The Public Administration Select Committee has
agreed to the following Report:
SPECIAL ADVISERS: BOON OR BANE: THE GOVERNMENT
TO THE COMMITTEE'S FOURTH REPORT OF SESSION
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
2. This Report, which includes as an Appendix
the Government Response to this Committee's Fourth Report of Session
2000-01, 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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