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Special advisers or ‘SpAds’ are everyone’s new favourite political animal. In the last 20 years, they have entertained us by adding political drama, such as with Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham during a turbulent 2020, or by inspiring political satire in the form of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It.

SpAds have become open to the accusation that they spend too much time in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It is time to take action, hold SpAds properly to account, and send them back to the shadows. 

Before the introduction of SpAds, ministers relied solely on the civil service for advice. Although the civil service provides stability and a source of experienced advice as cabinets change over time, their code of conduct prevents them from offering any political advice. 

This restriction can prevent a minister accessing the support they need. If a minister is a radical reformer, the civil service might not provide the political advice they want, but are more likely to offer the same traditional suggestions ingrained in their culture. However, a SpAd can not only provide this advice, but also find and bring in diverse and unique ideas that can help install new political policy, which is an essential function. 

Ministers are not necessarily media savvy, but in the modern age of 24-hour news, they have to be. The civil service are again restricted with what they can do to support, promote, and help a minister. SpAds are not, and can therefore provide the necessary protection and advice their minister needs. 

Despite this, the civil service can enjoy the company of SpAds. Ministers have demanding schedules, so government departments can at times feel like a ship without a captain. However, SpAds can talk to their minister, understand where they want, and provide coordination and support required. 

Moreover, SpAds can also act as a mediator between a minister and the civil service. They have the time to listen to the civil service’s suggestions, and because a minister unequivocally trusts them, they are more likely to convince their minister to see reason and work with the civil service, not against it. 

Within the Westminster bubble, loyalty can be fleeting. It is important for a minister to have a loyal adviser in their corner who can provide a non-judgemental sounding board and can act as a natural extension of the minister in such an incomparably demanding role. 

This bond is so strong that if anyone tries to break it, ministers can be willing to sacrifice themselves in order to keep their SpAd. This act of loyalty was demonstrated by Savid Javid last year who resigned when he was told to fire his advisers. 

However, beyond this, SpAds have also been accused of trying to ‘bury bad news’ on 9/11, bullying, using official twitter accounts to attack the opposition, and leaking private documents. Despite their code of conduct stating that SpAds “must not take public part in political controversy”, too often they end up on the front pages with a fresh scandal. 

Therefore, the question is no longer should we keep SpAds, but how to keep them off the front pages. 

Currently, the only person who can hold a SpAd to account and fire them is the minister who hired them, but ministers can avoid firing their SpAds to avoid public embarassement.

We all saw this play out with Dominic Cummings. Instead of removing a man who single-handedly forced the Conservatives to plummet in the polls, Boris Johnson preferred for his adviser to speak in the Downing Street rose garden to defend himself. The pair only divorced when their relationship completely broke down

Canada has had SpAds for nearly 60 years, with scandals that can make British ones look tame by comparison, such as those involving Bruce Carson, and the Sponsorship Scandal.

Canada took action by implementing an independent ombudsman. Too often SpAds refuse to appear in front of parliamentary committees, as demonstrated in 2019 by Dominic Cummings. The Canadian ombudsman has the power to force SpAds to appear. With this power, SpAds can’t hide and can be properly scrutinised.

Canadian Ombudsmen are also conducted in private. This entices SpAds to volunteer to testify as they no longer have to face the intensive lens of the public spotlight. New Zealand, a country with a similar Ombudsman’s system has demonstrated the benefits of this. After Nicky Hager’s book accused SpAds of blocking freedom of information (FOI) requests, SpAds and officials willingly came forward to testify without the ombudsman even using his coercive powers. 

When reports are published the conclusions are clear cut. SpAds cannot hide behind their minister and have no choice but to part with their SpAd. When Canadian SpAd Sebastien Togneri was found guilty of blocking FOI requests, Canada’s sitting PM Stephen Harper forced him out immediately.

SpAds have become an essential part of 21st century politics. The support they provide is vital for the ministers they serve, but reform is also necessary to introduce greater accountability, and for which we can look to the examples of Canada and New Zealand for inspiration.

Max is Communications Officer at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image:]