PRESENTATION BY ANDREW TYRIE MP,
FORMER SPECIAL ADVISER TO NIGEL LAWSON
WHAT IS THE LEGITIMATE ROLE OF SPECIAL ADVISERS? HOW SHOULD THEY BE REGULATED?
The best special advisers are civil servants and it is up to Ministers to ask them the right questions. If they ask the right questions they will get the answers they need. Perhaps we don't have enough high quality ministers, which is why they need more advisers.
We have a really top flight civil service, uncorrupt and dedicated to their job. It is a powerful collective culture that is for the good of this country, as good as any country has - with the possible exception of Canada!
However, there are still things we could do better. If I wanted to pick out failings that I encountered these would be: the life-time career commitment of civil servants lead them to lack, or have inadequate contact and understanding of, other careers and walks of life, which is less and less true of almost all other professions. As an example I joined BP in 1981 and it was expected many would be there until retirement. Now if you look at BP, many of those in the senior and middle echelons have had a huge amount of interchange with other companies and careers. What is causing this problem of a lack of cross-fertilization? It is the lifetime career principal; it is pensions (why take a risk when one is locked into such a good deal); and it is pay (if you want to recruit from outside it might cost a lot to find someone of equal quality). There are ways of addressing these problems to secure greater exchange other than through secondment, which doesn't fully address the problem.
Part of the purpose of advisers is, or should be, to bring outside blood into the civil service and the main controversy over advisers is not with this function, but that, with them, has come the politicisation of the civil service. I think that there were already problems of politicisation before 1997. When Andrew Turnbull said that not much had changed with the doubling of numbers of advisers from 35 to 75, except in No. 10, I think he understated the extent to which there had already been a big shift between the time I was in Whitehall in the late 1980s and the mid 1990s. I was one of 16 advisers, but by the time John Major left government there were 38. That signified a big shift. We were already in the edge of what could be absorbed without changing the culture.
It is not just the numbers, but also the roles that advisers have come to perform. They are increasingly, and have been over recent years, been performing roles formerly performed by ministers. They make speeches, they represent the government abroad at meetings and they write articles in newspapers. None of these things were done by advisers in my day or earlier - with Keynes being an extraordinary and special exception.
They have also taken over part of the PR function, although that has been retrenched a bit following the debacle of Alastair Campbell. Through Orders in Council, they have acquired control over the careers, to some degree, of civil servants, which has caused enormous tension. I think it is fair to say that when the Prime Minister said that Campbell was doing an effective job at attacking the Conservative Party he was accurately describing Campbell's role - of course you might say that over the past week or two the Conservative Party has been doing a fairly good job of attacking itself! Certainly, Alastair Campbell devoted a great deal of energy to thinking of ways of attacking the Conservative Party. That was unacceptable in someone paid by the taxpayer.
In light of the changes I've described, I made a number of recommendations for reform to the Neill Committee in June 1999. I made 3 main proposals. Firstly, that there should be a code of conduct for special advisers, and that it should be given a detail and teeth. That has been largely done, although there is still scope for improvement, but that is in the nature of things, particularly British things which naturally evolve and improve.
Secondly, I said that that needed to entrench the Code in a civil service act. This was already a well debated issue and one that Tony Wright and his Committee are working on. Without the act it would be very difficult to make special advisers and civil servants directly accountable to Parliament. I pointed out that the special adviser's contract is with the Department, but any disciplinary function flows through the minister to the Prime Minister. It seemed logical to me that if there was a clear breach of contract the Permanent Secretary should be given the responsibility for enforcing the contract.
The third major proposal I made, which was rejected out of hand by the Neill Committee, but which reappears in the Wicks proposals, is that special advisers who are perceived to be doing a high degree of party political work should be paid from party funds. They could continue to play a party political role within Whitehall, but they would not be advisers paid for by the taxpayer. I think that recommendation hinged crucially on the creation and enforcement of a powerful code of conduct to delineate and police the frontier, and I think we are on the road to that. Indeed we are on the road to most of the proposals I and others have made.
I largely agree with Nigel Wicks' proposals for reform, although I do side on balance with Andrew Turnbull on Nigel's proposal that special advisers should be given a special and unique category. It seems to me that it is of the essence of an adviser to be part of a team, to acquire a sense of collegiality with the civil servants around them. It is a two-way thing and that relationship with the key civil servants, particularly the private secretaries, could be corroded if it were seen that the adviser was somehow this very special and ring fenced breed, a unique creature. So I am not convinced by that particular Wicks proposal, but I am convinced by most of the rest.
What's left to do? Although there were serious problems in 1997, which were inflaming something that was already wrong, I think we are on the road to getting things right. One of my favourite quotes is Judge Brandis "sunshine is the best disinfectant". We need more transparency. We will only get transparency in what advisers do when we have a civil service act. It is only through such an act that Parliament will be able to obtain the power to get advisers before them, to demand that senior civil servants come before them, to make the civil service ultimately accountable in some more direct way to Parliament. That we can get a much higher level of information about what goes on in the relationship between special advisers and ministers than we have at the moment. Of course the purpose of a civil service act goes much, much wider than that, but in respect of this issue that is a role it can play.
Let me give an example. I've been trying to find out, by tabling parliamentary questions, how many speeches special advisers have given in public. I get the standard reply which is 'the performance of special advisers is in accordance with the special adviser code of conduct". I don't get a real answer - I still don't know. If I want to know where a minister made and speech and what was said in public I can obtain this through a parliamentary question, but I can't obtain it for a special adviser who, I believe, is performing the role of a minister by so doing.
I also think it is important that we get a clearer role of the extent to which special advisers are taking part in government decisions to the point that they are actually taking the decisions rather than being merely advisers. The informal chat behind the scenes is that they take far more decisions, particularly advisers in No. 10, than has ever been the case before, certainly in peace time. I think that also needs more exposure and that can only be done by select committees, such as Public Administration, calling advisers before them and quizzing them. This will be easier to perform with a civil service act than without it.
But I would like to end with one more task which is left to do, and I know it is something Nigel will be looking at, which is to look in a broader sense at the relationship between money and politics.
Why is it that ministers want special advisers? One of the reasons is that they are afraid of civil servants, these terribly clever boffins, when they come in and they're not quite sure how to handle them and it's nice to have an intermediary. But another reason is, they gather after a while, that they can be of use in a more direct party political sense, particularly in the preparation of elections.
The plain fact is that a large cohort of special advisers can confer electoral advantage for the governing party. I think that there was an element of that in the early 1990s. I remember a very senior civil servant complaining to me about the extent to which Sarah Hogg was performing, what he considered to be, a party political role - I never took this up with her, so I am not making an allegation, just reporting what I heard - in effect highly party political work paid for by the taxpayer doing preparations for the election. And I have civil servants coming to me today saying the same or worse about work going on No. 10 and No. 11 for this Government. I think we need to look carefully at the extent to which we are extending state funding of parties through the back door. As it happens I am in favour of state funding of political parties, but I think the way to do it is to map out a coherent strategy for an increase in it, not to allow it to develop through the back door as I think is taking place at the moment.
So my conclusion is that things aren't that bad. There is room for improvement, but things could be a lot worse. We have a first rate civil service, we should not allow ourselves to be dragged into believing there is something seriously amiss with it, or that it has come under such severe attack that it is fundamentally damaged. It is a great civil service, let it continue to evolve and we will all benefit from it in this country.