Friday, 11 June 2010

Some things haven't changed (2)

When references to Special Advisers (SpAds) failed to appear in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and promptings before the election failed to elicit condemnation of the appointment of SpAds, I feared the worst. Sure enough, SpAds have become institutionalised. The ConLD coalition has appointed sixty-six. This is slightly below the seventy-odd employed by Labour, to which Don Foster (LD MP for Bath) rightly took exception in 1999, but it is far above the seven created by Margaret Thatcher.

There is justification in employing a special adviser who has specialised knowledge which is deficient in the upper ranks of the civil service. Scientific and technological expertise comes to mind. There is another (rather more dubious, in my opinion) in that an incoming government feels that the civil service has become too politicised under the outgoing administration. This, I seem to recall, was Margaret Thatcher's justification. Indeed, she and her inner circle seemed to believe that the civil service was innately socialist (not my experience from the 1960s; the prevailing ethos was traditional conservativism).

But in practice SpAds are spin doctors for their respective parties. The jobs are often given as rewards to people who have contributed to political campaigns, as a step up the ladder for potential candidate MPs or, as in a failed exercise by Peter Hain to mastermind an election campaign.

It would be more honest and transparent to extend Short money (and its Lords equivalent, Cranborne money) to parties in government and abolish SpAds, except for genuine special cases. There would have been two benefits if this policy had applied to the last Labour government: it would have helped the party to reconnect to its roots (a common theme of the current leadership contestants); and it would have eliminated the turf wars between advisers to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair which were destructive of government, as well as party.

When I was a junior systems analyst in the civil service, we were taught that salaries are not the sole cost of employing people. There is a whole array of additional costs, including accommodation, furniture, pension contributions and costs of administration to be added on. A rule of thumb is that you should double the salary to assess roughly the true cost of a job.  Applying this rule to a written Ministerial Statement, of 10th June (thanks to Guido Fawkes for publicising the link), the cost of this government's employment of SpAds whose salaries are known is £4.9m. Assuming that the other SpAds whose salaries are not publicised are at the bottom of their respective pay grades - note the institutionalisation - we can add a further £2.78m (I have assumed that the Welsh Office & Minister-without-portfolio posts will be filled at PB0 level, and that PB0 equates to the UK median wage, rounded down to £25,000). The grand total, per year, is over £7.6 million. This may be less than the £13.6 million of Labour's last year in office (twice the salary cost on the last page of the document cited above), but it is still a hefty wad in these days of public financial stringency.

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