Special advisers in the thick of it - Public Administration Committee Contents

3 Numbers

46.  In its 2008 Report Constitutional Renewal: Draft Bill and White Paper, a predecessor Public Administration Select Committee concluded that, if legislation were passed to ensure that special advisers could not authorise expenditure or exercise management functions or statutory powers, "there would be no need for Parliament to control the number of special adviser appointments".[49] This was subsequently achieved in the wording of section 8 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

47.  Prior to the May 2010 General Election, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties had made commitments to cut the number of special advisers in Government, and these pledges were reflected in the Coalition Agreement by a commitment to "put a limit on the number of special advisers". Shortly after taking office, the Government revised the Ministerial Code to limit the number of special advisers to two per Minister (plus limited extra advisers for ministers regularly attending Cabinet or with additional ministerial responsibilities).[50]

48.  Sixty-six special advisers were initially appointed in May 2010 (twelve fewer than were in post at the end of March 2010). The most recent figures published by the Cabinet Office indicate that there are now 81 special advisers in post (58 Conservative and 23 Liberal Democrat), though the Minister and the Cabinet Office were both keen to emphasise that the numbers were "around the same as they were with the last Government but split between two parties" and that this figure represents a very small proportion (around 2%) of the total Senior Civil Service.[51]

49.  Professors Martin Smith and David Richards, and Mr Diamond, of the University of Sheffield, endorsed this point, noting that "the notion that at their peak less than ninety-odd political appointees are capable of overwhelming or neutering the power and resources of a bureaucratic machine the size of Whitehall is ill-judged".[52]

50.  The only witness to argue emphatically in favour of a strict limit on the number of special advisers was the Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP, who told us that:

[A strict limit on numbers] is very frustrating for Secretaries of State but I think it is necessary. Without it, Number 10 would be beset with requests for more special advisers from every Minister and having the most special advisers would turn into a virility test for ministers and a 'badge' of power within government. Also, the role of the special adviser is dependent on a close relationship with the Minister. If a Secretary of State had a multiplicity of special advisers it would negate that. And it would be unpopular with the public because of the cost to the public purse.[53]

51.  Professor Martin Smith supported the idea of an eventual upper limit on the total number of special advisers, "so that they are not creating a party civil service next to the traditional civil service", but he felt that the UK was "a long way from that, so it would not be a concern for me".[54]

52.  In contrast, Zoe Gruhn of the Institute for Government rejected arbitrary limits, arguing that the number of special advisers should be determined purely by need:

What do you need to function properly? What do you need to function properly in Number 10 and each of the Departments? Do not be hung up on actual numbers, because, at the end of the day, it is an organisation; it is a machine that has to work.[55]

In written evidence, Ms Gruhn also noted that "the track record of strict limits is that they are circumvented, which undermines transparency and confidence in the system".[56]

53.  Democratic Audit, an independent research organisation based at the University of Liverpool, shared this concern, suggesting that "a strict limit on the number of special advisers does not seem appropriate. It is more important that those who are employed are properly regulated".[57] Democratic Audit drew particular attention to the case of Adam Werritty, whose activities as an unpaid, unofficial adviser led to the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP.[58] Mr Werritty's unofficial status meant that he was not subject to any security vetting, nor bound by the terms and conditions within the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, or the Model Contract.

54.  The Committee on Standards in Public Life shared Democratic Audit's concern, saying:

Ministers are entitled to take advice from whoever they wish, whether or not they have been appointed as special advisers. But the position of such individuals needs to be clearly set out so that they themselves, ministers and civil servants are left in no doubt about the level of access they should be accorded and the activities it is legitimate for them to undertake, particularly where their decisions have implications for security or propriety.[59]

55.  There is a clear parallel here with the conclusion reached by our predecessor Committee in its 2010 Report Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament that there was "little transparency concerning the informal and ad hoc appointments made by government" and that the Cabinet Office should "continue to maintain a list of such appointments and that guidance should be issued to clarify how far 'tsars' speak for themselves or for the Government". [60]

56.  Permanent secretaries and ministers' private offices should be ready to accommodate ministers' wishes to have access to outside advice, but it is also self-evident that any person—whether paid or unpaid—who has access to Government papers and ministerial meetings should be properly vetted and regulated. Privileges such as access to Government buildings, and to ministerial papers and meetings, must be balanced with clarity for all concerned over individual advisers' responsibilities and the terms and conditions on which that access is granted.

Coalition Government

57.  We were interested in whether the role of special advisers, or the number required, was different under a coalition from that under a majority administration. Michael Jacobs suggested that having special advisers of both coalition parties either working in, or shadowing the work of, each Government department "makes the process of liaison and discussion between the two parties easier".[61]

58.  Professor Martin Smith, of the University of Sheffield, also noted that, in departments where the Secretary of State is from a different party to the Prime Minister, "the natural party link is not there any more" and that special advisers in Number 10 might have a role in "ensuring that link carries on, so that the Prime Minister is not disconnected from a Secretary of State, from a different party, who runs a Department".[62]

59.  In written evidence, both the Constitution Unit at University College London and the Institute for Government argued that more special advisers were needed under a coalition administration.

60.  The Institute for Government argued that additional special advisers were needed "to address imbalances across Government that prevented the smaller coalition partner from having a proportionate voice and an effective role in Government" and "to preserve the [Liberal Democrat] Party's identity and influence across Whitehall".[63]

61.  The Constitution Unit was more concerned with the efficiency of Government, citing research from New Zealand which suggested that "multiparty governments require greater time for interparty negotiation. Such negotiations are highly political: special advisers play an important role, relieving the burden on their ministers".[64] They argued that the coalition's efforts to cut down on the number of special advisers was a "false economy" if "ministers felt themselves short of political support and advice" and "special advisers are so overworked that the system can barely cope".[65]

62.  The Minister admitted that:

There was a view before the Coalition was formed that the numbers should be limited, though no one at that stage had thought through the implications in a coalition. You will see from the trajectory that there has been an increase in the number of special advisers, which I think reflects the unusual circumstances of a coalition but I think the numbers are still […] around the same as they were with the last Government but split between two parties.[66]

63.  We note the view of our predecessor Committee that a strict limit on the total number of special advisers is not necessary. We would certainly not wish to create a situation which encourages attempts to circumvent arbitrary rules, or leaves the Government lacking the advice and support that it legitimately requires, but we also note Harriet Harman's point that too many special advisers would negate the personal nature of their appointment and role.[67]

  1. The crucial question is not simply the number of special advisers but whether the case can be made for the payment of each individual from the public purse, based on whether the Minister can justify that the tasks the special adviser is engaged to undertake are in the public interest ; the need for those tasks to be undertaken by a personal appointee rather than a permanent civil servant; and the person's qualifications and ability to undertake them.

49   Public Administration Select Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2007-08, Constitutional Renewal: Draft Bill and White Paper, HC 499, para 44 Back

50   Cabinet Office, Ministerial Code, May 2010, section 3.2 Back

51   Cabinet Office, Special Advisers in Post at 17 July 2012, 17 July 2012; Q 88; Ev 55  Back

52   Ev 31 Back

53   Ev 53  Back

54   Q 52 [Professor Smith] Back

55   Q 51 [Zoe Gruhn] Back

56   Ev 52 Back

57   Ev 45 Back

58   Ev 44 Back

59   Ev 34  Back

60   Public Administration Select Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2009-10, HC 330,paras 101-102 Back

61   Q 43  Back

62   Q 46 Back

63   Ev 51 Back

64   Ev 47 Back

65   Ev 48 Back

66   Q 88 Back

67   Ev 53 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 14 October 2012