The Public Administration Select Committee has agreed to the following Report:
"THESE UNFORTUNATE EVENTS":
Lessons of Recent Events at the former DTLR
"these unfortunate events, for which no blame is being apportioned...";
(From Statement agreed by Martin Sixsmith and DTLR, 7 May 2002)
In this Report, the Committee examines a series of events which occurred in the former Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions between September 2001 and May 2002. These related to communications issues, and in particular the handling of departmental announcements, but also gave rise to wider considerations. They began with the email sent on September 11 2001 by a politically-appointed special adviser, Ms Jo Moore, urging the release of "anything we want to bury" in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the USA.
The Report sets out the Committee's conclusions and seeks to identify some lessons for the Civil Service and the Government, with a special emphasis on the need for the Government to provide honest, reliable, accurate information at all times. It considers that the events at DTLR revealed a disturbing number of generic weaknesses in the management of government communications.
The Committee assesses the roles of the major players in the events at DTLR: the Secretary of State, Stephen Byers; the Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard Mottram; the Director of Communications from November 2001 to May 2002, Martin Sixsmith; Ms Moore; and a number of people and organisations at the centre of Government, including the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister's Office.
The Report concludes that the handling of the events demonstrates serious flaws in the management and accountability of special advisers. The crisis was caused partly by the fact that Ms Moore took on a series of executive and, in effect, managerial tasks without reference to proper procedures. In addition, a number of civil servants abandoned professional standards by leaking information and misinformation in a way intended to undermine Ms Moore. Management found itself unable to prevent a catastrophic taking of sides at senior level in the department.
The Committee recognises the benefits of special advisers to departments, in particular their ability to provide valuable insights during the development of policy and their role in protecting civil servants by carrying out work that would raise doubts about Civil Service neutrality. In the vast majority of departments, there have been good relationships between special advisers and career civil servants and the Report sees no evidence whatsoever of a concerted attempt to politicise the Civil Service.
However, the Report says that the regulations which apply to special advisers contain some fundamental contradictions and the boundaries between their work and that of career civil servants do not appear to be well-understood. It makes a number of recommendations to improve management and accountability, calling for a better system by which civil servants can raise any concerns they may have about special advisers and a review of the system for handling any disputes between Ministers, special advisers and career civil servants.
The Committee urges that any civil servant found to have breached the principles of public service by leaking against colleagues should be subject to rigorous disciplinary action. It also calls for a radical external review of the operation of government information services, taking in both the career civil servants involved and also those special advisers with a communications role. This should clarify the boundaries between the work that is appropriate to special advisers and work that is not appropriate to them.
The Report repeats the Committee's call for a Civil Service Act that would help to anchor the key constitutional relationships in the authority of Parliament. In order to move the process forward, the Committee will itself be preparing a draft Civil Service Bill in the next few months.