minister and the Finance Minister at the start of this mandate, in July 2011, when it rocketed from just over £80,000 to £90,000. That, at a time when senior civil servants, and special advisers are civil servants, were subject to a pay freeze. Also, at the very time when senior civil servants were subject to a pay freeze, a political decision was taken by the Finance Minister to break that freeze as far as this brand of civil servants was concerned, to give them a 10% increase and take them to the dizzy heights where they are today.
The freedom of information (FOI) information is very interesting, because it reveals that it was indeed the First Minister. A memorandum written by the Department's director of corporate human resources at the time indicates that, in May 2011, there was concern. The Minister had been asked by the First Minister how the maximum for the upper pay band for civil servants could be increased. That document from the director of corporate human resources advised that pay rates for special advisers (SpAds) were linked to changes in Civil Service pay bands and were based on the average pay increase agreed for civil servants.
The civil servant who wrote this document went on to say:
"I made clear that these arrangements had been agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive in May 2007. I pointed out that Senior Civil Service pay had been frozen for two years and there was to be no increase either in the Senior Civil Service pay reference points or in the base pay between April 2010 and March 2012."
So, the situation was that, back in 2007, the Executive agreed that any pay increase for special advisers would be in line with the arrangements applicable to senior civil servants. However, come May 2011, the First Minister intervenes to see, with the Finance Minister, how, despite that, pay increases could be obtained. The documentation on the FOI goes on to record the fact that on 14 July that year, another civil servant — having been told that the Minister was minded to give the phenomenal increase, to break the pay freeze as far as these civil servants were concerned — wrote in a memo:
"I indicated I had serious reservations about this particular issue, considered that the Minister should reconsider, given the decision taken by the Executive and the recent events surrounding special advisers and wanted the Minister to reflect on the matter."
The civil servant added:
"Nothing could happen because it was a holiday time, and I wanted to reflect on this issue, as I considered that it conflicted with the code of ethics which I was required to follow".
That is a senior civil servant advising the Minister that what they were being asked to sign off for special advisers potentially conflicted with their Civil Service code of ethics and urging the Minister to reconsider. Did he? No, he did not. In July 2011, at the height of the holiday season, the Minister slipped through a top-line increase for special advisers from over £80,000 to £90,000 a year. It breached the attachment of increases to those in the Senior Civil Service.
One of the purposes of the Bill is to protect against further flagrant breaches of that nature and to bring a very defined legislative attachment between the pay of this brand of civil servant — special advisers — and other senior civil servants. Of course, once the salary band had been increased to £90,000, events took their natural course, and, lo and behold, we discovered that, until Ms Pengelly resigned as a special adviser, all three of the First Minister's special advisers were on the £92,000 top line of band B.
The evolution from 2011 to 2015 is most interesting. In the first days of this Assembly — the 2007 Assembly and the 2011 Assembly — there was, as you would expect, a spread of special advisers across band A, the lower band, and band B, the higher band. However, by last year, every one of the 19 special advisers — surprise, surprise — was on band B. There was no one left on band A. Indeed, it was not until the Minister of the Environment changed his special adviser — in July 2014, I think — that a special adviser, again, fell within band A. So it is clear, and should be clear to the House, that the idea that this matter can be left to self-restraint and self-control is a myth. Every opportunity has been taken by some to exploit the situation and cream off from the taxpayer the maximum special advisers' remuneration.
What of the number of special advisers? We have 19, compared with eight in Wales and 14 in Scotland. Indeed, the office of the joint First Ministers has the same number of special advisers — eight — as the whole of the Welsh Government. That is how preposterous and out of hand this matter has got. The Bill proposes that, there being no self-restraint, we should restrict the number of special advisers in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
The formula that is suggested — and I am not wedded to this formula whatsoever — is that the three special advisers that the First Minister and deputy First Minister each have presently should be reduced to one and that the junior Ministers have one each. The junior Ministers historically did not have special advisers. That was a creation of 2007, when it was decided to add to the number of special advisers and to give the junior Ministers in OFMDFM a special adviser each. Before that, there were three for the First Minister and three for the deputy First Minister; a total of six. By that method, it became eight. My ambition and suggestion in this Bill is to reduce the number to four. Whether that is done, as the Bill stands, by reducing the number for the First Minister, deputy First Minister and junior Ministers to one each or by reducing the number to two each for the First Minister and deputy First Minister and taking away the provision for the junior Ministers to have a special adviser each, which apparently was not needed before 2007 — I do not really have a strong view. I think that it can be done either way. <BR/>It is preposterous that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister needs the same number of special advisers as the entire Welsh Government and pays them something like 50% more than they are paid in Wales. Even in the whole United Kingdom Government, which is one that deals with the full range of governmental issues and international issues, the average cost of a special adviser in Westminster is more than £20,000 less than the average cost in Northern Ireland. On the latest figures, the package for a special adviser in Westminster costs £83,500. In Northern Ireland, a special adviser's package costs £106,000.
