Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report


How many should there be?

25. Although we have argued that the question of the value of advisers is logically prior to the question of their number, the latter issue inevitably provokes much attention. We heard a variety of views about the appropriate number of advisers. Some witnesses thought that there were now too many, of the wrong kind, in the wrong places. The former Prime Minister, John Major was convinced of this: 'As far as departmental advisers were concerned, I was very disillusioned ... I would have cut back on advisers very dramatically. I think they got out of hand. I think there are too many of them. I think whatever their individual virtues, I think as a collective breed they cause more problems these days for government than they solve'.

26. Several witnesses thought the current number of advisers was about right. Professor King told us that he 'would not see a very strong case, as a general proposition, either for reducing or expanding the role of special advisers'[45]. Although a former member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, he disagreed with its recommendation that the number should be limited. Dr Plowden thought that there was room for at least as many advisers as there are now[46]. We heard no argument for a substantial increase. Lord Blackwell suggested that too many might cut Ministers off, not only from the civil service but from each other and even from the Prime Minister; and that the appropriate number of policy advisers at No 10 Downing Street is the number which can comfortably be accommodated round a table and hold a single conversation because 'if you start having sub-departments at No10 you have just replicated the problem of having fragmented ministries'.[47]

27. However, Professor Bogdanor argued that the Prime Minister might need more, rather than fewer, advisers. He pointed out that 'at the present time there are three members of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit and two private secretaries dealing with education and health. These people also have other responsibilities. The Departments of Education and Health have I think nine special advisers between them and thousands of officials helping them. One will not get the dynamic for education or health reform unless one has a stronger centre of government'[48]. A former civil servant Kate Jenkins agreed, saying 'I do not think it is a sensible approach to get terribly worried about 10, 20 or 30 people being added to the Downing Street staff. What is of more concern is the question of, if you want to change an institution like the Civil Service, where the driving force has to come from. All my experience has been that it is the Prime Minister'.[49]

28. The Neill Committee recommended[50] that the Ministerial Code should be amended to reflect the fact that 'in certain circumstances a Cabinet Minister may appoint more than two advisers, and perhaps also to set out the circumstances in which this may be done' (Recommendation 18), that the Civil Service Act should contain an overall limit which could only be exceeded by authority of Parliament (Recommendation 19) that, pending the introduction of this legislation, Parliament should be asked to approve a limit (Recommendation 20) and that parliamentary approval be required for any increase in the number of advisers with authority over civil servants (Recommendation 21).

29. The Government response to the Neill Committee recommendations in this respect was somewhat ambiguous. It indicated its intention that the principle of a limit of two advisers per Cabinet Minister would remain in force, that it would explain the reasons for any departure from this, and that it had no plans to increase the number of advisers with authority over civil servants (and that the position on these should be clarified when the Ministerial Code is next revised). It agreed to include a limit on the number of advisers in the proposed Civil Service Act, but did not address the question of a debate in the House to approve a limit pending the introduction of the legislation. While it did say that 'the appointment of special advisers would continue to be regulated by the Civil Service Order in Council', this gives no additional reassurance as to the number of advisers without authority over civil servants. Furthermore, no firm indication was given as to when the civil service legislation might be introduced. Civil service legislation has long been promised, and we believe that its introduction is now urgent. We would expect to see it early in the next Parliament.

30. We are not convinced that a formal cap on the total number of advisers, as recommended by the Neill Committee, is the most sensible way to proceed. We believe that a better approach would be for Parliament to vote a sum of money for special advisers (as it does for Short Money). It would then be for a government to decide how it wanted to make best use of this allocation (for example between No 10 and the Departments, between particular Departments, and between policy advisers and political advisers). The present rules do not apply at all to No 10. Our approach would achieve the objective of limitation while allowing more flexibility in the deployment of special advisers and securing more accountability to Parliament. We therefore recommend that the limitation of special advisers should be governed by the sum voted by Parliament for this purpose.

Different rules for different tribes?

