Salary cap and reforms announced for Stormont advisors in wake of RHI scandal

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By Rebecca Black

Special advisers at Stormont will face greater levels of accountability as well as a reduction in the maximum salary they can receive.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has published an updated code for special advisers (Spads).

It comes after the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme heard concerns around how, during the last Assembly, some special advisers behaved and what influence they wielded.

There were 16 Spads during the last Stormont mandate, including eight within the Executive Office.

The new code was agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive on Monday morning ahead of the appointment of Spads this week.

The updated code includes an £85,000 cap on the maximum salary a Spad can receive, a reduction from £91,809.

Salaries in three broad paybands - up to £54,999, £55,000-£69,000 and £70,000-£85,000 - will be set for Spads independently by Department of Finance officials.

The new code makes it clear that ministers are responsible for the appointment, conduct and discipline of Spads.

It will also require Spads to declare details of gifts and hospitality and meetings with external organisations, to keep good records, use official email accounts and serve the Executive as a whole, as well as their appointing minister.

IMAGE: Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Mr Murphy described Spads as "a critical part of the team supporting ministers".

"Special advisers should be subject to, and adhere to, the high standards expected of those in public life," he said.

"Given the public's legitimate concerns in this regard, I have moved quickly to produce and agree strengthened rules.

"If public confidence in these institutions is to be rebuilt, it is essential that these rules and the values that underpin them are put into practice."

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister expressed disappointment, saying Mr Murphy's statement on special advisers did not go far enough.

He has proposed a Bill which seeks to reduce the maximum salary further to around £70,000 and cut the number of Spads in the Executive Office from eight to four.

It would also create a specific criminal offence for a minister or special adviser to communicate confidential government information to a third party.

"Much of the content of changes to the code of conduct I do not disagree with, but the fundamental point remains: for a code of conduct to be given bite, it needs to be complemented by legislation underscoring its provisions and providing for enforcement," he said.

"I look forward to engagement on all these issues when my proposed Bill comes up for debate, but certainly nothing I see in Mr Murphy's statement dissipates the need for my Bill."

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