Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report


The appointment process

54. Unlike civil servants, most advisers do not have to be recruited on merit or after competition and this in itself can cause problems, even for Ministers. The Lord Chancellor has been taken to an industrial tribunal (unsuccessfully) by women alleging sex discrimination because they did not have the opportunity to apply for the post of his special adviser. The principle of appointment on merit is a safeguard against patronage and its abuse, and it is not clear to us that special advisers should be entirely exempt from its application.

55. We accept that an adviser must be personally congenial to the Minister, but see no reason why this cannot be combined with a basic merit test under Nolan procedures. Sir Richard Wilson's point about the public needing reassurance that they are 'the best person for the job'[90] is relevant here. There could and should also be advertising of the posts (as is done by the National Assembly for Wales[91]) while giving the Minister the final choice between the suitably qualified candidates. Such steps would provide some degree of assurance on the qualities and qualifications of the advisers paid for out of public funds without unduly restricting ministerial freedom. We recommend accordingly.

Special advisers and civil servants

56. Much criticism of the use of special advisers, and in particular of the increase in their numbers, centres on their likely effect on the wider civil service. Some witnesses thought that they might threaten, or were already threatening, that objectivity which many believe to be one of the qualities which set the British civil service apart from almost every other and which is held to be one of its chief virtues. Most of our witnesses paid at least lip-service to this ideal and, while most said there was not (yet) any evidence that this neutrality was being affected, there were some expressions of unease.

57. Professor Hazell was one of those who thought increased numbers had led to a change of role: 'I think this is a step change compared with previous administrations. I know that others often say there have always been special advisers going back to Lloyd George, and it is true, but the numbers are much greater. They have doubled since 1979...That doubling has led for the first time to there being a sufficient critical mass of special advisers that they have started to form an alternative network. As a result, there is much less sharing of information with the Civil Service and much less sharing of information between Departmental Ministers and their civil servants in their Departments and also with other Government Departments, which is the old classic role of a private office'.[92] Lord Lipsey agreed that there might come a moment when advisers reached such a critical mass but believed that 'we are no-where near it at the moment'.[93]

58. While Lord Neill's main concern was with probity, he expressed some concern about the number of advisers, arguing that numbers and role were inextricably linked .[94] In his report he referred to 'the argument that if the numbers of this type of public servant, and their degree of influence, rise to a point where the influence of the "objective" public servants is outweighed, the effectiveness of the principle of objectivity in public life is diminished'.[95]

59. Professor Hennessy was also concerned that the proliferation of special advisers would undermine the neutrality of the Civil Service. In his evidence to the Neill Committee he suggested that 'any signs of professional detachment on the part of career civil servants can all too easily be interpreted as 'not-one-of-us-ery' by the evangelists of the Blair project who, not surprisingly, fill the considerable number of special adviser posts in the various parts of No 10'.[96]

60. Those of our witnesses who, with Professor Hennessy, felt that special advisers posed a threat to the Civil Service feared greater politicisation of the policy-making process. Professor King was unsure that this would necessarily be a bad thing, drawing a distinction between politicisation and corruption: 'I would not insist on the point, but you could have a greater degree of politicisation without having corruption. After all, our system with civil servants playing such a large role within government policy-making is an unusual one as the world goes. In most countries there is a greater degree of politicisation. That is separate from the issue of corruption. Does our system need to be more politicised? That does seem to me to be a matter, largely, for empirical judgment'.[97] It is certainly the case that the UK is unusual in the extent to which civil servants engage in policy formulation and, according to Sir Robin Mountfield, 'the UK remains one of the very few major civil services in the world which is genuinely politically neutral, right to the most senior appointments.'[98]

61. The suggestion that the number of advisers is now sufficient to have an adverse effect on the permanent civil service was strongly rejected by Sir Richard Wilson, arguing that '70-odd advisers could not swamp the senior civil service of 3,700 people'.[99] The argument that advisers are few in number compared to the rest of the Civil Service is plausible as far as Departments are concerned, but becomes less convincing in the case of the No 10 advisers. 'Give me a fulcrum, and I will move the earth' remains a telling observation.

