House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION COMMITTEE
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Taken before the Public Administration Committee
Dr Tony Wright, in the Chair
Mr Gordon Prentice
Mr Charles Walker
Witnesses: Sir Richard Mottram, former Permanent Secretary and Visiting Professor, London School of Economics, Mr Peter Riddell, Chief Political Commentator, The Times and Senior Fellow, Institute for Government, Mr Jonathan Baume, General Secretary, FDA and Mr Lance Price, former Deputy Press Spokesman to the Prime Minister, gave evidence.
Q1 Chairman: Let me call the Committee to order and make a start. It is a great pleasure to welcome our galaxy of witnesses this morning: Peter Riddell from The Times, who knows all about everything, Lance Price, former special adviser in Downing Street and Mr Campbell's Deputy, and so on, who has written much about this, Richard Mottram, expert and secretary, famously involved in a previous incident involving a special adviser, from which you gave certain memorable utterances, and Jonathan Baume, from the First Division Association, again a seasoned observer of all these matters. What I would like to do is to start off by asking a rather general question. I think this Committee hoped never to return to the question of special advisers, we thought we had done all this a long time go, but what I want to ask you is what is it about special adviserdom that means that periodically we have one of these eruptions of the kind that we have had recently? Is there something endemic to the arrangement that produces, occasionally, this kind of consequence? Peter, do you want to start?
Mr Riddell: I think actually you should have a sťance and involve William Shakespeare, because I think actually the inherent nature of politics and human nature is behind a lot of it. If you employ people who are inherently supposed to be doing a partisan job, sometimes a few of them (and it is very much a minority) will go over the top in the spectacular way that Damian McBride did in the emails, and that happens occasionally. I am going back to the Jo Moore affair, and so on. Things go wrong occasionally, it is in human nature, but the serious answer is there is also an ambiguity in the whole position of special advisers. I am a great supporter of special advisers. I think, from a journalistic point of view and also from a governmental point of view, they provide a very useful supplement to the role of civil servants. They can do things civil servants should not do and, in fact, I think they reduce the politicisation, or potential politicisation, of the Civil Service, as special advisers, but there is an ambiguity there. They are appointed by ministers and dismissed by ministers, but what happens if they go wrong? It has always been difficult. I re-read the report this Committee did seven years ago on the Jo Moore affair, the Martin Sixsmith affair, and so on, and many of the problems you describe there actually, as you said, have come back, because who actually deals with a special adviser gone wrong? It is the minister, but what happens if the minister thinks they are doing the right thing? I think the problem in the latest affair, as in the earlier one in which Richard Mottram was involved, is that, whatever a civil servant may feel, it is up to the minister, and I think that is where there is a gap which this Committee should address about how you deal with things which go way beyond the bounds of acceptability and what role should a civil servant have with a minister who does not want to listen?
Q2 Chairman: Thank you for that. You mentioned Mr McBride. I should have said that we hoped he might help us with our inquiries. Unfortunately, he seems to have disappeared without trace and, despite our best endeavours, we have not been able to locate him, but we will persevere. Lance?
Mr Price: I suspect this Committee
will have to return to the subject of special advisers many times in the future. To add to a point that Peter was making,
essentially there is a fudge in the centre of government, which is the way in
which people like me were brought in to do a part political and part Civil
Service job which, although some very skilled minds have gone towards trying to
define what that job ought to be and what the constraints on it ought to be and
what the limits on it ought to be, remains a fudge, and people doing the job
know that. They are aware of the Codes
of Conduct, and so on, that constrain them, but they do not spend every morning
going through them to make sure that nothing they do subsequently during that
day will be in breach of them, because they are, not all day every day, but
they are there to do a political job, they are there to perform those actions
which their minister wishes them to do and, as long as they believe that they
have the support of their minister and that their minister, in my case the
Prime Minister, is, or would be, in their view, content with their actions, they
will carry on doing them. I knew that
there were times when I was using my time and the resources within
Q3 Chairman: Richard, Peter talked about a "special adviser going wrong", which, I think, is a nice way of putting it, when it this happened. You had a special adviser who went wrong, as it were, and you were faced with exactly the dilemma that Lance is describing. What can you do in those circumstances?
Sir Richard Mottram: To follow on from the point that Peter was making, if you go back to your report in 2002, which is well worth re-reading, I think, it deals with all the issues and it led, I think, to one change, which was perfectly logical but potentially has made this an even bigger problem, in that it removed the permanent secretary from the process of disciplining special advisers. I think that was a very sensible thing do, because, as your report discussed in relation to the special adviser issue I had, I was sort of involved in treating her a bit like she was a civil servant in circumstances where she was not and in circumstances where the decision whether to retain her services or not actually was taken somewhere else through a process in which I had no involvement. So I think, very sensibly, the Government essentially took the Civil Service out of that but in a way that makes the issue, for the reasons that colleagues have discussed, potentially more difficult. The second point: what I think we need to do is look at the incentive structure in the system and the way in which special advisers, particularly those who have responsibility for briefing the media, are appointed. They are appointed for the duration of the appointment of their own minister, and when the administration goes, or the minister goes, they lose their job. I think this potentially incentivises a process - I do not have a magic solution to this but I just think it is helpful to have it in mind - where they think that, not only are they engaged in political activity (and we can talk about whether that is appropriate or not), but they become champions of their individual boss, and this is a perfectly logical thing for them to do because (a) they work very closely with this person, and that in itself has a dynamic, and (b) their fate is absolutely bound up with the fate of their boss; and some people deal with this in some ways and some people deal with it in other ways, but the impact, I think, on the system as a whole can be quite destructive, because they may be going around championing their boss, but they may choose to champion their boss by being quite negative about other people in the government. I am sure it never happened, Lance, in your day. The point I am really trying to make is if you get into what is quite nerdy stuff about the way in which they are appointed and the Code of Conduct and all this, but if you particularly get into the way in which they are appointed, you have an incentive for this problem to arise periodically. This is why we are back talking about it: because your report dealt with it and made some changes. Intrinsic in it is the incentive for people to champion their boss at the expense of the rest of the system.
Q4 Chairman: If that is your description of the current incentive---
Sir Richard Mottram: It is a risk.
Q5 Chairman: ---what is your conclusion from that analysis?
Sir Richard Mottram: My conclusion from that is we should be very cautious in allowing special advisers to brief the media and we should be much tighter on that role.
Q6 Chairman: We will come back to that. Jonathan?
Mr Baume: I agree with all that has been said. I think it is important to point out that the special adviser system works well - it is an asset to the Civil Service, it is an asset to government, future governments will want to have a special adviser system - so I think that should be taken as the basis for any discussion, but I think the key is the one that Peter and Richard have pointed out, that in the end the special adviser is there to work for their authorising ministers, as the Code puts it, the person who appoints them. It is perfectly possible to be extremely loyal to a minister and still be able to move beyond that. The staff of a minister's private office work very, very closely with the minister. You are there with that minister perhaps for many hours every day; you have to have a degree of loyalty to that person, even if, actually, you find it difficult on a personal level to get on. Part of the knack of working in a private office is you can move over a hurdle where you might not have any immediate chemistry with the minister but serve them loyally, but of course there are clear parameters about what is appropriate for you to do. So it is not impossible to have a system where special advisers move beyond their loyalty to a minister to the Government, more broadly, because we show in other contexts you can do that, but in the end the special adviser is there to serve the minister and it is for the minister to set the culture, and at the core of this is not the rules. We keep coming back in different contexts within government to issues about rules. We have seen it with MPs' expenses, and all the rest of it. The rules on special advisers are absolutely clear. I do not think anyone has any doubt what the rules are. The question is the culture in which the special adviser operates. It is a slightly unfashionable term, but you have to have a sense of what is right and what is wrong and, if you lose that sense of right and wrong, then you can move into some very, very difficult territory indeed, but it is up to the minister concerned, and ultimately the Prime Minister looking across the special adviser network with ministers, to set a culture in which those boundaries are clearly understood, because they are set out in black and white, and it is then moving into the practice and the culture of government.
Q7 Chairman: If the key issue is the nature of this personal relationship between a minister and a special adviser which gives a kind of protection in disciplinary terms, what are we to make of this case? Lance, you have written about the McBride case recently. You said, talking about the developing world of political blogs and so on, "For McBride to get involved was insane. His name is associated in the minds of many journalists and MPs on both sides of the Commons with a sustained campaign of smear and innuendo on behalf of Gordon Brown. In short, he has form." First, let me ask Peter, because you know about all these things, does he have form?
Mr Riddell: Yes. It is all a question of where you draw the line within the form. He was regarded by my colleagues as the "attack dog", and that was established going back to his time in the Treasury. There are a few. Taking it back to special advisers, only a minority of them deal with the media and only a minority of those are known as attack dogs, so one has to do that. The question is the nature of the attack. Yes, he had that. Also, any self-respecting journalist - there is a lot of sanctimony here - would talk to him because they knew he was close to Gordon Brown. The secondary issue is how you treated the information. He may have been in attack dog mode, but my colleagues would know that, but that does not mean - metaphors are quite dangerous here - that they would automatically take what was provided, they would treat it with considerable scepticism, but he did have form, yes.
Q8 Chairman: That is what I am asking. We only get interested when there is the eruption, but if it was an eruption waiting to happen, if this man had form, if he was called "McPoison" inside the system, if he had been doing these kinds of things over a sustained period, what I am interested in is why that was able to continue? Presumably we should answer that it was able to continue because he had political protection?
Mr Riddell: Yes. It had been reported at the time when he left, just after Easter, that there had been two warnings by senior civil servants based at the Treasury and in Number 10 about the attack dog stuff, and I believe it to be true that that had happened, and that is where it comes to what we have all been talking about, which is a real difficulty in the relationship when a minister backs someone even though a senior civil servant feels the rules have been broken. The other point I would make in this particular instance: for journalists he was an extremely valuable source, because he is an extremely bright guy and the attack dog stuff was certainly the minority of what he was talking to journalists about.
Q9 Chairman: Richard, you were smiling when that was going on. I would like your take on that, if I may.