31. Not all advisers play the same role. Our witnesses agreed that useful distinctions could be drawn between different types. Professor King had a 'hunch' that 'there is, at least, analytic distinction between special advisers in the line departments and the people who now occupy some of the offices in No.10' and that the 'second group, the No.10 group, probably ought to be considered and looked at separately and possibly with different rules, and different indications of what was appropriate behaviour for them being worked out'.[51] He added that 'we make the distinction very familiarly between specialist policy advisers to ministers... on the one hand, and, on the other hand, political advisers in the narrower sense. Thinking about this... it occurs to me that one may want to distinguish in addition between all those special advisers who work in line Government departments and who have been there after all for quite a long time... and the special advisers who now work in No.10 who seem to me to be quite a different tribe of people.[52] The former Prime Minister, John Major, suggested that it was possible to distinguish between advisers in the Policy Unit, the structure in No 10 and the advisers to individual Ministers.[53] In a paper submitted to the Committee, Leighton Jenkins suggested that advisers could be classified as executive special advisers (Campbell, Powell), strategic special advisers working at No 10 Downing Street (in the Policy Unit, the Strategic Communications Unit and the Social Exclusion Unit), departmental special advisers, expert advisers, and 'czars'.

32. Much of the criticism we heard centred on the 'political' advisers. John Major told us: 'I think there are too many occasions when advisers, who have a certain amount of knowledge of their minister, talk to the media or others and it is then reported that happens to be the view of their minister. Whether it is or not, it is not for the adviser to do it and I think the proliferation of advisers is too great for the advantage. They may have been very useful to the individual ministers but I think they were becoming a significant handicap to the Government as a whole. When I look back with the wonderful wisdom of hindsight upon the 1990s I do wonder how many of the ministerial spats and difficulties that suddenly exploded in the media - unbeknown to me, that I was at terrible loggerheads with someone I was actually having lunch with at that precise moment, for example - came from political advisers'.[54] He subsequently clarified that it was the proliferation of advisers, not their existence, that he criticised. Michael Heseltine was even more forthright, declaring that 'all these special advisers, the political ones, are going to be the Achilles heel...of this Government before long...I would get them all out. Special advisers are quite different'.[55]

33. Despite such criticism, and the evidence that supports it, we accept that political advisers bring skills which Ministers require and provide an interface with the party in a way that civil servants cannot. As Dr Plowden put it in his memorandum 'If a Minister believes that a 26-year-old can help him with political advice and/or liaising with Millbank s/he is entitled to act on this belief. Events will show if it was misplaced'.[56]

34. Moreover, it is not always possible to distinguish between political and policy advisers. Although evidence suggests that where two advisers are in post there is a tendency to use one for political and the other for policy advice, as Dr Clarke indicated,[57] when we asked each Department whether this was so the replies suggested that it is not invariable practice.[58] Professor King agreed that there was 'overlap between the roles of providing policy and political advice'. Although the distinction between political and policy advisers is clearly a useful one, in practice there are policy-skilled political advisers and politically-informed policy advisers. It is for the government of the day, and for individual Ministers, to decide what particular mix of skills they require. Our recommendation (paragraph 53) would better enable this to be achieved.

35. It may be that an initiative taken in good faith after the last general election has been counterproductive. Sir Richard Wilson explained: ' Special advisers have sometimes been presented in the press as all being spin doctors. The truth is that there are differences between special advisers. Some of them are there to provide a link with the Labour Party of the kind that is described in the Model Contract, some of them do deal with the media, but some of them are what I would previously have described as expert advisers, and we abolished that distinction at the last election. There is a question, I think, as to whether we were right to do that because some of the special advisers have visibly no political role at all. To take the Drugs Czar, Keith Hellawell was recruited through a competition but counts as a special adviser, and he cannot possibly be presented as some kind of political spin doctor. The same applies to his assistant. There are a number of other special advisers, three economic advisers in the Treasury and a number of others, who I think have been brought in because they are experts. There are issues there which arise in relation to the questions you have asked which I think need to be addressed. I think we need to stand back and take a thought about how we handle the wish of governments to bring in experts and whether we can find ways of dealing with that. There is some confusion in the way we lump them all together'.[59] He also told us: 'there is no point in forcing someone into a Special Adviser mould when they could be recruited through normal Civil Service Commission processes'[60]. We do believe that this lumping together causes unnecessary difficulties and that there would be advantages in some attempt at separation. In particular, policy experts of the 'czar' type do not need to be fitted into the same mould as political advisers. If they are to play no political role, there seems no good reason why they should not be recruited under normal civil service procedures (which of course now provide for much more external competition of this kind) and we so recommend.