Whether you make the comparison, which I think is the relevant comparison, with the other devolved institutions, or whether you make it even with the national Government — and take upon yourself all the pretensions of such a comparison — it is totally out of kilter. Since it has got there by deliberate political meddling in the setting of the bands to push them ever higher and to decouple them from the natural progression of any increases that come within the Senior Civil Service pay bands, and since it has been that political meddling that has ignited the increase, I am saying to this House that it should get a grip on this thing and should itself legislate to put a ceiling on the runaway costs of special advisers.
I suggest that we link them properly and permanently to the pay scale of a relevant senior civil servant. I suggest that that would more than adequately be met by attaching special advisers' pay to the pay scale that is applicable to assistant secretaries — grade 5s — in the Civil Service. What is that pay scale? Currently it starts at £65,422 and maxes out at £78,275, so it ranges from £65,000 to £78,000. I am not saying, and the Bill does not say, that that should be the pay of every special adviser. I anticipate retaining bands A and B. I remind you that band A starts at £37,000. What this legislation will do is say that, in every case, special advisers' pay is capped at the grade 5 Senior Civil Service pay rank. In other words, no one could earn more than £78,000 as a special adviser, which still keeps them handsomely ahead of what their counterparts in Wales or Scotland are paid.
It is not a matter of being mean to the Northern Ireland special advisers. This legislation is still generous to them, but in a way that restores some element of accountability in pay structures. It removes the potential for political meddling such as we saw in 2011 in the massaging of those pay structures and it puts us on something of a par with what you would expect elsewhere.
The Bill tackles the number of special advisers and, if there is a reformulation of Departments, those numbers will, naturally, fall in consequence of a reduction in the number of Departments. However, that does not address the primary irritant, when it comes to a common-sense approach to the issue, of OFMDFM being oversubscribed with special advisers. The Bill seeks to address that and seeks to bring some reasonable measure to the pay issues.
The third thing that the Bill does — since special advisers are civil servants — is to address the problem that arose on foot of the Red Sky affair, where an independent, fact-finding investigation by the Department of Finance and Personnel into a DSD special adviser Mr Brimstone recommended that there should be a disciplinary process in respect of him. What happened? His Minister, who appointed him, quashed it. He stepped in and said that it was not needed and that there would be no investigation. It is not the purpose of a Minister to determine when there should or should not be a Civil Service disciplinary process. Civil servants are civil servants and it is for the processes of the Civil Service to apply to him and to them all. Special advisers cannot expect to gain from all the benefits that come from being a civil servant, such as the pension scheme and all that, but dodge and evade the disciplinary possibilities that come as to their conduct. The Bill, on that third limb, would make it abundantly clear that the normal disciplinary processes of the Civil Service would also apply to these civil servants who are special advisers and would expressly prohibit any ministerial meddling in that. That, I think, is right.
I respectfully suggest to the House that, because of the failure to self-restrain in all these matters, legislation is now necessary on this matter and that what the Bill contains is not a punitive but a measured response to the situation. I trust, on that basis, that it will find favour with the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for outlining the general principles of the Bill and his rationale for bringing forward the proposed legislation. I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on behalf of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, which, presumably, will scrutinise the Bill's provisions should it pass Second Stage today.
I note that the main provisions, as outlined by Mr Allister, are: first, to ensure that special advisers are subject to the Civil Service disciplinary code; secondly, to limit their remuneration to the Senior Civil Service grade 5 scale, which is £65,422 to £78,275; and, thirdly, to reduce the number of special advisers or SpAds in OFMDFM from eight to four.
Whilst I was unable to attend last week’s Committee meeting, I understand that members received a useful briefing from Mr Allister, which provided an initial opportunity to tease out the policy intentions of the Bill and related issues. I also noted the significant media interest in the discussion. If I may, I will summarise and reflect on some of the main points covered at last week’s session that perhaps will help to inform today’s debate.
The proposer of the Bill set out the policy context of the current special adviser arrangements and the associated cost, especially during this time of austerity. He pointed to the potential for the Bill to make "modest but significant" savings to the public purse. Members were advised that over 98% of the 150 respondents to the policy consultation were in favour of the Bill. However, it was noted that the responses were from individuals, as opposed to representative groups, and some members also queried the extent of information provided in the consultation document.
On the absence of views from representative groups and other bodies, I can advise that members subsequently agreed that, subject to the Bill passing Second Stage, written and oral evidence will be sought from key stakeholders, including the Department of Finance and Personnel, the trade unions, the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission. I also anticipate that the Committee will issue a wider call for evidence, which would be published on the commencement of the Committee Stage.
A further issue that the Committee explored with Mr Allister was the rationale for setting the special advisers pay scale at the level of NICS grade 5. I expect that members will wish to give further consideration to the setting of this particular scale and associated pay progression, the job evaluation used to grade a special adviser post as well as the logistics of setting this salary. Members may also wish to explore further the mechanism for agreeing the starting point for a special adviser and whether this should change in the future. Members were also keen to explore the extent to which the position of special advisers here can be compared with that in other devolved Administrations, including other multi-party Governments. In particular, the question was raised as to whether additional skill sets and requirements arise from the particular political divisions and complexities of our power-sharing arrangements here, including the nature and extent of negotiations that are undertaken and, obviously, are always ongoing.
