Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

What are we paying them for?

Ministers' special advisers cost taxpayers over £1m

Special advisers to Assembly Ministers are still on the Stormont payroll - more than four years after the collapse of power-sharing, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.

And the decision to retain the advisers - with no Ministers to advise - has now cost taxpayers well over £1m.

The expenditure, uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act, was today condemned as "outrageous" by the Alliance Party.

A row broke out earlier this month when Secretary of State Peter Hain approved £45,000-a-year special adviser posts for the four main local parties to help them prepare for Government.

It is now clear that this is just an extension of long-running arrangements under which DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP and SDLP ministerial advisers have been kept in work since the suspension of devolution in October 2002.

The costs involved are separate from grants paid to the parties each year and the office-running expenses shelled out to individual Assembly members.

Four special advisers appointed by devolved Ministers still remain in employment at present, while three other advisers were paid during part of the last four years.

The bill for employing these seven officials between suspension and the end of the last financial year added up to £1,065,936. It will have climbed further since then and the expenditure will be significantly increased by the eight new posts now given the green light by Mr Hain.

Details of the outlay were released under freedom of information by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).

It named the four special advisers to have stayed on since October 2002 as Richard Bullick (DUP), Leo Green (Sinn Fein), Stephen Barr (UUP) and Brian Barrington (SDLP).

The special adviser to former UUP First Minister David Trimble, David Campbell, remained up to 2003/04, as did Damian McAteer, special adviser to former SDLP Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan.

Another UUP man, Mark Neale, was paid under the special adviser scheme up to 2005/06.

Mr McAteer and Mr Campbell have since linked up again in the business world, through a fund involving NI Energy Holdings, the mutual company which owns the electricity and gas interconnectors between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Special advisers are classed as temporary civil servants, but are party appointments and can be hired without any open competition procedures.

Of the £1,065,936 spent on the advisers in the three and half years after suspension, £566,636 came directly from OFMDFM. The rest was paid from the Assembly's budget, under the terms of a 2000 Act on financial assistance for political parties.

The OFMDFM funding ended during 2005/06 and the remaining four advisers are now paid through the Assembly.

Alliance leader David Ford said: "Special advisers were created to assist Ministers with their political duties, as temporary civil servants. In any other part of the UK, when the Minister loses office, the adviser goes too. But direct rule Ministers conspired with the four former Executive parties to continue the handouts, even though there were no working local Ministers."

Mr Ford pointed to the separate party allowances allocated at Stormont by the Government. He said Alliance received £66,000 a year under this scheme, while the SDLP, UUP, Sinn Fein and DUP are each paid more than £100,000.

"There is no reason why Alliance should receive any larger allowance from the public purse, and there is no reason why other parties without Ministers should receive these outrageous sums," he added.

In its freedom of information disclosure, the OFMDFM said the job remit of the special advisers it funded was to "provide advice to former Ministers during the suspension period, to work for a smooth return to devolved government and to engage in discussion for that purpose".

The advisers employed under the party assistance scheme are paid to assist with the performance of MLA Assembly duties and work for a smooth return of devolution, it added.

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