Sir Richard Mottram: I was not in the Treasury with him, and I did not have direct dealings with him when I was in the Cabinet Office, but I think it would be true to say that his reputation did go before him and, therefore, it was not a great surprise, I think, that a problem arose in relation to him. I am not being personal about him, I just think it was not a great surprise. So it was not an amazing, one-off shock horror that this has happened; it was a risk that, I think, was seen.
Q10 Chairman: We have to wait around, do we, when this is the case, until something really nasty happens before we do anything?
Sir Richard Mottram: If you are the Permanent Secretary, let us make it more hypothetical, you can go to the minister and say, "Are you sure this is a good idea?", but if the minister says, "Yes, absolutely. I am comfortable with it", then there is nothing you can do about it, and, as we discussed in relation to the case that I dealt with, you also have to have in mind your relationship with the minister, because you have to have a constructive relationship with the minister in order to deliver on the objectives of government, whether you are working in the centre or a department, and so this is never going to be the most important thing for you. If the minister says, "I hear what you say but I am happy", then under the rules that is the end of the matter.
Q11 Mr Prentice: Lance, in the piece that you wrote in the Guardian about three weeks ago, you said of the Prime Minister, "It is unlikely he knew what McBride was doing on this occasion." Why did you not write, "It is inconceivable"? Why did you say just say, "It is unlikely"?
Mr Price: Because I had no idea what personal conversations took place between Gordon Brown and David McBride on day-to-day matters.
Q12 Mr Prentice: You did not say, "It is inconceivable", because in that very same article - and when I read it I was shocked - you said that when you were doing a more junior job than McBride's at Number 10 you had discussions with Tony Blair himself "about the sex lives, health - physical and mental - and other perceived weakness of our opponents." So you were talking about the sex lives of people with Tony Blair, and that is why you did not say it was inconceivable.
Mr Price: With respect, I do not think
you should be surprised or shocked about that.
I think that political gossip, which is what that was, has been going on
in political offices at
Q13 Mr Prentice: My point is did the Prime Minister know or not?
Mr Price: There is a distinction between the kind of discussions that might take place in private and which take place in private, I am quite sure, not only within Downing Street, but in the Conservative Central Office, the Leader of the Opposition's office, the Leader of the Liberal Democrat's office, and every other office about not only the political but perhaps the personal weaknesses of their opponents, because they are all trying to take the measure of one another the whole time, and that is what politics is about: that is what goes on. The same sort of gossip goes on in newspaper offices all the time. There is a difference between political gossip taking place between individuals which may be distasteful, may be something which we wish did not happen but it does, and an attempt to use that political gossip, to put it into the public domain in any shape or form and to try to exploit the perceived weaknesses of your opponents in a way that is unacceptable to the role which you play. In 1924 Ramsey McDonald found his birth certificate published, just before he became Prime Minister, to show that he was illegitimate. That was political gossip being put around by his political opponents.
Q14 Mr Prentice: What you are describing is a kind of cesspit. I obviously move in more elevated circles. I do not spend all my time, in fact I do not spend my time talking about the sex lives of David Cameron, Charles Walker, or anyone else. I just do not do that.
Mr Price: Nor does the Prime Minister, nor does the Leader of the Opposition, nor do most people in senior positions within political offices, but they spend some of their time getting the measure of their political opponents and the people that they work with and the people that they face across the despatch box, and if you think it is possible to legislate against the private exchange of political gossip, I think you have got a task on your hands. It is not going to happen. I think you can be too puritanical about the idea that somehow you can stop people gossiping about one another.
Q15 Mr Prentice: Tell me about being puritanical. How much time did you spend with the previous Prime Minister talking about the sex lives of politicians? Was it just off-the-cuff remarks?
Mr Price: I can think of maybe one or two occasions. In fact, the occasion that sticks most prominently in my mind is shortly after I joined Downing Street and he thought, "Here is a guy coming in from the media who knows more about all this sort of gossip than I do as Prime Minister, so let us see what people are saying about other people in politics", but the number of occasions that I might have had of that sort with the Prime Minister were very, very few. They might have been at the end of a long day, they might have been on a plane somewhere, they might have been when we were relaxing and chilling out having spent a lot of time at the public's expense working on policy and serious issues that we were employed to do. I simply think it is unrealistic to pretend that you could somehow either legislate, or lay down guidelines, or do anything at all, to suggest that people should not gossip privately.
Q16 Mr Prentice: The central charge really is that the special advisers, or some special advisers, are out of control, or maybe they are free agents and they are taking decisions on behalf of the ministers but the ministers are being kept in the dark. We had the NICE statistics issue and the Home Secretary did not know about it, the Prime Minister did not about it, but the whole Civil Service machine was geared up to act on a decision of a special adviser even although the official statisticians were saying it would be misleading to put this information out into the public domain. So the central issue, or one of the central issues, is that special advisers are kind of roaming free, are free agents. No?
Mr Riddell: I think there are very few instances.
Q17 Mr Prentice: I have just cited one?
Mr Riddell: I said a few instances. Certainly on your question to Lance Price, I suppose I live in a rather puritanical world, an elevated world like you: I have never had a discussion either with any Prime Minister I have covered on those very restricted lines, and also, those instances, yes, they do occur, but they are a fairly small minority. We are talking about, as I said earlier, people going wrong and that sort of minority of instance. In most instances my contact with special advisers is to do things, as both Jonathan and Richard have said, which is not necessarily the proper role of civil servants to do but actually totally mainstream, talking about a policy or what their boss thinks on this or that subject, fairly routine stuff, which is right to be done in a political context. As I say, alas, in my restricted life I have not had those kinds of conversations.
Q18 Chairman: Can I stay with this for a minute, Richard, and then bring you in. The worrying conclusion from your interesting analysis, Lance (and thank you for educating us about the inner workings of government) is that McBride's offence was to get caught out. All he was doing was engaging in the kind of thing which, as you say, is routine inside government. I think someone described it as just bloke-ish banter. Surely the conclusion has to be from you that where he was silly was in writing this down?
Mr Price: No, I am sorry, Chairman, I obviously failed to make the point I was trying to make clearly enough, which is that there is a very real and very important distinction between private discussions and seeking to make the content of those private discussions public in any shape or form. It is one thing for people at the end of a long day to sit around having a bit of banter and a bit of gossip; it is quite different in any way to try to place into the public domain unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo, either about people in your own party or people in other parties or people in politics more generally. So it was not simply that Damian McBride was caught out. I do not believe actually that Damian McBride was doing that sort of thing, that is to say seeking to put that kind of gossip that was supposed to be contained in those emails into the public domain, on a regular basis at all. I think he did something very stupid. It was partly in response to a desire on behalf of the Labour Party to get more involved, or to redress what they saw as an imbalance within the blogosphere, as it is called, and the whole sort of new media where it was felt that people were successfully attacking the Government but there were not people out there defending them. It is much more of a debate, but it helps to explain why, I think, Damian McBride got involved in something that was not his business to get involved in and he should never have done. The reason we are discussing it now is that it became public, just as Jo Moore's instruction a few years back became public, but I do not think you should run away with the idea that simply because it has become public on this occasion, it is happening on a daily basis and we are just not getting to hear about it, because I think that would be an exaggeration of the whole thing.
Sir Richard Mottram: I do not want to take us
particularly off this subject, Chairman, but I do think the NICE statistics
case is quite interesting, because it is about a broader issue around the
culture of government and the confidence, it seems to me, of civil servants in
their relationship with special advisers.
Actually, I think that there is a broader issue about the influence of
special advisers in the Government and the extent to which they do now actually
amongst themselves decide things which civil servants do not have the
confidence to believe that they can turn round and say, "I am terribly sorry
but you cannot do that." In my view, the
reason why this has occurred is not because in every department there are two
or three special advisers, because I think that is a perfectly manageable
proposition and actually is very helpful for departments, it is because the
centre of government is dominated by special advisers and we do not have in
this country a proper discussion about what that does for the way in which the
machinery of government works. On
Mr Baume: Can I add quickly, referring
back to Lance: Prime Ministers have historically at times employed people who
are there to do a very tough party management role. Neville Chamberlain employed a dubious
character out of Conservative Central Office who was an ex-intelligence agent
and all his papers were burnt when he died.
Nonetheless, these characters drift around the margins of politics, and
I think in that case it was about Conservative Party management during a very
difficult time. So this not something
new. The difference we have these days
is that this is being paid for by the taxpayer, and I think we would be having
a slightly different debate, although there would still be a debate, had Damian
McBride been a Labour Party paid official rather than being paid by the
taxpayer to do a particular job. So we
have moved the environment forward but there is still a temptation there for
senior ministers to employ people to do jobs that historically have always been
somewhere around on the murky edge of politics.
I am not defending it; I am just saying it is an historical fact. So we are back to people paid by the public
purse. The point about the numbers of
instances we talk about is that we do have that, I think, very few instances,
and I think with the
Q19 Mr Walker: Why should the taxpayer fund these people? Why cannot the parties fund them? What happened was just so revolting and loathsome, it really was. Why in God's name should I as a taxpayer, should any of you as taxpayers, should any taxpayer have to fund these type of lizards? Cannot the parties fund them?
Mr Riddell: I think there are a minority
of lizards some of the time actually.
Most special advisers - I will not get too much into the
Q20 Mr Walker: Why should we pay for them? Why should you pay for them? Why can the parties not pay for them?
Mr Riddell: It raises a separate question of party funding, which I know this and parallel committees have spent many happy hours on. Without the short money which your own party got, it is arguable whether your own party might have gone bust in the 1997/2001 Parliament, and it very nearly did, because of that; so it works both ways. You can argue, right, let people just fund it, and I think there is an argument there, but you would have to be consistent. You would have to abolish the short money and all the money, quite considerable taxpayer support, for opposition parties at the same time as you did special advisers.
Q21 Mr Walker: Why, because opposition parties do not have the machinery of government?
Mr Riddell: There is a tit-for-tat between short money and special adviser money in practice. That is how it has grown up historically and that is how it has been. So if you did one, you would have to do the other. I think the question is much more the point we have discussed in the last 40 minutes: what they do to stop the lizard stuff, because some of it is very valuable, and stop something I know this Committee is concerned with, which is the politicisation of the Civil Service.
Q22 Mr Walker: They could still do it; it is just that we would not be paying for it. That is what I am driving at. That is what Jonathan was driving at. There is a debate to be had about how many of these people does the taxpayer have to fund who earn two or three times as much as Members of Parliament. God knows, the taxpayer does not like funding us; why on earth would they like funding these hangers on in the background?
Mr Riddell: You could just change the categories. You could move the category along. That is the real answer to your question.
Sir Richard Mottram: It is quite funny my saying this since I am quite cautious about this activity, although I think Lance is great. The real logic of it, I think, to be serious, is that what they are doing here is taking some of the burden off the minister. The reason why it is not simply, "Why do not the parties do it?" is because they are actually taking some of the ministers' burden, whereas if they did not exist the only person in a department who could put a political flavour on a government announcement would be the minister him or herself. Ministers are seriously overloaded in what they do and this is a device that enables ministers, in a sense, to subcontract a task that otherwise they would have to do because the Civil Service and the Government Information and Communication Service, or whatever it is now called, is not allowed to do it. So that is the logic of it, but the embarrassing point about the logic of it is that it does lead to: yes, people are paid by the taxpayer, representing the views of a party to the media and, therefore, it is slightly different to do all the other types of work that are referred to here, but I think that would be the sort of government reason for why it is a good thing. It would be about ministerial overload, I think.
Mr Baume: It is more than slightly ministerial overload. If you look through the list of duties, this is the Code of Conduct paragraph three, these are perfectly reasonable functions to be undertaken, and I am not arguing for not funding special advisers - that is not the argument I am putting forward - I am saying that by funding some special advisers what you do is give the ability to set a constitutional framework around (and I use that word broadly) their activities and then you have to ensure that they fulfil those activities properly and do not go beyond those, but it is a compromise. It is trying to marry up the concept of a politically impartial Civil Service with the fact that you have ministers who will need certain political functions done as part of their ministerial role, and you then try and separate that from the minister as simply a member of the governing party who will wish to play a part in the politics of that governing party, but that is not something the taxpayer should have any role in funding.
Q23 Mr Walker: You people are experts. When is the last time a minister marched a
special adviser out of
Mr Price: The last time it happened is when the Prime Minister sacked Damian McBride summarily, showed him the door.
Q24 Mr Walker: Because he was caught with his fingers in the jam jar. Come on.
Mr Price: He did not get a pay-off. It does happen. When people are seen to have manifestly exceeded the bounds of propriety for the job that they do, they can be sacked, there clearly is a sanction there, and, as a result of the changes that the Prime Minister has asked to be put into the Code of Special Advisers, that threat hangs over them a little more prominently than it did before; but there is a case for the argument you are making, which is that you could say to someone like Damian McBride, "If you want to behave in an overtly political fashion, you must be attached to the political office within Downing Street, not as a special adviser funded by the Labour Party." You could absolutely say that. You could have said it to Alistair Campbell, you could have said it to me. It does then open up the broader issue, which others around the table have been talking about, about how our democracy is funded, because public money does go into the funding of political parties, it does go into the funding of the political activity, and I think legitimately so. If you want to do that, then you have to, I think, do it as part of a much broader reform which looks at the extent of acceptability of the public funding of our democracy.
Mr Price: I think all political
leaders need somebody around them to look after the political aspect of their
communications, and that does not mean to say that kind of specific activity
that we have been talking about today would be approved by them. It was not approved by the Prime Minister - I
think people are forgetting this - the Prime Minister found it completely
unacceptable. At the same time, as the
article that was being quoted the night that I wrote to the Guardian made clear, I do think that
this Prime Minister and perhaps the previous one and the previous one before
that, I do not know, were aware in general that they had people in their employ
part of whose activities involved some very strong political briefing of
journalists, and that sort of strong political briefing of journalists has gone
on as long as there have been journalists and as long as there have been
politicians. Again, I go back to the
earlier point that I do not think you can legislate against it. You can seek to limit the ways in which those
who are employed in very sensitive positions within
Mr Baume: Are we not back here to the
question of the media and the greater role that the media plays, and that
government has chosen to let the media play, in political activity: what
government would talk about as 24/7 news media?
Clearly, back in the 1970s the role of the media was always there, it
was always very important, but there were fewer media outlets for which the government
was seeking to influence, and part of the problem has been the almost fixation
on feeding a 24-hour rolling news agenda and, therefore, this kind of briefing
becomes ever more important. I cannot
believe that during the 1970s, when Joe Haines was the press officer, that
there was not dialogue taking place with the media; it is the extent of it and
the degree to which you chose to get involved in that dialogue on a continuing
and continuous basis. That is not a
criticism of the media; it is just there.
Journalists like stories and, therefore, they will be looking for people
who are willing to give them. So it has
been something of an incestuous circle. I
think we keep coming back to the media.
Mr Riddell: I think 24-hour news has changed
things. When we get to what the big
difference is between that, it is 24-hour news, is our instant response, but I
come back to the point that there are different categories of special
adviser. What you describe is absolutely
true. Tony Benn liked to write his own
seminars, and that was his style of operation.
I was around in that era and many special advisers were specialist
advisers. It goes back to the point that
this Committee has made several times, and indeed, Richard Mottram said there
are two dozen in
Q27 Kelvin Hopkins: It is not really the subject today, and we have discussed this before, but these political advisers, as you say, one of the concerns that we have had, certainly that I have had, is that they have been interposed between the Prime Minister and ministers and civil servants, which is quite different from the way Tony Benn's advisers were operating.
Mr Riddell: I am not sure about that.
Mr Riddell: Only two were, and that is
no longer in existence. You always
encounter that as a separate argument, and that is dead now anyway, the
Q29 Chairman: Richard, do you want to come in?
Sir Richard Mottram: I want to make a point which follows on from the question that was just being asked, which is really about the way in which decision-making in government is conducted and recorded and followed up and followed through. I personally think that a big issue is the extent to which there is a parallel decision-making process. That is the thing that would really concern me. I think the Damian McBride thing and the Jo Moore thing, they are interesting, and if we let it all die down for a while until people forget about Damian and then it will pop up again, as it did with Jo Moore really: the behaviour changed. We should worry much more about the way in which government is being conducted and the extent to which, if we are not careful, we could have parallel communications and decision-making channels which lead actually to quite a lot of confusion, and I have personally seen quite a bit of that, it does exist, and it is an issue.
Sir Richard Mottram: They do, but do not let us get this out of perspective. The British Government is not, bless it, an authoritarian regime.
Q31 Julie Morgan: I do not go along with my colleagues about the reptiles and lizards, because I do think they are an absolutely essential part of making government work, and I think they should be funded by the taxpayer, but the issue is "if they operate properly". I know one of you said earlier on about knowing right and wrong. I do not know quite which of you said that. John, was it? I was listening to Lance talking about the fact that at the end of the day you might relax after a hard day's work and talk about the sex lives of your opponents. I just wonder if that is acceptable. I would like to know what your comments are.
Mr Price: I think I have made my views clear on that. People may find it distasteful that people sit down at the end of the day and talk about any aspect of the private lives or any weaknesses that others in the same field of business might have, but I think that probably happens. I suspect that at end of a hard day when teachers sit down in the staff room, they probably have a gossip about the headmaster. It happens in all walks of life. Politics is a very highly charged profession, as we all know, and a highly charged business, where the competitive element is extraordinary, where people are constantly looking for, and trying to judge, the strengths and weaknesses of those around them, their political opponents, perhaps rivals even within their own party, and it may be distasteful that they have occasionally, and it is only occasionally, discussions of that nature, but I suspect it has always happened and I suspect it always will.
Q32 Julie Morgan: Do you not think this leads to the culture that is so distasteful to many?
Mr Price: I think what is distasteful and the reason why the Damian McBride episode caused the amount of hurt and offence that it did, not only to the individuals concerned but to the public, more generally, is the way in which it dragged the whole of politics down and gave a bad impression about the way in which people in public life behave. That is why I do think it is important to set it into context and to recognise that it was a very exceptional set of the circumstances, that the Prime Minister immediately recognised that it was unacceptable and said so and took pretty strict action against Damian McBride, who is now unemployed. I do feel that people like Damian McBride and myself and everybody who holds those positions share part of the responsibility to try to put over to the public the fact that public service is a responsible and respectable form of activity and anything like this, which suggests otherwise, I think is hugely damaging. Damian McBride should have had that thought, amongst many other thoughts, in his head. There are a thousand reasons why he should not have sent that email and he should not have pressed "send", and that is one of them.
Q33 Julie Morgan: You seem to be saying that it is only because it is public that there is anything wrong with it. I tend to think that if you are saying these things to each other, that is not the basis for a very good political culture.
Mr Price: Yes. I think we can all agree that making it public is completely wrong in any circumstance. Even though political gossip has been put into the public domain for political generations, it should not happen and it is no more acceptable now than it ever has been. However, I think there is a distinction between what happens in private discussions within any office, any newspaper office and any political office, and what is made public or any attempt to make it public.
Mr Baume: Should we be naive about the human factor in politics in all of this? What disturbed me in many ways about Damian McBride was not just these particular emails, but actually Damian McBride's role, as Dale Campbell-Savours had highlighted quite publicly, most of the time was undermining the rest of the Government. Obviously there are also those roles that he put forward, but actually most of the criticism, when you look at it, was about activities within the governing party, and that is back again to the whole issue of culture. You have to set the culture in which that happens. We read in the newspapers, and no-one has challenged it, that various Cabinet ministers raised concerns about Mr McBride, and no action was taken, but we also know, if you go to the Jo Moore affair, that various people had raised concerns about Jo Moore at the time and no action was taken. Some of this is just about the human factor, the willingness of politicians to face up to the consequences of their own actions and to set parameters around their own actions, not simply around those of the people that they chose to employ.
Q34 Chairman: I think Julie is asking something more than that, if I might say so. I think she is asking about men - these are all men that we are talking about - and a certain kind of man. We are talking about the McBrides and the Drapers and the Whelans. It is a certain sort of bloke that does this, and it is a certain sort of bloke who is employed to do this kind of thing. That is the culture, is it not?
