Special Advisers - History and Comment.

Governments have for many years recruited a small number of temporary advisers or experts to supplement the support available from the permanent but apolitical civil service. At least some of these would today be called ‘Tsars’ – see further below. But it was Harold Wilson who began to appoint political supporters in significant numbers.

All Ministerial departments nowadays have one or more Special Advisers (often abbreviated to "SpAds" or "spads") who are personal appointees of the Secretary of State, but employed as temporary civil servants. Their main role is to give political, presentational and policy advice to Ministers, help write political speeches and articles, and if necessary add a political dimension to speeches etc. drafted by officials. They work closely with Private Offices and Press Offices and gave advice in parallel with line divisions.

Their role has since 2003 been developed in essentially minor ways, as follows:-

First, the Government proposed, in 2003, that Special Advisers should be able to convey Ministerial "instructions" to civil servants, thus by-passing both the civil service hierarchy and Ministers' Private Offices. The Government said that it "does not believe that this represents line management". However, it did for the first time threaten to place Special Advisers between Ministers and civil servants, a role previously held exclusively by private secretaries and line managers. As there is no legal limit to the number of Special Advisers, this created understandable concern that this was the thin end of a wedge which would eventually create a sizable US-style political (but unelected) class at the highest level within the Government machine. The proposal therefore caused quite a fuss so it was toned down so that Special Advisers were only allowed, on their own account, to "commission work from civil servants". But see the 2015 development, below.

Then, in 2005, a revised Code of Conduct said that Special Advisers could "request officials to prepare and provide information and data, including internal analyses and papers", which amounts to pretty much the same thing. The new Code also allowed Special Advisers to "give assistance [to Ministers] on any aspect of departmental business" rather than just provide advice. This is a subtle change of wording, and in principle it allowed Special Advisers rather more power, although it probably made very little difference in practice. The key thing is that it remained (and remains) the case that Special Advisers may not convey Ministerial instructions.

There was one important - though eventually temporary - exception to the position described above. The Civil Service (Amendment) Order in Council 1997, passed shortly after New Labour came into power, provided that up to three Special Advisers (in practice in No.10) could exercise management control over permanent civil servants. However, at first two and then only one appointee was authorised to exercise such power, and the Order was revoked when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007.

The incoming Coalition Government published a revised Special Advisers Code of Conduct in 2010 - but it was very similar to that published by the previous government (Special Advisers Code of Conduct 2009). This continues to supplement the Civil Service Code and the relevant Departmental Staff Handbooks, which continue to apply with exceptions for the rules relating to political impartiality and objectivity.

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 defined 'Special Adviser' in statute for the first time, required their numbers etc. to be reported annually, provided for the publication of the Special Advisers Code and provided that they may not authorise expenditure, nor exercise management or other power. They did, however, continue to be free to commission work from civil servants on behalf of their Minister.

The 2010-15 Coalition Government planned to introduce Extended Ministerial Offices – Traditional Ministers’ Private Offices augmented by a number of external advisers whose status would be similar to that of Special Adviser. But none had been created before the 2015 general election. For more information, see the Civil Service Reform section of this website.

Then, following the 2015 election, the Conservative Government amended the Special Advisers Code so as to allow SpAds to 'convey to officials Ministers’ views, instructions and priorities'. The insertion of the word 'instructions' - entirely without prior consultation - thus re-asserted the position that Labour Ministers had tried (but failed) to achieve in 2003. In response to subsequent questioning, Ministers argued that the change merely recognised what was happening anyway. The problem, of course, is that an individual Special Adviser may:

  • pass on an instruction following a private conversation with the Minister so that the purported decision has not been properly debated, or
  • assert that (s)he knows the Minister's mind, when they may have misunderstood it, or even deliberately added their own gloss or view to it.

This may not happen very often, but it could be highly damaging (including to the Minister) when it does happen. Officials do of course remain free to challenge the 'instruction' if they feel it necessary, but this would inevitably sour relations between officials and SpAds, whoever is proved right.

A revised Code of Conduct was published in late 2016 following Theresa May's appointment as Prime Minister.

Interesting Comments and Concerns

Speaking in 2002, Sir Andrew Turnbull, then Head of the Civil Service, seemed quite relaxed about civil servants working alongside Special Advisers and other "outsiders":- "We have increasingly a permanent Civil Service but not permanent civil servants". He was reportedly happy that civil servants have lost their "monopoly of policy advice". (Financial Times 1 May 2002).  Others are less sanguine about the possible politicisation of the civil service:- see the Civil Service Reform section of this website.

