Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the FDA (GI 1)

RECOMMENDATIONS:

    —  each individual special adviser should have a personal job description which would include their role, if any, with the media and therefore the Government's Information and Communication Service (GICS);

    —  the Centre for Policy and Management Studies (CPMS) considers whether training could be developed for both civil servants and special advisers about their mutual interaction and respective roles;

    —  structured training, including induction training, be developed for special advisers;

    —  GICS consider additional advice for special advisers on their relationship with the media; and

    —  there will be a need—and there is an immediate need—for a strong message across Government that the political impartiality of the civil service must be respected day by day in terms of relationships between Ministers, special advisers and civil servants and that the Government will treat seriously, at a political level, breaches of either the Civil Service Code or the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers.

  1.  The FDA has more than 11,000 members and represents senior managers and professionals in public service. Our membership includes senior civil servants and other staff working in government departments, and special advisers.

  2.  The FDA supports the system of having special advisers within government. This system helps protect, not undermine, the political impartiality of a permanent civil service, assists civil servants on a day-to-day basis in their work, and helps to support Ministers.

  3.  In seeking to protect the political impartiality of a permanent civil service, the FDA supports the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its Sixth Report in calling for a limit to be placed on the number of special advisers. The FDA has not offered a particular figure but will consider this further in the context of a wider debate about the content of a Civil Service Act. We are concerned that under the current arrangements a Prime Minister could expand the numbers of special advisers within government without any apparent constraint.

  4.  The FDA believes that the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers published in July 2001 has been helpful in setting out more clearly work that is appropriate to special advisers (paragraph 3) in a way that was not previously explicit. The publication of a separate code for special advisers has caused some controversy amongst special advisers themselves in that it seeks to draw a clearer distinction between permanent civil servants and special advisers. In practice such a distinction exists and the separate code is simply a formal recognition of that and can be seen as helping to support, rather than diminish, the remit of special advisers.

  5.  Our experience is that in general relationships between special advisers and permanent civil servants are good and constructive. Where a special adviser is working effectively he or she is enhancing the ability of civil servants to do their job. The FDA is concerned at the recent tendency, both politically and in the media, to "demonise" special advisers. It would be naive to suggest that there are not tensions but for the most part these are no different to those that arise between colleagues working in any environment. Where problems have arisen there appear to be two main factors.

  6.  Firstly, where there is a lack of clarity about the role that a Minister expects an individual special adviser to undertake. Given that no Minister uses their special advisers in exactly the same way, each individual special adviser should have a personal job description which would include their role, if any, with the media and therefore the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS).

  7.  Secondly, problems can arise in day-to-day working relationships if there is a lack of understanding either on the part of a civil servant about what the appropriate role of a special adviser is, or with a special adviser who does not fully understand what is and is not appropriate to the work of a civil servant. The FDA therefore suggests that the Centre for Policy and Management Studies (CPMS) considers whether training could be developed for both civil servants and special advisers about their mutual interaction and respective roles. In addition, the FDA has noted with surprise that special advisers receive no specific training, and in particular no induction training. This is in contrast to somebody appointed from outside the civil service to a civil service post as a result of open competition. The FDA therefore suggests that structured training, including induction training, be developed for special advisers.

  8.  For special advisers dealing with the media, there is potential discrepancy between the code of conduct and the guidance on the work of the GICS. For example, the Basic Conventions of the Government Information and Communications Service require, amongst other things, that media activities:

    "ii.  Should be objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical;

    iii.  should not be, or be liable to misrepresentation as being, party political"

    whilst the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers explains that the work of a special adviser may include:

    "ix.  Representing the views of their Minister to the media including a Party viewpoint, where they have been authorised by the Minister to do so".

  9.  The FDA suggests that the GICS consider additional advice for special advisers on their relationships with the media.

  10.  The FDA also welcomes paragraph 22 of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers which states that:

    "22 Any civil servant who believes that the action of a special adviser goes beyond that adviser's authority or breaches the Civil Service Code should raise the matter immediately with the Secretary of the Cabinet of the First Civil Service Commissioner, directly or through a senior civil servant."

