Select Committee on Public Administration Third Report


THIRD REPORT


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

SPECIAL ADVISERS: BOON OR BANE: THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

TO THE COMMITTEE'S FOURTH REPORT OF SESSION 2000-01

  1. Special advisers, usually appointed by Ministers to provide a political perspective on the work of their departments, are an established feature of life in Whitehall. They meet the objectives of government by providing necessary advice on the political implications of policy. Despite their relatively small numbers, the influence of special advisers on the workings of government has grown considerably in recent years, especially in a media-driven age. Their enhanced role, and their exemption from normal Civil Service rules of appointment, make it all the more important to have proper, transparent arrangements for their employment.

  2. This Report, which includes as an Appendix the Government Response to this Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2000-01,[2] records some commendable recent progress towards that objective. We wholeheartedly welcome the publication of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers. This is an important step towards the greater transparency that we called for. But more work still needs to be done to reassure the public about the propriety of the special adviser system. Recent controversies over the activities of special advisers have made it even more important to get this system right.

The Role of Special Adviser

  3. For the first time ever a specific code for special advisers has been drawn up; it now applies to all Whitehall advisers. The Code contains several of the elements recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, notably

         a statement that advisers have a duty to uphold the political impartiality of the Civil Service

         guidance on contacts with the media.

  4. Last week the Committee published the Government's response to our report on the Ministerial Code (HC 439). The Government has accepted our recommendation that all policy announcements should be made, in the first instance, to Parliament. We expect this undertaking to apply to special advisers no less than to Ministers.

  5. The Committee welcomes the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers as a clear statement of the role of advisers and a helpful strengthening of the protection provided to the neutrality of civil servants. As with all Codes, however, consistent and robust implementation is required to make it work. We will closely monitor its future operation in this respect.

Funding Parliamentary Advice

  6. The Committee saw strong parallels between the money spent on special advisers and the financial assistance given to opposition parties for the conduct of their parliamentary business (known as Short Money). The Committee recommended that consideration should be given to the establishment of a separate fund, for the support both of special advisers who cannot be appointed under Civil Service rules and for disbursement of Short Money. The Government do not agree, but we doubt that the issue will go away and will continue to keep this area under review.

  7. We were concerned about the lack of accountability and transparency in the use of Short Money, and we are pleased at the Government's acceptance of the need for greater clarity about the allocation of Short Money (recommendation d). We will watch with interest the Government's discussions with the other political parties on this matter.

  8. We regret that the Government has not accepted the Committee's recommendation of a cap on the amount of money that can be voted by Parliament for special advisers. We hope that the Government will at least now move swiftly to cap the overall numbers of special advisers as part of its forthcoming Civil Service Act. This would provide an opportunity to correct some of the inaccurate perceptions of special advisers which have led to what we called "misdirected attacks". The principal safeguard against such attacks on special advisers is greater transparency in appointment and greater clarity in operation, along with more effective mechanisms to deal with particular cases of difficulty.

Appointing Special Advisers

  9. A consistent theme of the Committee's original Report was that Government should consider a widening of the application of Civil Service appointment processes - including appointment on merit - to special advisers. At the moment, Whitehall special advisers are appointed personally by Ministers and do not have to demonstrate their merit. The Government has rejected the Committee's recommendation f, which proposed that it should publicly advertise for special adviser posts, and recommendation c, which proposed the possible reclassification of advisers working in communications roles so that the posts could be subject to open competition.

  10. We remain unconvinced of the Government's arguments on this point. The Response claims that "Since their inception in the early 1970s, it has been the nature of special adviser appointments that they should be outside the rules of fair and open competition as they are personal appointments made by the Minister at his or her request to meet particular needs".

  11. Firstly, this fails to take full account of the changing nature of the work undertaken by special advisers. Since the General Election, special advisers have consolidated senior positions in the machinery of government. Secondly, the recent decision of the First Minister in Wales, Rhodri Morgan, to place advertisements for special advisers both in the press and on the National Assembly website is a further example of the devolved institutions leading the way in promoting transparency. We believe that, at a time when the roles of special advisers are increasing in scope and their public profile has increased, it would greatly strengthen public confidence for Government to use a more transparent appointment process.

The Blurring of Responsibility

  12. Following the general election the Prime Minister created a Policy Directorate by combining the Policy Unit with his Private Office. The combination of special advisers and civil service private secretaries working closely together raises important questions. Will a future non-Labour Government wish to remove all those serving in the Policy Directorate? Who will be in charge of the policy sub-divisions? If a special adviser is in charge, will he or she in effect exercise authority over civil servants? The Prime Minister is right to organise his office to work as effectively as possible, but lines of accountability must be clear.

  13. The Government also rejected our recommendation that the experiment to give special advisers executive authority over civil servants should not be extended. Although we asked the Government to review the arrangements, they have maintained their position of May 1997. Whilst the Government has no plans to extend the number of advisers with executive authority (currently only two of the potential three), we believed that the experiment itself should be ended following the recent general election, and the concerns we raised in our original report remain.

  14. The Government has also rejected recommendation b, which urged it to recruit under normal Civil Service procedures those special advisers who are to play no political role (such as the expert advisers who were appointed as "czars" of various kinds). We do not accept the Government's argument that special arrangements need to be retained for such advisers, especially as many outside experts are now routinely appointed to roles in departments using the normal transparent processes.

  15. The Government has asked us for our views on the new Code of Conduct for Special Advisers. Having welcomed this important document, we intend to return to certain aspects when the Government produces its consultation on civil service legislation. We regard this long-awaited legislation as extremely important in defining roles and relationships within Government, including those between special advisers and career civil servants. We expect a consultation document on this shortly and trust that a Bill will speedily follow.


2   HC 293 Back


 
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