SpAds: what’s the gender split?

The spotlight has been on women in politics -- or the lack of them. How do special advisers measure

The Cabinet Office has released the full list of special advisers to the coalition government and what they are paid.

The big headline from publication of the list was that Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister's director of communications, has agreed to a salary of £140,000, just £2,500 less than David Cameron.

Coulson, who was editor of the News of the World from 2003-2007, resigned as director of communications at Conservative Party headquarters to take the post at No 10. At CCHQ, he was paid £275,000, so his move to Downing Street comes at the price of a £135,000 pay cut.

Overall, the number of special adviser roles has been reduced from 78 to 68, with seven of the positions still vacant. It is thought that this reduction will reduce the annual wage bill for special advisers by up to £2m.

Following the general election and the announcement of the coalition cabinet, the debate about gender equality in politics has become more vociferous, both Alice Miles and Rowenna Davis in the New Statesman articulating dissatisfaction with the number of women in top roles.

Twenty-two per cent of MPs are now women, an increase of 2.5 per cent on 2005, and 4 per cent on 1997.

This imbalance among elected politicians seems to be reflected in the ranks of special advisers, with 22 of the posts held by women, just over half the number held by men.

The inequality is also reflected in the average salaries of male and female special advisers, with men earning £62,298 on average, while the average salary for female advisers is just under £3,750 less, at £58,552.

But it isn't all bad news. Of the ten highest-paid special advisers, four are women. Kate Fall, Cameron's deputy chief of staff, is the third-highest-paid special adviser, with a salary of £100,000. Other women in the top ten include the Tory press secretary Gabby Bertin, the former chief of staff to Nick Clegg Polly MacKenzie, and the Tories' head of operations, Liz Sugg.

Philippa Stroud, the Conservative candidate who sparked controversy over her membership of the New Frontiers Church and allegations in the Observer that she founded a project to "cure" homosexuals, is to be paid £69,250 in her new role as special adviser at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Despite being widely tipped as a Tory high-flyer, Stroud was beaten in Sutton and Cheam by the Liberal Democrat Paul Burstow, who won the seat with a majority of 1,608 votes.

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Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad