Lord Patten launches extraordinary attack on spads, claiming they ‘harm civil service recruitment’

Written by Jim Dunton on 19 July 2017 in News

Conservative peer and former education secretary launches House of Lords tirade against “megaspads” and calls for substantial headcount reduction

Recently departed - Theresa May's former joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill Credit: PA

The rising influence of special advisers in Whitehall is deterring a generation of talented young people from careers in the civil service, a former Conservative secretary of state has warned.

Speaking in a House of Lords debate, Tory peer John Patten said the role of “spad” had evolved from provider of necessary support to a secretary of state into a “counterproductive” class of official “who see it as their job to promote internecine warfare between departments on too many occasions”.

Patten said it was hardly surprising the civil service felt “undervalued with the emergence of huge numbers of megaspads” and called for a reduction in numbers on the principle of “one in, two out”.


“No wonder too many talented young men and women are thinking twice about going into the civil service,” he said.

“‘Don’t put your son or daughter in the civil service, Mr or Mrs Whoever’, is pretty wise advice at the moment. So let a cull begin.”

Patten served in a number of ministerial roles during the 80s and 90s, including as education secretary from 1992-1994.

He said there was a “constitutional affront” in the extent to which some spads bossed around ministers and took on powers themselves.

“They disturb the balance between civil servants and ministers, whose constitutional roles are very well known and understood under our unwritten constitution, by interdigitating themselves in a way that is completely uncontrolled,” he said.  

“The civil service pretends to regulate them but it does not, and I think that we are rapidly coming to the point when we need to have a new organisation called Ofspad to regulate these creatures in the undergrowth.”

Patten said he completely accepted there was a need for “proper grown-up spads” among secretaries of state.

“Several decades ago, there were just a few of them,” he said. “They were demure, attentive and diplomatic, doing a helpful job in advice, speech-writing and sometimes murmuring in the margins interpretations of what the secretary of state really meant during some civil service meeting.

“I know that one or two of my friends in the chamber, both civil servants and politicians, have seen all this in action: ‘No, no, the secretary of state was just exaggerating’, et cetera.”

However, the peer said he believed spads had become a “growing and unregulated industry” who put themselves above civil servants and wasted public money.

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William (not verified)

Submitted on 20 July, 2017 - 08:38
Of course Lord Patten, SPADS - they're the ONLY reason talented young people don't want to join the Civil Service. NOTHING at all with 10 years of pay cuts.

Tony Richmond (not verified)

Submitted on 20 July, 2017 - 15:07
Entirely agree with the noble lord. There was a time when young SPADs (there didn't seem to be any older ones - not then a career) confined themselves to finding out what was happening and keeping their ministers informed - David Cameron was a good SPAD. There was also an understanding that SPADs were not part of the management structure, and could not presume to give orders to civil servants. Happy days!

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