62. The organogram of the No 10 staff provided to us by Sir Richard Wilson following his evidence[100] shows Jonathan Powell as Chief of Staff at the apex, with lines going directly up to him from the Policy Unit, the Press Office and the Principal Private Secretary. Not having been able to secure an interview with the Chief of Staff, we asked the Cabinet Secretary what his role was. In answer to the question 'Is Jonathan Powell in charge at No 10?' Sir Richard replied 'Yes'. He is the Chief of Staff.[101] Subsequently he explained 'what the chart shows you is that Jonathan Powell has lines going to him from the Press Office and Alastair Campbell's side of the business. The Policy Unit, which are all the political advisers and civil servants in that area, also come under this umbrella. Then the rest of Number 10, which is the Private Office itself, the Garden Room, the honours and appointments side and operation of the day­to­day management of Number 10, they come under the Principal Private Secretary. What I am saying to you is that the truth is that the two of them share out the work in that way.'[102] This reply introduced ambiguity about the lines of accountability which the Cabinet Secretary's organogram[103] had appeared to clear up. It is clearly an extremely significant role for a special adviser to play.

63. Some witnesses thought that advisers were taking over roles which had traditionally been fulfilled by civil servants and that this was questionable. Professor King offered anecdotal evidence 'that several people, people going to see ministers from local authorities or interest groups or whatever, have told me that rather to their surprise they found themselves talking to a special adviser rather than, as they used to, either to a minister or an official'.[104] Lord Neill also commented on the possible doorkeeper role of advisers. The FDA were also concerned about the possibility of advisers acting as gatekeepers, Jonathan Baume saying that it is 'not appropriate, I think, on reflection, that a special adviser acts as the gatekeeper to a Minister; the core of the way the Civil Service is structured, the constitutional precedents, all our understanding is that the relationship is between the civil servant and the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister, and that is something we think is important, if we are to use the special adviser system effectively.[105] If communications traditionally received by civil servants were being intercepted by special advisers this would not be good practice, but the FDA had not been given instances of this having happened. They had advertised in the union's journal for examples but had received none.[106] Lord Lipsey had heard of 'special advisers having more say than strictly desirable in the drafting of answers to parliamentary questions'.[107] In his evidence to the Neill Committee, Lord Butler of Brockwell, a former Cabinet Secretary, told the Neill Committee that it would not be appropriate for advisers to usurp the role of the private office.

64. The amendment of the Civil Service Order in Council to allow up to three advisers to exercise authority over civil servants, something formerly forbidden, has caused particular comment. It was an innovation introduced at the suggestion of the FDA, but they have subsequently changed their minds. We asked them to explain why. They said that their original position had been that it would be helpful to the new Government ('it goes back on to transition issues'). They now thought that, while they made no complaint that either post-holder had abused his authority, the experiment should reach a natural conclusion at the next General Election. This was partly because they did not think it was necessary, partly because it contributed to misconceptions about the relationship between the Press Secretary and the Government Information and Communication Service and partly because it set a dangerous precedent. Mr Campbell's authority now derived from the fact that he represented the Prime Minister rather than his possession of executive powers.[108]

65. As far as the Chief of Staff was concerned, the FDA were slightly uneasy about this role being performed by an adviser at all. They also felt that the role of the Chief of Staff was in itself problematic: 'The fact that, in effect, you now have two people working in tandem, the Heywood role, the Powell role, without going into all of the nuances, I do not think seems to be the ideal way to run Number 10; one can question whether that has been overall of benefit to the Prime Minister, and only the Prime Minister can answer that'.[109] On balance they felt that 'if you start evolving a pattern whereby even a small number of special advisers take on executive powers, you are setting a precedent that could then be widened'.[110]

66. We share the reservations about special advisers exercising executive powers. It was meant to be a helpful development (just as the shift of the Chief Press Secretary from being a civil servant to being a special adviser could be seen as serving the cause of honesty) but it has unhelpful implications for established relations within government. The role of special advisers should add to the effectiveness of these relations, not compromise them. Not only should the experiment not be extended but the existing arrangements should be reviewed.

67. Special advisers should certainly not be in a position to influence the careers of permanent civil servants. The FDA evidence was interesting on this point. Jonathan Baume told us that he had it on good authority that special advisers had in some circumstances been present when Ministers interviewed candidates for civil service jobs and that they had access to civil service personnel files. Unfortunately he had received the information in confidence and did not feel able to pass on the details.[111] Pace Lord Lipsey,[112] we cannot think that there can ever be justification for advisers to have any say in the careers of permanent civil servants. Such a development would threaten the key civil service principle of promotion on merit.

