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Government Facing Cronyism Allegations Over £1.5m Wage Bill For Part Time Advisors

4 min read

Exclusive: The government is facing allegations of cronyism after it was revealed that part-time advisors, compared to “super SPADs”, have netted £1.5m a year in pay.

Non-executive advisors sit on the boards of various government departments, and were introduced in their current form in 2010 to try to bring outside, private-sector expertise to the civil service.

They receive thousands or tens of thousands of pounds in renumeration for that role, which usually encompasses just a few hours of work a month.

The positions have been subject to increasing amounts of public scrutiny in recent years as a department’s non-executive directors are selected for the role by Secretaries of State, leaving room for allegedly potentially problematic appointments.

In 2021, the Institute for Government think tank published a report warning that at least one in five of the government’s then 94 non-executive directors had links to political parties (all but one of them to the Conservatives).

One of the most famous examples was former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s appointment of Gina Coladangelo, who went on to become his partner, as a non-executive advisor to his department. Other NED appointments in the past have included former Conservative Party vice-chairman and major party donors.

In June, the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, led by Tory MP William Wragg, warned that the current system was allowing ministers to appoint “personal and political” friends effectively as “super SPADs”, and called for an overhaul of current rules.

The report singled out seven cases where politically connected people won spots on Whitehall boards, including former special adviser and Vote Leave activist Henry De Zoete, former Tory and Ukip MP Douglas Carswell and former Downing Street chief of staff in No 10 Nick Timothy.

This week the government rejected the Committee’s proposals and defended the appropriateness of appointing people with political or personal connections to ministers to the roles.

Politics Home analysed the accounts of 18 government departments and found that in 2021-2022 (the last year where full figures were available), £1,556,939 was spent on the salaries of non-executive board members.

That total rises to just over £3m when the last two years of figures are taken into account.

While non-executive pay is higher at companies on the FTSE 250, it is often higher than the pay for non-executive advisors in the NHS.

The size or scope of departments did not appear to correlate with the amount spent on non-executive directors.

While the Home Office, Treasury and Foreign Office all spent over £100,000 a year on non-executives (£125,000, £115,000 and £110,000 respectively), they were beaten by the Department for Transport, which has spent £145,000 on non-executive directors in 2022-2023 and 2021-2022.

At the top of the list was the Department for Work and Pensions, which spent £192,000 on non executive advisors in 2021-2022. That only marginally dropped last year to £174,000.

The Foreign Office was followed by the Cabinet Office (£95,000), DCMS (£95,000) and DLUHC (£93,689). The least was spent by the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales whose departments all spent £30,000 or less on non-executive advisors.

PoliticsHome established the figures by analysing the annual accounts of 18 main government departments. Our figures cover 2021-2022 because eight of the ministries analysed have not yet produced annual reports for the financial year of 2022-2023, including the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care.

Ten government departments posted salary ranges rather than actual take home salaries, meaning the overall figure found is subject to minor change.

"It's essential for non-executive directors to challenge ministers and departmental boards objectively and effectively,” said George Havenhand, a senior legal researcher at Spotlight on Corruption.

“The Government’s recent – and long overdue – commitment to regulate their appointment process is therefore welcome, but that will not prevent ministers from appointing political allies.

“Just last week, the Government rejected a proposal from a parliamentary committee to only appoint independent non-executive directors unless there is a clear justification for not doing so.

The Government should reconsider that position if it wants to ensure good governance and the best use of taxpayer funds, and to improve public perceptions of these appointees."

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: ”As has been the case under successive governments, Non Executive Board Members bring important expertise and experience from all sectors to provide advice, scrutiny and challenge to government departments."

"There are robust policies in place for the governance of departmental boards, as set out in the Corporate governance code for central government departments and code of conduct for non executive directors.”

They stressed that recent changed mean the appointment of non-executive directors is now subject to oversight by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, a government-appointed overseer who provides non-binding guidance on whether appointments meet certain standards for public appointments.

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