In a report released today, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) considers the role of the independent adviser on Ministers' interests and concludes that role is not "independent in any meaningful sense"
The report highlights the lack of independence in three areas
- The role: the independent adviser lacks independence in practice, as he is appointed personally by the Prime Minister, is supported from within the Cabinet Office, and cannot instigate his own investigations
- The appointment process: the closed process by which the adviser is appointed is not suitable for an 'independent' role
- The choice of candidate: the choice of a recently retired senior civil servant is not a suitable choice for a role which requires demonstrable independence from Government.
The adviser on Ministers' interests advises Ministers on compliance with the Ministerial Code and carries out investigations of alleged breaches of the Code when requested by the Prime Minister. PASC considered the remit and powers of the role in the light of the recent resignation of the former Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox. The Committee expresses their "regret that [the then independent adviser] Sir Philip Mawer was not consulted in the course of the events leading up to the resignation of Liam Fox" and cautions that the decision suggested an unwillingness to refer difficult cases to the adviser.
PASC suggests that the retirement of Sir Philip as independent adviser shortly after the resignation of Dr Fox should have "provided the Prime Minister with a timely opportunity to demonstrate the value he places on having complaints against Ministers investigated in a demonstrably independent way". This opportunity was missed and a recently retired former senior civil servant, Sir Alex Allan, was appointed through a closed recruitment process, which only became public knowledge after the event.
PASC concludes that "at present, the title of 'independent adviser' is a misnomer", adding "we do not in any way question Sir Alex's integrity, ability or commitment, but neither he nor the role to which he has been appointed is independent of Government in any meaningful sense."
Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of PASC said:
"Public confidence in the enforcement of the Ministerial Code relies on the adviser on Ministers' interests demonstrating independence from government. In practice, however, the role cannot be deemed independent. We are therefore recommending strengthening the powers of the adviser and opening up the recruitment process for the post. Without these changes the role must be renamed to remove the word 'independent' from the title, reflecting the nature of the role as an adviser to the Prime Minister."