  11.  However, the FDA believes that whilst in most cases the protection set out in para 22 of the code, which go beyond the provisions of the Civil Service Code, will allow problems of relationships or activities to be resolved satisfactorily, individual civil servants must have the confidence that perceived breaches will be dealt with not only by the civil service but will be acknowledged at a political level. Even with a Civil Service Act, there will be a need—and there is an immediate need—for a strong message across Government that the political impartiality of the civil service must be respected day by day in terms of relationships between Ministers, special advisers and civil servants and that the Government will treat seriously, at a political level, breaches of either the Civil Service Code or the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers just as there is an overriding obligation on civil servants of loyalty to their Minister and the elected Government.

THE CIVIL SERVICE ACT

  12.  The FDA has been actively campaigning for the introduction of a Civil Service Act, and welcomes the support given by the Government, Conservative Party and Liberal Democrat Party. We look forward to the consultation paper being prepared by the Cabinet Office and will wish to comment more fully in the coming weeks. The FDA believes that there is a number of significant reasons why a Civil Service Act is now appropriate. These include:

    —  The civil service had continued to change over the past 150 years. Sometimes that change has been evolutionary, at other times rapid and dramatic as for example during the two world wars. Considerable change was implemented by the Conservative governments of 1979 to 1997, and the Labour Government elected from 1997 has placed public sector reform at the heart of its agenda, with a reform programme specifically for the civil service. Successive governments have however continued to emphasise their commitment to the underlying values of the civil service first set out in 1854, and civil servants have felt confident about embracing change in the knowledge that those values are not being eroded. The FDA believes that the Civil Service Act demonstrates a commitment by the Government to maintain those values at a time when the pace of change is, if anything, accelerating and civil servants are being expected to undertake new roles.

    —  Those underpinning values are moreover not just important to civil servants but serve as a guarantee to all citizens that civil servants throughout the UK undertake their many varied tasks within a clearly-understood ethical and constitutional framework. That in turn assists in the ability of the civil service to deliver on behalf of Ministers and citizens. It is no exaggeration to claim that those underpinning values are respected throughout the world and serve as a model for civil servants internationally.

    —  The routes for entry are becoming more varied. Many departments are now opening up almost all their more senior posts to external competition. The risks of loss of impartiality may be greater, and are certainly perceived to be so, as the concept of a career service is eroded and more appointments are made on the basis of specific external experience.

    —  There are likely to be increasing pressures on the Recruitment Code as the civil service culture changes and managers, many from outside the civil service, ask why the whole recruitment process needs to be undertaken within a central framework. Fair and open competition is good practice, but there are also cost implications from this. It is not clear that the Government recognises it is a cost worth paying.

    —  The role and accountability of civil servants vis-a"-vis the citizen, ministers, Parliament, the Crown, departments etc are unclear. This lack of constitutional underpinning for civil servants' status has been repeatedly highlighted in recent years.

    —  Devolution has created a new framework for governance within the UK. New relationships between civil servants and politicians are developing. With growing diversity in the administration of the UK at national levels, an Act would help to clarify the position of those public servants working within the civil service or civil services, and provide a clear comparator for practice adopted in other strata of government and by future national governments.

    —  The number of different codes is beginning to create confusion. There are already codes for civil servants, ministers, special advisers, the model contract for special advisers, and the code for the Government Information and Communication Service. There is a need to define the relationships properly between the different parts of the Executive and to have clarity in the relationships between different codes.

  13.  The result of these developments is an increased scope for the traditional values of the civil service to be challenged. It is clear that significant changes could be made to the way the civil service operates without the need for any legislation. Indeed, a Prime Minister so wishing could make wide-ranging changes without any checks.

  14.  The FDA does not see a Civil Service Act as being about inhibiting future change. Rather it is about making sure that any changes are made after meaningful debate and within the context of agreed principles and values. In particular, an Act would give Parliamentary support to the political impartiality of the civil service, whilst enabling that underlying value to be interpreted in the light of changing circumstances.

  15.  The FDA believes that an Act would also help to minimise any potential conflict between special advisers and civil servants by reinforcing the importance of political impartiality within the civil service.

February 2002


 
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