Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report


The Select Committee on Public Administration has agreed to the following Report:—



1. In 1999 the Committee decided to carry out a wide-ranging inquiry into 'Making Government Work', looking at issues relating to the Government's Modernising Government and civil service reform programmes of the Government. We intend to report on these shortly. As we took evidence, we decided to separate out certain strands of the inquiry for particular attention. Special advisers was one of those we chose. Their role has become contentious, but we agree with one of our witnesses, Professor Anthony King, that advisers are too important to be the subject of party political controversy. [11] We hope we can contribute to sensible discussion of their role.

2. The question of what advice and support Ministers need and want, beyond that supplied by the permanent civil service, is central to the issue of special advisers that exercises so much parliamentary, public and media commentary. It is an issue that usually generates more political heat than useful light.

3. The use of special advisers is not new. The existence, since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 1850s of a civil service which was politically neutral and recruited and promoted on merit, and the absence of a cabinet system of ministerial advisers (such as prevails in many other European countries) or the wholesale change of administration (as happens in the United States of America) has led Ministers and Prime Ministers, certainly as far back as Lloyd George, to appoint confidants. These were people who shared and understood ministerial preoccupations and had political skills and contacts that civil servants lacked. Such people may either bring up-to-date specialist knowledge beyond that available in-house or help the Minister to stay in touch with the world beyond Whitehall (or both). The current system was formalised in 1974, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided to allow Ministers to appoint advisers on a regular basis. While many advisers are attached to individual Ministers, there have periodically been groups of them employed at 10 Downing Street to advise the Prime Minister of the day on wider policy issues.

4. Special advisers are part of a long-established tradition for widening the advice available to Ministers. In 1968, the Fulton Report on the civil service said of the tradition: 'We welcome the practice as a means of bringing new men and ideas into the service of the state'.[12] Since then, the explosion of think-tanks of assorted kinds has opened up new links between politicians and external sources of policy advice. Some want to take this process further, perhaps through a fully-fledged cabinet system or putting policy advice to government out to contract, but here we confine ourselves to the more limited terrain of special advisers.

5. According to the Ministerial Code, every Cabinet Minister may appoint up to two advisers, "political" or "expert". In practice, as the Neill Committee has pointed out in its Sixth Report (Reinforcing Standards), this restriction is not universally observed, particularly in the Departments with wider remits, and in response the Government have agreed to amend the Code accordingly. Ministers may also appoint an unspecified number of unpaid advisers, while the growth in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) in recent times (there are currently 53), has extended this support system to even the most junior Ministers (at the cost, some argue, of diminished parliamentary independence in relation to the Executive).

6. At 22nd January 2001 there were 78 special advisers in post, the pay costs for whom were estimated to be £4.4 million in the current financial year.[13] As of December 2000, forty advisers worked in Departments,[14] the remainder in Downing Street, where no limit applies. On 11 February 2000 of the advisers in Downing Street, 12 worked in the Policy Unit, 3 in the Research and Information Unit, 5 (including two from the Media Monitoring Unit) in the Press Office and 2 in the Strategic Communications Unit[15], figures confirmed by the Cabinet Office on 27 February 2001 as being still being broadly correct. Two advisers (the Prime Minister's Chief Press Secretary and his Chief of Staff) have authority over civil servants under the Civil Service Order in Council as revised in 1997; the Order contains provision that up to three may be in this position.

Conduct of the inquiry

7. We heard oral evidence specifically on special advisers from Lord Lipsey, Lord Blackwell and Dr William Plowden (former special advisers) and Professor Anthony King (Professor of Government, University of Essex) Lord Blackwell. Other relevant oral evidence, taken mainly in the context of our parallel inquiries into Making Government Work and the Ministerial Code, was heard (in chronological order) from: Sir Richard Wilson (Cabinet Secretary); Professor Robert Hazell (Director, Constitution Unit and Professor of Government and the Constitution, University College, London); Professor Peter Hennessy (Professor of Contemporary History, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London); Sir Peter Kemp (former Permanent Secretary and Foundation for Accountancy and Management); Professor Vernon Bogdanor (Professor of Government, Oxford University) ; Kate Jenkins (Kate Jenkins Associates); Lord Neill of Bladen (Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life); Rt Hon John Major MP (former Prime Minister); the FDA (the trades union representing senior civil servants); Mr WR McKay, Clerk of the House of Commons and Mr Archie Cameron, Director of Operations, Fees Office; representatives of the firms of accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, Hard Dowdy and Silver Altman; and from Ms Margaret McDonagh and Professor Keith Ewing for the Labour Party, Mr David Prior MP and Mr Stuart Harris for the Conservative Party and Mr Nigel Bliss and Mr Ben Williams for the Liberal Democrats; and from the Rt Hon Dr David Clarke MP, the Rt Hon Michael Heseltine MP and Lord Simon of Highbury. We received a paper from Leighton Jenkins (King's College, London)[16]. We are grateful to all those who have assisted us.

