One year on from its introduction, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister’s Bill to tighten government functions around special advisers (SPADs) remains under scrutiny, having passed through the Assembly’s Consideration Stage in November 2020.
The Functions of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is the most progressed Private Member’s Bill in the Stormont Assembly. The Bill, which seeks to increase accountability around the recruitment and behaviour of SPADs in the wake of the RHI scandal and the wider tightening of appointments and conduct across the Civil Service, was subject to scrutiny over the course of 2020, with the Assembly sitting into the early hours of the morning to debate its provisions in late November 2020.
Allister is satisfied that his Bill had “emerged relatively unscathed”, saying that he expected the legislation to pass, even if it was to be slightly diluted. The amended version of the legislations that has come through the Consideration Stage has the support of the DUP, SDLP, UUP, Green Party and People Before Profit, but is still opposed by Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party.
Speaking after the late-night scrutiny session, Allister said: “It was always going to be necessary to take the concerns of others on board and seek to build as wide a consensus as possible and I am grateful that members from all sides of the chamber, apart from Sinn Féin, have found merit in at least some of my proposals. There is undoubtedly acknowledgment across the chamber that the people of Northern Ireland, whether unionist, nationalist or other, are distinctly unimpressed with what has gone on in Stormont in recent years with not even basic matters such as the keeping of minutes of meetings being addressed.” Despite Allister’s specific mention of the keeping of minutes, the Consideration Stage saw the removal of a provision that required the maintenance of minutes for all ministerial meetings and of a record of all ministers’ meetings with lobbyists.
The Bill seeks to amend sections seven and eight of the Civil Service (Special Advisers) Act and Article 3 of the Civil Service Commissioners (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, to repeal the Civil Service Commissioners (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2016, amend section 17 of the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. The practical effect of those changes would be the halving of the number of SPADs in the Executive Office, from eight to four, the nullification of any SPAD appointment that doesn’t comply with the Stormont Code of Conduct, the creation of a register of interests for ministers and SPADs, the restrictions of SPAD pay to Grade 5 of the Civil Service pay bands and making SPADs subject to the disciplinary code of the Civil Service.
Sinn Féin’s opposition to Allister’s Bill has been rooted in its assertion that the new code of conduct for SPADs introduced by Minister of Finance Conor Murphy is sufficient for curbing the excessive power wielded by SPADs that the RHI scandal exposed. Allister has, however, argued that codes of conduct have “demonstrably failed”; the RHI inquiry found that previous codes relating to both appointments and conduct had not been followed. Allister has consistently argued that only legislation can tackle the issue, with the Bill set to enter the Further Consideration Stage, the penultimate stage of scrutiny, his view could soon be put to the test.