Special advisor pay: as opaque as ever

The News Letter has an interesting item on the pay for special advisors (SPADS). These advisors are picked by the minister and the normal process of competition is not followed: that may well be fair enough and certainly occurs at Westminster.

Unlike Whitehall SPADs, however, the pay for the Stomont’s SPADs is not published: rather salary bands are published; the maximum a SPAD can earn is now £90,000.

That £90,000 figure is interesting as it is a rise from £82,531 which seems to have pertained previously. A spokesperson from DFP stated (from the News Letter)

“There is no annual pay progression in respect of special advisers’ remuneration over the period April 1, 2010 – March 21, 2012, consistent with the freeze on any base pay award in respect of senior civil service remuneration over this period.
“On July 18 the salary bands, effective from 1 April 2011 were set as follows – Pay Band A £36,320-£51,775 and Pay Band B £57,300- £90,000.”
When asked why the salary bands had been changed to allow for considerably larger salaries for special advisers, the DFP spokeswoman said: “The salary bands are set to reflect the requirement to ensure that individuals with the requisite skills and abilities are attracted to and retained in these key posts.”

If salaries have increased for SPADs that is contrary to the pay freeze for public sector workers. The argument regarding attracting and retaining skilled people could apply equally well for many senior employees in the public sector: senior civil servants, health service executives, senior medical staff etc.

Due to the convoluted fashion in which the exact salaries are not stated but bands produced it is actually possible that the pay for some or even all of the SPADs has not increased at all. However, the refusal to state what the actual pay level is leaves it highly unclear what has happened: a lack of transparency which is damaging. As Jim Allister who asked the written questions which led to these partial disclosures says:

“Special advisers are appointed as civil servants under the Civil Service Commissioners (NI) Order 1999, as amended. Civil servants’ pay is currently frozen as part of the austerity programme.
“Yet, it seems that in a special concession – limited to special advisers – some or all of them have recently had pay increases approved.
“Absurdly, the public are not allowed by the Stormont regime to know how much their 19 special advisers are paid from the public purse, despite such information being made available in GB.
“Now, will we be told if, despite the civil service pay freeze, in fact their secret salaries are to be bloated with even more of our money? If they are civil servants, with all the pension and other benefits which flow, why should they not equally be subject to the same pay freeze conditions?
“If special advisers can have pay increases, why not the ordinary civil servant, most of whom are on modest wages? Why should a special adviser on £80,000 per annum breach the pay freeze but a civil servant on £21,000 have their pay frozen?”

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  • Cynic2

    Time for an equal pay claim by the Unions. That should flush them out

  • Stewart

    “The salary bands are set to reflect the requirement to ensure that individuals with the requisite skills and abilities are attracted to and retained in these key posts.”

    That might be relevant for an open application process or if they were headhunting people from the top of their respective fields – doesnt really apply when appointing a political animal or party loyalist as most have.

    Having said that, you are right just becasue the bands are there doesnt mean SPADS are being paid that much. However I think once SPADS are earning over half of the top wage available, people would rightly start to ask questions about – experience, expertise etc

  • iluvni

    Anyone found out what the ‘average industrial wage’ is yet?

  • So it looks like one of the newly-appointed advisors wanted more than £82,531.

  • sonofstrongbow

    I expect there are role requirements for SPADS with an appropriate skills-set (including essential and desireable qualifications/experience) expected from candidates wishing to fill the post. These attributes are tested during the recruitment process and their on the job application are examined during regular appraisals.

    After all if government departments are, for example, challenging the spending of public money in local housing associations then surely they would not leave themselves vulnerable to censure on spending taxpayers’ money on SPAD salaries in an unaccountable fashion?

  • The News Letter returned to this theme on Saturday. I can’t find a link from the paper, but in it Irwin Armstrong pointed out the difference in approach between Westminster, where the government publishes SPAD details in full, and Stormont.


  • sonofstrongbow

    The ‘average industrial wage’ is a nebulous concept. The best approach is biblical: by their fruits shall ye know them.

    Holiday home in Donegal – check
    Urban pied-a-terre – check
    Car and chauffeur – check
    Nice suit – check
    = average industrial wage.

    Turgon I beg your indulgence. Please allow me to mention my yellow carding. This rule appears to be somewhat haphazardly applied. On the thread in question a poster depicted another poster as an ape. J’accuse …….., better not that would be ‘man-playing’ I guess. The insult went uncoloured. I employed a little satire, my ‘target’ seemingly moaned and I went yella.

    Yet another poster continually tries to shutdown discussion on a particular author’s threads by highlighting spelling errors and implying a lack of intelligence on the author’s part. No cards – ever.

    In the vernacular: WTF? Are the rules for some or all?

  • Turgon

    I do not know. I did not give you the card. Indeed I have never given anyone a card. If I regard anyone’s comments as unacceptable I refer them to Mick: I do not regard myself as an impartial referee. I have done this very rarely and to you never.

  • Neil

    Say what you like about big Jim (and I often do) but it looks like we’re going to get our money’s worth out of him. Seems to be asking the intelligent questions.

  • Cynic2

    Well even at £90k its cheaper than the cost of replacing the buildings they were blowing up.

  • Charminator

    sonofstrongbow – without digressing too much from the content of the present thread, I sympathize with your comments regarding the yellow card process.

    I received one earlier this month: I emailed requesting a further explanation. I received nothing. If the process cannot be implemented with due care and consideration – with reflection given and an answer provided if the determination is later considered wrong – then I’m not terribly convinced by its application, particularly given the resulting obvious chill effects on free speech. I’m fully aware of the “man-playing” notion which it seeks to reduce (and agree with the aim), but I sometimes wonder if the brandishing of such virtual cards is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. If comments are noxious, nasty and/or personalised, they will be shown as just that, lacking merit and devoid of persuasive content.

  • Kevsterino

    For what practical reason should special advisers pay be treated any differently than any other public servant? Concealing the compensation of someone in the employment of the public should be reserved for spooks and such.

  • Mick took issue with a blog by Turgon a couple of weeks ago. In his comment he said that man-playing has to be permitted?/ignored sometimes in the comment zone. I can’t remember his exact words. I find that odd. Either it is acceptable or it isn’t. Mind you, sometimes it’s a fine line.

  • alan56

    Every elected authority needs a Jim A. He should be funded as the official opposition!

  • lamhdearg

    Do you ever get the feeling you are being taken for a ride, and then think “ah what ya gonna do about it”.

    Strongbow, wear it as a badge off honor.

  • sonofstrongbow


    On reflection that’s my position. Perhaps Admin could follow the lead of FIFA and in a similar way to past World Cup winners signifying their success on their shirts past card awards could be signified by coloured bars beside ‘(profile)’?

    I think it would make me seem quite dashing, like a warplane fighter ace, to have these little flags beside my name.

    I’m available to advise Admin in a SPAD type role – £90k will secure my services.

  • Jack2

    90k in the private sector within NI gets you a heck of a person.

    Looking at these “special” advisors none would be able to cut the mustard at the very senior manager/director type level that the pay reflects.

    Its handy jobs for their boys (& girls) and its all coming out of our pockets.

    Heard this recently:
    For one man to do no work and get paid, one man has to work and not get paid.