Call for inquiry into Dominic Cummings’s centralisation of special advisers

Letter to PACAC comes as PM’s senior adviser hints at “hard rain coming” for civil service
Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

By Richard Johnstone

25 Jun 2020

The head of the FDA union has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the role of special advisers to examine the increasing centralisation of the appointment of ministerial aides by the prime minister’s top spad Dominic Cummings.

In a letter to the Public Administration and Cuonsititonal Affairs select committee chair William Wragg, Dave Penman said the increasing role of No.10 in the appointment and oversight of spads, who are temporary civil servants, was creating “a series of constitutional contradictions” that should be reviewed by the committee.

In his letter, first reported by the Guardian, Penman said special adviser contracts were changed in September to explicitly mention that responsibility for their conduct and discipline would be jointly held between the appointing minister and prime minister’s chief of staff.

“At the time, we raised concern over whether this arrangement was either welcome or constitutionally appropriate, given that the prime minister’s chief of staff is himself a special adviser,” he said.

Following last December’s election, Penman said it has become apparent that special advisers are being treated as a central resource, deployed between different ministers, with officials relocated in the reshuffle in February – a process that led to Sajid Javid’s resignation as chancellor.

“This resulted in some special advisers being left without posts, and concern that the process for determining who stayed, moved or left not only lacked transparency, but was being used to exert control and dilute the relationship between minister and adviser,” Penman wrote.

“Our concern is that… we have a cadre of special advisers with little security of employment and who are being directly managed by No.10 through the PM’s chief of staff. Even without the concern over how this power over employment is being deployed, it is clear that there is a deliberate approach from No.10 to fundamentally change the nature of the role.

"If special advisers are no longer appointed to serve a single minister, then how can the accountability and responsibility outlined in the ministerial code be enforced? If a minister is allocated a special adviser from a pool, they have not appointed them as envisaged under section 15 of the Constitution, Reform and Governance Act 2010. Indeed the current model could potentially result in only the Prime Minister being constitutionally and legally responsible for their employment and conduct.”

Penman warned earlier this year that Downing Street was using the appointment of special advisers as a way to circumvent civil service recruitment rules when it launched a website, spadjobs.uk, to coordinate special adviser recruitment.

“Special advisers are temporary civil servants, exempt from the statutory requirement of open and fair selection because they are essentially personal advisers to individual ministers. This simply confirms No.10 is abusing this exemption to try to get around civil service impartiality rules,” Penman said earlier this year.

In his letter to Wragg, Penman added that while “it may well be within the gift of the prime minister to make these fundamental changes”, they should be done with “appropriate scrutiny and transparency”.

He said: “Whilst there are concerns around how the power over appointment is being used and the impact on individuals, there are also fundamental concerns on whether this centralised approach makes for effective government. Control – whether that is over individuals, ministers or the machinery of government – comes with responsibility. That responsibility is not only about how power is exercised in relation to individuals, but also whether it is in the broader interests of effective and transparent government.”

A PACAC spokesperson said MPs were considering whether to hold an evidence session or launch a full inquiry in light of a backlog of inquiries because of Covid-19, the Guardian reported.

“It will remain something the committee will be looking at closely but it remains to be seen if it will be [examined by an] individual evidence session or a full inquiry,” he said.

The call comes amid reports that Cummings told special advisers this week that “a hard rain is coming” for Whitehall following the coronavirus outbreak.

In a Zoom meeting, Cummings said that the aim of his long-mooted reforms to government would be to make “the centre of government smaller, empower departments and change civil service fundamentals to improve performance”

According to the ConservativeHome website, Cummings signalled big changes coming to how No.10 and the Cabinet Office work, with “a smaller, more focused and more elite centre” being required.

He told advisers: "Anybody who has read what I've said about management over the years will know it's ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall's problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation. It's already far too big, incoherent and adds to the problems with departments.”

He said the coronavirus response had underlined problems in the structures and many officials now accepted the need for radical change, before concluding with the message: "A hard rain is coming."

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