By Joanna George
Research Associate, University of Cambridge

Special advisers, also known as ‘SpAds’, are a unique type of civil servant who play a key role in the functioning of government, both in the UK and devolved governments. Unlike ordinary civil servants who are politically impartial, generalists, typically permanent and are appointed by the UK Home Civil Service, SpAds are political appointees, specialists, temporary in nature and are directly appointed by the Prime Minister, First Minister, or ministers within the cabinet office. This means that when the minister leaves their ministerial office their SpAds’ appointment automatically ends too.  

The role of SpAds has evolved considerably since the 1960s and 1970s to meet the growing demands of modern government, with more than 100 SpAds currently working in the UK Government. In addition, the role has become increasingly formalised and high-profile, with Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former Chief Adviser, being one of the most notable (and controversial) SpAd figures in recent years.     

The origins of the SpAd 

A distinguishing characteristic of civil servants is their appointment on the basis of fair and open competition, as well as their commitment to impartiality and objectivity as highlighted in the Civil Service Code. The formal requirements expected of civil servants can be contrasted with SpAds who are regularly appointed through informal political relationships and associations. Their origins stem as far back as the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in 1721 who, like subsequent officeholders, employed ‘outside’ advisers to assist in navigating the affairs of government.  

In the early 20th century, Prime Minister David Lloyd George established a secretariat of outside advisers during World War I, bringing in expertise that the permanent civil service was thought to lack. One notable figure who we can think of as a modern-day SpAd is William Beveridge, one of the key innovators of the British welfare system, who worked within the UK Government during both world wars. Such figures were appointed for their ability to understand the concerns of ministers whilst also possessing political skills, expert knowledge, the ability to help keep ministers up to date with the world beyond Whitehall and provide useful contacts that ordinary civil servants lacked.  

Despite the long presence of such advisers, their number was very small in comparison to the volume of ministers and ordinary civil servants. The transition to a formalised system and regular appointment of SpAds arose in 1974 when Prime Minister Harold Wilson acknowledged in a paper (‘The Political Advisers Experiment’) that ministers were overburdened with the increasing workload of modern government. It was envisaged that SpAds could offer a different perspective to ordinary civil servants who, at that time, came from narrow social and educational backgrounds. Similarly, it was expected that SpAds could provide ‘an extra pair of hands, eyes and ears’ to initiate potentially radical political change in contrast to the stability and continuity of the civil service.  

What do SpAds do? Are they becoming more influential?    

The responsibilities of SpAds are varied and complex, ranging from writing speeches, liaising with political parties, providing media advice, and driving their minister’s legislative agenda. In the current UK Government, most cabinet ministers have two SpAds – one for policy and one for media, with parliamentary work also designated alongside. This differs from the Prime Minister who had 43 SpAds working for him in July 2021 – twice as many than in 2010. The number of SpAds, has led to concerns that executive power has become more concentrated in the hands of unelected officials, potentially undermining the quality of government decision-making.  

Whilst the Code of Conduct for Special Advisors provides limits on what SpAds can and can’t do, the current and highly questionable ethical standards of government has undermined and undervalued the importance of scrutiny of SpAds and their role within the workings of the UK’s constitutional framework. In response to the high-profile media conference of Dominic Cummings explaining why he travelled from London to Durham during Covid-19 restrictions, he revealed that he regularly made decisions that the Prime Minister did not agree to. Without approval from the Prime Minister, this meant that Cummings acted without authority and responsibility to Parliament for his actions through the Prime Minister.   

In response, the Institute for Government recommended that ministers should agree to requests for high-profile SpAds to appear in front of parliamentary select committees, whilst last week the House of Commons Committee of Privileges suggested that fines, and not just being in contempt of Parliament,  should be introduced if private individuals fail to appear before a parliamentary select committee. Without transparency and accountability, combined with a lax approach to properly managing SpAds, ministers’ risk having their authority substituted and undermined. How does this impact the relationship between the electorate and those they elect to govern them?  

The constitutional status of SpAds 

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the role and status of SpAds has become increasingly constitutionalised. The most significant texts outlining this at UK level include: 

  • The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers – this provides detailed guidelines for special advisers. Since it was first published in 2001 it has been revised several times. For example, in 2016 it was updated to give SpAds the power to express to officials the views, instructions, and priorities of their ministers on their behalf. It was also updated to acknowledge that SpAds are employed to serve ‘the Prime Minister and the Government as whole, not just their appointing Minister’. In addition, SpAds must abide (where it does not conflict with the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers) by the Civil Service Code and the Ministerial Code.  
  • Section 15 of the Constitutional and Reform and Governance Act 2010 – this defined a SpAd in statue for the first time. 
  • The 2018 Ministerial Code – this was updated to provide more public accountability for SpAds. It states that ‘Individual Ministers will be accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.’ 

In response to the initial Sue Gray investigation into gatherings held in Downing Street during Covid-19 restrictions, the Prime Minister announced that the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers and the way it is enforced would be reviewed. However, at the time of writing no further details have been announced.   

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