Inside the world of the spads

26 May 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

Spads: essential to good government

Earlier this month the Office of First Minister deputy First Minister released information that it was ordered to by the  Information Commissioner revealing the salaries paid to the special advisors working for the First Minister.

Interestingly the information was divulged two days after the General Election, despite the order stipulating that it should be provided within 35 days which would have meant that the salaries came out during the campaign.

There was outrage when it transpired that three of Peter Robinson’s advisors were being paid almost £92,000 per year, the maximum permitted. We already know that the total bill for spads in Northern Ireland is just short of £2 million per annum.  

However there has been very little explanation of what spads actually do.  

Special advisers were introduced by former Prime Minister Harold Wilson as a means by which Ministers can access political advice alongside the civil service, which is apolitical.

They are supposed to help the civil service to think about the political implications of policy options in order to make sure that policies are well designed and implemented, and they also deal with party political matters, such as speech writing and liaising with party colleagues.

Many civil servants are very positive about them because without special advisors they would inevitably be drawn into party political issues and their integrity and neutrality compromised.

Spads are often criticised for politicising the civil service, yet their role is actually to prevent it. They can also use their skills and contacts to make things happen that civil servants cannot.

The Farepak case of 2006 is a good example of the system working well. Farepak was a company that ran a Christmas hamper scheme used mainly by people on low wages. When it collapsed, scheme members faced a bleak Christmas with no compensation: a potential disaster for all but the circling loan sharks.

From a civil service perspective this was a straight forward insolvency and nothing could be done to help. However Trade Minister Ian McCartney put his special advisors to work. They pulled together charities, other hamper schemes, Farepak’s bank HBOS and appealed to the big supermarkets to help. In total £8 million was raised, and what could have been a PR disaster led to a welter of positive stories about the government for intervening in this way.

When spads work well they are invisible and good work is rarely if ever accredited to them. But when things go wrong …

The Blair government recruited so many spads that they were often characterised as a shadow civil service and some, most prominently Alastair Campbell, appeared to many observers to have too much influence given that they are not elected.

There were also disquiet about their roles which started when Tony Blair and his Home Secretary Gordon Brown used their spads to spin against each others’ offices. Quite rightly questions were raised as to why taxpayers’ money was being used to fund a feud.

This was followed by two scandals. The Brown advisor Damian McBride was forced to resign after leaked emails revealed that he was plotting a sex smear campaign against leading Conservatives. And Liz Moore, advisor to Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, had to go after being caught up in allegations that she had wanted to “bury bad news” on the day of Princess Margaret’s funeral.

Useful or not, every time a spad has got into trouble, the Minister who he or she is supposed to be the eyes and ears for will always deny any knowledge of the misbehaviour.

If Ministers were to be held directly accountable for all activities undertaken by their special advisors whether they were aware of them or not, then that might go a long way to restoring confidence in the system.

As to who they are: the Fulton committee of 1966, which was set up by Harold Wilson, said they should be “men and women of standing and experience”.

Yet a recent survey of spads in the last Conservative government reveals that the vast majority of spads come out of PR, are former “political advisors” or else were members of “think tanks”. Whether that qualifies as practical, hands-on experience of anything is very much a matter for debate.

It would be good to see more with a good working knowledge of the areas on which they were helping to shape policy being appointed: it would be great to see spads from a teaching background in the Department of Education, for example, and the odd environmentalist in the Department of the Environment, social workers in Social Development etc, instead of political careerists, policy wonks and PR people.

This bias is not evident in the First Minister’s office when, until Gavin Robinson stepped down to stand as an MP, the four spads comprised three barristers and an accountant: all of whom might expect to earn more in their respective professions than they do at Stormont Castle.

However, what is missing, and it is a really big omission, is greater transparency around them. Holding back salary details delayed the inevitable and gives the impression that there is something to hide.

Instead we should get greater clarity: so when Stephen Brimstone replaced Gavin Robinson, given that taxpayers are footing the bill, we have a right to know why.

In 2012 The House of Commons Public Administration Committee conducted in an enquiry into the role of special advisers and published a report which called for information about spads to appear on departmental websites including “advisers names and a description of the policy areas in which they work and the types of tasks they undertake, alongside the equivalent information about ministerial portfolios and the responsibilities of members of the Departmental Management Board.”

The Public Administration Committee also recommended that ministers: “notify the relevant departmental select committee whom they have appointed as a new special adviser, setting out that individual’s responsibilities and their qualifications for the role, including why they believe him or her to be of suitable ‘standing and experience’."

This has not been implemented at Westminster and there have been no moves to provide that sort of clarity here. It’s time that this was addressed. There is so much that is undermining confidence in the political process that it seems madness to needlessly create further barriers to understanding.








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