A further question that was raised during the session was around how we can ensure that the right calibre of person is attracted to the special adviser post and that the salary is commensurate with their level of skills and qualifications. Reference was made, for example, to the role of the special adviser in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. There was also some discussion on the possibility of including a speciality clause in the Bill, which would enable particular professional requirements for SpAds in given Departments to be defined and as regards what the remuneration may be in such cases.
Other points discussed during the session with Mr Allister included the impact of the restructuring of Departments on the number and role of special advisers, the fact that the provisions of the Bill would not take effect until the beginning of the next parliamentary mandate and that there will be no issues with contractual obligations or retrospective application and whether the Civil Service disciplinary procedures would need to be amended, either via the Bill or administratively, to enable their application to special advisers.
Subject to Second Stage being agreed, the Committee will want to give detailed consideration to the Bill. Whilst this will take place against an already very heavy work programme, I am sure that the Committee will do its very best to ensure that it concludes its deliberations within a reasonable time frame.
To conclude, I believe that the evidence session that the Committee had last week with Mr Allister was useful in providing an initial opportunity for members to explore the principles of this Bill and the related considerations. Today's debate offers a further opportunity for that, and I look forward to hearing Members' contributions in that regard.
I welcome the opportunity to put my party's views on the Bill on record. I am speaking on the subject further to Mr Allister's appearance before the Finance and Personnel Committee last week.
If I were to bring a private Member's Bill to the Assembly, I would seek to maximise the opportunity for support. I would speak to other parties, listen to concerns and try to find a way for my original objectives to be incorporated in a Bill that could gain the support of the House. The lack of consultation and cooperation with other parties, along with Mr Allister's words and tone this morning, suggest that the Bill is more of an opportunity for him to grandstand than to provide better government for Northern Ireland. In my opinion, he should have followed the example set by the Member for South Down Mr McCallister in how to consult with good grace on a private Member's Bill.
The Bill is short, touching on three main issues. However, I believe that each of the three main issues in the Bill has its weaknesses, and, in concern, I want to address those. The first one is in relation to discipline. The Bill completely removes the power of Ministers in those matters. It ignores the fact that a special adviser is a temporary political appointee who is appointed by, and supports, the Minister in his or her duties in a way that permanent civil servants cannot. To remove Ministers from such decisions is out of step with the practice in the rest of the UK, and it seems illogical for Ministers not to have authority in those matters.
Secondly, the Bill attempts to change the pay band for special advisers by linking it to the pay scale for an assistant secretary at grade 5 in the Civil Service. However, there seems to be no justification for it being tied to that level. Mr Allister mentioned that grade 5 is the level at which some special advisers would communicate with people in the Civil Service, but I do not think that this is an appropriate way in which to tie it. Mr Allister was pressed on that a couple of times in Committee, and I do not believe that proper justification has been given. What are the duties required in that job? What are the necessary skills that are comparable to those for a grade 5 in the Civil Service? We are not arguing that the pay levels of special advisers should not be reviewed. However, setting pay scales has always been a matter for the Executive and the Minister of Finance, and I do not believe that it should be specified in legislation.
Finally, the Bill seeks to cut the number of special advisers. Mr Allister stated today, and when he was before the Committee, that he believes that the cost of special advisers is too high, that government is too big and that we need to cut down. I could not agree more: we do need to do all those things. That is why I am pleased that my party has led the way on the reform of government in Northern Ireland. As a result, we will cut the number of Departments from 12 to nine next year and, as a result of that, we will have at least three fewer special advisers. In addition, we will cut the number of MLAs by the 2021 election. I would prefer that to happen sooner; I would prefer it to happen next year. I think that 108 is too many.
I do not think that we need that many. We are more than happy for that to be brought forward if other parties agree.
Let us take all the different reforms, such as cutting the number of Departments, SpAds and MLAs, as a whole. These are significant reforms that will help to tackle the concerns that many people have about the cost and size of government in Northern Ireland. However, the problem with the Bill is that it seeks to cut the number of special advisers in OFMDFM without taking into account the ongoing discussions on the size and functions of the new Executive Office. It is inconceivable that the number of Ministers and special advisers in that new Department would not be up for discussion as a result of the removal of functions from that new Executive Office to other Departments. To change in legislation and specify the number of special advisers that a Department should have while those discussions are ongoing would tie the hands of the Executive, and it is much more preferable, in my opinion, that we work out what the functions and responsibilities of that Department will be, and then decide what support is needed for Ministers.
