Special advisers are scrutinised

MPs, civil servants and journalists have hit out at the power and freedom held by government special advisers, in the wake of the Damian McBride 'smeargate' scandal.

Special advisers: power in Whitehall
Special advisers: power in Whitehall

The Commons public administration select committee held a one-off inquiry into the role of special advisers last week. The inquiry was triggered by McBride’s emails proposing to smear top Tories.

Labour MP Gordon Prentice described the highly charged political environment in which McBride worked as a ‘cesspit’.

The MPs quizzed former Cabinet Office permanent secretary Sir Richard Mottram and Alastair Campbell’s former deputy Lance Price.

Mottram called for fundamental changes to the incentivised structure of employing special advisers.

He said: ‘The way special advisers are appointed for the duration of their own minister’s job incentivises the process where they become champions of their boss. They can be quite negative about other people in the Government.’

Mottram added that Government should be ‘very cautious’ about allowing special advisers to brief the media.

Price said problems with special advisers arose from there being a ‘fudge’ in the nature of their role, ‘a part-political and part-civil service job’.

The Times chief political commentator Peter Riddell was also questioned and said civil servants often did not have the confidence to challenge special advisers.

He said: ‘The centre of Government is dominated by special advisers. There are 24 in Downing Street. I don’t think we look at that enough. There’s a very significant influence.’

In a second session, Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne defended the usefulness of the special adviser code, the civil servant code and the ‘process of transparency’.

Byrne also denied any knowledge of advisers briefing against ministers,  despite Mottram’s suggestion that special advisers ‘spread poison in the media’.

Byrne – who faced being called a ‘management consultant’ by Tory MP Charles Walker in the meeting – insisted that there had been a transformation in the way the Government dealt with special advisers.

Select committee chair Tony Wright said he hoped McBride could help with their enquiries but added he had  disappeared without a trace’. McBride is rumoured to be temporarily residing in Ireland.

A report will be published following the meeting. It was reported last July that there are 73 special advisers in Government.

 

How I see it

Mike Granatt
Partner, Luther Pendragon

I worked with many special advisers who were a boon to their ministers, working in the background.

But the system relied on a gentlemanly understanding of the rules by ministers, and on robust civil service leadership to protect staff and standards. Sadly, both are now in short supply.

A ‘tough new code’ will be ignored just like the tough old code. It is time to ditch the shadowy arrangements and let transparency clean the system.

Let each cabinet minister employ a politically committed spokesperson who speaks on the record. And introduce mandatory sacking for any use of public resources for private or partisan campaigns.

 

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