First ministers' office special advisers costing £820,000 a year
SPECIAL advisers in the First Ministers' Office are receiving pay packets worth in total more than £820,000 a year, new figures show.
Their salary and pension contributions have increased by almost a third in the years since the St Andrews Agreement restored the executive in 2007.
Eight special advisers (Spads) are employed in the Executive Office for Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness and two junior ministers.
In total Stormont employs 16 special advisers, compared with 11 in the Scottish Government and eight in the Welsh Government.
The latest figures show special advisers in the Executive Office received £658,077 in salaries and £163,929 in pension contributions during 2015/16.
It is an increase of about 30 per cent on the £533,945 in salaries and £98,529 pension pot in 2007/08.
Over the nine-year period more than £7m has been spent on salaries and pension contributions for special advisers in the Executive Office.
Spads can each earn annual salaries stretching to more than £90,000.
Politically appointed but paid from the public purse like civil servants, Spads have been a source of controversy in the past over wages and accountability.
In October the DUP and Sinn Féin were criticised for blocking an assembly bid to curb Spad spending.
However, Spad numbers have since fallen with three posts cut earlier this year due to the executive reducing the number of departments from 12 to nine.
UUP East Belfast MLA Andy Allen, who received the figures in response to an assembly question, described the spending as "out of control".
"These figures demonstrate that the cost of special advisers is simply not justifiable," he said.
"I would call on the first ministers to initiate an immediate review of the numbers and costs of special advisers in their department, especially now that so many of its responsibilities have been transferred to other departments."
Among First Minister Arlene Foster's Spads is Stephen Brimstone, who was at the centre of a Stormont inquiry into claims of political interference in the Housing Executive.
Mr Brimstone was embroiled in political controversy in 2013 when ex-DUP councillor Jenny Palmer claimed he had bullied her in a phone call about a Housing Executive meeting.
He was a Spad to the social development minister at the time but was later promoted to the first minister's office when Peter Robinson was in charge. Mr Brimstone denied any wrongdoing.
Mr Allen expressed concern over the accountability of Spads and cited the treatment of Ms Palmer, who is now an Ulster Unionist MLA.
"Despite being entirely paid for from the public purse these special advisers continue to remain wholly unaccountable to anyone but their party leader," he said.
In a joint statement the first minister and deputy first minister said the pay bill for special advisers in the executive overall has fallen with the cut in departments.
"The employment of special advisers adds a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to ministers while reinforcing the political impartiality of the permanent Civil Service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support," they said.
"Consequently advisers are a necessary part of our structures and one the UUP were content to avail of when they had ministers."