Fresh from their poll defeat, the Liberal Democrats want to end the coalition’s self-imposed cap on spads – ministers’ special advisers. Yet somehow spads are always controversial – not least when the line between them and impartial civil servants is blurred. Education secretary Michael Gove’s former spad, Elena Narozanski, for example, is expected to be appointed as one of his civil service speech writers. So is Alexandra Gowlland, currently parliamentary researcher to education minister Nick Gibb.
Ms Narozanski had to give up her spad post to Mr Gove’s long-standing aide Dominic Cummings, who used to work with James Frayne in a two-man anti-European think-tank called NFF. It so happens that Mr Frayne has now been appointed as the civil service director of communications at the education department.
All perfectly above board – Whitehall recruitment procedures have been followed to the letter. Yet there is room for, well, misinterpretation.
The spad question needs to be sorted. The coalition should take the opportunity to review the system. Clearer definitions of spad jobs would help. While numbers need to be kept down there is a case for more flexibility. As one Whitehall knight remarked: “If you told a foreigner that a UK minister was to have eight spads instead of two, he’d look amazed and say how few!”
Fat cattery is on the increase – particularly when it comes to public sector pensions. We know about Whitehall mandarins with £1m-plus pension pots. Now it turns out that hundreds of headteachers will have luxurious retirements. Some 700 heads earn more than £100,000 ($164,000) and the upper limit on their pay is now set to increase from £112,000 to £140,000.
Independent pensions expert John Ralfe says those receiving the full increase will also get an extra £300,000 in pension – ignoring inflation. He estimates the total value of the pension pot for a head retiring on £140,000 will be more than £2m. Those on just over £100,000 will enjoy real term pension benefits of some £1.4m.
“The coalition government is in denial about the annual cost of new public sector pension promises,” says Mr Ralfe, adding that the government should cap pensionable pay at £75,000. It certainly looks as if ministerial claims about austerity are adding to the hypocrisy quotient.
UK’s messy divorce
So first minister Alex Salmond calls a referendum on independence and if the Scots vote yes they peel off from the UK – right? Wrong. According to Professor Robert Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, the road to Scottish independence will be long, hard and pitted with rows between Edinburgh and Westminster. The Scots can’t just walk out of the union – they have to agree terms with Westminster.
North Sea oil and the national debt will have to be carved up. These may prove comparatively easy compared with dividing up Britain’s armed forces. There are air force bases in Scotland plus a nuclear submarine base on the Clyde, which Whitehall will be desperate to keep. Mr Salmond’s Scottish Nationalists are anti-nuke, which could give them a powerful bargaining counter.
On the other hand, an independent Scotland would automatically be out of the European Union – the UK would be the so-called “successor state”. The Scots would want UK support when they reapplied.
Looks like civil servants in Whitehall and Edinburgh will be working overtime on this one – the precedents are scary. When Czechoslovakia split into its two component parts in 1992, the divorce required 31 treaties and more than 2,000 separate agreements.
Sounds like a nightmare. Or a bureaucrat’s dream.
No flies on Eric
A council sent people to see local government minister Eric Pickles. They requested seed money for local enterprise partnerships – £25,000 per partnership. Unimpressed, former Tory party chairman Mr Pickles said they should be able to raise that with a well-organised dinner dance.
The next month they went to see Mr Pickles’ cabinet colleague, Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable, and asked him for £250,000. They were sent away with a flea in their ear and a message: “Ministers do talk to each other.”