The case of No 10

36. The advisers at No 10 Downing Street are another category again, or even a set of sub-categories. The origins of the Policy Unit lie in the Political Unit established by Harold Wilson in 1974 (but foreshadowed in 1964-70) to offer more policy and political advice to the Prime Minister than was available from the career civil service. It originally consisted of eight outsiders. Mrs Thatcher initially reduced the number to three but by 1983 the Unit had grown back to eight, comprising a rough balance between civil servants and outsiders. Tony Blair has increased both the size and the influence of what is now called the Policy Unit. According to Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon, the Unit combined the roles of 'a think-tank (working up policy and seeking ideas from outside the policy specialist) and a French-style cabinet (reinforcing the political direction of the Prime Minister...a Unit member sat on each of the twenty or so departmental review teams set up under the Comprehensive Spending Review and attended Blair's meeting with the minister to agree the terms of the department's final allocation'.[61] Almost all the senior members are outsiders.[62] The strength, though not necessarily the composition, of the Unit is consistent with the Government's emphasis on 'joining up' government.

37. The strength of the Policy Unit concerned some witnesses, particularly Professors Hennessy and Hazell. The latter commented: 'Peter [Hennessy] is quite right about emphasising the importance... of the Policy Unit in No 10 as being one of the nodal points in the special adviser network, that too has doubled. It used to consist of about eight and a mix, roughly equal proportions, of outsiders and civil servants. It has doubled, there are now some 14, but they are almost all outsiders... That is one of the main reasons why the Policy Unit does not integrate well with the rest of Whitehall, it links to the other special advisers in the Departments'.[63] However, even John Major, who was critical of departmental special advisers, told us that he would have strengthened the Unit somewhat, even if not to the same extent and with a mixture of civil servants and outsiders.[64] The Government Reply to the Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life made it clear that the government has no plans to increase the size of the Unit. It is difficult to judge the extent to which the Policy Unit, in its present size and composition, brings greater strategic direction and better co-ordination to the operation of government.

38. The total number of advisers in No 10 Downing Street, with their responsibilities, is set out in Appendix 5 to the Minutes of Evidence. We were also supplied with an organogam[65]. Many work in the area of communications. These posts would not appear to be very dissimilar from positions in the Government Information and Communications Service and we question whether they really need to be filled by special advisers. The whole area of communications is a difficult one, especially the line between effective communication of policy and party propaganda. There might seem to be advantages for government in having special advisers in this area but such advantages will soon disappear if the information disseminated comes to be seen as partial or unreliable. We hope to return to this subject. Meanwhile, we recommend that the Government consider whether these posts really need to be classified as special adviser posts or whether they too could be subject to open competition.

39. Discussion of special advisers, centring as it so often does on their role in 10 Downing Street, tends to open debate on whether there should be or indeed is (by stealth according to Professor Hennessy, 'de facto' according to Dr Plowden[66]) a Prime Minister's Department. In our view it would be much better if there were less coyness in engaging in what is a perfectly proper debate on this matter. A Prime Ministers's Department may or may not be the most appropriate means to strengthen strategic capacity and co-ordination in British government, but the issues are important and deserve to be explored. We plan to return to this matter in reporting on our current inquiry into Making Government Work.

The Short Money connection?

40. Special advisers assist Ministers at public expense. Opposition parties represented in the House of Commons receive financial assistance for the conduct of their parliamentary business. This money is known as 'Short Money' after the Leader of the House who introduced it. A connection between special advisers and Short Money was drawn first by Lord Neill, who said 'one of the things I had been thinking about myself was whether you could have a type of Short Money scheme for special advisers'.[67] Lord Lipsey offered a proposal: 'There is money for the Opposition, Short Money... what I think is uncomfortable about the present situation is that special advisers, and here I really refer to the political breed of special advisers, are paid just like they were any other civil servant out of the same pocket without any discrimination. What I would like to see is, as it were, a vote of Short Money for Government where it is not very much money but it would be subject to proper parliamentary control and scrutiny and would send a signal to people that these people are something really quite different from the normal Civil Service'.[68] We decided to investigate further the suggested analogy between expenditure on Short Money and special advisers, the cost of each now being broadly equivalent since the Government's substantial increase in Short Money funding for opposition parties which the House agreed in May 1999. As a matter of courtesy, since the matter affects the House, we wrote to the Speaker, and the correspondence is printed as Annex 3 to this Report.

41. We held one evidence session on Short Money. We took evidence from the Clerk of the House (Mr William McKay) and the Head of Operations, Fees Office (Mr Archie Cameron), from the accountants who provide the audit certificates in respect of Short Money for the three largest parties, and from representatives of the parties themselves. We included the Labour Party in our evidence because, although not currently in receipt of Short Money, they did receive it until 1997 and they and their auditors were in a position to tell us their impression of the system and how they had handled it.

42. The representatives of those parties who gave us evidence on 15th November did not see a parallel between Short Money and special advisers. Ben Williams, for the Liberal Democrats said: 'I am not convinced that there is a parallel between the increase in the number of special advisers and the funding available to the parties through Short Money'. Margaret McDonagh, for the Labour Party, said: 'It is not something that we have debated but I support the position of both special advisers and the allocation of Short money to opposition parties. However, I do not think they are in any way linked. Special advisers are there to give political advice to Cabinet Ministers'. David Prior MP, for the Conservatives, specifically denying the suggestion that special advisers and Short Money could be equated, said: 'The purpose of Short Money is to enable the opposition party to try and level the playing field against the government so that we have some real effort to hold them to account, given the tremendous resources that they have with press officers and the like' and 'Short Money ... is nothing to do with special advisers. Special advisers are in addition to that.'[69]

43. The evidence we heard about Short Money revealed some concerns about the method of accounting for it. As the sums involved are now substantial, we believe these concerns deserve the attention of the House.

44. The payment of Short Money is governed by Resolution of the House. The latest Resolution, passed in May 1999, increased the overall amount payable by 270 per cent, (the cost in 1999-2000 was £4,863,000,[70] with a maximum for 2000-2001 of £5,012,182[71]) and altered the payment basis. Whereas previously it had been necessary for the parties to put in a claim, payment is now made by the Fees Office provided that within nine months after the end of the financial year a certificate from the firm of accountants appointed by the party is received stating that 'the financial assistance received and claimed was expended on expenses incurred exclusively in connection with the party's parliamentary business'. If no certificate were received, no more money would be paid. The National Audit Office scrutinises all certificates as part of its annual audit of the Members' Salaries etc Vote Appropriation Account, but does not take its audit beyond this.[72] The Clerk of the House and the Head of the Fees Office made it clear that they were bound by the terms of the Resolution of the House and could not go beyond it.[73]

45. There has been some discussion as to what, exactly, constitutes 'parliamentary business', which Parliament has identified as the purpose of Short Money but which none of the Resolutions have attempted to define. According to Brian Taylor of PricewaterhouseCoopers, who were appointed to audit Short Money for the Conservative Party after the 1997 General Election, 'we approached the Fees Office in the first year that we were asked to sign an opinion of the use of Short Money. We gathered from that there was no definition, which is why we then asked the party to form a definition, which was very open and was made part of our opinion that we gave. What we recommended to the party was that, rather than having their own definition being attached to our opinion it would be far better to have something that had been sanctioned by the Fees Office. It was the party who approached the Fees Office to discuss whether that could be achieved'.[74]

