MANAGING COMMUNICATIONS IN DTLR
- In this Chapter, we first briefly outline the main events that caused controversy in DTLR's communications work in 2001 and 2002, then draw out some of the main issues that arise from those events.
Chronology of events in DTLR
- 11 September 2001 Jo Moore, Special Adviser to Stephen Byers, sends email suggesting it is "a very good day" to "get out anything we want to bury"
- 9 October 2001 "September 11" email reported in media
- October 2001 Ms Moore receives official warning about September 11 email from Sir Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary, and personal reprimand from Stephen Byers
- 11/12 October 2001 Reports in press that Ms Moore asked a civil servant or civil servants to brief the media against Bob Kiley, Transport Commissioner for London
- October 2001 Alun Evans, Director of Communication, leaves DTLR for another Civil Service post
- 19 November 2001 Martin Sixsmith becomes Director of Communications at DTLR
- 14 February 2002 Reports allege Ms Moore had urged release of rail statistics on day of Princess Margaret's funeral, and that the idea had been blocked by Martin Sixsmith
- 15 February Ms Moore resigns and Martin Sixsmith's resignation is announced
- 24 February Martin Sixsmith denies that he had resigned
- 25 February Sir Richard Mottram issues statement about the position of Martin Sixsmith
- 26 February Mr Byers' statement to House about the "resignation" of Martin Sixsmith
- 7 May Statement, agreed between Martin Sixsmith and DTLR, accepts that Mr Sixsmith had remained in DTLR's employment since November 2001 and did not resign on 15 February 2002. Announcement of resignation based on "incorrect understanding of discussions".
- 9 May Mr Byers' statement to House confirms that the 15 February announcement of the Sixsmith resignation was based on "an incorrect understanding".
ASSESSING THE ROLES
- We now examine the roles of the major players in these events. Because of the detailed nature of his evidence, we begin with a discussion of the role of the Permanent Secretary at DTLR, Sir Richard Mottram.
SIR RICHARD MOTTRAM: THE PERMANENT SECRETARY
- Sir Richard Mottram's evidence to us revealed that he had been forced to work hard over several months to manage an unusually active special adviser and a communications section in which some officials failed to uphold professional standards.
- When Jo Moore sent her September 11 email suggesting that an inconvenient announcement should be "buried", she presented a challenge to the system. The email was clearly inappropriate. Like any DTLR civil servant, she was therefore subject to disciplinary action by her Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard Mottram. She was in fact disciplined, being given an official warning and a reprimand. But unlike others, she was also a personal appointment of the Secretary of State, Stephen Byers. This was an important difference.
- On the one hand, Sir Richard told us that "The application of the Civil Service procedures in relation to Jo Moore were solely a matter for me. I judged what her September 11 email constituted in terms of the Department's disciplinary procedures, in the same way as I would with anybody else, with the assistance of somebody else to make sure it was being done properly. We reached a view and I communicated that view to the Secretary of State. That was the basis on which he asked me to do it".
- On the other hand, this was not a routine case. Although disciplinary action was taken against Ms Moore, it is clear that the ultimate sanction, dismissal, was not available to Sir Richard. Whereas in the case of a permanent civil servant Sir Richard's decision on a disciplinary matter was effectively final, in the disciplining of a special adviser his role was limited , as he told us "since a special adviser is a political animal and is more closely and personally associated with the government than a normal civil servant, what are the political and other consequences of retaining or disposing of the services of the special adviser? That was never a question that I could answer and it was never a question that was run through any process for which I was responsible".
- In the final analysis, the decision not to dismiss Jo Moore was a political one, not just a matter of Civil Service discipline. The role of the Permanent Secretary, pivotal in the case of all other civil servants, was here much more limited. For Sir Richard, and for us, this raised "a very interesting question"what is the proper role of a permanent secretary when personal political appointees are facing disciplinary action? He was clearly uneasy about the limitations on his role, although he recognised the political realities which determined them. They were an inevitable consequence of the employment of political appointees as civil servants.
