Political news

New approach, new code of conduct for spads – but critics complain it lacks bite

Conor Murphy said spads should adhere to the high standards expected of those in public life. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

STORMONT ministers will be responsible for the conduct and discipline of their special advisers, according to a new code published yesterday by the finance minister.

The 16 aides, eight of whom are based in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, will also have an £85,000 salary cap, alongside greater levels of accountability.

The new code, which was among governance measures outlined in the New Decade New Approach agreement, is designed to curb the kind of conduct that came to light during the RHI Inquiry.

When probed at the public inquiry over the conduct of her former spad Andrew Crawford, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she was "accountable but... not responsible".

The new code comes ahead of this week's appointment of spads to ministers in the freshly restored executive.

It sees the maximum salary for Stormont aides reduced by almost £7,000 to £85,000.

Department of Finance officials will set the spads' pay in three broad salary bands – up to £54,999, £55,000-£69,000 and £70,000-£85,000.

There will also be a register of gifts, hospitality and meetings with lobbyists that will be published yearly, while spads are expected to keep good records of meetings and use official email accounts.

Conor Murphy said spads are a "critical part of the team supporting ministers" but that they should adhere to the high standards expected of those in public life.

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

"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."

The new code appears to have the support of Stormont's five main parties, all of whom have at least one seat at the executive table.

However, TUV leader Jim Allister, who last week launched his own private members bill which would impose greater sanctions on spads who breach the code of conduct, said Mr Murphy's new measures lacked bite.

"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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