Select Committee on Public Administration Eighth Report

Chapter Three


  1. In this chapter we first summarise the wider lessons that appear to us to follow from the events in DTLR, then make some recommendations that may help to prevent a recurrence. They can—and should—be implemented speedily, and certainly in advance of the Government response to any recommendations which may emerge from the current inquiry into roles and relationships in the executive by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

  3. In our view, the story of DTLR demonstrates serious flaws in the management and accountability of special advisers. Neither the Secretary of State nor Sir Richard Mottram were able, or willing, to ensure that the rules were followed by Ms Moore and the small group in the department who wished to damage her.
  4. The employment of politically-appointed special advisers has always contained the potential to cause problems. Where special advisers can appeal above the head of the permanent secretary to the Secretary of State, they are enjoying privileges that are not available to other civil servants. Rightly or wrongly, there can be a damaging perception that there is one law for special advisers and one law for the rest.
  5. In previous administrations of all political colours, this flaw has not been exposed. Where advisers restricted themselves to giving personal advice to Ministers, they were not trying to play a part in the running of the department or attempting to challenge its management. It was accepted, without any great discussion that we are aware of , that there would have to be joint management of special advisers by Ministers and permanent secretaries. The system was not seriously tested.
  6. The difficulties that have emerged from time to time with special advisers since 1997 have arisen in large part with media briefing that has gone wrong. In the nature of things, the briefings by special advisers tend to be unattributable, while much (though by no means all) of the media briefing provided by permanent civil servants is on the record. This difference in approach and accountability can deepen the suspicion between them.
  7. In that sense, the DTLR case was by no means an isolated one. There is always a risk that lack of co-ordination between Ministers, press officers and special advisers will cause confusion about the government's policies and headlines claiming 'disarray'. Mike Granatt emphasised the importance of speaking with a single voice: "There is no greater way to shed public confidence—this is a researched fact, it is not an assertion—than for the voices of authority to speak differently. When you are facing a crisis, such as public safety, clearly you have to speak with one voice to make sure that does not happen".[26]
  8. The Value of Special Advisers

  9. However, we had a good deal of evidence that, in the vast majority of departments today, good sense, flexibility and the loyalty of both special advisers and other civil servants to their Ministers have prevented trouble of this sort[27] Jonathan Baume of the FDA judged that there was "no crisis of relationship between either the Government and the Civil Service, or between civil servants and special advisers".[28] We also heard substantial evidence from civil servants and others of the benefits that special advisers can bring; they can for example protect civil servants by carrying out work that might raise doubts about Civil Service neutrality. They may also provide valuable insights which can improve a policy by adding a political dimension. Policy has to work in the real world, and a good special adviser can help contribute to the necessary reality check. In a well-managed department, good relationships between Ministers, special advisers and permanent officials can generate an excellent working environment.[29]
  10. Nor is controversy over briefing and politicisation a phenomenon that arrived only with the increased numbers of special advisers in 1997. Sir Richard Wilson drew our attention to accusations levelled against No 10 in the 1980s: "All I am saying to you is that spin—whatever you call it; whether you call it spin or putting over whatever it is; Bernard Ingham called it putting a gloss on things—is not new".[30]
  11. Testing the System to Destruction?

  12. But the DTLR case tested the system further, perhaps to destruction. It was a classic case study in the problems of the boundaries between special advisers and civil servants. We consider that the crisis was caused partly by the fact that Ms Moore took on a series of executive and then, in effect, managerial tasks without reference to proper procedures. If she had restricted herself to advice, there would have been no challenge to the operation of the department. If there had been better relationships with the press office, she would have aroused no antagonism. Ms Moore appeared to be dissatisfied with the quality of some of the press officers;[31] that seems to have made it even more difficult for them to get on with her.
  13. A series of incidents led to a catastrophic taking of sides that divided the department at senior level. The abandonment of professional standards by civil servants, vividly demonstrated by the plethora of leaks, contributed as much to the problems as Ms Moore's conduct.
  14. Faced with a special adviser who was not observing the boundaries, and other staff who were also breaching basic public service principles, the dual system of management proved impotent. Sir Richard Mottram was ultimately powerless to control Ms Moore because she could be perceived to be appealing above his head to the political protection of the Secretary of State who had decided not to dispose of her services after the 11 September email. Mr Byers was ultimately unable to prevent a few other members of his own staff from damaging his department.
  15. On the other hand, we see no prospect of changing this dual system of control, with all its drawbacks, as long as Ministers continue to appoint people to give them political advice in their departments and permanent secretaries have most personnel powers delegated to them. There will always be ambiguities, grey areas, in the system; the objective should be to reduce them to a minimum.
  16. The Powerless Centre?

