There was some banter about Ministerial Special Advisors in Lords Question Time this afternoon (in which I played a small part).

Lord Strathclyde (or Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde, to use his full name), the Leader of the House and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, enjoyed himself batting away questions.

He avoided – for the time being – a number of sensitive issues:

  • has the LibDem part of the Coalition got its fair share of Special Advisors?
  • what will the role of Special Advisors be under the Coalition Government?
  • who will discipline them (and their Ministers) if they break the rules?
  • how much will they be paid and how will their pay be determined?
  • and will their numbers drift upwards?

He concluded with a promise that he would be there to stiffen David Cameron’s resolve on the numbers appointed.  I wonder how many other Cabinet Ministers will be ready to say that they will keep the Prime Minister on the straight and narrow should he waver?

The full set of exchanges is as follows:

“Special Advisers

Question

2.55 pm

Asked By Lord Sheldon

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many special advisers have been selected who have been approved by the Prime Minister.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, a list of special adviser appointments will be published shortly and will be available in the Library of the House. In accordance with the requirements of the Ministerial Code, all special adviser appointments are approved by the Prime Minister.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that response. Many parliamentary advisers who have been employed have had none of the background of civil servants, and in some cases the Government created special advisers whose role was superior to those in the Civil Service. Has this practice now come to an end?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I very much regret that I was not in a position to give the noble Lord a clearer answer in my first response because he put his Question down slightly before the Government were ready to answer it. However, we will do so very shortly. I can confirm that, under this Government, the hideous regime of special advisers telling permanent civil servants what to do will come to an end.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: Since the watchword of the two parties in this coalition is “fairness” and the role of special advisers is essentially a political one—liaising with outside opinion and Members of Parliament—will the Government exercise fairness in their appointments of special advisers as between departments and as between Ministers in the different parties of the coalition?

Lord Strathclyde: Yes, my Lords, and naturally that is subject to the coalition agreement. However, clear rules are set out in the Ministerial Code on the number of special advisers and who is entitled to them. That, of course, speaks for itself.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, perhaps we could have this issue clarified at the beginning of the term of this Government. If a special adviser to a coalition Cabinet Member breached the code, who would be responsible for disciplining that adviser? Would it be the Prime Minister?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, discipline is up to the Minister who appoints the special adviser. The Prime Minister agrees the appointment, but it is the Minister who appoints the adviser who is responsible for discipline.

Lord Glenarthur: My Lords, is my noble friend able to give the figure for the number of special advisers in early 1997 compared with those who were in position before the general election this year?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, in 1997 there were 38 special advisers, while in March this year there were 78. When we make our announcement, I think that the House will find that there are fewer than that under this Government.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, can the Leader of the House tell us whether any of the special advisers being appointed will be on salaries higher than that of the Prime Minister? As a comparator, perhaps he could also tell us how many of the special advisers who have been appointed will be earning salaries higher than that of a Lords Minister. What does that tell us about their relative importance in government?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the figures will be made public when we publish the announcement shortly.

Lord Ryder of Wensum: My Lords, can my noble friend explain the main purpose of a special adviser to the Government?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, these advisers are the personal appointments of Cabinet Ministers. Their job is to help Cabinet Ministers to do their job even more effectively than they would otherwise have done if they had not had such an appointment.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I am not sure that the Leader of the House answered the question put by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours precisely. The question is really this: if any Minister, in relation to his or her activities in connection with a special adviser is seen to be in breach of the Ministerial Code, would it be the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister who would have to exercise disciplinary action against them?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, in the first instance it is up to the Minister who appointed the special adviser, but if there was a most serious breach of the code, I am sure that it would be for the Prime Minister to take a view.

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, bearing in mind that it is readily accepted that no one should benefit from public service, will the Minister give an assurance that the incoming special advisers will receive less income as special advisers than they were receiving immediately prior to taking up office?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, as I said in answer to an earlier question, these figures will be made public when we make the announcement. I said also that we will draw to a close the regime whereby special advisers told civil servants what to do, and we will end that hideous rogues’ gallery where special advisers became even better known than their Ministers—for example, Alastair Campbell, Damian McBride, Charlie Whelan, Derek Draper. Their reign is now firmly over.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I had the responsibility, under my noble friend Lord Lawson of Blaby, of constructing the original structure for special advisers’ salaries. Can my noble friend indicate whether the same logical rationale to the structure will be published on this occasion?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the depths of knowledge of my noble friend never cease to amaze me. I am amazed because I did not know it beforehand and so I am unable to give him a positive answer. However, when he sees what we publish, I think he will be very impressed.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord cited the names of various special advisers, but I remind the House that this Prime Minister is the first Prime Minister to have been a special adviser and I am sure that he would agree that, on the whole, they do an excellent job. Does the Leader of the House agree that most Prime Ministers are elected with a firm commitment to reduce the number of special advisers but that, over time, the rhetoric seldom matches the reality? We will be watching the numbers. I am not a betting woman in many cases, but I would bet that those numbers will go in one direction—upwards.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the Leader of the Opposition is right—the Prime Minister has made a firm commitment about the number of special advisers appointed. It will be up to us all to make sure that his resolve is maintained.”

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