46. The Fees Office Memorandum continues the story: 'the auditor for the Official Opposition's Short Money account expressed difficulty in certifying that Short Money had been spent on parliamentary business. In response to this, a definition was drafted by the Fees Office and circulated for comment and final approval by the Official Opposition, the Accounting Officer and the National Audit Office. This definition has now been agreed and included in the "Notes for the Auditor" which form part of the re-written audit certificate. Parliamentary business for the purpose of Short Money is now defined as: Research associated with front bench duties, developing and communicating alternative policies to those of the Government of the day, and shadowing the Government's front bench. It does not include political campaigning and similar partisan activities, political fund raising, membership campaigns or personal or private business of any kind'.[75] The Clerk of the House said that he thought that rather than defining 'parliamentary business' the House authorities had attempted to describe it.[76]

47. There was some disagreement as to whether, and if so when, the expanded description of 'parliamentary business' had been conveyed to the other parties. The representatives of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties told us in our evidence of 15th November that they had only just heard of it,[77] but Mr Cameron told us, in a note subsequent to the meeting that 'all parties had been informed in August 2000 when the new pro-forma audit certificate and the new Notes for the Auditor were sent out from the Fees Office'.[78]

48. The current system is open to the criticism that it places the onus on the political parties rather than on either House authorities or firms of accountants to say that the money has been properly spent, although it is not clear that the previous system was much more transparent. When we suggested to Mr McKay and Mr Cameron that previously they would have seen detailed claim forms, they explained that this was not the case.[79] Mr Cameron explained that even the requirement to produce a contract of employment would not of itself provide conclusive evidence that someone was carrying out the work.[80] They felt that detailed claim forms would help, but were doubtful how much. The firms of accountants also agreed that demanding the submission of more detailed claims would probably create a good deal of work without greatly improving the system. According to Robert Ward of Silver Altman, auditing for the Liberal Democrats, 'it would involve a lot of administration and it would obviously make our task easier. Where do you stop? Are you going to insist that every claim is backed up with an invoice? There has to be an element of trust at some stage'.[81]

49. Nonetheless, all the witnesses thought there was room for more guidance. Mr Ward said, and the other two firms agreed, 'I think probably a more detailed definition of what expenditure is acceptable and what expenditure is unacceptable would be adequate'.[82] The Clerk of the House thought the system could be improved, first by moving the House to clarify the resolution and second, possibly by getting more details and assurances from the parties.[83] Furthermore, he would 'welcome from whatever source- whether the House or the political parties - some more precision, some more reassurance which ran right through the system, as indeed I see in the present suggestions in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill for policy development. There is an audit structure there.'[84]

50. We suggested to the political parties that it might be appropriate to publish the accounts of how they spent Short Money. All agreed in principle.[85] We note that the Official Opposition[86] and its auditors[87] were unable to give a categorical assurance that its Short Money funding was used exclusively for parliamentary business. We have further concerns that, after an approach by the Party to the Fees Office, a description of parliamentary business was arrived at, without consideration by the House, which seems to allow more latitude in how this money is spent. In particular we are not clear how 'communicating alternative policies to those of the Government of the day' (which is permitted under the expanded description) is different from 'political campaigning' (which is not).

51. We believe that there is an urgent need for stricter regulation as to what Short money may be spent on and more transparency as to how it has been spent. We understand that it will be for the Leader of the House to bring forward an amended Resolution for adoption by the House. We asked the Clerk of the House to draw her attention to the evidence we took and he undertook to do so.[88] We hope that the Leader of the House will take an early opportunity to table an amended resolution so that the House can agree more precisely on what Short Money may be spent and how it is to be accounted for.