Sir Richard Mottram: Yes.
Mr Baume: And the Prime Minister must have known what he was taking on. It is worth recalling that Damian McBride was a civil servant and was, in effect, asked to leave the Civil Service because it was felt that in his Civil Service role he had become too politically partial and then moved over to become a special adviser. That is where the root of some of this comes, because others have spoken in the media about Mr McBride being an expert on VAT and other tax policy and then moved over into a press role; so this was not an unknown quantity, but it is the culture. If you have that culture there, you pay the price.
Q35 Julie Morgan: Is that a male culture on the whole?
Sir Richard Mottram: I think it is a male culture. It is a sort of laddish culture. Is it a good thing? Is it an attractive thing? Personally, I do not mind watching football matches, I do not mind drinking beer, et cetera, but I think the whole culture of it is very, very laddish and exclusive in the sense of pushing people out, et cetera, so it is not desirable. It is not desirable to have a taxpayer-funded version of it spreading poison in the media, but we do live in a real world and I think in the real world politics is quite competitive, I am told. It is very competitive between parties. It is interesting, if you spent your life, as I did, as a civil servant, listening to what ministers are saying, they say, "Oh I should not have said that in front of you." You know, it is very, very competitive and it is competitive because the game of politics and getting into government is very competitive, and staying in government is very competitive, and, again I think we have to be realistic that people will play the game of who is in, who is out, who is up, who is down. A journalist once said to me, if you take out a minister to lunch, they spend all their time denigrating their colleagues. If you take out a civil servant to lunch, they spend all their time saying what marvellous people their colleagues are, no doubt because she was trying to get me to say how awful my colleagues were, but there is a point here about culture. The Civil Service culture is very corporate, the political culture, for all sorts of reasons, which are not about lizards and reptiles and all those things, is highly competitive and the problem you have is what the remit is. I am sorry to be boring and bureaucratic about this, the remit says, "representing the views of their minister to the media, including a party viewpoint, where they have been authorised by the minister to do so", and that is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, where you say, "The reason why we have got policy X is this, this and this and we actually think the opposition are completely misguided in why they are doing this", et cetera. That is fine, but actually they are going to be authorised to go out and say, "So and so is really on the way out", or whatever, et cetera, and then it is a difficult thing, but I do not have a magic solution which would tighten the remit and would also, secondly, magically affect the behaviour.
Chairman: We have got a second half to this morning's session, so I am going to ask colleagues to be fairly brisk with the questioning and you to be fairly brisk with the answering too.
Q36 Paul Rowen: Is it acceptable, taking up your point, for a special adviser to brief against another minister? Does that fall within the Special Advisers' Code? That is one of the things that McBride is accused of doing.
Mr Price: No, I have never regarded it as acceptable, and in fact it was a very direct culture within which I operated, which came from the Prime Minister and was put into words frequently by Alistair Campbell, that it was not acceptable to brief against members of your own government at any time at all. There was immense pressure from journalists to do exactly that. Journalists would constantly be coming to us asking us to express an industry view about members of the Cabinet - who did Tony Blair approve of, who did he disapprove of, and so on - and it is something that we did our best to resist as much as we possibly could.
Q37 Chairman: I saw a wry smile there.
Mr Riddell: A wry smile and various comments, one on the sanctity of civil servants not talking to ---
Sir Richard Mottram: I thought you would like that.
Mr Riddell: Yes, indeed. Also, Lance is right, we journalists naturally want to know what the Prime Minister thinks of Cabinet colleagues, and so on and so forth. It is all a question of lines. Also, historically, I remember Sir Bernard Ingham offering some very vigorous thoughts, the late John Biffen was described as "semi-detached" and I was present at the briefing when he said that many decades ago now, and you can go back to John McCaffrey who worked for Jim Callaghan - they expressed views. None of them got into the area of Damian McBride. Some of these things are matters of degree, and so on, and we cannot be sanctimonious about it. Of course you are going to find these things out, and there are grey lines. Clearly this is way beyond any acceptable line by a mile. For example, a current issue: is there going to be a reshuffle or not? That should come out from the political end of Number 10 saying when it will occur and how extensive it will be. That is perfectly legitimate. It is very different from a character assassination. There is a line but one should not be too prim about it.
Mr Price: Journalists, of course, have many sources. Let us say Mr McBride is who we are talking about. If a journalist were to ring Mr McBride and ask what he thought about Cabinet minister X or Y and he declined to give an answer - Damian McBride sat opposite a Member of this House and a member of the Government, a minister, no doubt party to many of the same discussions - if the journalist did not get anywhere with Damian McBride, he could easily take that minister out for a drink or a bite to eat and find out from another source what the Prime Minister thought about minister X or Y. If it was considered unacceptable for Damian McBride to use his publicly funded facilities in order to conduct any political activity, there was nothing to stop him saying to Mr Watson, if it happens to be he that was sitting opposite him, "You go and find ..."
Q38 Paul Rowen: But is it not different? Political activity is different from character assassination, and if a paid employee is being used to politically assassinate a senior member of the Government, it is different from passing a comment. If Ruth Kelly's resignation is announced at in the morning by a special adviser, is that the way these things should be done? Is that acceptable?
Mr Price: No.
Q39 Paul Rowen: If my resignation was announced like that, I would certainly be doing something about it.
Mr Riddell: It was in the slightly bizarre circumstances of the Party conference and a response to a story in the paper. It was quite a complicated event, that. I think the people who felt most chagrined by that, I have to say, were actually 10 Downing Street because she was going to announce she was stepping down anyway for reasons we know, family and all that, and it leaked out during the very restrained atmosphere of the Party conference, and during Party conference these things are restrained and everybody goes to bed at ten o'clock at night and so on! So it was a bit of an exceptional case that and no one would pretend it was not a real mess, but that was slightly weird.
Q40 Paul Rowen: So that is a one-off? Stephen Byers had nothing to worry about previously?
Mr Riddell: To go back to something Gordon Prentice raised earlier, there are examples, and they do occur from time to time and they are in the process, but one needs to put them in perspective, and I think there are bigger issues. There is a specific issue you have to deal with here and I think there are some procedural things this Committee should consider going beyond the existing strengths of the Code about the role of permanent secretaries, but that is isolated. There is a bigger picture about the broader role of special advisers. What I am saying is these cases which happen from time to time should be looked at, sure, you should deal with that, look at that, but one should not get them out of proportion.
David Heyes: If I could summarise the panel view, all four of you seem to be saying one way or another that this is life the way it is. We have been hearing comments like: "Live with it", "it is the human factor in politics" - you seem to be saying to us it is naive to believe that there is anything that can be done to change this, that we need to sit back and wait for the next catastrophic event to hit the headlines. Is that what you are saying? I hope not, because with your collective expertise maybe you have some suggestions for us as a Committee about what we might be recommending to improve things beyond the slight changes that have been made to the specialised Code of Conduct.
Q41 Chairman: Give us any remedies.
Mr Baume: That is certainly not what I am saying. I think the system works pretty well, actually. For the most part special advisers should not question how many special advisers you should have, but we have a special adviser system that works well and most of the time people know where the boundaries there are, they observe them and, in the nice sense of the word, it oils and lubricates how Government works and the interface between ministers and civil servants. So yes, when things go wrong they can go wrong very spectacularly, but most of the time it works well and I think we should acknowledge that. You can then look at how you deal with it when it goes wrong, and I have made my views on that clear because I think it is about culture, I do not think the rules are in any need of change, and never were really, the rules were very clear about what to do, but there is an enormous obligation on ministers, whoever is the Government of the day, to ensure that they are operating the system correctly and that their special advisers know where the boundaries should be. So I do not think it is a question of we have a real problem here we have to fix: I think in a sense we have made changes along the way which have improved. I think the situation is better now than it was ten years ago because people learn through the experience of holding office. If there is a change of government, new special advisers would come in and they inevitably would go through a learning curve; you can never say that a problem would not emerge but hopefully people will have learned lessons from the experience of the current Government, if there were to be a change of Government. But actually it is about setting the frameworks and making sure those are observed, not trying to argue that somehow we have to unpick it all and start again. You then move into the bigger questions raised around funding, perfectly legitimately, and about how the centre of government works that Richard was raising, but I think those are the issues. I do not think it is saying that somehow this is a broken system in any way.
Q42 Chairman: But, Richard, you are going further, are you not? You are saying, I think, there is a problem in No 10 by the concentration of special advisers there, and you are talking about parallel networks inside government which are causing problems?
Sir Richard Mottram: I do not agree with Jonathan, but I am just looking at it from the perspective of someone who was a very senior civil servant. I think that the way in which we thought about this problem has been flawed because we have not recognised the predominance of special advisers in No 10 and the Treasury, and what the impact of that has been and was on the way in which Government works. So I think there is a serious issue there, both about the remit of special advisers, though I do not have any magic solutions to that, about the incentives, but I do not have a magic solution to that, and about the number of them, and I think that this should be tackled. Now, I cannot say this is an argument I am winning. I think there are some very big issues around that. Secondly, I do not agree that what I am saying is, "This was acceptable". I do not think it is acceptable for taxpayer-funded people to go around denigrating their colleagues or, in a very overt political way, denigrating the Opposition. I do not think that is what they are there for. What they are there for, and it is legitimate in the terms of the Code of Conduct, is to help ministers with the overload problem they face. That is a very different culture to the one that we see manifested in some of the behaviour of a small number of the people in this Government, and it is an issue I think therefore about culture which is a really important issue. I am not at all complacent about this; I do not think this is all "fine and dandy, the lads go down the pub and decide to slag off everybody in sight, and I send this blog to him" - you know. It is not that. It is a more serious problem.
Mr Baume: And I agree with that.