8. We note that Ministers in the Scottish Executive and Assembly Secretaries in the National Assembly for Wales have the right, under an Order in Council, to appoint, on a collective basis, a limited number of special advisers. It is not for us to consider these except for comparative purposes.


9. The whole question of the role of special advisers in government has been the subject of much attention and some controversy. A range of issues and concerns has been raised about them. Are they necessary? Who should pay for them? How many should there be? How are they appointed? What do they do? Are there different kinds? What is their relationship to permanent civil servants? How accountable are they? Such questions have helped to shape our inquiry. We do not claim to have given them all exhaustive treatment, but we have tried to examine those that seemed to us to have a particular significance for the conduct of government.

10. Special advisers have been among the subjects considered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, in its first Report of 1995 and then in the Sixth Report, published in January 2000. The First Report recommended that they should be subject to the business appointment rules under which former civil servants are restricted in the employment they may take up after leaving the service. The Government accepted this recommendation. In its Sixth Report, Reinforcing Standards,[17] the Committee rejected the suggestion that advisers should be paid out of party funds and made a number of recommendations directed to limiting their numbers, regulating their conduct and extending parliamentary oversight. These recommendations have been largely accepted by the Government and will be incorporated in the proposed Civil Service Act. The subject of advisers figured prominently in the debate on the Report which took place in the House on 3rd July 2000.

11. Our interest in the subject of advisers differs somewhat from the Neill Committee's. Its focus was mainly in the ethical aspects of the issue, whereas we are also concerned with the part that special advisers play in the machinery of government. Our canvas is therefore broader. As will be seen, our conclusions also differ in some respects from those of the Neill Committee, most particularly on the matter of how any limitation on numbers is to be achieved, but we benefited greatly from the Committee's work.

Our approach

The value of advisers

12. Lord Neill reported that 'almost all witnesses made clear their view that special advisers were valuable components of the machinery of government'.[18] This conclusion reflected those of a number of studies over more than thirty years.[19] The Neill Committee itself commented: 'We believe that special advisers have a valuable role to play precisely because they are free to act and advise in a way that a politically-impartial civil servant cannot. None of our witnesses dissented from this general view. A former adviser, William Plowden, summarised their value: they can 'vicariously multiply Ministers' contacts with MPs, officials, outside interests and also with other Ministers, including the Prime Minister; evaluate proposals and advice coming up from officials; consult sources other than those favoured by officials; act as an informal sounding board for a Minister's ideas or anxieties'.[20] Enthusiasts of this view argue that special advisers form a useful counterweight to what is sometimes perceived as civil service inertia, but even the FDA, the civil service trades union representing the grades most likely to feel threatened by advisers, were sanguine about their use. In their view the arrangement brought general benefits all round though there were 'occasions get problems with 'individuals'.[21] This is a useful reminder that whatever the benefits in principle much depends on the quality and contribution of individual advisers. The FDA also explained how the existence of advisers can help the smooth functioning of the civil service: 'Within the UK system, Ministers inevitably need certain tasks undertaking that, were they performed by civil servants, would take them across a political line. In practice the current system allows those functions to be undertaken by special advisers, thus preserving the impartiality of the civil service. Moreover, a special adviser performing their job effectively and reflecting the views of their Minister can assist greatly in the smooth running of the Department'.[22] Nor did they think there was anything exceptional about the way ministers in the present Government used advisers, other than that 'Some of them had placed slightly more emphasis on the role of special advisers in certain circumstances'.[23] They even agreed that the number per Minister might possibly be increased from two to three without resulting in a cabinet system.[24] Lord Lipsey reported the alarm of one Permanent Secretary, on being told that his incoming Minister proposed to work without a special adviser.[25] However, this general agreement on the value of advisers did not prevent concerns being expressed about some aspects of the present arrangements. We discuss these concerns shortly.

A misdirected attack?