68. We asked the FDA what they would do if examples of abuse came to their attention. They explained that matters would need to have reached an extreme pass for them to want to say anything publicly. Their preference would be 'to raise that with the appropriate people within the civil service and if needs be with Ministers themselves'.[113] One consequence of the professional inclination of the service to consume its own smoke is that it is difficult for outsiders to know if there really is a problem. A proper vigilance is therefore the appropriate stance.

69. A particular area of potential tension between advisers and civil servants arises in respect of the Government Information and Communication Service and we return to this when considering the terms of employment of advisers (paragraph 76).

70. It is not unknown for special advisers to become established civil servants. In 1995 Peter Levene (now Lord Levene of Portsoken ), who had been special adviser to Michael Heseltine the Secretary of State for Defence, was made Chief of Defence Procurement in 1985 (an appointment which caused some controversy). Terry Burns, now Lord Burns, who had been Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury and also Head of the Government Economic Service from 1980 to 1991 became Permanent Secretary at the Treasury in 1991 (though the Chief Economic Adviser might be thought of as policy rather than a political adviser). More recently Geoff Mulgan, formerly an adviser to the Prime Minister, was appointed to head the Performance and Innovation Unit at the Cabinet Office, and David Blunkett's special adviser has also become a civil servant. These recent appointments were made under the normal civil service appointment process.[114] The appointment of Ed Balls as Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury while remaining political adviser to the Chancellor has been the subject of some comment. As Treasury Adviser he is supposed to offer impartial economic advice while as a political adviser he does not have to observe the Civil Service rule of political neutrality.[115] We see no difficulty in these appointments, (as long as they are made under the normal civil service process) as greater movement, both inwards and outwards, is one of the aims for the civil service. However, appointments of this kind do raise questions about whether at least some expert policy advisers should not be recruited as civil servants in the normal way.

71. There is a further question concerning the subsequent career history of special advisers. In view of the restrictions placed on former civil servants in terms of what they may do when they leave the service, and the fact that following the First Report of the Nolan Committee advisers were brought within these same Business Appointments procedures, it would be interesting to learn what monitoring the Cabinet Office carries out to ensure that former advisers do not use knowledge gained in government in an inappropriate way. The routine publication of information about subsequent employment would be one way to provide reassurance on this point.

What are the boundary lines?

72. Special advisers are paid out of public funds and there must therefore be accountability to Parliament for them. We asked Sir Richard Wilson where the ultimate accountability to Parliament for the work of an adviser lay and he replied 'With the Prime Minister...I support him on that'. When asked if he acted as the eyes and ears of the Prime Minister in that regard he replied that 'he certainly had a responsibility'.[116] He confirmed that Parliament would be entitled to look for an answer from him if advisers had broken the rules. The Cabinet Secretary apart, witnesses felt that special advisers were insufficiently accountable, either individually or collectively, to Parliament. Professor Hazell said 'special advisers generally do need to be subject to rather greater control and accountability'.[117] The Neill Committee found that whereas all the other actors, both Ministers and civil servants, were subject to some kind of code ....the special advisers were subject to nothing other than their contract of employment'. This led the Committee to conclude that 'because of the dual nature of a special adviser as a personal, political appointee of a Minister but subject also to control by the Permanent Secretary through adherence to the Civil Service Code, the lines of accountability and ownership can appear less than clear'.[118] We agree.

73. The Government's response to the Neill Committee explained that 'Special advisers are civil servants. They are subject to the same rules of conduct as other civil servants as set out in the relevant staff handbook, with the exception of the rules relating to political impartiality and objectivity. The appointing Minister appoints on behalf of the Crown, administration of the contract falls to the Permanent Secretary, acting on behalf of the Minister. Cases of difficulty or disagreement should be submitted to the Prime Minister for decision'. We received no evidence on any such cases of difficulty, but it is clearly important that there should be a proper procedure for dealing with them if they do occur.