Mr Price: I think we all agree with that. I do not think anyone thinks it is fine and dandy, or that the kind of behaviour that gave rise to the discussions we are having today is acceptable in any shape or form. You ask for practical advice as to how it can be stopped. I think that the crucial bit of advice is that special advisers need to know that if they overstep the mark in a spectacular fashion then, of course, they are going to lose their jobs, as Damian McBride did and ultimately Jo Moore did in slightly different circumstances, but there is always the possibility for career civil servants around them who are, generally speaking, very familiar with what is going on within their offices to make a complaint, to say they think that a special adviser is acting outside the constraints of what is acceptable under their contract and under the Code of Conduct and so on and so forth, but ultimately it does come down to the culture, and I agree that the culture has changed. Part of that cultural change has involved the increased numbers of special advisers, the significantly increased influence they have both on policy and on the communication side of government business - but numbers themselves are not the problem. I think the culture under which they operate is the problem, and that is very much influenced by the minister, by the Prime Minister, by the general political atmosphere that exists within Downing Street and elsewhere in Whitehall, and the most likely factor to stop this kind of behaviour happening is the knowledge that when it becomes public, as it has, a relatively small and exceptional incident like what happened with Damian McBride causes immense political damage to the Government and to the political party concerned, and when individuals realise the immense political damage that can be caused by stupid, puerile and unacceptable behaviour, then that surely is the thing that is most likely to stop that behaviour happening again in the future.
Mr Riddell: I very much agree with what has been said before but would like to mention two very practical things. I think a very limited number of special advisers, possibly two or three, should be moved off the taxpayers' payroll on to the parties', and I think there is occasion for saying that; that someone who has specifically got a political brief in that way with the media should be a party person. Secondly, and I think this is the unresolved issue on the Code and exactly the dilemma which faced Richard Mottram seven years ago and exactly the dilemma over Damian McBride, people knew there were problems but the relevant ministers were not listening, and I think if there is an explicit breach under the revised Code, which is 4-6 on Status and Conduct, a permanent secretary should have the power to dismiss. This is very important because at present it has been the grace and favour of a minister, and that would remain so in relation to general performance. But if there was a breach of this Code I think you ought to consider whether a permanent secretary should have that power, because I think that would have dealt with some of the problems. As I say, this is a very big potential step but I think the problem in the latest case has been there were warnings between civil servants but they were ignored, and, as you say, even though 90% of what Damian McBride did from my knowledge and fellow journalists was absolutely acceptable, when there was the attack thing that had been warned before but the warnings did not have an effect, and that is what led to all the stuff earlier on.
Q43 Chairman: Is that a good idea, Richard? Appointment by ministers, dismissal by civil servants?
Mr Riddell: In extremis.
Sir Richard Mottram: It is a big, big subject and I do not think it would work. I think that what we have to do is we have to try and get a stronger focus amongst ministers on what special advisers should and should not do, and I think probably you have to rely on the point that Lance was making. It is very difficult to go and confront a minister and then when they say, "I hear what you say but actually I am happy with this", under this Code for instance, so the Code would have to be changed, I think, "Well, you may be happy with it but actually I have decided to dismiss X or Y", that is quite a difficult concept really.
Q44 Paul Flynn: I have two very brief questions. Is there a real danger now that we are going to throw out the special adviser babies with the Damian McBride bathwater?
Mr Riddell: There should not be.
Q45 Paul Flynn: The second question is this. Damian McBride quite rightly has been punished for this and what he did, trying to get down and dirty in the blogosphere, was absolutely wrong, but the real harm, the real distress, caused to the individuals in this case was the publication of the names of the people involved. They were not published by Damian McBride or Guido Fawkes but by two newspapers. Is there not a degree of hypocrisy from newspapers when they are condemning what is going on here when the real problem in this case, the worst part, the distress to the individuals, was caused by the Sunday Times and the other paper involved?
Mr Riddell: You would have to ask their editors. I was not involved.
Q46 Paul Flynn: Are they blameless? Are these people not involved? Is it not gross hypocrisy?
Mr Riddell: Actually both newspapers have apologised particularly to one of the people involved in those stories for inappropriate behaviour.
Q47 Paul Flynn: There is one complaint to the Press Council by the individual involved. Is she not right to blame the newspaper for causing her distress?
Mr Riddell: There is a lot of blame to be spread around amongst a lot of people.
Chairman: I wish I could say we shall never return to this topic. It is pretty clear from our conversation that we will and there are issues that remain to be resolved that we shall turn our mind to yet again, but I think we have had a really interesting session. Thank you very much, all of you, for talking to us and helping us.
Witness: Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, gave evidence.
Q48 Chairman: We now turn to the second half of the session. We welcome again Liam Byrne, whom we saw not long ago. Thank you for coming again and talking through some of these wider issues. I know that you sat through the previous conversation. One issue that presents itself from the Government point of view immediately is, given what was said by the previous witnesses about it being known that here was a problem waiting to happen, why was it not dealt with earlier?
Mr Byrne: It is hard for me to know whether it was a problem that was waiting to happen ---
Q49 Chairman: Well, everyone has told us there was a problem that everyone knew about.
Mr Byrne: Indeed, I heard what the witnesses said, but it is hard for me to know what is real, what is hearsay, what is gossip, and what is not gossip. What I do know is that what Damian McBride did was appalling and wrong and was in clear breach not only of the Civil Service Code but also the Special Advisers' Code, and I think one of tests of any Code and its effectiveness - not the only test but one of them - is are there consequences when people breach it, and in this case there were absolutely the right consequences, that Mr McBride lost his job without recompense.
Q50 Chairman: Yes, but here you have distinguished people like Peter Riddell, who knows it all and plays it straight, who tells us that this man's activities had been sort of spreading poison around the system for a long time and everyone knew this. Everybody on the inside knew it, you clearly knew it, and journalists knew it. I am just asking a straightforward question. If this is the case, and there does not seem any dispute about that, why was it able to continue? Why was it not dealt with? Why did it take something like this before the whole thing blew up?
Mr Byrne: Well, I have not got hard facts about some of the presumptions which you are calling into play here. We can come on, of course, if you like, to questions about the role of special advisers in government and so on, but what has happened since 1997 is that three key locks have come into place. First there is a contract, which we did not have for special advisers before, that in paragraph 15 says: "You, as one of the terms of your employment, need to live by not just the Civil Service Code but by the Special Advisers' Code." Now, both of those Codes are crystal clear about what behaviour is acceptable and what behaviour is not, so you have a set of boundaries and benchmarks against which people are judged on the one hand, and, on the other hand, you have then got very clear procedures for the way in which anybody, but particularly civil servants, are able to escalate concerns to the Minister, to the Private Secretary, to the Permanent Secretary, to the Cabinet Secretary, or, indeed, to the Commissioners for the Civil Service, so it just feels to me that over the last ten or 11 years systematically we have strengthened the clarity, the transparency of benchmarks around what conduct is acceptable and what is not, and we have provided for ways of making it much more transparent as to whether people are crossing those lines or living within them. What we saw in this instance, and what we saw with Jo Moore also, is that when there is clear evidence of people crossing the line then there are consequences - and that is right, too.
Q51 Chairman: The problem with that argument is that we have this Code, and everybody that we have just been listening to says that the Code is fine; the words in the Code are excellent; it says all the right things. It says they should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes, so the Code is completely right. But we are being told that the culture is different from the Code, and what I am asking you is, if people are practising a culture which is in conflict with the Code that they are supposed to be working under, and that goes on for a protracted period, why is it not dealt with?
Mr Byrne: I do not think we did just hear that people think there is a culture that is established in which special advisers across government are living their lives in breach of the Code. I think it is also important to remember that the Code goes on to say that special advisers "should not misuse their official position or information acquired in the course of their official duties to further their private interests or the private interests of others", and that surely must include the advance either of themselves or indeed of their minister. Actually, I think special advisers do live within the spirit and the letter of that Code, and what happened in the appalling case of Damian McBride is here is an individual that had completely transgressed those boundaries but, as I say, one of the key tests of any code is are there consequences, and in his case there were consequences, and rapidly and quite rightly.
Q52 Chairman: What seems to be the case is that the majority of special advisers seem to be doing perfectly good worthwhile jobs, bringing specialist advice to their ministers, helping them with the political world, but some of them, and this seems to be a development of recent times, are getting down there, doing the dirty, in the political gutter, engaging in activities they should not engage in. Are they not bringing the whole currency of special advisers into disrepute by doing that, and is the system not dealing with them?
Mr Byrne: Whenever there is a breach of an ethics code or a value system in any institution, that institution and the world associated with it falls into disrepute. We saw it with the resignation of Christopher Galley for breach of a Civil Service Code in his work at the Home Office; we have seen it in the media when Andrew Coulson, for example, was rapidly retired from the newspaper he worked for because he had breached the value system and ethics system around his work, so you are quite right to say that the existence of a code is not a guarantee that here on earth human institutions run perfectly. We hope they do in Heaven, but the key with any code is to make sure that people are crystal clear about where the boundaries are, and the consequences that then follow when those boundaries are breached.
Q53 Chairman: Let me try the question again. If a special adviser is in his work breaching the terms of this Code, and we have had evidence that in this case that was going on and we suggest in other cases it might be, if that is the case and you have a special adviser breaching the terms of the Code but that person has political protection, that is, the minister is perfectly happy with what the person is doing, what happens then?
Mr Byrne: The minister is accountable to Parliament.
Q54 Chairman: But the minister is perfectly happy with the arrangement. The special adviser is happy with the arrangement. Nobody beyond though, apart from journalists, knows what is going on.
Mr Byrne: But in any arrangement or in any kind of role of leadership that ministers play - and let's remember that ministers are the individuals who are responsible for hiring and firing special advisers - surely it is right that it is the minister who is accountable for their leadership and, indeed, for the conduct of the people that they are responsible for, to Parliament.
Q55 Chairman: Yes, but if the minister is complicit in behaviour which is enabling a special adviser to breach the terms of the Code that he is working on, if that is the case, and we know it has been the case in a number of instances, what I am asking you is what can be done about it?
Mr Byrne: Ministers can be held accountable by Parliament, and I think that things that begin to interfere with that doctrine of ministerial accountability to Parliament should be considered very cautiously, because it is one of the foundations of our constitutional system.
Q56 Chairman: Being practical, we have a list of all the people who work as special advisers in government at the moment, and I think there are about 70. Because we are paying their salaries, would it help if we had a far more detailed description of what kind of work they were doing so we could find out which ones were giving specialist policy advice and which ones were doing other kinds of things?