13. The number of special advisers has almost doubled under the present Government, reflecting its expressed intention to strengthen the centre of government. The number of advisers, starting in single figures in the early stages of Mrs Thatcher's first administration, had doubled by the time of her resignation in 1990. A further doubling took place during the six and a half years of the Major administration, peaking at 38 in early 1997. In January 2001 there were 78. This increase has been the subject of some adverse comment: for example, Professor Hennessy referred to special advisers as being 'near rampant'.[26]

14. It is in No 10 Downing Street that the growth in the number of advisers has been most marked. Exact figures for earlier years are hard to come by, but according to Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon, from 1995 to 1997 there were six.[27] According to a diagram supplied to us by Sir Richard Wilson in February 2000[28] there were at that time 27 special advisers out of a total of 149 staff. They included the Chief of Staff and his deputy, the Chief Press Secretary, 12 out of 21 staff in the Policy Unit, five out of fourteen in the Press Office and two out of eight in the Strategic Communications Unit. It is in part these developments that have led some commentators, including Professor Hennessy, to talk about the development of a Prime Minister's Department that will not speak its name.[29]

15. We believe that much of the criticism of the use of special advisers, concentrating as it does on their numbers, is misdirected. If they really improve the machinery of government, then it is clearly sensible to have as many as the system requires. If they are ineffective, or even damaging, then it is sensible to cull them. The key question is not how many there are, but what contribution they make to effective government. When this is established, the further questions concern the framework and rules within which they operate. Although we accept the general evidence on the value of advisers, it would be useful to have more particular evidence. Unfortunately, because of the limitations on the information available, it has not been possible for us to explore this as fully as we would have liked.

16. Advisers are appointed by Ministers with the consent of the Prime Minister. This system, with no external checks, opens up the question of how it can be established that those appointed represent value for money and are not simply the recipients of patronage. As Professor King said: 'We are talking about seventy­one people, of whom roughly fifty are out there in special departments. Whether the special advisers ­ I pick these names at random ­ in the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment are performing effectively I simply do not know. I suspect nobody knows except the minister in each department. I have no reason to think that they are ineffective but I have no evidence with which to measure their effectiveness either'.[30] This is an important point, to which we return.

17. There are of course bound to be problems in assessing the effectiveness of people recruited to advise on policy. The Clerk of the House referred to a similar difficulty in relation to the employment of staff out of Short Money, that is financial assistance to opposition parties (see paras 40 to 53), as it is difficult to assess value for money received for expenditure on the development of policies which are not implemented.[31] The difficulties are apparent, but, as the case for special advisers depends on a view of their effectiveness, we would like to see this issue receive more attention. One place to start is to try to find out who they are.

Who are they?

18. Advisers are a kind of civil servant, but an anomalous kind. They do not have to be appointed on merit; their performance is not assessed by other civil servants; they are appointed personally by a Minister, with the approval of the Prime Minister; and they do not have to observe the normal civil service principles relating to political impartiality. Four documents govern their employment: the Ministerial Code, which authorises each Cabinet Minister to appoint up to two advisers (a limit not universally applied in Departments and which does not apply at all to No 10 Downing Street); the Civil Service Orders in Council, which first derogated from the requirement that all civil servants be appointed on merit and subsequently allowed up to three to be given authority over civil servants); the Model Contract for Special Advisers (established and published in May 1997 by the Labour Government) which is designed to set out what they may and may not do; and the Civil Service Code - to which, with the exception of the requirements relating to objectivity and impartiality - they are all subject.

19. Professor King thought that the status of advisers as being 'neither hog, dog nor mutton'[32] was the result of a historical accident and should now be reviewed. He observed that 'at the top of government in this country we have always had ministers or civil servants, and when special advisers appeared on the scene there seemed to be felt a need to assimilate them either to ministers or civil servants. They clearly could not be assimilated to ministers...therefore they were assimilated to civil servants and given civil servant-like status'.[33] He suggested that 'we should consider whether there should not now be accepted as being in government three groups of people- ministers, career officials and special advisers and whether there ought not to be for special advisers not merely their own model contract but rules governing their behaviour, statements governing their responsibilities and indeed statements of what they should not do and perhaps a separate code of ethics relating to them'.[34] Lord Lipsey took a similar view: 'What I think is the cause of a lot of our frustrations in this area is that we are trying to push everything into a box called "civil service as we have always known it" and some things do not get in that box. Rather than shove it into the box, I would rather see a new box in which it fits comfortably, which is open, above board and subject to public scrutiny'.[35] These are important points and we return to them later.

20. If judgements are to be made about the value of special advisers, it is necessary to have at least basic information about who they are and what they do. While the names of advisers and the broad salary bands which cover them are published,[36] not much other information about them is available. Parliamentary Questions to Ministers about the activities of special advisers tend to elicit responses along the lines of 'the travel is consonant with the Model Contract'. Professor King observed that 'we know a fair amount about how many there are in government at the moment and we know a good deal about what they are paid, but I do not think we know enough about who they are, their educational background, their career histories'.[37] We wrote to all Departments asking for this information, as well as for information about the policy areas covered by each adviser and the nature of their work. The responses we received were illuminating in their variety, both in terms of what was said and what was not said. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, for instance, provided full details including hobbies and number of examination passes, while the Ministry of Defence replied that 'requests to Departments about the educational qualifications and career history of any civil servant would normally be turned down on the grounds that it is personal information between the employer and employee. If individuals choose to provide such entries in Who's Who, Whitehall Companion etc, then that is a decision for them. It is not, however, for Departments to make public information that has been given in confidence' (see Annex 1). The Department of Health provided the information while making it clear that this was because the individual had agreed that they should.

