New changes to the code of conduct for special advisers could be a "step back towards the days of Alastair Campbell", committee chair Bernard Jenkin has warned.
Special advisers – known as Spads – work in government departments as the personal appointees of ministers, giving them political, policy and presentational advice which goes beyond the remit of impartial civil servants.
Their behaviour is governed by a code of conduct, and the latest version of the code – published last week – tweaks the wording around special advisers' interactions with permanent civil servants.
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It says special advisers can now “convey to officials ministers’ views, instructions and priorities, including on issues of presentation”. The word “instructions” has been added since the 2010 version.
Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (Pacac), told Civil Service World that he believed the change had echoes of Tony Blair's decision to allow a small number of Spads – including director of communications Alastair Campbell – to give instructions to officials. That move was revoked by Gordon Brown in a symbolic first act as prime minister.
“The fact the code now says Spads can instruct officials on matters of presentation feels like a step back towards the days of Alastair Campbell under Tony Blair, when the entire government communication service was placed under Campbell’s control," he said.
"It alters the expectation of what Spads can demand of officials, setting up a new potential for conflict. There will be times when officials cannot carry out Spads' instructions, because, for example, they are being asked to communicate in a partisan way or to do something which conflicts with the civil service code."
He added: "It should always have been clear that the Spad is merely communicating the wishes of ministers to officials, and functioning relationships at this level work much better if they are based on understanding and mutual trust, rather than the ability to instruct, which does not require the building of any trust at all.
"I have no doubt that Pacac will ask ministers and the cabinet secretary how these new arrangements are working."
Jenkin questioned Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock on the changes to the code in the commons yesterday, asking him how the revisions would improve transparency.
Hancock replied: "The transparency of government information is absolutely aided by a combination of our open data but also the use of press officers and communication teams in order to explain to the public what's going on.
“Making sure that that happens in an orderly and organised way, subject to ministers' wishes, is a very important part of it running effectively."
The new code also makes clear that Spads must “not be involved in the line management of civil servants" – and reiterates that they must not have a say in any issues affecting a civil servant's career, including "recruitment, promotion, reward and discipline".
The new code for Spads – via Cabinet Office
"Orderly and organised"
Andy Westwood, a former special adviser to Labour’s John Denham said he believed the changes would likely clarify what was already “the norm” in departments.
“In practice, most civil servants will take direction and advice from Spads,” he told CSW. “It becomes problematic when Spads are too heavy-handed and some officials will want some protection from the code in these instances.
“They [civil servants] might see this as taking some of this away but I'd be more inclined to see such moments as out of the ordinary anyway.
“In most situations I've been in, civil servants will seek out advice and sometimes instruction from Spads especially if they think it's going to help them understand what the minister actually wants. For me that's also a sign of a good working relationship and one that is likely to be more effective in most cases.”
Nick Hillman, a former special adviser to Conservative business minister David Willetts, welcomed the clarification around line management responsibilities.
But he said the addition of the word “instructions” had the potential to be “sensible in theory” while “problematic in practice”.
“Spads do need sometimes to be able to say to officials ‘My Minister wants a, b and c’, so in some ways the change reflects existing reality. But the question is: do officials always know when an instruction has really come from the minister or when it is the Spad going off piste?
“It’s a tricky one, because I think the new words probably better reflect reality but they might also make it a little easier for Spads to go beyond their true powers.”
Professor Robert Hazell of the UCL Constitution Unit – which has published a series of training resources for special advisers – told CSW that "shrewd" Spads could already "convey instructions without directly appearing to do so".
“The new code enables them to give instructions without dressing them up as views," he said.
But he added: "There are two possible worries. One is that Spads may start to displace private secretaries. It is the private secretary who writes up a note of all ministerial meetings and conveys instructions to the departments. If Spads can do the same, there may be less need for the private secretary to be there as note taker and keeper of the record; the record may suffer as a result."
And Hazell said the change could give Spads "further encouragement to freelance" and convey instructions to officials that had not come directly from ministers.
"This has always been a risk,” he said. “It’s okay when the Spad knows the minister’s mind very well, has the minister’s trust, and can act as the minister’s alter ego. It’s not when Spads have their own agendas, go off on frolics of their own which the minister might not endorse."
The new code of conduct also provides clarity on what Spads can and cannot do in the run up to an election, following a dispute between Number 10 and the Home Office over the conduct of two advisers.
Nick Timothy and Stephen Parkinson – advisers to home secretary Theresa May – were struck off the Conservative party’s list of general election candidates last year because they refused to take part in telephone canvassing on behalf of the party during a by-election campaign.
The pair argued that canvassing went against the code of conduct for Spads – but the Cabinet Office advised them it was permitted, prompting Jenkin's committee to question cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood about the rules.
The revised code ditches the stipulation that Spads “must not take part in national political activities”, which the 2010 version (available below) said included “canvassing on behalf of a candidate for the institutions or on behalf of a political party”.
However, the updated guidance now makes it clear that special advisers can help their party with an election or by-election campaign so long as that does not happen during work time.
It states: “Where a special adviser wishes to undertake work for a political party which does not arise out of government business they may do this either in their own time, outside office hours, or under a separate contract with the party, working part-time for the government. They may not use annual or unpaid leave for this purpose.”
Unveiling the revised special advisers' code alongside a refreshed model contract for Spads, Cabinet Office minister Lord Bridges said the change “takes into account” the recommendations of Pacac.
“There is more to do to increase accountability and transparency in Whitehall, Westminster and the wider public sector,” he added.
“As we stated in the government’s election manifesto, we are the servant of the British people. Every pound spent must be scrutinised, and government must be run as efficiently and effectively as possible."
Below: The 2010 code for Spads - via Cabinet Office