Mr Byrne: Well, I think it could do, but paragraph 3 of the Civil Service Code provides an extremely detailed 12 or 13 point check list of the things that special advisers are allowed to do, and in modern politics the nature of what is going to be on their to do list I think is going to vary from week to week, but in broad terms I could not foresee any particular problem with the idea.
Q57 Chairman: So we can have far more transparency about what they are doing?
Mr Byrne: And this point about transparency surely is the key, because three things here have to come together. First, I do not think we should interfere with ministerial accountability to Parliament because I think it is the foundation of our constitutional system, it works well, there are ways of strengthening it and we are constantly in search of those. Secondly, you need to put in place clear and well understood systems of rules, which is what we have systematically done with the Civil Service Code, the Special Advisers' Code, and the model contract, and, third, you do have to increase the process of transparency. You know my own personal view on this, which is that Parliament should play a greater and greater role in increasing transparency over the Executive wherever possible.
Q58 Chairman: So if we went through the names and talked about them we would all know those who were predominantly there because they were experts in policy areas and were predominantly giving policy advice, and we would know those who were there to spin, so why not have a little "S" against those who spin as their job so that we can see what they are being paid to do?
Mr Byrne: The division between policy advice and communications advice dissolved several decades ago because in modern politics you shape policy in dialogue with the people that you come into politics to serve, and communications as a one-way process began to go out of fashion several decades ago. Communication these days is not a one-way process, it is a two-way process, so it is harder to be as tidy as perhaps you would like.
Q59 Chairman: But you have agreed that we could do with a bit more transparency?
Mr Byrne: I would not want to take away from the accountability processes that are in place already, not least the multifarious opportunities for civil servants and others to escalate concerns, where necessary, to the Independent Commissioners for the Civil Service.
Q60 Chairman: What about appointments? Why not just advertise for special adviser posts? Why can ministers not appoint whoever they want, however disreputable these people might be?
Mr Byrne: Again, I think some ministers do go through a process of open recruitment.
Q61 Chairman: Why is it not just routine? Why can they not just specify the kind of skills they need, and then people can apply for it, and there can be some kind of proper appointment process?
Mr Byrne: Well, because some things are pretty hard to solicit through an open recruitment process. Open recruitment processes can easily be part and parcel of the business of recruitment but sometimes, when you are seeking to recruit a special adviser, you are looking for somebody, perhaps you might have worked with him for many years, who really understands your mind. Again, it comes back to what a special adviser for. Above all, special advisers are a function of two features of our constitution. The first is that the Government of the day is drawn from the party able to command a majority in the House of Commons, and that majority is returned through the work of a political party, therefore government is inherently political. On the other hand, we want to maintain the impartiality of the Civil Service, and Gus O'Donnell and Robin Butler, and in 2003 the Commissioner for the Civil Service said repeatedly that the existence of special advisers helps protect the impartiality of the Civil Service. Gus O'Donnell has said repeatedly that we need good strong special advisers in the system because it helps us maintain this vital constitutional principle of impartiality of the Civil Service.
Q62 Chairman: I am not sure how we test whether people know ministers' minds or not, but surely what we do need to make sure of is that we understand the terms of the Special Advisers' Code, and that is what an appointment process would do, and does, with the Civil Service Code for civil servants?
Mr Byrne: Absolutely, but there are other ways of achieving that objective. The Committee will know that, following the resignation of Damian McBride, the Prime Minister sought to strengthen still further the Civil Service Code, and every special adviser was required to sign an undertaking that they had read and understood the new and strengthened Code, and every special adviser has given that undertaking and signed it.
Q63 Chairman: So if you are going to look at the transparency issue, you might look at the appointments issue as well?
Mr Byrne: Well, I think there already is a degree of open recruitment in the recruitment of special advisers.
Q64 Chairman: So you are not going to look at it very vigorously, then?
Mr Byrne: Well, ultimately it has to come down to the decision of the minister, because the minister should be the person who is held accountable for the decisions they take, and, indeed, the conduct of the people who work for them.
Chairman: That is where we came in. Paul?
Flynn: But the system is not working, is
it? In 2006 Dale Campbell-Savours
put down Parliamentary Questions complaining about Mr McBride sending
a text message to a Sky news executive complaining that a programme
was giving "undue prominence to Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn". This is almost certainly in flagrant breach
of the Code as it was at the time, and the point of the question was whether
the text message complied with Section 14 of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers. The reply he had, which I think many of
us would recognise as typical of the vacuous, evasive, nonsensical, meaningless
replies we have to many Parliamentary Questions, was from Lord McKenzie of
Mr Byrne: Well, I think Parliament is there, as I say, to hold ministers to account --
Q66 Paul Flynn: Indeed, but what would a parliamentarian do in that circumstance if they say: "We are not talking about individual cases"? Every case you could raise of a breach of the Code would be an individual case. Where does it leave the parliamentarian?
Mr Byrne: But you have written a rather excellent book on the panoply of ways in which parliamentarians are able to hold an executive to account, which you very kindly pointed me to when I was elected to this place, and I have read it and studied it in detail, and alongside the excellent taxonomy of MPs and their differences and different peccadilloes in that book, you also sketch out in considerable detail the different ways in which you are able to hold ministers to account, and I remember very clearly that it does not start or stop with written questions. Does it?
Q67 Paul Flynn: You are very kind to refer to the book ---
Mr Byrne: It is common knowledge and which is still in print.
Q68 Paul Flynn: One of the other pieces of advice in the book, for example, is on entertainment. You take someone for a drink or for a meal and one of the pieces of advice was that if a politician is going for a meal with a journalist the politician always buys the first meal they have and they exchange it, because that relationship which seems to be there is one where the minister or the person being entertained, the adviser, is under an obligation to leak something, to give something of value to the journalist. Could you see reforms, changes, coming out of this system, to make sure that this line we have between advisers and journalists is not one that is there for spreading poison in the way it appears to be?
Mr Byrne: I think that the work of improving not just the Code but also the process of transparency is not something that should stop, and that is why there have been so many changes since 1997. One of the challenges in the relationship that you have just described is how do you get certifiable, independent corroboration of what has gone on? None of us in this House believes that allegations should be just cast around wildly and accepted at face value, that is not the way we do business in the House of Commons, so that is one of the challenges, but is further reform desirable? It has to be a constant process. But I come back to the three basic principles that should guide us in this debate: the doctrine of ministerial accountability to the House, the existence of independent codes of behaviour, and the process of transparency. It is hard to see reforms that do not fall under those three headings.
Q69 Paul Flynn: Do you not think there is a real problem that there is not this distinction between the temporary Civil Service, who are advisers, and the Civil Service itself? Should we have a redefinition of what special advisers are and their status? It seems a very precarious job if they have to be thrown on the funeral pyre when a minister loses his or her job, and it is an extraordinary position that, as a result of this controversy about McBride, it is even more widely misunderstood, that people see them as civil servants and political figures being paid out of the public purse yet they are very different creatures to the mass of civil servants, and the greater we can make sure there is that distinction between civil servants and special advisers, the better it should be. Should they be civil servants? Or should they be treated in a different category altogether?
Mr Byrne: I would remain open to arguments on that point but I do think personally that they should be civil servants because that allows you to put in place and enforce - crucially, enforce - this triple lock of ensuring they have a contract which says they have to adhere not just to the Special Advisers' Code but also the Civil Service Code. There is an important point in the Civil Service Code at paragraph 8, which says: "You must not deceive or knowingly mislead ministers, Parliament or others", and I would include the media in "others", or, it goes on, "you must not be influenced by improper pressures from others or the prospect of personal gain". So the virtue of special advisers being civil servants is that you give them a contract that binds them to the Civil Service Code as well as to the additional Special Advisers' Code as well, which has a number of other conditions and sanctions in it about, for example, indulgence in party political activity.
Q70 Mr Prentice: Can I come in on that, Liam? You said there must be no deception. What has happened to Matt Cavanagh, who was the special adviser who allowed the statistics on knife crime to go into the public domain after he had been warned by the statistics people that to do so would mislead the public. How does that square with what you just told us?
Mr Byrne: I
have a slightly different take on the episode that you mention. This, I know, has been the subject of
Gus O'Donnell's letter of
Q71 Mr Prentice: No --
Mr Byrne: I think that is an example, actually, of how ministers ultimately ---
Q72 Mr Prentice: If I can just stop you there, Liam ---
Mr Byrne: Ministers should front up for decisions that they are accountable for.
Q73 Mr Prentice: You talk about responsibility to Parliament. The Home Secretary did come and make a statement to Parliament but it was not just one little insignificant item that had misled people; there were any number of deceptions on that fact sheet. Now, I do not have the material in front of me now ---
Mr Byrne: What were the others?
Q74 Mr Prentice: --- but we had the people from statistics, the National Statistician, telling us that there were major reservations. If you do not have the information in front of you, no matter ---
Mr Byrne: I have Jackie Smith's statement.
Q75 Mr Prentice: --- but put simply you are telling us that Matt Cavanagh in No 10, the special adviser, did not breach the Civil Service Code or the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers. There was no breach. That is what you are telling us?
Mr Byrne: I have not heard what you are saying he breached.
Q76 Chairman: He decided that he could overrule what he was being told by the statisticians about the release of certain information, and this has been confirmed in fine detail now, so Gordon is asking: Here is someone who contravened the Government's own law on statistics, seemingly to show the power of the special adviser network, what has happened to the special adviser who behaved in that way?
Mr Byrne: But who is accountable and who is responsible ultimately for publishing those statistics? It is not the Special Adviser at No 10; it is the Home Secretary.
Chairman: We were told the Home Secretary did not know anything about it. The whole point of the story was the Home Secretary, we are told, did not know about it, so the person who took the decision was the special adviser.
Q77 Mr Prentice: Can I come back to my line of questioning, Chairman. The issue is that ministerial accountability or responsibility for special advisers, as demonstrated by the Matt Cavanagh case, is non-existent; that in lots of instances these special advisers, like Damian McBride, are free agents, and the Civil Service does not know whether an instruction from the special adviser is an instruction from the responsible minister. Presumably they assume that to be the case.
