Downing Street has been accused of attempting to use the hiring of special advisers as a way to circumvent civil service recruitment rules after the government launched a website intended to centralise appointments of ministerial aides.
The website, www.spadjobs.uk, was launched yesterday with the aim of attracting people from the corporate world to take on roles as special advisers in government rather than those who work in and around Westminster.
It follows a call by Boris Johnson's chief adviser Dominic Cummings for “weirdos and misfits” to apply for roles alongside him in a bizarre job ad posted on his personal blog.
The new site is calling for those with a "track record of success working in communications or digital fields to apply", to help "support the government’s work to level up the country".
It is a Conservative party rather than government initiative, with the website stating: “Traditionally these roles are not made available for anyone to apply, but it is the Conservative party’s ambition for the whole country to be represented in government, and the party is therefore encouraging talented applicants from all walks of life and from all parts of the UK to apply to work at the heart of government.”
It has hired the firm Hanbury Strategy to oversee the new system, which will mean every new spad has to be screened and vetted by the Conservative party, in a a further centralisation of the hiring of special advisers. Hanbury boasts Ameet Gill, David Cameron's former director of strategy among its partners – as well as Vote Leave communications director Paul Stephenson. No appointment will be approved without the sign-off of Lee Cain, Downing Street’s director of communications, removing the power from individual ministers to hire who they would prefer.
This comes after a number of special advisers were moved to work for new ministers in this month’s government reshuffle, breaking the personal link between the minister and adviser, and moves to merge the special adviser teams between No.10 and the Treasury. This intigration drive led to the resignation of chancellor Sajid Jaivd, who said that "no self respecting minister" could serve under the terms. He was replaced by Rishi Sunak.
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the series of reforms raised concerns the government is abusing the provision that allows special advisers to be hired as temporary civil servants outside open and fair selection rules.
The exemption for special advisers exists because they are “essentially personal advisers to individual ministers”, he said on Twitter yesterday, but these reforms essentially turn the jobs into policy roles “that should filled by open and fair competition”.
Special Advisers are temporary civil servants, exempt from the statutory requirement of open and fair selection because they are essentially personal advisers to individual ministers. This simply confirms No.10 is abusing this exemption to try to get around CS impartiality rules. https://t.co/3JzKNlueF2
— Dave Penman (@FDAGenSec) February 27, 2020
“They’re currently being moved on a whim and under threat to avoid link with ministers, the very essence of what makes a spad,” he said. “This will just embed that. Ministers losing trusted advisers and roving policy “experts” recruited outside O&F [open and fair] selection won’t make for better government.”
The launch of the centralised recruitment process “simply confirms No.10 is abusing this exemption to try to get around CS impartiality rules,” he said.
“Policy advisers who move around Govt departments should be civil servants. This looks like a ruse to get around open and fair selection.”
Except of course these aren’t SpAds. Policy advisers who move around Govt departments should be civil servants. This looks like a ruse to get around open and fair selection.
— Dave Penman (@FDAGenSec) February 27, 2020
They’re currently being moved on a whim and under threat to avoid link with ministers, the very essence of what makes a SpAd. This will just embed that. Ministers losing trusted advisers and roving policy “experts” recruited outside O&F selection won’t make for better Govt IMO.
— Dave Penman (@FDAGenSec) February 28, 2020
Earlier this week it emerged a senior civil servant is being appointed to improve the working conditions of government special advisers.
And there were calls for No.10 to look again at how advisers are hired following the resignation of Andrew Sabisky.
A Downing Street source said on Thursday: "We want to find experienced candidates who are prepared to work hard and help us unleash Britain's potential - in particular, we want people who have a background in advising business leaders and small- and medium-sized enterprises.
"Currently, talent is spread equally around the country but opportunity isn't.
"We want to change that and encourage people from all backgrounds to come and help us build a brighter future for our country."