Thursday, 25 August 2011

Transparency on Spads

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


ItwasSammyMcNally said...

Over on the mainland, Andy Coulson, who I suppose could be described as an extra special advisor and acknowledged to have won the Tories at least a share of office has not done the brand any favours.

Quite why there should be any non civil servants is not in the least bit clear but the drift towards Spads is presumably of Yankee origin (based on my viewing of the West Wing) and taken up enthusiatcially by Blair/Brown and Ahern/Cowen.

Presumably it is much simpler if you hire someone and tell them exactly what you want them to do rather than having to worry about civil service protcols - and this must have an obvious attraction for SF and he DUP where they regualrly wish to pedal a highly political agenda because of the didvided nature of Stormo politics.

Personally I dont think Northern Ireland (or Ireland or Britain) should have any Spads which are effectively a privatised civil sevice often working above the proper civil service.

No more Andy Coulson's thanks.

Ulster Liberal said...


I was wondering if you had read or were looking to read Conor O'Cleary's new book on the final collapse of the Soviet Union?
I would be interested if you had any thoughts on it.

Anonymous said...

Two seperate issues.
A handful of people care about Special Advisors.
A greater number of people care
about Mary McArdle as a Special Advisor.
I am not sure that any "fit and proper person" test can be applied. They are after all appointed by people (who in the eyes of people having a problem with Ms McArdle) who themselves might not pass a similar test.

It is however the logic of the Agreement which we all signed up to in 1998. That it has had consequences that could not have been foreseen and others which were entirely predictable....and still more that people preferred not to think about is not relevant.

Ms McArdles salary is fairly academic anyway. Effectively (or so we are told) she earns exactly the same as her Minister.

If people arent that bothered by the people they elect, they cant care that much about the appointees. Of course unionism cant veto any MLA so it seems a bit like sour grapes to take their frustration out on Ms McArdle.
At the end of the day Martin McGuinness could resign as MLA in Mid Ulster and Ms McArdle could win his seat.
SF could appoint her Leader of SF and Joint First Minister and Carál Ní Chuiín appoint Martin as an Advisor.
The McArdle Issue is really just totemic for a "tut tutting" session.
And the Public is indifferent to Special Advisors. Indeed Ms McArdles salary realistically employs three unappointed advisors.

ItwasSammyMcNally said...


re. "If people arent that bothered by the people they elect, they cant care that much about the appointees."

But people are bothered by who they elect and this relates to point I made (in the blog below) in relation to Nationalists voting for SF. In the case of Mary MacArdle, I suspect SF would be relucatant to have here standing for a marginal seat given the controversy of her case. It may be that appointing her as a Spad is a way of either testing the waters or getting the controversy out of the way - allowing her to stand later.

But, although agreeing with Chekov that Norn Iron has too many Spads I would suggest that most people (in Britain or Ireland) if given a vote on the issue would prefer the number of Spads to be zero.

The 2 most widely known Spads in Britian are arguably Andy Coulson and Alistair Campbell and I don't think anyone in their right mind would suggest that they have made a positive contribution to British political life?

The abolition of Spads would make for an interesting Private members bill.

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