Mr Byrne: Let us separate three things. First, where there was such a clear transgression of the Code, as in the appalling case of Damian McBride, there were consequences, so the Code bit because he had to go, quite rightly too. Second, I just do not think you can get into a situation where you can begin to blur or dilute the doctrine of ministerial accountability to Parliament, because ultimately that weakens the whole constitutional foundation of the way ---
Q78 Mr Prentice: That is the ultimate refuge, is it not, to go back to this ministerial responsibility to Parliament when we know in so many cases it is flawed?
Mr Byrne: But in this case, for example, Jacqui Smith had to apologise to the House.
Q79 Mr Prentice: Well, I am not going to repeat what I said five minutes ago. She apologised for one deception, not for a catalogue of deceptions that were set out in this fact sheet on knife crime. Can I ask you another question, Liam? How have things changed in No 10 since the departure of Damian McBride? How are the special advisers in No 10 managed now? Does the Permanent Secretary at No 10, Jeremy Hayward, get them together and say: "Listen, the Code has been tightened up, the Prime Minister wants you to behave in a different way, the Damian McBride affair has done huge damage"? What is different now in No 10 following the departure of Damian McBride?
Mr Byrne: Well, two points here. First the Prime Minister is responsible for the organisation and management of No 10 rather than my good self but second, and possibly more to your point, the Prime Minister insisted that the Special Advisers' Code was tightened up still further after Mr McBride went, and asked the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that every special adviser in government signed an undertaking to say that they had read and understood the new Code, which they have now all done.
Q80 Mr Prentice: On this point about publishing the job descriptions, is it in the public domain, the job description of Damian McBride when he was head or director of strategy and planning? Is that document in public domain? This is what Damian McBride was paid to do out of public funds?
Mr Byrne: I think that is an interesting question because at the moment, as I said, in paragraph 3 of the Special Advisers' Code, there is this twelve point description of what it is a special adviser does, and I do think that the work of special advisers in modern politics is fluid. Some days they will be doing some aspects of that twelve-point description; other days other aspects, but I think it is an interesting idea.
Q81 Mr Prentice: You will have heard Peter Riddell earlier reflecting on these McBride events that Permanent Secretaries should have the power to dismiss special advisers when they, special advisers, are in breach of the Code of Conduct. Do you think that idea will fly? Sir Richard Mottram did not really think it would work. What is your view?
Mr Byrne: I did not see ---
Q82 Mr Prentice: You came in after that?
Mr Byrne: No, I listened to it. What I was going to say is that I did not see a very wise old Permanent Secretary give us a ringing endorsement of how that would work in practice, and I am afraid I do come back to the idea that it is ministers who are accountable.
Q83 Mr Prentice: Lastly, because other colleagues will want to come in, the freedom of information requests that have gone in to No 10 so we can all have sight of the emails which were sent out using the number10.gov address, would be considered in the ordinary way by the head of the Home Civil Service; then there would be appeal to the Permanent Secretary and the Cabinet Office. How will these requests to put the emails into the public domain using the Freedom of Information Act be dealt with?
Mr Byrne: They would be dealt with like any other freedom of information request.
Q84 Mr Prentice: Which means we have to wait two years before we find out?
Mr Byrne: I do not think there is an automatic timetable of two years. However - well, I was going to say something helpful ---
Q85 Mr Prentice: We have had a discussion earlier about the huge damage that has been done to the Government over this affair. Do you think these requests for the emails and who they were copied to and so on should be dealt with expeditiously? That is my question.
Mr Byrne: Yes, of course, and in order to be helpful, I know that the Committee will be aware of correspondence between Sir Gus O'Donnell and the Right Honourable Member for Horsham about these emails, and I think the first exchange of correspondence is in the public domain but Sir Gus's second letter is not so I have brought copies of that letter with me this morning, and the eyes of Committee members I think will automatically be drawn to four aspects of the letter. The first at the end of the second paragraph is that Sir Gus confirms to the Prime Minister that no member of No 10 staff or ministers other than Mr McBride were involved either as an author or a copy recipient: second, Sir Gus goes on to say that he confirms that no-one in the media was copied in; third, having conducted his investigation, he says: "I did not find that the emails were part of a broader pattern of activity of propagation of unfounded personal allegations", and, fourth, Sir Gus goes on to say something I have just mentioned earlier, which is that the Prime Minister asked for a new stronger tighter Code to be introduced and it confirms that all special advisers have now signed that new, stronger, tighter Code. It was frankly extremely explicit on this point before, which is why it was so clear Damian McBride had to resign straight away, but constant improvement is constant improvement.
Q86 Chairman: We did not quite get to the end of the knife crime question, if I may say so, because the answer cannot be that the Home Secretary made a statement and therefore that shows that the doctrine of ministerial accountability is in good health. The Home Secretary was not the minister who was responsible for the offending special adviser. The Home Secretary was the minister who happened to be the minister who produced the information that should not have been produced, but we know now, because the United Kingdom statistics authority has given us the whole email story, that it was a special adviser in No 10 who took the decision to overrule what the statisticians were saying and to say that this material should be published. It is a perfect example of the dilemma. So if that is the kind of thing that should not have happened, and we have had a minister in front of us who has told us how profoundly damaging this was to the Government and completely in contravention of the legislation and statistics that the Government has passed, so it was very serious, then we are entitled to ask what happened to that person who offended in that way, and the answer cannot be that some other minister not responsible for that person then apologised.
Mr Byrne: I am afraid it must be, because special advisers advise and ministers decide, and once we start departing from that principle we are going to start to damage the constitutional principles on which governments conduct their business.
Q87 Chairman: But this was not the minister responsible for the special adviser in question.
Mr Byrne: It does not matter. Special advisers advise and ministers decide, and ministers must be responsible, in the way they are responsible for civil servants who work for them, also for the conduct of their special advisers.
Q88 Chairman: But the whole point of the system stated in the Code is that the appointing minister is responsible for what his special adviser does, so when you say that some other minister apologised for what a different special adviser did, that cannot be the answer, can it?
Mr Byrne: Let's be very clear here. If there is a special adviser who has breached the Special Advisers' Code, and let's just go back to paragraph 5 of the Special Advisers' Code which says that: "Special advisers should conduct themselves with integrity and honesty, they should not deceive or knowingly mislead Parliament to the public", whoever is responsible for the special adviser who is in breach of that Code is the minister who is responsible to the House of Commons, but I think this was an example of where a minister was held accountable to the House; there was an apology; and this is new legislation about the independence of statistics. I am sure there will be teething problems in the way that new regime is put into place but there were political consequences for this breach, and that is the main thing.
Q89 Chairman: Did the special adviser in the knife crime case engage in inappropriate behaviour?
Mr Byrne: I do not know because I am not accountable --
Q90 Chairman: We have already had a minister in front of us telling us how inappropriate it was.
Mr Byrne: Absolutely ---
Q91 Mr Prentice: You should know the answer because the Code refers to special advisers in terms of their ministers, so Matt Cavanagh's minister at No 10, to labour Tony's point, is not the Home Secretary.
Mr Byrne: No. His minister is the Prime Minister.
Q92 Mr Prentice: Yes.
Mr Byrne: And the House is not short of opportunities to hold the Prime Minister to account. You happen to see him every week, we happen to see him every week, and he comes in front of the joint chairs twice a year, of which you are a member.
Q93 Chairman: Sorry to persevere but what happened to the special adviser who behaved in this inappropriate way?
Mr Byrne: I am not in that managerial loop so that is perhaps something on which I can come back to the Committee once I have made my inquiries, which I am happy to do on your behalf.
Q94 Chairman: You cannot deny it was inappropriate behaviour, can you, because everyone has signed up to the proposition this was wrong? It should not have happened.
Mr Byrne: But what I am insisting on are two things. First, it is for ministers to make decisions, it is for special advisers to advise; second, it is for ministers to be accountable to Parliament for the conduct of their special advisers just as they are responsible for the conduct of their civil servants.
Q95 Chairman: But you have just added a new bit to the Code. "Any special adviser ever found to be disseminating inappropriate material will automatically be dismissed by their appointing minister". What I am saying to you is here is a prima facie example of inappropriate behaviour, even ministers have conceded it was inappropriate behaviour, and as far as we are aware nothing has happened.
Mr Byrne: Well, as I say, I am not the minister responsible for the special adviser you are talking about --
Q96 Chairman: You're the best we could get!
Mr Byrne: -- and you are not short of opportunities to hold the Prime Minister to account for the conduct of special advisers that work for him.
Chairman: I will let other people have a go. Charles?
Q97 Mr Walker: Would it be unfair to describe you, Mr Byrne, as a machine politician?
Mr Byrne: I am not quite sure what you mean.
Q98 Mr Walker: I just do not understand why you are here sometimes, because you come up with this incredible management speak. You said that over the last 20 years the role of special advisers had been "blurred" and that you now "shape policy out of dialogue with the people you serve". What does that mean?
Mr Byrne: Well, you do not sit in an ivory tower, Mr Walker, and hand down what you think is the right thing to do on high. Now, that may be the way that policy is made in your own party, I could not possibly comment, but in this day and age I think it is important for a constant dialogue with the people you are serving about the way policy is shaped and implemented.
Q99 Mr Walker: What is this dialogue? How do special advisers get involved in this dialogue, because we are talking about special advisers. You said their role had been blurred because they are involved in a dialogue, so how is them briefing the press about your colleagues' deficiencies, about total lies about my colleagues, how on earth is that, as you call it, "shaping policy out of dialogue with the people you serve"?
Mr Byrne: Firstly, I do not accept the premise of your question and, secondly, there are very clear rules about misleading the public or others in the Special Advisers' Code. You used this kind of extraordinary expression earlier about lizards and reptiles, and I assume you put into that category the Right Honourable Member for Whitney and the Right Honourable Member for Tatton who, if my memory serves me correctly, were once special advisers.
