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Last Updated: Monday, 5 January, 2004, 14:16 GMT
Spin doctor role under spotlight
Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell was Mr Blair's spin doctor
Plans to limit spin doctors' powers and protect civil service neutrality have been set out by a committee of MPs. The Commons public administration select committee wants a law to spell out the relative powers of ministers, special advisers and civil servants.

The move comes in the wake of the Jo Moore affair, in which the ex-special adviser suggested 11 September 2001 would be "a good day to bury bad news".

Almost all special advisers would have no spending or management power.

'Overdue' measure

The bill proposed by the committee would enshrine the neutrality of the civil service in law for the first time.

The MPs want Parliament to have a say on the numbers of special advisers in place.

Special advisers, unlike traditionally politically impartial civil servants, are generally supportive of the political party in power.

The measures would also make it clear in law that only two Downing Street advisers would be able to give orders to civil servants or have any spending powers.

It would give more powers to the civil service commissioners to keep an eye on things like the number of special advisers that have dogged political argument for years now
Tony Wright
Public administration select committee

It would set up a Civil Service Commission watchdog body to oversee and monitor the appointment of civil servants.

Recruitment would be opened up to people born outside the UK and a civil service code of conduct would be published.

The committee says the legislation is 150 years overdue, especially in an era of "rapid, fundamental and often controversial change".

Key principles

Labour MP Tony Wright, chairman of the committee, called for action from the government, which has promised to respond with its own draft bill once the committee's proposal is published.

"There are key relationships at the centre of government between ministers, civil servants and now special advisers," Dr Wright told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We think it is very important to get those boundary lines properly identified and to get the codes that govern them written down in statute and approved by Parliament.

"It doesn't stop the government doing what it wants to do, but it says 'you have got to get parliamentary approval for doing it'."

The legislation would highlight what should happen when people thought the boundaries had been crossed, he said.

"It would give more powers to the civil service commissioners to go off and keep an eye on the civil service and on specific things like the number of special advisers that have dogged political argument for years now.

"It would anchor the civil service in Parliament and that would be a major constitutional innovation."

Rights protected

Dr Wright said he hoped the draft bill would receive cross-party support.

The committee says there has been "great concern" about the "apparent wide-reaching powers of special advisers" giving instructions to civil servants raising claims of the "politicisation" of the civil service.

It complains that "despite regular promises", the government has not yet "found the time even to consult on civil service legislation".

Jonathan Baume, head of the First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants, said the civil service was now undergoing the most rapid changes of its history, he said.

"In a period of change, it is important that everyone agrees and consolidates the values and ethics which underpin the civil service," he told BBC Radio 4's World At One.

No more gentlemen?

The proposal was backed too by Martin Sixsmith, the civil servant who resigned after disputes with Ms Moore.

Mr Sixsmith said until now a gentlemen's agreement had guarded the civil service's integrity.

"We have seen recently that there are very few gentlemen left in government so I think this code enshrining values of the civil service is absolutely vital," he said.

The changes would give civil servants a proper chance to complain if they were asked to do anything improper, added Mr Sixsmith.

Sir Nigel Wicks, chairman of the committee on standards in public life, urged ministers to legislate on the issue during this session of Parliament.

But ex-special adviser David Clark argued the debate had become "rather hysterical" and was distracting from the "real problem" of power being centralised.

And former cabinet secretary Lord Armstrong said: "The principles are clearly established and the civil servants, and indeed ministers and other people, know perfectly well what those principles are.

"I doubt we need to give it statutory force."

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