Opinion: News Analysis - Making the public, not the party, the priority/A new code of conduct for special advisers may be on the cards in the wake of accusations of politicisation and manipulation of government staff

They are a much maligned breed, accused in some quarters of the creeping politicisation of the civil service, undermining the work of the Government Information and Communication Service, and earning salaries from the public purse when their allegiance may be seen to be to the Labour Party.

They are a much maligned breed, accused in some quarters of the

creeping politicisation of the civil service, undermining the work of

the Government Information and Communication Service, and earning

salaries from the public purse when their allegiance may be seen to be

to the Labour Party.



Ministerial special advisers are in the news again following the

publication of the Neill committee’s latest report into standards in

public life.



Lord Neill, having heard evidence from politicians and academics, has

recommended a new code of conduct for special advisers.



Anthony King, Essex University professor of government and Daily

Telegraph contributor, urged on Neill a new regulatory regime for

advisers because the existing civil service code and the model contract

for special advisers published in 1997 were failing. He suggested this

should not just cover ’their strictly contractual conditions of service,

but also their conduct’.



This view is supported by several former special advisers. The regular

afternoons in Westminster’s Red Lion pub - where Gordon Brown’s former

special adviser, Charlie Whelan, would distribute interesting snippets

of gossip or dismiss stories - may now be a thing of the past, but the

special adviser network is still far from what John Newbigin, Channel

4’s head of corporate relations and a special adviser to Culture

Secretary Chris Smith until last month, thinks is ideal. Newbigin

believes that ’some special advisers wrongly interpret their role as

that of the minister’s personal press agent’. A code which clarifies

their position as a high-speed method of contact between departments, is

to be welcomed, he says.



Problems can arise when there is a conflict between the objectives of

advisers and those of officials. In theory, there are only two people in

the adviser community who can instruct civil servants to do things, the

Prime Minister’s press secretary Alastair Campbell, and chief of staff

Jonathan Powell. But one Whitehall source and former special adviser,

says the problem advisers have of ’getting things done’ can be

circumvented by advising a minister - whose instructions civil servants

do follow - to instruct the civil servants to do what the special

adviser wants.



To many, such as Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret

Thatcher, this is unacceptable. In articulating his anger that special

advisers jeopardise civil service impartiality, Ingham points to the

exodus of senior government information staff since Labour came to

power. In two and a half years, there have been 18 personnel changes at

head of information level, affecting 16 of the 17 posts.



One of the first to go was Steve Reardon, a career civil servant and

information head at the Department of Social Security who was dismissed

just three months into the new Labour administration and who now heads

communications for the Institute of Directors.



Reardon shares the anxiety some commentators have expressed about

special advisers, who can only lose their posts as a result of being

fired by their ministers or adverse election results. In Reardon’s 30

years in the civil service, special advisers had, he argues, always

understood exactly where the lines were drawn. Their presence as close

confidants to ministers was widely considered useful. Backing a new code

of conduct, Reardon says that ’after the 1997 election they hadn’t the

faintest idea that there were rules to be observed and set about

redrawing the whole thing to their own satisfaction’.



Given that Ingham is a vocal supporter of deposed GICS staff, the need

for a dedicated special advisers’ code of conduct, to eliminate any

behavioural excesses, might be thought to be one of his bugbears. And

yet he is as damning about the proposal as he is about the entire Neill

report. There is already a code of conduct for civil servants, and since

special advisers have the status of temporary civil servants, the only

problem, Ingham maintains, is that it is not observed.



By recommending a different code, Neill concedes that special advisers

are in a different category. Ingham argues that if they are working for

the Government they should abide by the civil service code, but if their

first loyalties are to the minister and his or her party, they should be

paid by that party. However, Neill rejected the concept of party payment

on the grounds that ministers have a right to regular good advice from

impartial advisers whom they trust.



Ben Wegg-Prosser, former special adviser to Peter Mandelson at the

Department of Trade and Industry, agrees with Ingham on the need to

properly implement the civil service code, albeit for different reasons,

is He feels the existing code, along with the model contract, should

provide a guarantee of good practice. Wegg-Prosser however, perhaps

disingenuously, suggests that good civil servants and good special

advisers know what they can and cannot do. ’To the best of my knowledge

they don’t cross those parameters,’ he says.



The model contract states that advisers are appointed ’to advise the

minister in the development of policy and its effective

presentation’.



The fact it makes reference to the presentation side of an adviser’s

role - in practice, often one adviser will focus on presentation, the

other on policy - means there should be no grounds for ambiguity on

sensitive matters such as briefing the press. Appropriately, however,

the whispered briefing about the difficulties of implementing such a

code, began almost immediately.



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