DAVID CLARK, FORMER SPECIAL ADVISER TO
SPEAKING NOTE - SPECIAL ADVISERS:
MYTH AND REALITY
The debate about special advisers has become distorted out of all relation to the truth. So I want to start by dealing with some of the myths and falsehoods that surround the debate about them.
1. That there has been a general increase in the numbers of special advisers across Whitehall
There has been much attention given to the fact that the number of special advisers has approximately doubled under this government - from 38 to 81. Almost half of that increase has been in the PM's office alone. The picture in the rest of Whitehall is very mixed.
Under the Major government, most departments had one or two special advisers - that remains the case today. There are some exceptions to this rule - the Home Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister sometimes have three or four.
The biggest departmental increase has been in the Treasury - it used to have two and now has four or five, plus another four or five appointed as part of the Council of Economic Advisers.
So the increase is very specific and says as much about the centralisation of executive power in Downing Street (Numbers 10 and 11) as it does about the desire to politicise the process of government.
2. That special advisers are part of a deliberate strategy to politicise the civil service
The first point here is that special advisers have always had a political role. That is why they were invented - to prevent the rest of the government machine from being contaminated by having to handle work of a partisan political character. That is also why the civil service would be the first to complain if special advisers were abolished.
In any case, the numbers are simply too small to form the basis of a cabinet system on the French model. Nor do special advisers perform the sorts of functions required for them to gain administrative control of departments. Ministers' private offices, staffed by regular civil servants, remain at the heart of the process.
Much of the antagonism due to the close working relations and informal working methods Labour brought to office in 1997 - this was inevitable, but is already fading with the passage of time.
The impetus for Tony Blair's decision to beef-up No 10 was not to politicise the civil service, but to personalise his control of government from the centre. This involves a Downing Street machine composed of both special advisers and regular civil servants operating in a much more hands on way in directing the process of government.
The tension here is not between civil servants and special advisers; it is between core and periphery. It pitches special adviser against special adviser and civil servant against civil servant.
3. That the role of special advisers under this government is substantially different than under its predecessor
For the most part, there is little difference between what special advisers do now and what they did under the last government.
They continue to review departmental paperwork, liase with party bodies, provide political briefings for MPs, submit written and oral advice to ministers, speak to the press on a political basis and draft speeches and press releases with a political content.
They do not, as a rule, control access to ministers, issue instructions to civil servants or get involved in matters of departmental administration. Jonathan Powell is now the only formal exception. In the very few cases where other special advisers have attempted to do the same by informal means, it has usually ended up backfiring badly.
Most of the time when civil servants complain of interference of special advisers it is usually because they resent that fact that they don not enjoy a monopoly of advice. In my experience, civil servants can be the ultimate control freaks.
4. That special adviser is a synonym for 'spin doctor'
Very small minority of special advisers specialise in press management - something that has already greatly diminished and will continue to after Alastair Campbell's departure. This way of doing business is no longer seen as an asset.
At the Foreign Office, I spent a very small proportion of my time talking to journalists, and almost always at their instigation. In that I was very typical - exceptions could be counted in single figures.
5. That special advisers are unaccountable and out of control
Sensible Ministers understand very well that it is in their interests for special advisers to respect the boundaries and form good working relations with civil servants.
Special advisers also feel a very direct sense of accountability through the knowledge that when their Minister goes, they go too. They stand to lose their job if their Minister is sacked or forced to resign. This has a very direct effect on their behaviour. That is overwhelmingly the case across Whitehall.
Where special advisers have failed to understand this, there has been a very heavy price to pay. Gordon Brown was forced to get rid of Charlie Whelan when his activities became a running source of damaging coverage. Both Jo Moore and Stephen Byers ended up losing their jobs.
These myths have give rise to a number of erroneous suggestions for how the special adviser system should be revised.
1. Special advisers should be policy experts rather than political fixers
Of course special advisers have to have a good understanding of the issues they deal with. But the departments are already full of policy specialists and there is little to be gained by adding to their number.
Special advisers should mostly be generalists, valued for their political judgement rather than their detailed knowledge of policy substance.
2. Special advisers should be employed and paid by the governing party
Wicks considered this idea and sensibly decided to reject it. Firstly, political parties, as things stand, couldn't afford them and civil servants would once again run the risk of being compromised by the need to handle politically sensitive issues.
Secondly, as outsiders, they either wouldn't be able to see departmental paperwork that is essential for them to do their job, or they would be able to see it and would be beyond the normal disciplinary procedures if they abused that access.
3. Special advisers should be accountable to Select Committees
This would certainly be justified in the exceptional cases where special advisers have been give executive authority (now only Jonathan Powell). Those who make decisions should always be accountable for them. In every other circumstance it is quite unnecessary.
Whenever a Minister accepts the advice of a special adviser it automatically becomes his or her policy and they become accountable for it in the normal way. It would not profit anyone for Select Committees to scrutinise advice that had been rejected.
4. Special advisers should have to pass the civil service exam
I passed the exams myself several years ago and don't feel that it made me better qualified than any other special adviser.
In any event, special advisers are meant to complement the advise of civil servants, not duplicate it. They need very different qualities and a rather different mindset in order to generate a bit of creative tension.
In the final analysis, the qualities of a good special adviser are in the eye of the beholder - in this case the Minister. In this I agree very strongly with the Wicks committee's view that "defining characteristic of special advisers is their personal appointment".
WICKS COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS
Welcome the recommendations of the Wicks committee - very balanced and fair report. Two slight reservations -
Firstly, it is unfortunate that the Committee's suggestion that special advisers should be prevented by statute from behaving illegally or improperly interfering in civil service matters created the impression among some people that such behaviour was currently the norm. It is not.
Secondly, I agree with the need to cap numbers, but this must be broken down into allocations for No 10 and departments. Without this, Downing Street would insist on a disproportionate share of the total, thus increasing the risk of centralisation.
The 'moral panic' over special advisers highlights some of the least attractive features of contemporary British political debate:
- The obsession with personality based narratives - politics as soap opera.
- The fact that the British political debate remains constitutionally illiterate.
It is a distraction from the real issue of how to develop a constitutional settlement with effective checks ands balances. Special advisers are, I would submit, a small and rather trivial detail of that debate.