This House of Commons Briefing Paper sets out details of roles and responsibilities of special advisers and information about the number of special advisers. It also explains how the role has developed and includes details of some recent incidents involving special advisers.Jump to full report >>
Special advisers are temporary civil servants employed to help ministers on matters where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved. They provide assistance from a standpoint that is more politically committed and politically aware than would be available to a minister from the permanent Civil Service.
The role of special advisers has been the subject of intense scrutiny for over a decade, with ongoing debate around the role and status of special advisers, and also their numbers and cost.
There were 83 special advisers in post in December 2016. This was down from the 92 departmental special advisers in post in December 2015. In November 2014 there were 103 special advisers in post – the highest there have been since governments has been releasing annual transparency figures.
The reduction in number of special advisers between 2015 and 2016 has fallen mostly on departments. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has 32 special advisers, the same number that David Cameron had in December 2015.
The pay bill for special advisers for 1 April 2015 to 13 July 2016 was £9.2 million. In addition, £1.7 million was spent on severance pay.
The estimated pay bill for the period 14 July 2016 to 31 March 2017 is £4.9 million.
There is no statutory limit on the number of special advisers, but successive editions of the Ministerial Code have restricted the number of advisers most Ministers may appoint. The 2016 Ministerial Code states:
With the exception of the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers may each appoint up to two special advisers. The Prime Minister may also authorise the appointment of one special adviser by Ministers who regularly attend Cabinet. Where a Minister has additional responsibility additional advisers may be allowed.
Under section 16 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the Government are required to release an annual report on special advisers, including the number in post. Because the figures are released annually (usually toward the end of the year), there is never a complete and consistent set of annual statistics. Those released each year are those in post at a given date, which may not be the total number of special advisers in post that year.
The number of special advisers are effectively controlled by the Prime Minister, and there have been a number of exceptions to the broad principle of one or two special advisers per Minister. Prime Ministers and Chancellors have always had more special advisers (George Osborne had six in post on 17 December 2015), while a number of other Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, currently have more than two.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has also appointed special advisers to the Council of Economic Advisers (4 in these posts as of 17 December 2015). These appear to be exempt from the restriction on the number of advisors, as they are listed separately to No 10 and departmental advisers in data releases. Gordon Brown did the same while he was Chancellor.
The informal cap on special adviser numbers has also been circumvented by appointing individuals as time-limited civil servants. The Civil Service Recruitment Principles have several exemptions to the broad principle of appointment through fair and open competition. One of these exemptions allows for the appointment of individuals to the Civil Service for a time-limited period where there is a pressing need. It is argued by some that many of these time-limited civil servants are special advisers in all but name.
The Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct sets out guidance and rules for the work of special advisers. This is supplemented by the model contract for special advisers, which sets out principal terms and conditions of employment and includes a section on conduct and confidentiality.
A revised Code of Conduct was published on 21 December 2016. The Code states that special advisers are employed to serve “the Prime Minister and the Government as whole, not just their appointing Minister”. This provision had first been included in the 2010 Code to reflect the realities of a coalition government but has remained part of the updated Code.
Both the Ministerial Code and the Special Advisers' Code of Conduct make clear that the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment.
This Briefing Paper summarises developments since 2000, including the introduction of legislation by the Brown Government to govern their appointment and conduct in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. This gave a statutory underpinning to the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers first introduced in 2001, and the Order in Council which governs their role as temporary civil servants.
This Briefing Paper also looks at trends in numbers of special advisers, the code of conduct for special advisers, incidents during the 2010 Parliament involving special advisers, and Extended Ministerial Offices for ministers.
Commons Briefing papers SN03813
Authors: Ed Faulkner; Michael Everett