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The BBC's Nicholas Jones
"A House of Commons committee wants them to be controlled by a code of conduct"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 13 March, 2001, 16:30 GMT
Government advisers under fire
Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair
Alastair Campbell is one of Tony Blair's closest advisers
MPs have called for a review of the powers wielded by the government's special advisers, including the prime minister's official spokesman Alastair Campbell.

The Commons public administration committee warned advisers that they must not become political spin doctors.

In a report published on Tuesday, MPs also criticised the lack of transparency over how advisers work.


Since Labour came to power, there has been growing concern about the role of special advisers

Committee report
But Cabinet Office minister Lord Falconer says special advisers provide value for money and perform valuable tasks, citing Drugs Czar Keith Halliwell as an example.

Labour's use of special advisers has come under fire in recent years, not least because the money spent on them has quadrupled since 1991.

The report strongly criticised Prime Minister Tony Blair and his chief of staff Jonathan Powell for refusing to appear before the committee to give evidence on the role of advisers in government.

"This has made our work more difficult and less complete than it should have been," the report said.

Lord Falconer
Lord Falconer defended advisers
"In the case of Number 10 Downing Street, where the greatest number of advisers is to be found, the fact that the committee's invitation to both the prime minister and chief of staff have been declined make it especially difficult for us to form a view about the role of special advisers at the centre of government."

The report adds: "Since Labour came to power, there has been growing concern about the role of special advisers, most of whom are political appointees but are still paid for out of the public purse, and who often act as ministers' personal "spin doctors".

Lord Falconer told peers at Question Time that the 70-odd special advisers were a good "interface" between the civil service and ministers.

"Many special advisers work for a lower rate than they could get in the market," he said.

"They are making a contribution to good government."

'Whitewash'

One committee member broke ranks with his colleagues, describing the report as a "whitewash".

Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie said the Labour-dominated committee had refused to investigate alleged contraventions of the rules by special advisers, including Alastair Campbell's decision to "attack the Conservative Party in contravention of his own contract".

The report was "little more than a whitewash".

Mr Tyrie, who was a special adviser to the Tories before entering parliament, told BBC news: "What we've got now is a massive campaign team for the re-election of the Labour Party, paid for by the taxpayer."

Andrew Tyrie
Mr Tyrie is critical of Labour's special advisers
But committee chairman and Labour MP Tony Wright said the government had simply "developed" the well-established tradition of advisers.

Dr Wright said: "The civil service is a wonderful Rolls Royce machine, but ministers, who are fairly lonely creatures, need some help with map reading."

Responding to Mr Tyrie's attack, the Labour MP said the committee's investigations had discovered the Conservative party had "failed to guarantee the integrity of their spending" in using funds given by the state to opposition parties for their frontbench teams.

The Conservatives' own auditors had raised "serious queries" as to how this money had been spent, he said.

And he accused Mr Tyrie of a "systematic attempt inside the committee to stop us saying things that we had discovered".

Concerns

The committee said much of the criticism directed at special advisers - whose numbers have increased from 38 to 78 under Labour - was "misdirected", but it also expressed a number of concerns.

Jonathon Powell
Mr Powell was blocked from giving evidence

The MPs noted that Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson had already issued a reminder of the rules governing special advisers to Alastair Campbell, who has said that he will stand down and work full-time for the Labour Party once the election is called.

The committee said the government had brought much of the criticism about special advisers on itself with some departments like the Ministry of Defence refusing to release any information about them.

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See also:

13 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Spinning out of control
02 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Reprimand for PM spokesman
01 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Blair blocks Powell scrutiny
26 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Ministers agree to limit spin doctors
26 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Betty issues warning with farewell
04 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Blair 'must curb spin doctors'
14 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Limit spin doctors, committee insists
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