Much has been made of the comparison between Northern Ireland and Scotland and Wales, as other devolved nations in the kingdom. In my opinion, we cannot compare them. Scotland and Wales are one-party Governments. I am sure that Members will have read the written evidence that was submitted to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee on political special advisers when it held its inquiry at Westminster. The evidence is clear that the nature and role of SpAds are different in a coalition Government in comparison with in a one-party Government. That shows us that they cannot be directly compared. Similar statistics from New Zealand, which has operated with multiparty Governments over the last number of years, show the same thing. Yes, there is perhaps a need for greater advice, as Mr Allister indicated during his evidence to the Committee for Finance and Personnel. I want to be very clear; I am not saying that OFMDFM, or the new Executive Office as it will be called, should be protected from reductions in the number of SpAds, and it is very likely that we will see reductions, but cutting it to a single adviser for the Ministers in that new Department does not seem appropriate to me when you consider the difficulties and problems that exist in Departments such as those.
Even taking that into consideration and understanding that there are differences between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, let us just consider Scotland for a short period. I am sure that Members will be familiar with the Research and Information Service pack that was provided for this debate. If Members were to read that, they would see that the First Minister of Scotland has six special advisers who answer only to her and are responsible only for her Department. In addition, her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, is also responsible to the First Minister and works the majority of her time for the First Minister, but she also works on a temporary basis for the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs. I argue that there is a difference between Northern Ireland and other devolved regions such as Scotland, but it is very clear that, even in a one-party Government, there is a requirement for special advisers. I am not saying that they should be protected in the new Executive Office; I am saying let us make a rational decision on what is required in that Department.
In summary, the Bill changes the role of SpAds in the Department in terms of the disciplinary procedure, and it would be to the detriment of the Minister and the effective running of the Department if they were brought closer into line with the Civil Service. There is also no justification given for linking the pay of special advisers to grade 5 in the Civil Service. The Bill ignores reforms that are already taking place, and the number and cost of SpAds are going to be cut.
Mr Allister made a point very clearly at the start of his presentation to the Committee for Finance and Personnel that the reason for the Bill was to cut the cost and number of SpAds. We say very clearly that that is already taking place. That is happening through the reforms that have already been discussed, negotiated and agreed. I am pleased that we can stand here towards the end of this Assembly term and say that we have gone further in this mandate than in any other in terms of reform of the Assembly and the structures here. I want to see further reform. I hope that that will happen but we have made good progress and that should be welcomed by everyone in the Chamber. As a result of those issues and what I have said, we make it clear that we will be opposing this Bill.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé sásta éirí anseo ar maidin le tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo a fhéachann le leasú a dhéanamh ar phá agus ar dhisciplín na gcomhairleoirí speisialta.
I support the Bill at this Second Stage, albeit with some reservations. Mr Allister is fast becoming the special adviser to the Assembly on special advisers, although he may not be rewarded with the same level of remuneration that is average for existing special advisers. Nonetheless, the SDLP welcomes this Bill and the areas that it seeks to probe and amend.
Mr Allister came to the Finance Committee last week and outlined the reasons behind tabling his Bill, those being the controversy surrounding the number, cost and disciplinary regime applicable to SpAds. Clause 1 aims to amend the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 to make special advisers subject to the prevailing Civil Service disciplinary process. That would require the code of conduct to provide that special advisers are subject to the processes and procedures of the disciplinary code operative in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. As was pointed out earlier, that would prevent Ministers from blocking attempts to discipline special advisers. As Mr Allister pointed out, the genesis of this seems to be an incident that arose in relation to the Red Sky affair.
Special advisers are classified as temporary civil servants. As such, they are supposed to be subject to the NICS code of ethics and a special adviser-specific code of conduct. In relation to special advisers being subject to Civil Service disciplinary proceedings, I asked Mr Allister if there was any need to change or amend the existing disciplinary code to include the work of SpAds. He thought that the code could still apply. I would welcome the opportunity to explore this area in more detail, perhaps at Committee Stage, with the advice of the head of human resources in the Civil Service or, indeed, the head of the Civil Service. Although special advisers are classified as temporary civil servants, they have a different role from civil servants and are not the same. We must ensure that that difference in role is reflected in the Civil Service disciplinary code in order to accommodate them.
Clause 1 also requires the code for appointments to prescribe that special advisers must not be remunerated above the rate applicable to grade 5 civil servants, which is between £65,000 and £78,000 approximately. Mr Allister pointed out that the collective current cost of special advisers is in excess of £2 million and that the average individual cost is around £103,000. That certainly is a high salary. Ironically, in some cases, special advisers are paid more than the Ministers who they advise and work for. We are all led to believe that the buck stops with the Minister, but, with a salary of this magnitude, one wonders whether it should stop with the special adviser rather than the Minister. It seems ridiculous that special advisers are paid more than the heads of Departments, namely the Ministers.
A question arose about the comparisons that Mr Allister made between Northern Ireland and Scotland, Wales and Whitehall. Some Committee members believe that he was not comparing like with like. Once again, that is an area that can be explored in more detail and with more evidence at Committee Stage. I note that 98% of respondents to the consultation carried out by Mr Allister said that the salaries of SpAds should be reduced to bring them into line with what is paid in other devolved institutions, although we have heard some aspersions cast on Mr Allister's consultation that it did not throw the net widely enough, most of the respondents were individuals and no public or corporate bodies responded. Maybe Mr Allister would like to respond to that when he sums up this debate.
