Two of Whitehall's most senior civil servants have spoken up for special advisers, arguing that the oft-maligned political hires allow impartial officials to do their jobs more effectively.
Special advisers – often referred to as "spads" – work in government departments as the temporary personal appointees of ministers, providing them with political, policy and media advice which goes beyond the remit of permanent civil servants.
But their role – and rising number in recent decades – has proved controversial, with critics seeing their explicitly political advice to ministers as fundamentally at odds with an impartial civil service tasked with speaking truth to power.
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The relationship between spads and civil servants was touched on by MPs during a hearing of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC) on Tuesday, with the committee taking evidence from three permanent secretaries: Sir Robert Devereux of the Department for Work and Pensions; Chris Wormald of the Department of Health; and Stephen Lovegrove of the Ministry of Defence.
Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan asked Devereux whether special advisers tended to "interfere" in the relationship between ministers and civil servants.
The DWP chief – who has served eight secretaries of state as – said he did not work with the presumption that spads were there to "get in the way" of civil servants, instead stressing the positive contribution that they could make.
"Special advisers have got a role to play which actually helps the process of government," Devereux said.
"There are things that I can't do, constitutionally. There are conversations to be had between my department and the centre [of government] about 'what is the political way of thinking about this' which, actually, is perfectly proper for the special adviser to do."
Devereux acknowledged that there were "occasions" when some special advisers had been "more difficult to work with than others" – but he resisted the committee's invitation to name names.
"You can look it up, you can make your own guesses," he joked. "But it's infrequent, right?"
The DWP chief pointed out that spads occupied "an odd position" in government, because they remain vastly outnumbered by permanent officials.
According to the latest figures, there are now 83 special advisers working across the whole of government, while the total number of civil servants is more than 400,000.
"There's typically one or two of them per department," Devereux said.
"And you know, they're massed against, even in my central office, 2,000 people, let alone the 75,000 in the whole organisation. So the dynamics of their relationship with the secretary of state are always going to different."
Chris Wormald, the perm sec of the Department of Health and formerly the top official at the Department for Education, also sought to highlight the more positive role that spads can play in departments.
"I think we've had special advisers since 1964 now and their role has been pretty much constantly debated for that entire period," he told the committee.
"The only thing I'd add to Robert's answer is they are one of the things that actually allow us to have a politically neutral civil service.
"I mean, ministers have to get political advice from somewhere. They can't look to their civil servants for that – so I do think it's reasonable that they have a very small number of people to assist them with that side of their job. And it's one of the things that allows the civil service to be politically neutral."
"I'm still here"
During the hearing, Devereux also made light of the extensive political briefings that took place against him in the early years of the DWP's troubled Universal Credit welfare reform programme.
Devereux agreed that the briefings had been personally difficult, and revealed that the media coverage had even prompted a phone call from his mother to tell him that his name was in the paper.
But Whitehall's current longest-serving perm sec joked: "The good news is I'm the permanent secretary – and I'm still here."
The DWP chief said he had had to remain "slightly phlegmatic" in the face of the briefings against him, and emphasised the sheer scale of the Universal Credit programme, a pet project of former DWP secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith.
"We are running, in Universal Credit, probably the largest single digital project in Western Europe at the moment," Devereux said.
"It wouldn't surprise me if it's not straightforward. I don't know a single major programme that government does that doesn't go through some difficult times. Part of the trick is to actually recognise that that is the case and have the fortitude and resilience to crack on with it."
Ministry of Defence perm sec Stephen Lovegrove meanwhile told the committee that he had "never had a problem" in having an "honest conversation" with a minister about the feasibility of a policy.
But he stressed that efforts to ensure officials were able to speak truth to power were a "very, very live" issue for the MoD because of the failings highlighted by the Chilcot report into the 2003 Iraq war. Among its findings, Chilcot found that then-prime minister Tony Blair's cabinet had been frequently sidelined in the run-up to the war, and that key departments failed to share information or provide adequate risk assessment ahead of the invasion.
The MoD chief said Chilcot had highlighted the need for senior teams in departments to make sure that "different voices" were heard right the way up the chain of command.
"What I think we've discovered is not so much that there aren't different voices in the system – it's that occasionally they don't find a way of being able to percolate up to the place where the decisions are being made," Lovegrove said. "We are working very, very hard on that."