Special Advisers

One of the amendments I tabled to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill covered special advisers.  In recent years, special advisers have become an issue of contention.  The growth in their number over the past decade or so has raised concerns about their cost to the public purse.  Also, instead of operating unseen, some have become part of the story. 

As I said when speaking to my amendment, special avisers have a role to play.  They can be of value not only to ministers but also to civil servants, in that they can deflect partisan issues away from officials and serve as conduits between party bodies and ministers.  However, in order to allay concern about their role, I proposed that the number of special advisers be limited to two per minister, subject to certain exceptions.  In debate on the amendment, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Armstrong of Ilminster said that if the House was minded to accept the amendment he would be content with it. 

The Government came up with various objections. not least that if you stipulate two per minister as the limit, the limit will become the norm.  There was also the point that I did not confine it the Cabinet ministers, raising the prospect of other ministers wanting advisers.  As a result, I did not pursue the amendment.  In the light of the discussion, it struck me that there was another way of getting at the problem: that is, to limit the total number of special advisers who could be in receipt of a salary.  This would be similar to the situation with ministers.  There is a limit on the number of ministers who may be in receipt of a ministerial salary.  The Prime Minister can (and presently does) appoint other ministers but they serve as unpaid ministers. 

In normal circumstances, I could have come back with an amendment along these lines at Report stage.  The problem was, of course, that we were in the wash-up, so there was no time for any amendments at Report stage.  This serves to highlight the problem with the wash-up.  The issue of special advisers is one I am minded to return to in the new Parliament.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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11 Responses to Special Advisers

  1. Dave H says:

    The maximum number of paid special advisers for the whole government is a good one, especially if combined with a maximum of two per minister. If it was pitched low enough, one minister having two would require another one to do without. You might also split it per department – is it really necessary for each individual Treasury minister, or each individual education minister to have their own advisers?

    You could also put in something to require that advisers needing to use civil service resources (if indeed they are even allowed to at present) should channel their requests via a particular route, so that it would be easy to see who asked for what and whether it was an appropriate request.

    It was somewhat ironic that a government that came to power claiming that the Lords was unelected and not in tune with the will of the people should come to depend on a whole set of unelected and unaccountable advisers who often were not in tune with the will of the people either.

  2. Carl.H says:

    One of my bug bears about Government has always been who is behind the scenes and perhaps pulling the strings. The people that inform or advise Ministers are the ones actually Governing and it is disconcerting that these abound.

    Obviously if Dave gets in, this is one thing he could save money on in his cut backs.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    How many spads resigned when the election was called? Does this tally with your reckoning?

  4. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,
    I wonder if you have looked at any of the news about discussions of “czars” in American governemtn latley. There are some similarities and their might be some cross-polination of ideas on how to deal with them. However, because their is not one single person titled “czar” here and because by their nature each one is likely to have a distinct portfolio we have the additional problem that perhaps nobody knows who all the czars are nor what they do. None I believe claim any right to rule Russia for those entirely unfamiliar with this part of our affairs.

  5. franksummers3ba says:

    Carl H. and Lady Tizzy,
    Clearly BBC America and C-Span on parliament have left me unaware that the term was transatlantic in application. Thank you for enlightening me.

  6. franksummers3ba says:

    Dave H. & Lady Tizzy,
    I always use Tsar except in the political context of one of these independents. But both are used. The etymology is Latin (it means Ceasar) to Greek to Russian to English directly or to Arabic then German and then English. So with that provenance it is not surprising that there are variants. Kaiser Bill, Julius Ceasar, Tsar Nicholas and Czar Bill Bennet would be my idea of the conventions as they stand now.

  7. Croft says:

    Certainly a maximum alongside an overall paid limit seems sensible otherwise powerful/ego driven senior minister are likely to want 2 or 3 or even 4 Spads leaving others with none. I seem to remember that the lords has a set number of salaried ministers (20?) within the overall limit. Something similar with Spads perhaps to ensure the lords doesn’t see its ministers without spads?

    As to the other points I do think some statutory basis for Spads, their terms, relationship with the civil service and accountability to parliament might be useful.

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