He explained during the Finance Committee meeting that his rationale for setting special advisers' pay at grade 5 of the Civil Service pay scale is that that is the level of civil servants with whom special advisers engage. Whether or not that should be the determining factor could also be looked at in more detail. I questioned Mr Allister at the Committee as to the savings that would be made through the enactment of his Bill. For obvious reasons, he was unable to give precise sums, but he did say that a substantial amount of money would be saved each year. When we look at the average cost of a special adviser at around £103,000, we see that substantial savings would be made were that to be reduced to a maximum of £78,000. At this time of austerity, we need to make all the savings that we can.
Clause 2 seeks to amend the Civil Service Commissioners Order to reduce the number of special advisers in OFMDFM from eight to four. Under the current system, each Minister of the Executive, including junior Ministers, is entitled to make one appointment, but the First Minister and the deputy First Minister can appoint three each. That, again, is higher than is the case in Scotland and Wales, where they have 14 and eight special advisers respectively across all the Government. Even with the reduction in OFMDFM SpAds from eight to four, we would still have more special advisers than Scotland and Wales. In OFMDFM, we have junior Ministers to advise and support the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and we also have SpAds to advise and support the junior Ministers. That seems to be a little bit ridiculous.
I note that, during the consultation process, 98% of respondents to the consultation on the Bill agreed that the number of SpAds should be reduced. Some 92% said that it was reasonable to reduce the number in OFMDFM from eight to four.
At the Committee, Mr Allister was asked how he could be sure that the roles and responsibilities of SpAds in Scotland and Wales were comparable to those of SpAds in Northern Ireland, especially in relation to complexities arising out of political divisions here. His response to that was that the fact that four special advisers are afforded to the First Minister and deputy First Minister more than allows for those special circumstances and possible complexities. The SDLP agrees, as I have said before, that there should be a reduction in special advisers. We believe that eight SpAds for a single Department is extremely excessive.
Mr Allister was also asked about how the restructuring in Executive Departments would impact on the need for special advisers. He said that if the number of Departments decreases, the number of special advisers will go down accordingly. That would have an added impact on the cost reduction of special advisers.
The SDLP is happy to support the Second Stage of the Bill, in the knowledge that, at Committee Stage, we will have the opportunity to explore some of the issues that we have raised in more detail and in the context of evidence from a wider selection of individuals and public bodies than Mr Allister had access to.
One of the points that I raised with Mr Allister at the Committee was the nature of the speciality that these advisers lay claim to. Since his Bill contains the word "special", should his Bill not have reflected what degree of speciality special advisers should have? He replied to me that he was open to looking at any amendment that might seek to define "speciality" in relation to advisers.
Ag an phointe seo, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil mé sásta gur phléigh mé leis na mór-phointí a eascraíonn as an Bhille seo, agus, mar a dúirt mé cheana féin, beidh deis agam ag Céim an Choiste na rudaí seo a iniúchadh níos mine. As I said, I look forward to the Committee Stage of the Bill and to examining some of the issues in more detail. Go raibh míle maith agat.
At this stage, the difficulty is always that nearly everything has been said, but, seeing that I have written it out, I will say it anyway.
Mr Allister's Bill is really straightforward and very simple, as referred to by many Members. There are three distinct clauses. The first deals with special advisers — this is my order of priority — and stipulates that these advisers should be subject to the processes and procedures of the disciplinary code that applies to the Civil Service in Northern Ireland. The second is remuneration, a subject well ventilated today. There is logic in having a cap and a scale, and, therefore, I do not see any difficulty with that. The third clause deals with the reduction of the number of advisers in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Mr Allister referred to the Red Sky investigation. Following that, a special adviser was subject to a fact-finding independent investigation by the Department of Finance and Personnel. The Department recommended the instigation of a disciplinary investigation. As Mr Allister pointed out, the relevant Minister was able to override that, and I think that that was wrong. Special advisers are civil servants and, therefore, should be amenable to the existing disciplinary code.
We heard a lot about the number of special advisers, a subject fairly well trotted over. There are 19 in Northern Ireland, costing £2 million at the last count, which is an average salary of £103,500, as I have it, though I heard figures of up to £106,000 mentioned. Wales has only eight SpAds — the same number as employed in OFMDFM — costing £58,000. Scotland has 14 SpAds, whose average earnings are £73,000. The question is this: why do we in Northern Ireland need so many special advisers? The eight SpAds in OFMDFM certainly have not improved the performance of that Department.
The third objective of the Bill is to set a salary scale and a cap to control the cost of special advisers. Mr Allister pointed out that this is necessary, and I believe that, too, particularly in these difficult financial times. Unilateral action was taken by the Minister to upgrade the salaries, but that should not be at the whim of a Minister.
Much has been made of the necessary qualifications of advisers. We discussed at the Committee what were the necessary qualifications, if any. There is a contrast between the salaries that can be commanded in the private sector and those in the public sector. My view is that this is a red herring, as individuals decide their career structure, and the qualifications and job specifications for special advisers set out the terms for the respective posts.
