Cummings extends grip over special advisers with central recruitment

By on 01/03/2020
Photo by Velislav Nikolov /EU2018BG via flickr

UK PM Boris Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, are shaking up the way ministerial aides are appointed, in what is seen as yet another move towards central control.

In the latest of a series of events involving the hiring and firing of special advisers (or ‘spads’) a dedicated website, spadjobs.uk, has been launched calling for communications and digital professionals to apply. This is a departure from the way spads have traditionally been recruited, in which ministers bring in their own advisers or pick them from a pool of people known to the party.

The job ad says that applicants showing great potential will “go through a rigorous process” of written exercises and telephone interviews, and face a selection panel consisting of senior Conservative Party figures plus corporate headhunters from strategic advisory firm Hanbury Strategy. Paul Stephenson, a founding partner of Hanbury Strategy, was director of communications for the 2016 Vote Leave campaign headed by Cummings.

Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, offered some support for the move. “I think widening and professionalising spad recruitment is a good thing,” she tweeted. “Ministers need people who might have some ideas on levelling up, policy areas and getting things done in government, not communications and digital people to run a supercharged spin machine.”

But Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union representing senior public servants, has a different view. “This looks like a ruse to get around open and fair selection,” he tweeted, writing in another that: “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 Number 10 is abusing this exemption to try to get around civil service impartiality rules.”

His remarks come after a recent effort by Number 10 to separate ministers from their chosen spads by redeploying advisers across government and requiring them to report directly to Cummings.

Penman’s argument is that if the government continues to move special advisers around government, detaching them from ministers and therefore substantially changing the role, they will effectively become policy advisers – and should therefore be subject to the law governing the recruitment of permanent civil servants.  

Robust vetting?

The new job ad states that anyone who takes on a special adviser role in government “is subject to security vetting checks”. However, there will be concern about the robustness of such checks following the appointment – and subsequent resignation – of Andrew Sabisky earlier this month.  

Sabisky is understood to have answered Cumming’s call for “weirdos and misfits” to join the civil service. He had been contracted as a spad to work on projects at Number 10, but left almost as soon as he’d arrived after his highly controversial views on topics including eugenics and race came to light.

Penman was one of many to voice concerns about what Sabisky’s appointment says about the way special advisers are being hired. He told Global Government Forum last week that he “suspected Cummings and Johnson brought Sabisky in as a self-employed contractor to avoid recruitment rules” – by which he meant proper scrutiny and vetting – and that the Sabisky affair is the “perfect example” of what happens when such rules are ignored.

Other controversies involving the hiring and firing of spads in recent weeks include former chancellor, Sajid Javid, choosing to resign rather than allow his team of special advisers to be merged with Number 10’s – putting them under the effective control of Johnson and Cummings – and the sacking of Sonia Khan in September. Khan, a former special adviser to Javid, was escorted from Downing Street by armed police after a confrontation with Cummings.

There have also been reports that special advisers are seeking counselling for stress and considering a mass walk-out. It was reported earlier this week that the Cabinet Office is to recruit a civil servant on a £60,000 (US$77,000) salary to oversee HR policy for spads amid the current tensions, though the job ad appears to have since been taken down.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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