- But whatever the inescapable political imperatives, the retention of Ms Moore also sent a message through the department, and especially through the ranks of the press office with which she had regular contact. It appeared that there would usually be special treatment for the special adviser. Some may have concluded that they were entitled to administer special treatment of their own.
The Kiley Briefing, the Departure of Alun Evans and the Leaks
- In October it was reported that Ms Moore asked DTLR press officers to brief the media against Bob Kiley, the Transport Commissioner for London. This would represent a contravention of the special advisers' code and suggest that she was assuming a management role that properly lay with permanent civil servants. Sir Richard Wilson told us that "I think she was in the grey area". The special adviser code was not used to discipline Ms Moore, because as Sir Richard Wilson said, the press officer "declined to do" what was suggested by Ms Moore. It was apparently for that reason that Ms Moore was not disciplined in this case. The departure of the then Director of Communications, Alun Evans, in October 2001, was linked to the Kiley incident in the minds of several unidentified members of staff of the division. Discontent continued in parts of DTLR, and from time to time that discontent became public.
- Leaks had already been the source of the September 11 email story. Now they became a weapon in a struggle against Jo Moore. Ignoring the opportunities to pursue their grievances through the proper channels, a small number of DTLR staff leaked both information and misinformation about her activities. They damaged Ms Moore, but they also damaged the Secretary of State, the department, and the Civil Service. They were the product of a twisted interpretation of the notion of the public interest.
- As time went on, and Mr Evans was replaced by Martin Sixsmith, formerly Director of Communications at Department of Social Security, Sir Richard decided to 'manage' the special adviser issue rather than seeking a direct confrontation with Mr Byers. He was unwilling to press the matter too far with the Secretary of State because, as he said, "I do not think it would necessarily have been conducive to that relationship [between Minister and Permanent Secretary ] to have picked a fight with one of the Secretary of State's personal special advisers when personally I believed the way in which she was relating with bits of the Department could be managed and managed better".
- Jonathan Baume of the FDA alleged that the Jo Moore problem was "never tackled". This is not quite fair. Sir Richard was trying to tackle it in his own way by applying his management skills in an extremely difficult situation, and to the greatest possible extent treating sensitive personnel and political issues with discretion. He was rightly mindful of the sound principle set out for us by the Cabinet Secretary: "if the Civil Service were ever to get into the position where it is attacking the Government, that would be the royal road to politicisation because if civil servants were attacking the government then you would find that politicians, quite rightly and understandably, would want to have around them people whose political allegiance they could trust and who would stand up for them...of course, in private the role of the Civil Service is to give ministers their best advice on propriety and to defend the boundaries". A special adviser who retains the political protection of a minister in such circumstances will inevitably test the normal boundaries to the limit, and possibly beyond. In any event, the complaints about the activities of Ms Moore, and the damaging leaks, did not stop. In the end, Sir Richard's attempt to manage the situation did not solve the problem.
The Dangers in a Statement
- The extraordinary events of February 2002, starting with the inaccurate allegations about Jo Moore's activities in relation to Princess Margaret's funeral, led Sir Richard Mottram to make a statement on 25 February. This gave his response to alleged inaccuracies contained in press reports on 24 February. Sir Richard's statement ran a severe risk. In particular, it exposed him to the public gaze in a way that could be seen as muddying the waters of ministerial accountability. Both Sir Richard and the Cabinet Secretary went out of their way to stress to us the exceptional nature of the situation, and Sir Richard underlined his great reluctance to make the statement. We are not able to judge who or what motivated his final decision to issue the statement. However, for the sake of the all-important principles of ministerial accountability and civil service neutrality, we agree with both Sir Richard Mottram and Sir Richard Wilson in hoping that it remains a wholly exceptional episode.
