ON Monday the Assembly published Jim Allister’s bill on special advisers. It is a perfect example of the legislature operating as it should, but also of the potential for unintended consequences.
Special advisers, known as SPADs, are vitally important to our system of government.
In the middle of the 19th century the civil service as we know it today was created. It was intended to be an elite cadre of specialists, who were more than mere support staff. As servants of the Crown their allegiance was to be to the government of the day, switching immediately upon a change of government. The idea was strict impartiality and apolitical advice to ministers in exercise of executive function.
SPADs are a special breed of civil servant who, unlike permanent staff, are appointed at the absolute discretion of the minister, have no duty of impartiality, and leave office with him, or when he says so. They exist for two reasons.
Primarily they are there as a protective layer between the minister and civil service. The minister requires a firewall, often in the form of a second pair of eyes, to protect him from taking decisions with adverse political consequences which the civil service are strictly forbidden from providing advice on.
The second purpose is practical rather than intentional. The civil service are not always the benign tool of their minister that they were intended to be. They have their own agenda; they sometimes do not have the minister’s best interests at heart. Michael Gove recently fought an unusually public battle with his own department, who he felt were doing all they could to stifle his radical shake-up of the education system in England and Wales.
Special advisers, indeed junior ministers, can often serve as a bulwark for the minister against an occasionally hostile civil service.
SPADs who are doing their jobs properly serve to assist driving through their minister’s agenda, and protecting him against making decisions the consequences of which apolitical civil servants are not permitted to warn him of. In Northern Ireland each minister is allowed one special adviser, with the first and deputy first ministers allowed three each.
Almost 15 years into the return of devolution, our senior civil service remain graduates of largely unaccountable direct rule government. Permanent secretaries are finding themselves in trouble for poor judgment with unprecedented frequency. The soon to be axed Department for Employment and Learning describes its organisational structure as “headed by the Permanent Secretary, who is the Accounting Officer with responsibility for providing advice and guidance to The Minister”. The department is actually headed by the minister, and stating otherwise is instructive as to attitudes.
The Travers murderer case was a particularly egregious example of Northern Ireland’s past catching up with its politics. Jim Allister’s bill would solve this problem by preventing anyone sentenced to a term of imprisonment of five years or more from being a special adviser. That is intended to be the primary purpose of the legislation.
However, he has decided to also include other matters in the bill. If passed, it will require the finance minister to report to the Assembly each year on how many advisers there are and how much they cost as well as devise a code of conduct for special advisers. Worryingly, however, it requires a code for the appointment of SPADs. While this is intended to entrench a requirement to security vet candidates, it also provides a general power for the department of finance, for the first time, to have a say in the appointment of special advisers.
The right of a minister to appoint their special advisor free from interference by the civil service is a vital principle to be protected. There is a justification for legislation that requires candidates to be security vetted and to be of a certain standard of character. However the general way in which this is drafted leaves the future of the special adviser as an effective player in public policy as something of a hostage to fortune, at the whim of any future finance minister and his civil servants.
It is a fundamental truth that democracy and accountable government costs money. That is currently unpopular, but a truth it remains. There may be public unease about the appointment of party hacks, or a jobs for the boys culture. However, the only person who really suffers from a bad appointment is the minister who made it.
Jim Allister’s bill on special advisers should be passed, and if the SDLP live up to their commitment to support it, pass it will. However, the legislative process needs to prune a bill that goes very slightly too far.