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Emma Pengelly: Bitter clash with TUV chief over £92k Spad salaries

By Rebecca Black

Published 08/10/2015

Emma Pengelly yesterday at her first meeting of Stormont’s finance committee
Emma Pengelly yesterday at her first meeting of Stormont’s finance committee

A former special adviser to Peter Robinson has rejected claims that the salaries of Spads need to be reviewed.

South Belfast MLA Emma Pengelly was involved in a stormy confrontation with TUV chief Jim Allister during her first meeting of the finance committee yesterday.

Mrs Pengelly, a barrister who was earning almost £92,000 as a special adviser to First Minister Peter Robinson until last week, said she did not need to declare an interest to take part in a discussion about Mr Allister's Bill to reform the Spad system.

Mr Allister appeared at the committee to talk about his proposed Bill - which is expected to hit the floor of the Assembly later this month.

He claimed Stormont was "out of kilter" with the rest of the UK, stating it spends £103,000 per Spad and has more Spads than any other devolved region.

In some cases, he claimed, Spads at Stormont earned more than the ministers that they advise.

Stormont's Spads cost almost £2m a year in salaries, pensions, expenses and other payments.

Mr Allister told the committee that his Bill was designed to cap Spad salaries, cut the total number and review how they can be disciplined.

He said Stormont spent £103,000 per Spad, more than Westminster (£81k), Scotland (£73k) or Wales (£68k); Stormont had more Spads (19) than Scotland (14) or Wales (8), and the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) had eight Spads - as many as the Welsh Government had in total.

Mrs Pengelly said the number of Spads would be reduced anyway with departments being amalgamated for the next Assembly term, but Mr Allister said this will not deal with the "disproportionate number" of Spads in OFMDFM.

Mr Allister was questioned about his Bill by a number of members of the committee, but the most intense exchange came with Mrs Pengelly.

She critiqued Mr Allister's Bill, expressing puzzlement why it did not include a job specification and asked why there was no explanation for the proposed £78,000 cap on salaries, and "no mention" of the fact there were more than 50 special advisers in Prime Minister David Cameron's office.

"I have concerns about the consultation paper, looking at the responses to it I can see people were confused... all it tells us is what we already know, that there is a bad perception of Spads out there," she said, and asked whether Mr Allister would propose introducing a £70,000 cap for barristers paid from public funds, ie legal aid.

Mr Allister lambasted her final point as a "foolish question", and criticised what he termed her "totally flawed approach" comparing the public sector pay with the private sector.

Moving on to her point about Mr Cameron's Spads, he said there was no comparison between "a fully fledged government like Westminster which has international affairs" and "parish pump matters like the Assembly".

Mrs Pengelly hit back over the parish pump comment, saying "many, many people care very much about these issues and don't regard them as parish pump issues", before pursuing her point about barristers, saying many earn more than £78,000 with earnings from the taxpayer (legal aid payments) and asked should those who advise criminals be better paid than those who advise Stormont's ministers.

She added if Stormont wanted to attract people with a variety of skills the pay needed to reflect that.

Mr Allister dismissed as a "nonsense point" her argument about barristers' pay, saying that if people choose to work in the public sector, they should not expect private sector salaries, and criticised the "excess of some ministers" in how much Spads were paid.

As Mrs Pengelly responded, Mr Allister interrupted to comment: "And so says someone who benefited...but didn't want to tell us."

As the evidence session closed, Mrs Pengelly said she wanted to set the record straight that there had been no allegations of corruption with regard Spad pay.

"I would just like to make it clear to that committee and for the record, the rules have not been bent or any corruption in terms of (Spad) renumeration. We should put it on the record that this is not an issue," she said.

Belfast Telegraph

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