21. In some respects there is more transparency about advisers than there has been in the past (for instance, the Model Contract governing their employment is now published, though individual contracts are not). Yet in other respects there remains insufficient information available about them. As an example, we were not able to take evidence from any serving advisers. Our written request to the Cabinet Office for clarification on the general position on advisers giving evidence drew the response that it was open to the Committee to invite anyone they thought fit but that Ministers might nonetheless decide that the individual invited would not be the most appropriate person to appear.[38] This indication of advisers being off-limits was confirmed when our specific invitation to Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff was turned down[39] and we were offered the Cabinet Secretary instead. When we put it to the latter that the Prime Minister's Press Secretary, also a special adviser, had given evidence in to the Committee in 1998, Sir Richard replied: 'I think Alastair Campbell's evidence, and your invitation to him, was framed in a way which was very directly relevant to the Government Information and Communications Service into which you were, at that time, conducting a review. In terms of what Jonathan Powell does ... that was in terms of his own role, in a way which I do not think you were examining Alastair Campbell'.[40] As we were examining the role of special adviser, this seemed to us to be an unconvincing reason for his non-appearance.

22. It may be that the work of advisers has changed somewhat since it was undertaken by the former advisers we interviewed (Dr Plowden, Lord Blackwell and Lord Lipsey). Certainly the FDA though it had, particularly in respect of the 'work done by Alastair Campbell and his team'. [41] However, our inability to take evidence from current advisers made it difficult for us to assess to what extent the role may have changed. This has made our work more difficult and less complete than it should have been. In the case of No 10 Downing Street, where the greatest number of advisers is to be found, the fact that the Committee's invitation both to the Prime Minister and to the Chief of Staff have been declined make it especially difficult for us to form a view about the role of advisers at the centre of government.

23. We note that the Seventh Report from the Treasury and Civil Service Committee in Session 1985-86[42] contained a list of special advisers with their previous or concurrent outside occupations. It seems strange that in this respect there is less transparency than 15 years ago notwithstanding the Seven Principles of Public Life, of which transparency is one, adumbrated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. There may be privacy and data protection issues here, but the data subjects are able to give consent. In this instance there would appear to be a clear conflict between the principles of individual privacy and public interest transparency which may hamper attempts to join up government.

24. We believe that much of the controversy surrounding the use of advisers results from this lack of transparency. It is easy to complain that Ministers are allowing 'callow youths to usurp the functions of experienced officials'[43] if little information is made available as to who is advising Ministers. The issue of transparency, with the related one of accountability, is one to which we shall return at several points. We note the FDA's suggestion that individual Ministers should make clear the role they see particular special advisers undertaking, in effect a job description.[44] We believe that it is desirable, in the interests of transparency, that as much information as possible should be made available about people who are being paid out of public funds, consistent with respect for the privacy of individuals, and recommend that Departments should routinely provide as much information as possible about who advisers are and what they do.

11  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 1 Back

12  Cm 3638 (1968) Vol I, p 45 Back

13  HC Deb 22 January, col 467Back

14  Vacher's Parliamentary Companion December 2000 Back

15  Appendix 1; see also Annex 1 Back

16  Unconventional Civil Servants (2000) (not printed) Back

17  Cm 4557 Back

18   Cm 4557, para 6.26 Back

19  Fulton Report 1968, Report from the Expenditure Committee 1976, Report from Treasury and Civil Service Committee 1985-6, Report from Treasury Committee 1994 Back

20  HC (1999-2000) 727 p11 Back

21  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 486 Back

22  HC (1999-2000) 238 Ev p 105  Back

23  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 486 Back

24  HC (1999-2000) 238 Ev p 105 Back

25  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 34 Back

26  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 196 Back

27  The Powers behind the Prime Minister by Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon 1999 Back

28  Appendix 1 Back

29  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 191 Back

30  HC (1999-2000) 727-1 Q 22 Back

31  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 546 Back

32  Quoted in Cmnd 4557 para 6.29 Back

33  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q1 Back

34  Ibid Back

35  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q27 Back

36  Eg HC Deb (1999-2000) 11 Nov c 825Back

37  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 1 Back

38  Appendix 2 Back

39  Annex 2 Back

40  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 403 Back

41  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 478 Back

42  HC 92-II p xlii-xliii Back

43  HC (1999-2000) 727 p 12 Back

44  HC (1999-2000) 238 p 106 Back

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