STEPHEN BYERS: THE SECRETARY OF STATE
- It is a fundamental principle that the minister in charge of a department should take final political responsibility for its proper and efficient operation, for its ethos and morale. Jonathan Baume of the FDA union told us that "there needs to be a lead politically". That lead had to come from Mr Byers.
- We noted above, paragraph 12, the difference between the role played by the Permanent Secretary in the employment of conventional civil servants and his role in the employment and management of special advisers. We consider it particularly vital that ministers who employ special advisers should understand these issues clearly. The confusion contained in the statements made by the Secretary of State about his responsibility for the handling of Mr Martin Sixsmith's "resignation" on 15 February appears to have resulted from a lack of understanding of this matter.
- There have been conflicting reports as to whether it was Mr Byers or No 10 who insisted that Jo Moore should stay after her September 11 email and the disciplinary action that was taken against her in October. We have not sought to ascertain which Minister it was, but it is clear that Ministers at some level decided that she should be retained, quite separately from any inquiry carried out by the Permanent Secretary. We do note, however, that, in responding to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Government indicated that, when it came to the administration of the contract for special advisers, "Cases of difficulty or disagreement should be submitted to the Prime Minister for decision". This is an important statement of the responsibility of the Prime Minister for the proper management of special advisers, and it is one to which we shall return (see para 34 below). This was clearly a case of 'difficulty', but what is not clear is the extent to which it was decided by the Prime Minister.
MARTIN SIXSMITH: DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS
- Martin Sixsmith was from November 2001 to May 2002 the Director of Communications at DTLR (for the last 3 months of that time he was absent). He was responsible for the propriety as well as the effectiveness of communications.
- Mr Sixsmith had very little time to make his mark at DTLR. From the beginning, he encountered an atmosphere of discontent among his staff, centring largely on the activities of Ms Moore. In Sir Richard Mottram's words, he was faced with a substantial "overlap" between the work of his own staff and that of a special advisernever a very comfortable position for a senior manager to be in. The discontent seems to have inspired a series of leaks, probably but not certainly initiated from the press office, which were aimed at undermining Ms Moore.
- This serious outbreak of unprofessional behaviour was the reason given to us by Sir Richard Mottram for Mr Sixsmith's departure. "His position was untenable, I think, for a number of reasons to do with the way in which his part of the Department conducted itself in that week". A somewhat different tone is found in the "agreed statement" which was issued on May 7: "Were it not for these unfortunate events, for which no blame is being apportioned, he [Mr Sixsmith] would continue to be a successful Director of Communications in DTLR". We do not attempt to judge which of these is the correct account, but it seems impossible that both should be correct.
- Neither have we tried to assess exactly who said what to whom while Mr Sixsmith discussed his future with Sir Richard Mottram on 15 February. The misunderstandings which arose over the announcement of his "resignation", and which resulted in a number of corrections and restatements in subsequent weeks, are not the theme of this Report. They do however demonstrate that, along with Sir Richard Mottram, Mr Sixsmith found it difficult to assert his authority.
- We also note Mr Sixsmith's regret, expressed "in hindsight" on 7 May that he took his story to the Sunday Times. This shows one of the special dangers for press officersthe fact that, in any dispute, they always have ready to hand the dangerous (and two-edged) weapon of media exposure. It was the Sunday Times article that forced Sir Richard Mottram to break with tradition and make his statement. The results of Mr Sixsmith's actions were happy neither for him nor for the Civil Service.
JO MOORE: SPECIAL ADVISER
- Jo Moore was active across a wide range of work. In dealing directly with the media, she was no different from several other special advisers across Whitehall. But there is no doubt that her activities went beyond theirs.
- The September 11 email aroused the original and the greatest controversy, but other incidents also played their part. The pressure she allegedly put on press officers to brief against Bob Kiley was among a number of other incidents which were perceived as marking her out from her fellow special advisers. It appeared to constitute a clear breach of public service principles and the special advisers' code.