52. Special support for public funding for parties in government and special support for parties in opposition are clearly beasts of the same field. Nothing we heard in our evidence on Short Money dissuaded us from our view that it might be possible to put advisers and Short Money on a more open and equal footing. We put to Sir Richard Wilson and also to the FDA witnesses the suggestion that the time had perhaps come to separate special advisers from civil servants and to pay them from a separate fund. Both disagreed. Sir Richard said 'I think the taxpayer benefits and the Government benefits, because if they are the best person for the job the public can be satisfied that the resources are not being used for the benefit of a political party. For the rest, taking Special Advisers as a whole, I think the disciplines which we have for the Civil Service are good ones. I think that Parliament and you as a Select Committee can get some reassurance that the disciplines as they are defined in the Model Contract and in the other provisions of the Civil Service Guidance provide you with some reassurance that the role of Special Advisers is not going wrong or getting out of hand. I do not know that I would advise you to dispense with that kind of assurance. If you had a group of people funded from a pot who were not in any way civil servants, you would not be able to look to me as Head of the Civil Service for the kind of assurance you have been looking to me for just now. You would be basically strengthening the Government of the day and the political party in power and I am not sure that is actually the alteration to the checks and balances which this Select Committee is looking for. But it is not for me to advise you; I am trying to think my way into it'.[89]

53. These are clearly important considerations. However, much of the anxiety about the 'political' special advisers turns on the extent to which partisan activities are paid for by the taxpayer and strain civil service rules. The advantage of considering special advisers and Short Money together is that it opens up a new approach. It would be possible to fund both political support to Ministers and parliamentary support to opposition parties out of a common pot , with agreed rules for both. Instead of regarding the political advisers to Ministers as a special kind of normal civil servant, with all the attendant difficulties, it might be more honest to recognise them as a distinct category, paid for in a particular way and with distinct contracts governing their activities. We do not think this necessarily means a loss of discipline; but it would represent a gain in honesty and transparency. We recommend that consideration be given to the establishment of a separate fund out of which both those advisers whom it was not possible to recruit under civil service rules and Short Money payments to opposition parties could be funded. Such a fund would be commensurate with the total sum now paid annually to non-expert special advisers and in Short money. We recognise that this would necessitate a change in the accounting procedure in that it would probably no longer be appropriate for the Clerk of the House to be involved. If money for special advisers were voted in a block in this way, it would act as a discipline insofar as governments would have to decide how it might most usefully be deployed.

45  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q5 Back

46  HC (1999-2000) 727 p 12 Back

47  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 63 Back

48  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q159 Back

49  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 159 Back

50  Sixth Report; Reinforcing Standards Back

51  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 7 Back

52  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 1 Back

53  HC (1999-2000) 821 Q 12 Back

54  Ibid Back

55  HC (2000-2001) 94 Q 967 Back

56  HC (1999-2000) 727 p 12 Back

57  HC (1999-2000) 94 Q 979 Back

58  Annex1 Back

59  HC 238-1 Q135 Back

60  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 455 Back

61  The Powers behind the Prime Minister, 1999 Back

62  For most of the information in this paragraph we are indebted to House of Commons Library Research Paper 00/42. Back

63  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 213 Back

64  HC (1999-2000) 821 Q 12 Back

65  HC (1999-2000) 238 p 20 and Appendix 1 Back

66  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 58 Back

67  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 11 Back

68  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 27 Back

69  HC (1999-200) 238 Q 731 Back

70  Appropriation Accounts 1999-2000 HC 25-XVIII p 24 Back

71  Figures supplied to House of Commons Library by house of Commons Fees Office Back

72  HC (1999-2000) 238 p 120 Back

73  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 502 Back

74  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 583 Back

75  HC (1999-2000) 238 p 120 Back

76  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 504 Back

77  HC (1999-2000 238 Q 726-8 Back

78  HC (1999-2000) 238 p 126 Back

79  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 561-3 Back

80  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 559 Back

81  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 596 Back

82  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 597 Back

83  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 503 Back

84  HC (1999-2000 238 Q 547 Back

85  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 697)  Back

86  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 671 Back

87  HC (1999-2000) Q 580 Back

88  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 540 Back

89  HC (1999-2000) Q 238 Q 455 Back

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