18 June 2012

Today’s  anniversary of the battle is unlikely to be the Waterloo for special advisers at Westminster.  The Commons  Public Administration Committee is to examine the Minister responsible for the Cabinet Office, and the Head of Propriety and Ethics in the Prime Minister’s Office on the responsibility and accountability of special advisers. The Minister may have an easier ride than his predecessor Liam Byrne when the Select Committee last considered special adviser issues in 2009. (The sparring between the then Minister and the Committee reported in 20 of the 45 pages of the Committee transcript reflect the tensions of officials having political functions.  The Committee repeatedly referred to the reptilian nature of special advisers, not helped by a series of integrity breaches at that time.)

Today, the Minister is likely to face criticism about the part played by Adam Smith, the special adviser whose actions in the name of the Culture Minister in the B Sky B furore, precipitated his resignation.  In what may be a preemptive measure the Culture Minister last week, when announcing a new special adviser, remarked that the Government will be…”at least as transparent about the work of special advisers as the Labour administration”.

The Committee remains dominated by Conservative members. Interestingly the only committee member who participated in the 2009 hearings (Paul Flynn – Labour) was then concerned about the gross hypocrisy of the media. The Leveson inquiry will have provided him with ammunition to renew that approach.

There are eleven written submissions being considered by the Committee (link below). Most don’t appear to shine much new light – that by a former special adviser to Gordon Brown being a notable exception.  Democratic Audit (a Rowntree funded NGO) comments that the distinction between the integrity obligations of special advisers and other civil servants is not justified. A common code would bring greater accountability – and would make the UK framework more like New Zealand’s.

41.It is also problematic that the Code of Conduct for special advisers exempts them from ‘the general requirement that civil servants should…behave with impartiality and objectivity’. (Cabinet Office, 2010b, p.3). Surely it is possible for a responsible individual to combine party political commitment with these qualities. An amendment to the Code of Conduct, removing or at least qualifying this exemption, is desirable. “  (Presumably the interpretation of impartiality would have to exclude political neutrality – which is central to the role and accountability debate!)

A submission by the Constitutional Unit at University College London includes some dated comparisons with Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  The Unit has a 15 month research project into special advisers underway (also funded by Rowntree).

A contemporaneous but unconnected opinion on A Dragon’s Best Friend blog reflects the experience of a former civil servant advocating greater training for special advisers.

The Lords Constitution Committee which has programmed a review of special advisers also, has not published progress yet.  It had requested submissions by 8 June.