- Jonathan Baume of the FDA union described her behaviour as "an almost classic textbook case of bullying". We have not attempted to assess whether this very strong language is justified. What is clear is that several members of press office staff became very antagonistic to her, and were prepared to undermine her position.
- But any criticism must be tempered by the fact that, in the highest reaches of Government and the Civil Service, there is insufficient clarity about the appropriate role for special advisers, notwithstanding the code of conduct. Mr Baume of the FDA said that Ms Moore "appeared to me to have no grasp whatsoever of the concept of political impartiality in the Civil Service or, if she had, she ignored it". This may not be entirely surprising in view of the fact, as the FDA also pointed out to us, that special advisers are given no specific training, either at induction or beyond. In the absence of a clearer lead from the top, and of any training, Ms Moore crossed over a number of boundaries, but they were not clearly drawn boundaries and the signposting was poor.
"THE CENTRE"CABINET SECRETARY, PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE, GOVERNMENT INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION SERVICE
- The officials working at the centre of Government, those based in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, were not pivotal to these events. In some important respects they seemed to be powerless to correct matters when it was clearly in their interest to step in. The roles of the Cabinet Secretary and the Head of Government Information and Communication Service, for instance, appear to have been modest. The Cabinet Secretary, working on the sound principles of letting managers manage and not undermining the Permanent Secretary, saw the events as largely a matter for Sir Richard Mottram to handle, although he was supportive at appropriate times. Mike Granatt, as Head of the GICS, made one robust intervention at an important time, when he wrote to Mr Sixsmith to stress the importance of GICS staff avoiding damaging leaks. However, he had few other sanctions at his disposal. The frequent use of non-specialists in senior communications roles (Alun Evans was a case in point at DTLR) also limits the extent to which the leadership of GICS can shape events across Whitehall communications divisions.
- The direct role of those at No 10, including Alastair Campbell, seems to have been limited for much of the period (although Mr Campbell played a significant part in the negotiations relating to Martin Sixsmith). Little or nothing appears to have been done to prevent the problems recurring and intensifying, to the detriment of the Government's reputation, and that of the Civil Service.
- Given the very poor state of relationships at DTLR, the apparent powerlessness of the "centre" is surprising. As we saw above, (para 22) the Government has acknowledged that the Prime Minister can have a potentially decisive role in cases of 'difficulty or disagreement'. Yet there is no sign that anyone informed the Prime Minister that he could be called on to play such a pivotal part in the events at DTLR. No-one at DTLR appeared to appreciate that he should be involved in this way, as the person ultimately responsible for the good working of the special adviser system.
4 HC 303-ii, Q 229 Back
5 Ibid, Q 230 Back
6 Ibid, Q 226 Back
7 Section 6 of the Code forbids special advisers from line managing civil servants. It also says that special advisers should uphold the political impartiality of the Civil Service. Back
8 'The New Centre' Minutes of Evidence: Session 2001-02 HC 262-ii, Q 165 Back
9 As for instance reported in 'The Guardian' 11 October 2001 Back
10 HC 303-ii, Q 234 Back
11 HC 303-i, Q 121 Back
12 HC 303-iii, Q 365 Back
13 HC 303-ii, Q 299 Back
14 HC 303-i, Q 123 Back
15 Official Report, 26 February 2002, Col 564 Back
16 'The Government's Response to the Sixth Report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life' Cm 4817 July 2000, Response to Chapter 6 Back
17 HC 303-ii, Q 258 Back
18 Ibid, Q 192 Back
19 Ibid, Q 257 Back
20 Statement agreed between Martin Sixsmith and the DTLR, 7 May 2002 Back
21 HC 303-i, Q 121 Back
22 HC 303-i, Q 121 Back
23 Ibid, GI 1 Back
24 HC 303-iii, Q 402 Back
25 HC 303-ii, Q 308 Back