Special advisers in the thick of it - Public Administration Committee Contents


The Fulton Committee of 1966, set up by Harold Wilson to review the Civil Service, said that special advisers should be "men and women of standing and experience". Special advisers have a legitimate and valuable function in Government, protecting the impartiality of the Civil Service by performing tasks which it would be inappropriate for permanent, impartial officials to perform, and helping to ensure that the Government's policy objectives are delivered. In particular, they are better placed than permanent civil servants to liaise with Members and party officials, and to offer advice to their Minister on political handling. The lines of accountability remain clear in the Ministerial Code: ministers are responsible for the management and conduct of their special advisers, who act in their name; but experience suggests that this responsibility is more theoretical than actual.

Rather than placing artificial limits on the number of special advisers, the crucial question is whether the case can be made for the payment of each individual from the public purse, based on whether the Minister can justify that the tasks the special adviser is engaged to undertake are in the public interest; the need for those tasks to be undertaken by a personal appointee rather than a permanent civil servant; and the person's qualifications and ability to undertake them.

The position of special advisers is a sensitive one: they occupy influential positions within Whitehall and have the potential to destabilise the relationship between ministers and officials. For special advisers to be effective, rather than potentially disruptive, ministers, special advisers and officials need to foster a high level of trust in their working relationships. For such a relationship of trust to work, it is essential that there is clarity of expectations about tasks and boundaries. In particular, it is axiomatic that ministers or officials acting in a quasi-judicial capacity are expected to act impartially and apolitically. It should be made explicit that special advisers, who are by definition not expected to act impartially, should play no part in such processes.

The close relationship between special advisers and their ministers also means that ministers must have the right to insist on their own choice of adviser: while the centre of Government has a role in ensuring that all special advisers are supported in their work and career development, ministers have the right to insist on particular individuals that they consider appropriate, and Number 10 would show little confidence in a Minister if he or she were forced to accept a particular adviser.

Despite concerns raised by our predecessor Committee more than ten years ago, the induction and support for new special advisers remains inadequate. We recommend that the Government ensure that all special advisers receive induction training covering the structure and work of the relevant department; the scope and meaning of the various codes of conduct to which special advisers are subject; the implications of their status as temporary civil servants; the nature of their accountability to ministers (and ministers' accountability to Parliament); the role of permanent secretaries; and where to seek advice and support on propriety issues.

We recommend that information about ministers' special advisers should appear on departmental websites, including advisers' names and a description of the policy areas in which they work and the types of tasks they undertake, alongside the equivalent information about ministerial portfolios and the responsibilities of members of the Departmental Management Board. We also recommend that ministers notify the relevant departmental select committee whom they have appointed as a new special adviser, setting out that individual's responsibilities and their qualifications for the role, including why they believe him or her to be of suitable "standing and experience". This would make it much easier to tell if a special adviser were acting outside his or her agreed role, and would help Parliament to hold ministers to account for the work of their special advisers.

The Ministerial Code is clear that ministers are "responsible", not simply "accountable", for their special advisers' management and conduct. This responsibility is the price of having a special adviser. Ministers who wish to have special advisers must therefore exercise this responsibility actively, ensuring that they are fully aware of what their advisers are doing in their name. We also reiterate our recommendation that the Prime Minister's Adviser on Ministers' Interests must be free to investigate any potential breaches of the Ministerial Code, including potential breaches of the Code relating to the conduct of a special adviser.

A constructive working relationship between ministers and their permanent secretaries should ensure that any potential problems with the performance or activities of special advisers are resolved at an early stage. We see no reason to impose further rules, or to change the role of permanent secretaries in ensuring that departmental business is conducted with propriety and in accordance with the relevant Codes of Practice and legislation. Permanent secretaries must be vigilant and proactive guardians of propriety within their departments, and must provide advice and support on matters of propriety to special advisers and ministers, particularly at the start of a new administration. Permanent secretaries are expected to offer advice in a timely manner, to avert any suggestion of impropriety or breach of the Codes of Conduct. In order to do so, permanent secretaries must ensure that they are fully aware of what departmental special advisers are doing in the name of their Minister and the department.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 14 October 2012