The rise of the SpAdocracy
The kerfuffle about the way in which Mark Fulbrook was being paid was only too predictable, particularly given the haziness of IR35 requirements which this case once again highlighted.
But what interested me more is the general principle of Special Advisers being paid for by the taxpayer, whether they be directly-employed temporary civil servants or secondees from private lobbying companies.
The official line is that ‘Special advisers are a critical part of the team supporting Ministers. They add 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.’
It’s a noble aspiration. The very first SpAds, back in Harold Wilson’s day, were two distinguished Oxbridge economists, Nicky Kaldor and Tommy Balogh. Not everybody’s cup of tea, but nobody doubted their professional credibility and they did introduce some interesting ideas which Treasury civil servants would have been unlikely to dream up by themselves. For instance, Kaldor was the brains behind the Selective Employment Tax, which taxed services employment and subsidised manufacturing employment in the (mistaken) belief that this would lead to faster productivity growth.
But in more recent times, the Big Names amongst special advisers have not been economic experts, or people schooled in the intricacies of the benefits systems or trade law who might indeed bring in a new analytical perspective and innovative suggestions for serious policies. They have instead been political brawlers such as Alastair Campbell and Dominic Cummings, whose main contribution, such as it was, involved asserting what policies would play well with voters while loudly undermining elected members of the government who disagreed with them and civil servants who couldn’t answer back.
The likes of Campbell and Cummings were top-of-the-range SpAds, paid a salary comparable to that of the Prime Minister (Mr Fulbrook appears to be similarly placed). But below them there is a long tail of more junior people.
SpAds change every time there is a reshuffle, and the list of advisers to the new administration is as yet incomplete. We do know quite a few of them already, though. Eventually I expect that there will be around 120 SpAds, as has been the case in recent years. They will cost us £12 million a year. The numbers have been drifting up: we somehow managed with 80 or less at the end of the Blair-Brown governments or early Cameron.
Many of the new crop appear to be publicists and political gofers, with titles such as ‘Press Secretary’ ‘Regional Media’ ‘Speechwriter’ and ‘Digital Video’. Roles such as these are really about promoting the Conservative Party’s electoral chances rather than contributing to good governance. Many of this crop of SpAds will be bright young people, but a period as a SpAd is mostly seen as a useful stepping-stone to an eventual seat in the House of Commons. The way of the world, I guess, and I wouldn’t blame any individual for taking the opportunity.
But the recruitment of special advisers is haphazard and seems to be based on who they know, and have perhaps worked with before. Several will move around with their ministers from Department to Department, presumably (like the ministers) learning enough to make plausible noises as they go. But it’s a funny old business.
There is no rigorous assessment process. I worked on recruitment for the Government Economic Service for many years and, whatever you may think of the civil service mindset, the people who got through selection boards were pretty bright individuals. Their pay will often be way below that of comparatively inexperienced SpAds who have gone through a far less rigorous selection process.
The Opposition parties, so far as I am aware, have no qualms about this set-up. After all, they will expect the same facility when in office. Meanwhile, they get ‘Short money’ (named after a long-gone Labour Party politician who first instituted it, and based on seats captured in the House of Commons), ‘Cranborne Money’ (assisting members of the House of Lords) and a ‘Policy Development Grant’, all of which can be used for similar purposes. All this lot, incidentally, cost taxpayers a roughly similar amount, £12 million, last year.
In the big picture, the sums spent on SpAds and their Opposition equivalents is trivial. But if we are looking for cuts in public spending, here is one which would be largely painless. Let’s cap the numbers of these advisers at a much smaller level – and insist that all recruits have clear and demonstrable expertise in areas of government policy and administration, rather than simply political ambition and a pleasing manner. If we must bring in outsiders as press and publicity people, they should be paid for by the political parties their efforts support, not by you and me.