74. As for the Model Contract for Special Advisers, the Neill Committee found a number of faults with it as a means of holding special advisers to account. For one thing, it is not applied unchanged to all advisers and 'it is understood that there are variations from the model contract in the individual contracts of a number of special advisers' and 'there is no way of confirming whether these variations are minor or substantial' and so 'there is no single public point of reference for anyone seeking to hold a special adviser to account'.[119] He also pointed out significant omissions from the Contract, including the absence of any reference to media contacts, and noting that nowhere in either Contract or Civil Service Code is there any reference to a requirement on advisers to refrain from asking civil servants to do anything which would compromise their neutrality. We further note that the Model Contract states that an adviser may take a grievance either to the Minister or to the Permanent Head of the Department, which seems to us ambiguous. The Neill Committee's preferred solution (Recommendations 22 to 25) was a Code of Conduct for special advisers which would 'Consolidate the appropriate elements of the Civil Service Code, the Model Contract and paragraph 56 of the Ministerial Code, which sets out the duty to uphold the political impartiality of the civil service and other obligations'.[120] This Code would be included in the proposed Civil Service Act and would be enforced by the permanent Heads of Department. We endorse the Neill Committee's recommendations on the need for a Code of Conduct for Special Advisers.

75. In Session 1997-98 we produced a Report on 'The Work of the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS)'[121] . In that report we examined concerns that had been expressed as to whether the Prime Minister's Chief Press Secretary had been using his office to forward the interests of the Government in a way inappropriate to someone paid from public funds as a special adviser. We found no evidence to substantiate this at that time and nor was any submitted when we took further evidence from the service in May last year.[122] Since then Alastair Campbell has been reminded by Sir Richard Wilson of the relevant guidelines. In our 1997-98 Report we said 'it is difficult to avoid some advantage naturally accruing to the party in power from the use of public money to present the Government's policies in their best light'. That remains the intractable fact. We note that the FDA told us in the course of this inquiry that it was not a completely new concept having a special adviser in the role of Chief Press Secretary and that it was not necessarily inappropriate to do so.[123] Whether it is wise for a government to fill the post in this way is another matter. We welcomed then and welcome now Sir Richard's repeated assurances that he remained vigilant to ensure that advisers do not overstep the mark, but we note that the GICS handbook says little or nothing about the Service's relation to advisers and recommend that the next edition should set out the relationship in more detail. Tensions in this area are inevitable, which is why continuing vigilance is appropriate in policing the boundary line.

76. Last Session we followed up our Fourth Report of Session 1997-98 by taking further evidence from the Head of the Government Information and Communication Service, Mike Grannatt. We asked him whether there was tension between advisers and his officers. He replied that it varied, saying 'there are Departments, and I have worked alongside special advisers in such Departments, where the relationship has been very good and very productive. Occasionally special advisers feel very strongly that a particular course should be pursued in the communication sense and will argue the case pretty strongly with the communication people and the decision will then go to Ministers'[124]. We believe that, though we heard no evidence of specific problems, there is a need for particular vigilance in this area and we particularly endorse the Neill Committee's criticisms of the Model Contract insofar as it fails to mention relations between advisers and the GICS, and believe that the proposed Code of Conduct for Special Advisers should give clear guidance on this matter.

77. The Government gave a qualified acceptance to the Neill Committee's recommendations on this matter. It agreed to a separate Code but felt that a separate Model Contract would still be necessary, which seems to us to be sensible. It agreed that 'pending the introduction of the Civil Service legislation the Government will amend the Civil Service Order in Council after the next election to give legislative backing to the current Code and will ensure that the new arrangements make clear where special advisers are and are not covered by standard civil service terms'[125]. It gave no undertaking, however, that there would be full parliamentary consideration of the proposed Code in the period before the civil service legislation is introduced. We would expect to see a draft of the Code at an early stage. We welcome the Government's invitation to us to comment on the proposed Special Advisers Code although such an invitation should not be seen as a substitute for a full parliamentary debate, which should take place at the earliest opportunity.