Permanent Secretary Martin Donnelly, speaking at the Institute for Government in June 2014, noted that UK “... political or personal advisers are not a separate layer of administration. In France or other countries with a cabinet system, advice will go to the member of the Minister's cabinet for approval and, if necessary change, before being sent to the Minister. Cabinet officials often have considerable decision-making powers in their own right and many issues never make it to the Minister. One implication of this system is that it requires many fewer junior Ministers.  Another is that inter-Ministerial coordination tends to function on two separate levels – political and official - leading to a higher risk of policy incoherence and conflict over resources.  The Whitehall model ensures that official advice is seen directly by the Minister. Additional comments can be provided by Special Advisers and by the Minister's private office, but they do not change the advice itself. It is this direct access, together with career progression which does not depend on Ministerial patronage, which allows honest and occasionally unwelcome advice to be provided."

Professor Colin Talbot has pointed out that Governments have, for many years, recruited eminent outsiders to lead particularly high profile campaigns or initiatives. These have in recent times often been nicknamed ‘Tsars’. The key difference between Tsars and SpAds is that the former are essentially apolitical appointments, although they will obviously be broadly sympathetic to their appointing minster’s policies. Taken together, however, Professor Talbot points out that SpAds and Tsars represent a significant shift in the way in which the policy-advice function operates in central government. There were in 2015 probably well over 130 SpAds and Tsars engaged in policy-advice roles in British central government. Given that there are about 120 Ministers in British central government, this means there are 250 or so politicians and politically-appointed policy-makers operating within the core executive. Compared to the total Senior Civil Service, the political and politically-appointed elite remains small – 250 or so compared to the 4,000 plus in the whole SCS. But that comparison may be misleading. It might be more appropriate to compare the politically-appointed elite with the very top of the civil service – maybe 200 strong. This group has arguably equivalent status to the political elite – and is slightly smaller in number.

The activity and behaviour of Special Advisers inevitably attracts much attention, much of it critical and much of it unfair (see a separate note on the Jo Moore - Martin Sixsmith affair). But there are the occasional very rotten apples and they are usually quickly shown the door, if only to save their principals' skins:

  • Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s SpAd, Damian McBride, resigned his position after it emerged that he and another prominent Labour Party supporter had exchanged emails discussing the possibility of disseminating rumours (that McBride had fabricated) about the private lives of some Conservative Party politicians and their spouses.
  • Conservative SpAd Adam Smith was forced to resign – probably to save his Minister from doing so – when he was shown to have become too close to News International during a competition investigation.
  • Prime Minister Theresa May's advisers ('Joint Chiefs of Staff') Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy resigned in response to a crescendo of well deserved criticism following the disastrous (for Mrs May) 2017 General Election.

Lord Patten's 2017 criticism of what he saw as the rising influence of spads was maybe more concerning. He said that the role of spad had evolved from provider of necessary support to a Secretary of State into a “counterproductive" class of official “who see it as their job to promote internecine warfare between departments on too many occasions”. Lord Patten said it was hardly surprising the civil service felt “undervalued with the emergence of huge numbers of megaspads” and called for a reduction in numbers on the principle of “one in, two out”.

Former Prime Minister John Major chipped later in 2017 with further trenchant criticism of a proportion of modern special advisers.

If you need more detail, UCL's Constitution Unit in 2013 published this interesting Research Note: Special Advisers and Public Allegations of Misconduct 1997 - 2013. Their Executive Summary noted that:

  • "Overall, there have been 26 key cases involving a special adviser being publicly accused of misconduct between 1997 and 2013. [Note that this is less than two a year.]
  • Over half of all allegations (15 out of 26) have involved departmental special advisers; less than half involved those at ‘the centre’ (i.e. No 10, Cabinet Office and the Treasury).
  • The most common department to be associated with public allegations of special adviser misconduct has been No.10, which has been involved with over one third of all cases (9 out of 26).
  • The “media” special adviser is the most common type of special adviser to be implicated in public allegations of misconduct. Policy special advisers have been involved just under a fifth of cases whereas media special advisers have been involved in all but one.
  • The type of misconduct which special advisers are most often alleged to engage is “personal attack”.
  • The number of allegations of special adviser misconduct appears to have increased, but it is unclear whether this is because of actual misconduct or because of intensified media scrutiny."


Martin Stanley

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