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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