78. The services of advisers (apart from the unpaid ones) are provided at public expense, and restrictions are placed on their political activities. In particular, advisers are prohibited from taking part in the work of their party's national organisation; and although they may continue, during elections, to give specialist or political advice to their Ministers, they must be careful not to take any active part in the campaign going beyond the provision of such advice and they 'must not take public part in political controversy...and they would not normally speak in public for their Minister or Department'.[126]

79. Professor King raised the question of whether it was true, 'as is sometimes alleged, that some part-time special advisers are taking advantage in the rest of their time of knowledge and contacts gleaned as special advisers? Is it the case that special advisers are spending their time on party political matters at the taxpayers' expense, which they ought not to be doing?'.[127] This suggestion was made particularly in the context of part-time advisers, but it could equally apply to full-time ones. This appears to be a very grey area, policed only by the permanent civil service. We asked Sir Richard Wilson about a recent, well-publicised case where the Chief Press Secretary had been involved in the defection of a prominent member of the Official Opposition to the Labour Party. Sir Richard explained that when the first meeting had been mooted it had not been clear what the object was, so that it had been held in No10, during office hours. Subsequent meetings had been held off the premises in Mr Campbell's own time. Sir Richard added: 'my concern is that the resources of the state are not to be used for party political purposes. The tax-payer is paying Alastair Campbell to work for the Government as the Government, not the Labour Party. My concern therefore is that in his hours at work he is doing work for the Government qua Government. What he does in his own time to support the Labour Party is his own business, as he is entitled to do'.[128]

80. The distinction between an adviser on duty and an adviser off-duty is a fine one to draw, especially in the context of a 24-hour news culture. It is hard to see how an individual could erect sufficient Chinese walls between what he or she knows and does through current employment and through other means. Mr Campbell's intention to resign his employment as soon as a general election is called to work full time for the Labour Party, then return to his post in the event of a Labour victory, is one example of the difficulties. The question is whether there could be a better system. We asked Lord Neill whether it might be possible to distinguish between the work done by advisers for the government and work done for the party and pay them pro rata. He said that he did not know what each of the advisers in post during his inquiry actually did, not having seen their individual contracts, so he did not know how much party work they did but he thought that, for practical reasons, such a scheme would be hard to implement. He said 'I would need to see more evidence as to how it could be done, how it would be workable, how you could partition a day of a special adviser, so much was party political and so much was not. The telephone would ring: "Am I allowed to take another call today? Is that a party political call?" I am not making a joke of it, but it would be incredibly difficult to draw a line, a division such as you suggest'.[129] Such difficulties are inescapable. They would, of course, disappear if advisers were paid out of party funds, but this would be at odds with our view that policy and political advice to Ministers is a proper activity that is appropriately funded by the public purse. Moreover, other difficulties would arise. Tensions and boundary disputes are inevitable, which is why proper policing and codes of conduct are important.


81. All the available evidence suggests that special advisers can make a positive contribution to good government. In particular, they broaden the range of policy advice upon which Ministers can draw. None of this need be threatening to the traditional role of the civil service. Advisers should be seen as augmenting this role, not diminishing it. However, we believe that it is time to put the position of special advisers on a firmer footing. This means recognising them as a distinct category; funding them in an appropriate way; appointing them on merit; and putting a proper framework of accountability around their activities. This is what our recommendations are designed to achieve. Special advisers are now an established part of government. The time has come to recognise this in the way they are treated.

90  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 455 Back

91  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 49 Back

92  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 213 Back

93  HC (1999-2000) 721 Q 35 Back

94  Cm 4557 Q 6.37 Back

95  Ibid para 6.22 Back

96  Ibid para 6.34 Back

97  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 6 Back

98  'Civil Service Change in Britain' delivered to Political Studies Association Conference April 2000 Back

99  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 136 Back

100  HC (1999-2000) 238 p 20 Back

101  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 418 Back

102  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 419 Back

103  Appendix 1 Back

104  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 11 Back

105  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 473 Back

106  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 484 Back

107  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 36 Back

108  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 473 Back

109  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 473 Back

110  Ibid Back

111  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 483 Back

112  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 40 Back

113  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q485 Back

114  HC (1999-2000) 94 Q 858 Back

115  See Public Service December 1999 Back

116  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q431 Back

117  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 217 Back

118  Cm 4557 para 6.32 Back

119  Cm 4557 para 6.60 Back

120  Ibid para 6.4 Back

121  HC (1997-98) 770 (Fourth Report) Back

122  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 473 Back

123  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 473 Back

124  HC (1999-2000) 511 Q 44 Back

125  Cm 4817 p 11 Back

126  Model Contract Schedule 1 part 1 Back

127  HC (1999-2000) 727 Q 1 Back

128  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 434 Back

129  HC (1999-2000) 238 Q 295 Back

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