  17. We also learned from the evidence of Sir Richard Wilson, Mike Granatt and others that there appears to be little that the Centre—No 10, the Cabinet Office, the leadership of the GICS— is able to do to about problems that emerge in departments when special advisers exceed their boundaries. The Cabinet Secretary will, rightly, be extremely wary of undermining the authority of a Permanent Secretary and therefore loath to intervene. In the area of communications, the role of the GICS as an organisation is inevitably going to be extremely limited as long as the vast bulk of employment decisions on these personal appointments are made by departments.
  18. Also at the centre, the Civil Service Commissioners were not, despite their important independent role in maintaining the Service's standards, able to act. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that the Prime Minister might have had a direct role in resolving the dispute, despite the Government's own statement on the ultimate line of responsibility. No 10 officials would no doubt have been extremely unwilling to involve the Prime Minister in such a high-profile (and high-risk) option if there were any chance of the matter being resolved within the department.
  19. Weaknesses in the Rules

  20. There are still fundamental contradictions between the various regulations which apply to the work of special advisers. Perhaps the most serious anomaly is that while the 1995 Order in Council which covers special advisers describes their role as "giving advice only to Ministers", the special advisers' code explicitly envisages that they would carry out the executive task of briefing the media.[32] This anomaly needs to be addressed immediately.
  21. But even when there are adequate rules, there are doubts about the capacity of departments to implement them. For example, the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers introduces some useful principles, stipulating that, while they can brief the media "with a degree of political commitment that would not be possible for the permanent Civil Service", special advisers must keep the department's Head of Information informed about their contacts. The Code also confirms that the Head of Information is "responsible for managing press and publicity operations in their department". However, there was very clearly a problem of enforcement at DTLR. The rules do not seem to have been well-known or well-observed.
  22. An Erosion of Standards in the Civil Service

  23. The events at DTLR have also produced worrying signs of an erosion of the ethical standards of the permanent Civil Service. However great the pressures on them, it was nothing less than gross misconduct for civil servants to act in the way a few of them did at DTLR. There were grievance procedures that should have been followed, but were ignored (although the system worked to an extent when one civil servant received the informal support of Sir Richard Mottram for not acceding to a request to brief in a particular way about Bob Kiley).[33] Sir Richard Wilson acknowledged that the procedures could be better. We consider that one of the benefits of a Civil Service Act, for instance, would be the opportunity to strengthen the available protections and give them legal force. But that does not weaken the main point; whatever the shortcomings of the current grievance procedure, they can never excuse deliberate attempts to damage colleagues.
  24. We are extremely concerned at the evidence that permanent civil servants in DTLR maliciously leaked information and misinformation about the activities of Jo Moore, in such a way as to damage her reputation and that of the Secretary of State. We consider these leaks to be a very serious breach of the principles of public service, and a threat to the reputation of the permanent Civil Service. We urge the Government to pursue rigorous disciplinary action against any civil servant, in any department, who is found guilty of such behaviour.
  25. Criticism must however be accompanied by a recognition that the current system for handling complaints by civil servants is not effective. Sir Richard Wilson expressed his doubts about the present procedure, by which civil servants who feel they are being asked to do something improper are given the option of putting their case to the Head of the Home Civil Service or the Civil Service Commissioners. He told us that that route had been described to him as "nuclear", and commented "if people feel that the grievance procedure is nuclear then that is not good enough".[34] The Government, in its recent evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has recognised this, saying that it would give specific guidance, in the Civil Service Management Code, to civil servants on how to raise concerns. However, this does not fully meet the requirement for a better complaints system which avoids the pressure for civil servants to risk the hazards of the 'nuclear option'. We recommend that the Government should review the present system by which civil servants can raise their concerns, with the aim of making it simpler and less potentially intimidating for the complainant.
  26. There is also a measure of legal protection. The Public Interest Disclosure Act makes provision for employees to "blow the whistle" on alleged malpractice without (usually) going to the media; we urge the Government to ensure that the benefits of that legislation are felt as widely as possible in the Civil Service and that officials are given every opportunity to register their anxieties properly.

  28. However, we believe that the right long-term approach to these problems would be to redraw the boundaries in such a way as to clarify the work which special advisers are allowed to undertake. It is also important for there to be much fuller information about the work that special advisers do and their qualifications for this work. Such information is a necessary concomitant of public funding.
  29. The uncertainties revealed by the events at DTLR, and the continuing controversy over the influence of special advisers, have further strengthened the case for a hard look at the position of media special advisers in particular. It is our judgement that, as long as such advisers continue to hold posts in departments, the potential for disruption will be present. Although we have seen no evidence whatsoever of a concerted attempt to politicise the Civil Service, we believe that the personality clashes and management difficulties at DTLR were symptoms of an underlying problem of governance.


HC 303-i, Q 108 Back

27   Sir Richard Mottram told us of the loyalty of the Civil Service to Ministers. HC 303-ii, Q 346 Back

28   HC 303-i, Q 121 Back

29   Sir Andrew Turnbull, incoming Cabinet Secretary, has paid tribute to the relationships between special advisers and career officials in the Treasury. 'The Times' 1 May 2002 Back

30   HC 303-iii, Q 356 Back

31   HC 303-ii, Q 327 Back

32   'Defining the Boundaries within the Executive: Ministers, Special Advisers and the Permanent Civil Service' Issues and Questions Paper, Committee on Standards in Public Life 2002 Back

33   HC 303-ii, Q 239 Back

34   HC 303-iii, Q 405 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 19 July 2002