In 2011, the First Minister — I learn now that it was only the First Minister, though I have written down that it was the First Minister and deputy First Minister — increased the salaries of special advisers from £80,000 to £90,000 during a period of pay freeze, which is certainly not a very good example.
It seems to me that action needs to be taken to control the numbers and costs involved, and, therefore, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I am satisfied to allow the Bill to proceed to the next stage.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which seeks to put in place stricter measures for the remuneration and accountability of special advisers, as well as to amend the number of special advisers who can be appointed by Ministers. Others have covered a number of the points, so I will try not to repeat them. Also, because I have a very sore throat, I will keep my comments shorter.
I support the principles of the Bill. When it comes to spending public money, any measure that seeks to improve transparency and efficiency should be welcomed, especially as we are keen to try to make savings in other areas. As others said, the Bill focuses on three key areas. First, it ensures that special advisers are subject to the processes and procedures of the disciplinary code that operates in the Civil Service, and, given that a SpAd is treated as a temporary civil servant, that seems like a natural step.
Secondly, the Bill looks at the salaries of special advisers and makes proposals to limit them. Currently, as others have said, a SpAd can earn between 25% and 90% more than an MLA and in and around the same figure as senior civil servants. To some, this would appear to be excessive, given that they can be appointed without abiding by typical recruitment rules and the principle of merit, nor are they democratically elected. Others acknowledge the capabilities of many special advisers and argue that they work at a level that should attract current salary scales. I think that the Bill gives us a good opportunity to consider this issue, and I look forward to discussing this further in Committee Stage to ensure that fair and appropriate measures and remuneration guidelines are in place.
Thirdly, there is the proposal to reduce the number of special advisers that exist in OFMDFM. We have said that there are currently 19 special advisers overall in the Assembly, and clause 2 deals specifically with cutting the number in OFMDFM from eight to four. Again, I welcome the opportunity that the Bill provides to consider this important issue. At face value, it seems that we are way out of kilter with other devolved institutions. However, I do think that the current proposal seems quite a blunt tool, and I think that more could be done in this area. We could be even more creative with it, so that the Bill actually becomes much more operationally effective. For example, in the past I have proposed that junior Ministers should perhaps be reallocated to the larger Departments with a greater spend, such as the Department of Health. Perhaps there is an opportunity to put in place stricter rules to ensure that we have different levels of special advisers with varying salary scales and appropriate skills to ensure that they are better utilised to help deliver better public services, because that is what we are actually here for. So, I look forward to exploring this issue also at Committee Stage.
In closing, I support the passage of the Bill today to Committee Stage, but I think that there is work to be done on it to make it a really operationally effective Bill.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I suppose that, in one respect, some of the issues in the Bill do require some sort of public focus. That is fair enough, but we do not believe that the legislation is the vehicle to do that. Indeed, in terms of reductions in salaries, Daithí McKay, the Chair, who has already spoken, on behalf of Sinn Féin on a number of occasions has put the challenge out that perhaps there should be a 15% reduction across the board, but even the sponsor of the Bill did not reply to him. I suppose that it is no surprise given that Sinn Féin is the party that proposed this.
I think that even in principle this Bill is an amendment to the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act 2013, which we believe was bad and discriminatory. Indeed, in our opinion, that Bill was vindictive and targeted at a republican ex-prisoner, who subsequently had to leave that particular post. We do not see this Bill as in any way materially different. There may be a popularity around this. Mr Allister is well known as an opponent of these institutions, and he takes every opportunity that presents itself to attack them.
I even look at the consultation, and our points have been made. It is a very poor consultation document, even in terms of the disciplinary code. There was one single question and no explanation of the need or rationale. Indeed, he describes them as "other civil servants". SpAds, whatever you think about them — and people are entitled to their opinion — are not "other civil servants". The legislation is very clear: they are temporary civil servants. They are not recruited by the Civil Service, and they do not go through the same procedures. Indeed, we would have difficulties with how the Civil Service recruits, because, again, we believe that it is discriminatory, and even putting someone into the realm of that disciplinary code could create the situation where other people would be asked to leave their position. We would certainly never be in a position to support that.
Why does the Member defend, in a time of austerity, the significant increase in SpAd pay from the £80,000 cap to £93,000? Can the Member explain and justify that increase in pay to a level well above an average wage?
I certainly could not, nor will I. There has to be a discussion around that. People can vote with their feet. We proposed a 15% reduction in all regions in times of austerity. In this party, we know that, because we take the average industrial wage for our salaries, so perhaps if we had discussed this before Danny Kennedy left, then if his SpAd had been on a different band, the Member might have had a different position.
However, this idea of consciences suddenly being pricked about particular things in the absence of anything being done about them — whited sepulchres — will ring hollow with people. We will vote with our feet. We asked whether people wanted to make a voluntary contribution of a 15% reduction across the board. Sinn Féin tabled that as part of a Budget, which people opposed. So, I will not take lectures from the Member on that.
