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

1 Introduction

1.  Our predecessor Committee reported in 2001 that "the use of special advisers is not new", noting that "ministers and Prime Ministers, certainly as far back as Lloyd George" had appointed as confidants "people who shared and understood ministerial preoccupations and had political skills and contacts that civil servants lacked. Such people may either bring up-to-date specialist knowledge beyond that available in-house or help the Minister to stay in touch with the world beyond Whitehall (or both)".[1]

2.  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".[2] It should be obvious that they should be people with suitable political experience, as well as a track record of competence in matters of policy, in order that they should be able to make a full contribution to the work of their department. A special adviser should not be merely a political "bag carrier", nor the political amanuensis of their Minister.

3.  While Number 10 has the final say on the appointment of special advisers, and only the centre can ensure that special advisers get all the career development moves which they need, 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.

4.  As the former Minister, the Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP explained:

Your special adviser is the one person who you personally appoint and with whom there is a closer working relationship than civil servants. But it is precisely because of their closeness to the Minister that they are authoritative and influential, and therefore it is right that there should be particular focus on ensuring that that authority and influence is exercised reasonably and in the public interest.[3]

5.  We heard from Michael Jacobs, a former special adviser to the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP when he was Prime Minister, that "the media places over special advisers a vague air of distaste or impropriety".[4] In his speech to the Civil Service Live Conference in July 2010, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, appeared to reflect that statement:

Too often in recent years the Service has been marginalised, either through the spread of special advisers or the over-use of expensive consultants.[5]

6.  The Coalition Agreement included a pledge to "put a limit on the number of special advisers" and, shortly after taking office, the Government amended the Ministerial Code to impose a general limit of two paid special advisers per Cabinet Minister (although ministers with additional responsibilities were entitled to seek permission to appoint additional advisers).[6] The Government also amended the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers to emphasise that they "are appointed to serve the Government as a whole, not just their appointing Minister".[7] Special advisers are also now required to disclose details of the gifts and hospitality they receive, and to seek the advice of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before taking up any other roles.[8]

7.  An effective relationship between special advisers, ministers and civil servants is predicated on trust: special advisers occupy influential positions and have the potential to destabilise the relationship between ministers and their officials by competing with officials for the Minister's attention. Against best advice, successive administrations have brought in certain special advisers of questionable character and reliability, whose track records raise obvious questions about their honesty and integrity. This has resulted in acute embarrassment for those who appointed them and has brought the political system into disrepute. It has also been disastrous for the individuals concerned. Despite changes intended to strengthen regulations and improve the transparency of special advisers' roles, over the term of the current Parliament, concerns have been raised about the propriety and actions of both formal and informal special advisers to the Secretaries of State for Defence, Education, Energy and Climate Change, and Culture, Olympics, Media, and Sport, and the Prime Minister.

8.  We wanted to explore whether the circumstances of coalition government required something different of special advisers, and whether the existing codes of conduct and other management frameworks were sufficient to contend with these new circumstances. We resolved to inquire into special advisers in October 2011, and we published our call for evidence on 26 February 2012. We received thirteen written submissions, and took oral evidence from eight witnesses in two sessions during June 2012. We are very grateful to all those who have contributed to our inquiry.

1   Public Administration Select Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2000-2001, Special Advisers: Boon or Bane?, HC 293, para 3  Back

2   Fulton Committee, The Civil Service, Cmnd 3638, para 129 Back

3   Ev 52 Back

4   Q 46 Back

5   Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, speech to Civil Service Live, 6 July 2010, Cabinet Office website (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/Francis-Maude-speech-to-the-civil-service) Back

6   The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, May 2010, page 27; Cabinet Office, Ministerial Code, May 2010,para 3.2 Back

7   Cabinet Office, Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, June 2010,para 2 Back

8   Ibid.paras 5 and 24 Back

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Prepared 14 October 2012