Q100 Mr Walker: You see, Mr Byrne, we have been scrupulously unpartisan in this meeting, and you are now becoming partisan because I feel you are cornered, because you come here with your silky words but when you add them up they mean nothing. They mean nothing. I want you to explain to me and this Committee what "shaping policy out of dialogue with the people you serve" means and how that can be directly related to special advisers. You said it; now please explain it. Come on.
Mr Byrne: Well --
Q101 Mr Walker: Your intellectual reach must be able to do that. Go on, I will not interrupt again.
Well, when you take, for example, the work this government is doing to
protect jobs and home owners, take, for example, the need for a dialogue
with businesses about precisely what help they need from the Government. Do you think that should be just manufactured
and dictated in
Q102 Mr Walker: What dialogue are you having with businesses? You are the minister. You are paid to have the dialogue. Why do you need to go and send someone else to have the discussions with the businesses? Why can you not go and have the discussions? Why do special advisers need to have discussions? Are your ministers incapable of having those discussions? I do not understand why you need to spend special advisers out, I really do not. I think that ministers should be having these discussions.
Mr Byrne: Why does £3.9 million in short money go to the Conservative Party?
Mr Walker: I am asking the questions here; you are meant to be answering them. Why can you and your ministers not go out and have discussions with business? Why do you need to send special advisers out? I do not go and send my researchers out to meet my constituents. I go and meet them. I do not send the people out who work for me to go and discuss with business; I go and talk to business.
Chairman: I am going to bring this back to where we should be, otherwise we are going to have a non dialogue, as it were.
Q103 Mr Walker: You cannot have a dialogue with a management consultant.
Mr Byrne: I am sorry, Mr Walker, for having had a previous career before politics.
Mr Walker: I am sorry we have you in politics.
Chairman: Let me just say that is not the most vigorous exchange that Charles has ever had with someone, but we will just put it to one side, add it to our stock of human wisdom and move on. Paul, will you ask the next question?
Q104 Paul Rowen: You have three special advisers in the Cabinet Office on Pay Band 3. Can you tell us what their role is?
Mr Byrne: I would be happy to write to the Committee with that.
Q105 Paul Rowen: Why can you not tell us now? I know what my researchers do.
Mr Byrne: Well, their roles vary from day to day and week to week.
Q106 Paul Rowen: Have they got job descriptions?
Mr Byrne: Yes.
Q107 Paul Rowen: Can we have a copy of the job descriptions?
Mr Byrne: Yes.
Q108 Paul Rowen: I will move on, then. Can I go to your statement that you made when the Damian McBride incident arose, and I am quoting from the Sunday Times. "Liam Byrne, the Cabinet Office minister, was wheeled out to try to minimise the political backlash. He sought to play down the significance of the emails, pointing out that the proposed smears were not eventually published. The Red Rag website is still dormant", and then it quotes you directly: "'Even their very author decided that actually there was no place in public life or for public consumption for these emails; the right place for them was the bin'". Can I ask you why, when you had an opportunity to make a statement, you did not say that this was a clear breach of the Special Advisers' Code, and that that special adviser should be sacked?
Mr Byrne: First, because when I was talking to the media he had gone, quite rightly, and second, because I was even blunter, and indeed I could have said that this was a clear breach of the Special Advisers Code and he could have resigned, but actually the moment called for pretty blunt and straightforward language, which was that his conduct was completely unacceptable and that it was right that he went. I do not think anyone on the Committee would demur from that.
Q109 Paul Rowen: Taking this further, I would like to quote from something one of your parliamentary colleagues said the other day. In the Daily Telegraph on 4 May, Charles Clark said: "Damian McBride was not a lone gun in the politics of No 10. He was part of a poisonous team. The matter won't be laid to rest until all links with Derek Draper and Charlie Whelan are severed and those ministers who worked very closely with them are removed from their positions". Is that an accurate reflection of the position at No 10?
Mr Byrne: No, it is not, and I think that is what Sir Gus' letter which I have just circulated to the Committee helps make clear.
Q110 Paul Rowen: Going back to the earlier discussion about Matt Cavanagh, he is still there --
Mr Byrne: Yes.
Q111 Paul Rowen: -- in breach of the revised Special Advisers' Code, because it now very clearly says: "Any special adviser ever found to be disseminating inappropriate material will automatically be dismissed". Why has he not been automatically dismissed?
Mr Byrne: Well, in order to answer that I would need to familiarise myself with the background to the statistics that you discussed earlier and, indeed, the email which the Chairman talked about.
Q112 Paul Rowen: But there is clear evidence, from what we have had from the statistics, from the trail of emails, from the senior civil servant in charge, that that was inappropriate material and should not have been released, and there are no 'ifs, buts or maybes' now in this Code; it says they will be dismissed. So are you going to be able to say to us you are going to come back to us to say why he has not been dismissed, because in the list of appointments we have for today's session he is still on the list?
Mr Byrne: Yes. I would need to familiarise myself with the email exchange you have talked about in order to answer that comprehensively. I have not got that in front of me so I do not want to give you a glib answer.
Q113 Paul Rowen: Why is it that ministers, as has been said earlier on, are very happy to have special advisers, and I accept the majority of them do, where the right jobs are paid for for the attack dog stuff, but when it all goes pear-shaped it is "Parliamentary responsibility", and "Nothing to do with me, Guv". The Code is very clear.
Mr Byrne: Absolutely, but ---
Q114 Paul Rowen: So if one of your advisers, and we do not know what they do so I am presuming you will let us know, but if one of your advisers engages in that sort of inappropriate activity, have we a commitment from you that they will be dismissed?
Mr Byrne: Of course, and you have a commitment from me, as you would get from any minister, that they would seek to make themselves accountable to the House for that.
Q115 Paul Rowen: But that is not the case. In this case that adviser is still there.
Mr Byrne: That is a different question from whether the minister has accountability to the House, but I have promised you an answer that is not glib so let me study the email traffic that I know the Committee has studied in-depth.
Q116 Chairman: Do you know who drafted the new section of the Special Advisers' Code after the McBride case?
Mr Byrne: No, but I am sure that I can find out for you.
Q117 Chairman: Thank you. And do you know what it means? Do you know what "disseminating inappropriate material which will give occasion to dismissal" means? What does "disseminating inappropriate material" mean?
Mr Byrne: Well, I would interpret it as meaning sending things to others in the way that we saw in Damian McBride's case.
Q118 Chairman: Only something like the McBride case, would it be?
Mr Byrne: Well, that instance was about people sending emails to others, but I think there is a spirit to the Code as well as words. Do you think there is an ambiguity?
Q119 Chairman: I am just asking what it means. If I am a special adviser and I know I am going to be automatically dismissed if I do certain things, I want to know what are those things I cannot do. For example, is briefing against colleagues disseminating inappropriate material?
Mr Byrne: If there is an untruth, and if it is inappropriate, and if it is corrosive to Cabinet government, then yes.
Q120 Chairman: Well, it is surely corrosive anyway, is it not, to brief against colleagues?
Mr Byrne: Yes.
Q121 Chairman: But we know it goes on, do we not?
Mr Byrne: I do not.
Q122 Chairman: You are the only person who seems innocent of this fact.
Mr Byrne: Well, maybe I live in the circles that Gordon Prentice does!
Q123 Chairman: I am talking in a generic way. We have just been hearing how this kind of thing is the stuff of politics.
Mr Byrne: I can only comment on what has entered my own personal world, and that has not entered my own personal world. Maybe I should get out more - together with Gordon!
Q124 Chairman: Well, someone needs to give some attention to what this phrase about "disseminating appropriate material" means.
Mr Byrne: Well, if the Committee has advice on how the Special Advisers' Code can be strengthened still further, then please give it.
Q125 Chairman: Would it not have been better just to say that any special advisers found to be in breach of the terms of the Special Advisers' Code will be instantly dismissed?
Mr Byrne: I would be happy to entertain that suggestion, and let's not fall into the trap of believing that it is only that sentence that you have read out which constitutes the entirety of the Code. It is a pretty comprehensive document.
Q126 Chairman: But it is the only bit that talks about sanction and discipline. The rest of it is exhortation. The question is what happens when, in Peter Riddell's phrase, someone goes wrong? What is the sanction that kicks in? Now, this is the first time you have had any kind of sanction and that is why I am asking what it means. I am saying to you, why not just say: "If a special adviser breaches the terms of the Special Advisers' Code, they are out". Would that not be simpler?
Mr Byrne: Yes, but, as I say, if the Committee has suggestions like that then we should consider them and come back to you. It sounds a good suggestion to me.
Q127 Chairman: I am trying to be helpful.
Mr Byrne: I think it is very helpful.
Q128 David Heyes: I have a question on process, really. The Gus O'Donnell letter, which you tabled earlier, you tabled as you began to speak. Why did you do that?
Mr Byrne: Simply because I planned to - well, I did not want to read all of it out.
Q129 David Heyes: My point is you must have had the letter when you arrived here at . It would have been quite easy to pass that to one of the staff and we could have had the benefit of some time to read it during the earlier evidence. It is an old bureaucrat's trick to start to speak and then table the paper after the event, and it helps to prevent difficult questions. Was this a management consultant bureaucrat trick?
Mr Byrne: It was not meant to be; it was meant to be helpful. I did not have to bring it at all, Mr Heyes.
Q130 David Heyes: I will make the point simpler for future reference because it feels to me a little disrespectful to the Committee to table the letter dated 21 April ---
Mr Byrne: I shall remember not to bring letters with me next time. Maybe that will help your deliberations.
Q131 Chairman: Well, you can bring appropriate material with you. We have had an interesting session.
Mr Byrne: We have. I have followed it closely.
Q132 Chairman: It has got the juices going, and I think we may write to you with some suggestions, having had the general session this morning with you and with the previous witnesses too, because it is clear that there are issues here that we could usefully give some thought to again so we do not just have to wait for the next incident to happen before we get interested in special advisers again. So, thank you for coming and talking to us.
Mr Byrne: A pleasure. I do think it is a constant job. Since 1997 there has been a transformation in the way that we govern special advisers, and I do not think we should allow ourselves to fall into the trap of assuming that in any way that work should suddenly stop.
Q133 Chairman: Thank you very much.
Mr Byrne: Thank you.