As I said, there may be issues here that need some teasing out in the public domain. We do not think that legislation is the proper way forward. We do not think that the motivation of this particular Member is about the public good; it is more about attacking these institutions. He is on record as having done so: we have seen how he used the Special Advisers Act in the past to attack republican ex-prisoners in particular, and we will stand as gatekeepers to ensure that that does not happen in the future.
I welcome the Bill. To reiterate a point I made yesterday; it is good to see private Member's Bills coming forward in the absence of legislation coming from the Executive. For a number of weeks, sessions were finishing at 3.30pm, after ministerial questions. However, due to the debate on Mr McCallister's private Member's Bill yesterday, we had a full plenary session, and I anticipate that that will be the case again today due to this business. It is to be welcomed that, whilst the Executive may be failing, the Assembly and the Back-Benchers are showing leadership and ensuring that the House continues to do the work that we are paid to do.
I welcome the Bill and, in particular, the proposal to bring SpAds under the code of conduct for civil servants. Again, speaking to Mr McCallister's Bill yesterday, I expressed my concern about the lack of accountability for Ministers. Where there are perceived breaches of the code of conduct for Ministers, and this extends to SpAds, there is no formal mechanism for investigation. These people are paid through the public purse, and the public should, and do, rightly expect there to be transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, in the case that Mr Allister referred to, that accountability was not there. Accountability to your own party and to your own Minister is not sufficient. There must be independent investigation and adjudication, and that element of the Bill is very welcome.
In the Assembly, we cannot set the standards for society and somehow expect those standards to not apply to us. As an MLA, I am subject to the code of conduct; I am subject to independent investigation. The same should be true for Ministers and their special advisers.
I think that the sponsor of the Bill will find much sympathy with the cap on pay among the wider public. I am wary that, somehow, there is always an attack on high pay and we have to look at whether it is justified, but a pay cap of £75,000 would certainly not make victims of special advisers. I think that that is a fair cap. Mr Allister referred to other jurisdictions and the salaries paid there. I do not think that there is an argument to be made that, somehow, special advisers are required to work at a higher level here than in other jurisdictions, or that their job is somehow more onerous. I think that we can, and should, take evidence from elsewhere and base our salaries here on those findings.
Reference was made to the number of SpAds within OFMDFM. Mr Allister has said that he is not wedded to the formula suggested, and others have said that there may need to be more flexibility at the Committee Stage should the Bill pass today, and I hope that it will. The Committee can take time to tease those issues out.
It seems to me to be hard to justify having eight SpAds within the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Due to the nature of that role, we do have two joint Ministers and not one, as Mr McCallister pointed out yesterday, and the junior Ministers that go with that., but to justify a total of eight SpAds seems difficult. Whilst four seems to me to be a sensible proposal, others seem to think that there needs to be more flexibility, and, of course, we need to have regard to the proposed changes in the number of Departments and the structure of the Assembly. However, under our current structures, a reduction from eight to four certainly seems to be a worthwhile proposal to consider, and I look forward to seeing what evidence comes out during the Committee Stage.
This is the second private Member's Bill on special advisers to come forward from Mr Allister. With his first Bill, I made a point about the recruitment of special advisers, and I will make it again now. Many have made the point that they are appointed by Ministers; and that appointment process should be examined as part of the scrutiny of the Bill. In bringing the pay and code of conduct into line with that of senior civil servants, I think that the recruitment method also needs to be brought into line with that of senior civil servants. I made that point during the passage of the previous SpAd Bill.
No one is sadder than me that Mr Sammy Wilson is no longer a Member of the House. Somehow, he made an argument that, "No, this is politics; you cannot recruit people from outside; you could not possibly have a DUP SpAd who was not a member of the DUP." That type of attitude feeds into the perception out there, which is that the political class believes itself to be a class apart and that, somehow, what we do is so different from any other profession, that it is right that we should be able to get around recruitment rules and legislation and can have something different for ourselves because we are different, and what we do is different here, and we run government, which is special.
I question that logic. Many professions require secrecy and require staff to access confidential information, whether they are workers in the health service with access to people's medical records, people in the justice system with access to criminal records, or those who work in banks with access to people's financial records. Processes are in place to ensure confidentiality, propriety and probity. Whilst those standards would be required in any special advisers recruited, I do not think that there is an argument to say that recruitment cannot be done with openness, transparency and accountability.
I use my own recruitment of staff as an example. I recruit openly and have recruited a number of staff from outside the pool of Green Party membership. Due to the nature of the work, many of them have then become members of the party, but if I am recruiting a researcher, I see no reason why that researcher has to be a member of the Green Party. Equally, I see no reason why special advisers should be appointed solely from within the pool of a political party and appointed without interview and merit criteria set and without that being done transparently. Possibly, Ministers do that: I do not know. Possibly, when they are appointing people, they set the criteria for what they are looking for; but it is not transparent and public money is being used to pay the wages of special advisers. It is a public role, and it is to serve the public good through advising the Minister on public policy.
