Stormont backs plans to change how special advisers operate

By Stephen Walker
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

Published
image copyrightReuters
image captionThere are a total of 14 Spads at Stormont

Plans to change the way special advisers (Spads) operate at Stormont have been backed by assembly members.

A private member's bill, brought by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, has passed its latest stage.

The Functioning of Government Bill aims to cut the number of Spads who advise ministers and put new rules in place.

A series of amendments, many brought by Sinn Féin who oppose the bill, were debated by assembly members for most of the day.

The politicians debated nearly sixty amendments for more than five hours.

The bill also provides for Spads to be the subject of processes and procedures of the disciplinary code that operates in the civil service.

Mr Allister said the changes were necessary to provide open government and were particularly needed following the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

He said it was "important we set the standard of what is expected and put into legislation".

image copyrightPA Media
image captionFinance Minister Conor Murphy said the changes were "not necessary"

Finance Minister Conor Murphy, of Sinn Féin, said his party rejected the need for legislation.

He told the assembly the planned changes were simply " not necessary".

His party colleague John O' Dowd said the changes would make the practice of government "more difficult".

The Upper Bann assembly member (MLA) said the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader's "rush" to bring forward the bill had brought forward "a very poor piece of legislation".

Responding in the debate, Mr Allister said he found some of Sinn Féin's comments "churlish".

He said Sinn Féin was being "small minded" in its criticism of who was bringing the bill.

He claimed Sinn Féin's attack on his bill may be linked to the fact he had previously brought forward a special advisers bill which barred "convicted terrorists" from office.

'Reform'

The bill also requires that the activities and meetings of ministers and special advisers be recorded within the civil service.

DUP MLA Paul Frew said he backed the changes, telling the assembly "what I see in this bill is reform".

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole said his party approached the bill with an "open mind" and the party was "broadly supportive", although he had some "reservations".

Andrew Muir, from the Alliance Party, said his party had some concerns about parts of the bill.

He said the bill has been improved by scrutiny in recent months.

The moves are being backed by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

Party leader Steve Aiken, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he welcomed the fact a series of amendments to the bill have been backed by the committee.

The moves are also being supported by Gerry Carroll, the People Before Profit MLA.

Parts of Mr Allister's original bill were amended by MLAs.

The changes included how some meetings were recorded and what meetings qualified.

The bill is expected to be debated again at Stormont for a final time in February.

Supporters of it hope it will receive Royal Assent before Easter.

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