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


108.  Special advisers are a fixture of British political life, and offer clear benefits to Government by increasing ministerial capacity, protecting Civil Service impartiality and offering perspectives and insights from outside the policy machine.

109.  Their position is, however, a sensitive one, heavily dependent on trust between themselves, their ministers and their permanent secretaries. Although they may often be relatively young and inexperienced, special advisers are appointed to senior roles and hold influential positions within the Whitehall structure. They should be people of "experience and standing" who have shown that they are also honest and trustworthy. As we have seen, as well as benefits, special advisers have the potential to cause significant harm if they are not chosen carefully and properly deployed and managed.

110.  For such a relationship of trust to work between special advisers, ministers and permanent secretaries, there must be clarity of expectations about tasks and boundaries. Trust is built and sustained when people know and understand the framework within which they have freedom to act, signalling to each person that he or she is trusted to obey the rules and to stay within the framework that limits his or her discretion.

111.  Increasing prescription and regulation would only risk undermining trust in the discretion of individuals to act freely without an established framework. It would also tend to generate an atmosphere of suspicion and micromanagement, rather than creative collaboration. As the Minister said, it should not normally be necessary to constantly monitor the way people do their jobs, and it should be possible to trust ministers and special advisers to understand and abide by the framework of codes and principles within which they operate.[108]

112.  We therefore do not recommend any changes to the existing status of special advisers, except to improve the clarity of expectations through greater transparency around their role, and to strengthen the accountability of ministers for choosing advisers who are demonstrably qualified for the tasks they are expected to perform. Recent events have demonstrated the need for permanent secretaries to remain vigilant of the conduct of special advisers and to be ready to advise ministers when to intervene. We believe that our recommendations, if implemented, would support special advisers, ministers and permanent secretaries in understanding and complying with the various Codes of Practice. In combination with the improved transparency and scrutiny that we propose, this should be sufficient to allay concerns over the activities of special advisers and help to restore public trust.

113.  Effective working relationships can only be achieved where there are high levels of trust and mutual respect, so that all are addressing the same challenges, sharing difficulties and concerns, and all are seeking the same positive outcomes. This is crucial for the effective leadership of Government. Mistrust between ministers, officials and advisers is a failure of leadership. It destroys openness, confidence and creativity, undermines mutual respect and divides leadership. In turn this fosters a climate of mistrust, lack of respect and low morale throughout the organisation they are seeking to lead. If such mistrust develops, ministers, permanent secretaries and advisers must work together to rebuild trust, though in the final analysis it is for the ministers responsible to determine whatever action is necessary to rebuild trust.

108   Qq 95-99 Back

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Prepared 14 October 2012