So, I think we should have an open, transparent and accountable process, and the recruitment of special advisers should be brought into line with that of other civil servants.
They have been referred to as temporary civil servants. Even in the case of temporary recruitment for Civil Service posts a recruitment process is required. I would certainly be interested in the Member's views, if that is something he has considered, and urge the Committee to look at that aspect of special advisers' employment.
I would like to begin by congratulating Mr Allister on getting to this stage; it certainly looks as if it will get through. There is agreement on the broad principles of various parts of the Bill from various political parties.
The key parts of the Bill are around the disciplinary code being applied when people are temporary civil servants. I think that is important. It is important to set a standard and have something to measure that standard. We would expect it of others, so why would it not apply to SpAds?
On the issue of pay, if I picked it up correctly at the Committee last week, it is actually a salary of £78,000. Bear in mind that it is £30,000 more than MLAs get paid, and probably close to four times the average salary in Northern Ireland. The Member proposing the Bill is not exactly restricting SpAds to a life of destitution. I would have thought that, at £78,000, he was setting the bar fairly high, with a decent balance between attracting people that we need into the specialist roles that a special adviser should fulfil and putting in a cap.
The very fact that average salaries in Northern Ireland are lower than in other constituent parts of the nation makes you wonder how on earth our settlement costs us, on average, £30,500 more per head than in Scotland and a staggering £45,000 more per head than in Wales. These are the difficulties that the Bill seeks to address. In a time of austerity, when Departments are struggling for cash — and when many are not entirely sure what their agreed budget line is at this stage of the financial year — we are spending significantly more on SpAds than our Scottish and Welsh counterparts, which are easy to use for a direct comparison because they are devolved Governments.
This may be a more powerful institution than the Welsh Assembly Government; it may have more powers. It does, of course, have a coalition form of Government, but so had the Scottish and Welsh Governments. The Scottish Government had a Lib Dem/Labour coalition from 1999-2007 and several First Ministers at that time. The Welsh, over that time, have had a mix between the Labour/Lib Dem and the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalitions. It is difficult to find much evidence for the idea that, somehow, there is a huge problem of negotiating between the SpAds, and that we therefore need huge numbers of extra SpAds and that they need to be so highly paid. It is also difficult to maintain that argument when you have the First Minister describing the Executive as dysfunctional. It is hard to say that having so many SpAds and paying them £92,000 a year is adding much to functionality.
Mr Lyons, who is not in his place, lauded the DUP. I welcome the DUP to the debate. The fact that the farm lobby and Mr Allister have been the only two so far who could get the DUP to the Chamber sets the bar quite high. Mr Lyons made the argument that the DUP agrees with parts of the Bill but that much of it was already being done. He said that the timing of the Bill was all wrong and that we should wait for the reduction of Departments that will deliver three fewer SpAds anyway.
I gave a warning last week at the Committee: we were to get rid of the Department for Employment and Learning sometime in the autumn of 2011, but it was then decided that a better time to do it would be the end of the financial year — it is still here, and, by the looks of it, is likely to be here for the rest of the mandate. It survived all that. There was a promise of jam tomorrow from Mr Lyons, when he said, "Look, we're taking care of all this". As Mr Agnew said, at least this corner of the Chamber is producing legislation that can change and reform and, in this case, restrict the excessive expenditure of the Government on itself.
I support, as I made clear in Committee, moving to an Executive Office and a reduced number of Departments. I have also made it clear on previous occasions that, when you take the departmental responsibilities out of OFMDFM and change it to being a much more coordinating body, there is no need for it to have eight SpAds and two junior Ministers. The two junior Ministers might be much better served by being in other places. There could be a junior Minister with responsibility for social care and another with responsibility for skills in the Department of the Economy. That would be a much better place for them to go, and it would be much better practice. If you follow through on the logic that junior Ministers would be an unnecessary addition to a future Executive Office, you will find it very difficult to say why on earth you had eight SpAds in it.
Not only is Mr Allister on to something with the Bill but the timing is right. We are looking at reforming government and reducing the number of Departments and special advisers. Indeed, my Bill is about reforming the way in which the Executive and Assembly carry out their business, so, in that sense, the Bill is timely.
Mrs Cochrane mentioned the skill set that particular advisers bring, and Mr Agnew talked about the recruitment process that he uses. Any time that I recruited in the last number of years, I went outside the narrow bounds and down the road of a more open contest. The process for special advisers, as well as being more open, should demand some evidence that a special adviser possesses the skill set necessary to advise in the Finance Department, the Health Department, the Department for Social Development or the Department for Regional Development. Instead, the perception is that, sometimes, it is more a case of, "Oh, we had better bring Joe in; it's his turn to be special adviser for a while". There is too much of that. It is not a good image for the Government and the Assembly, and Mr Allister's Bill can and should be used to address that. The great thing about its passage through Second Stage and going to Committee is that not only the Committee but Members can look at amending and possibly improving the Bill or addressing some of the concerns that they have about it. I certainly support the Bill's passage through Second Stage.
The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.
The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.50 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —