SpAds need better training and support

15 October 2012

Ministers must recognise their responsibility, not just accountability, for the conduct of their special advisers (SpAds) so that SpAds, Ministers and Civil Servants work effectively together.

In their report, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) says SpAds should be "men and women of standing and experience" with a legitimate and valuable function to play in government, but they need better training and support to prevent future problems and misunderstandings about their role and conduct.  Ministers must recognise that they have responsibility, not just accountability, for the conduct of their special advisers, and actively ensure that they are fully aware of what their advisers are doing in their name. The Committee says that it remains concerned that this responsibility has "proved to be more theoretical than actual" -  and says it cannot recall any minister ever resigning over the conduct of a special adviser, despite some astonishing cases.

PASC says that the special advisers' role protects the impartiality of the Civil Service, by performing tasks which it would be inappropriate for permanent, impartial officials to perform, and helping to ensure that the Government's policy objectives are delivered, but that ministers must be able to justify that the tasks they undertake are in the public interest.

Training remains inadequate

Despite concerns raised by PASC's predecessor Committee more than ten years ago, the training and support for new special advisers remains inadequate. PASC says Government should ensure that all special advisers receive positive induction and training covering the scope and meaning of the codes of conduct to which special advisers are subject; the implications of their status as temporary civil servants; the nature of their accountability to Ministers (and Ministers' accountability to Parliament); the role of Permanent Secretaries; and where to seek advice and support on propriety issues.

A constructive working relationship between Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries should ensure that any potential problems with the performance or activities of special advisers are resolved at an early stage. Permanent Secretaries must, however, be vigilant and proactive guardians of propriety within their departments.  They are expected to offer advice when it is needed and, to do so effectively, they must ensure that they are fully aware of what departmental special advisers are doing in the name of their Minister and the department.

The Committee recommends: 

  • special advisers should be people who can contribute to the work of the department, and not simply be political bag carriers for their Minister
  • improved induction and training for special advisers, so they are not left exposed because of questionable activities they undertake in good faith
  • government should clarify its recent guidance to make clear that special advisers should play no part in quasi-judicial processes
  • information about Ministers’ special advisers should appear on departmental websites, including their names and a description of the policy areas in which they work, and the relevant departmental Select Committee should be notified as soon as they are appointed
  • Ministers and Permanent Secretaries must both ensure they are fully aware of what their special advisers are doing; Permanent Secretaries should advise Ministers accordingly, and Ministers have to take responsibility
  • Ministers should notify the relevant departmental select committee when they appoint a new adviser, setting out that individual's responsibilities and their qualifications for the role; Select Committees should not hold pre-appointment hearings, but reserve the right to call SpAds to give evidence on their role and qualifications for the job in exceptional circumstances
  • Permanent Secretaries who are unhappy that ministers have failed to address concerns raised about the activities of SpAds, or with outside advisers, should raise the matter with the Cabinet Secretary or the Head of the Civil Service
  • To make ministers accountable for their explicit responsibility under the Code, the PM’s Adviser on Ministers’ Interests should be empowered to instigate his own investigations of potential breaches of the Ministerial Code, so that the Prime Minister is not able to protect his ministers from appropriate investigation of the conduct of their advisers, and that the PM’s Adviser should himself be independently appointed and subject to a pre-appointment hearing

Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"The positive effect of special advisers is heavily dependent on a high degree of trust between them, their Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries, so there must be clarity of expectations about tasks and boundaries.  Positive induction and support will be so much more effective than negative rules and enforcement.

We have chosen this title, ‘Special advisers in the thick of it’, because we want to communicate something of the urgency of the issues we address.  The satire is extreme and overrated, but its power lies in the fact that there is more than a grain of truth in the drama.  We have seen special advisers sacked for being the focus of potential scandal; for a past which caught up with them; for being wholly under-qualified; and taking the rap for failing to understand the limits of their role, which should have been explained to them.  All this is avoidable.

Clearly, as a succession of departures has exposed, governments of both parties should take more care about the character and record of whom they appoint as special advisers.  Fulton made clear they are meant to be people of ‘experience and standing’.  Special advisers should not be seen as shady characters practicing the political dark arts, or be political bag carriers for their ministers.  They have become indispensable, because they can remove the need for permanent civil servants to support the more political roles of ministers.

The key question is not the about the number of special advisers, but whether the payment of each individual from the public purse can be justified, based on the necessity of the tasks that the special adviser is engaged to undertake, 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.

Governments should recruit people with the right values and the training and support should reinforce their confidence in a positive role.  More and more rules and restrictions will not make bad people good, or engender positive working relationships.  They have an entirely legitimate role in helping coordinate policy across government, but lines of accountability must be clear or they will not have the confidence to contribute effectively.  Where trust breaks down between special advisers and officials, ministers must address this, or leadership in government will suffer."

Further information

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