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
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
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
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.