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John Pienaar reports for BBC News
"It's time to change the system"
 real 28k

Lord Neill
"The system is essentially sound"
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Dr Mo Mowlam, Cabinet Office Minister
"These are important changes that can only enhance public standards"
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The BBC's John Kampfner reports
Special advisers provoke a mixed response
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Wednesday, 12 January, 2000, 12:00 GMT
Spin doctors face greater controls

downing street New rules: PM is called on to draw up new code

The independent Committee on Standards in Public Life has called for tougher rules to govern the growth of unaccountable political advisers and spin doctors in Whitehall.

Delivering its sixth report into standards, the Neill Committee said that while the public believed that conduct in public life had improved, concern had shifted to the workings of government.

The committee called for Parliament to set a limit to the number of political appointees that a government would be allowed to bring into departments to work alongside impartial civil servants.

These special advisers, paid for by the tax payer, would also be subject to a beefed-up code of conduct clarifying the nature of the role that they play in relation to the civil service and departmental heads of information.

The recommendations come after growing criticism from the opposition and other groups that Labour Party-appointed figures are overstepping the mark and could lead to a politicisation of the civil service.

The committee also recommended:
  • A criminal law of bribery to deal with corrupt MPs.
  • A quasi-legalistic tribunal to deal with major allegations against MPs
  • Proper recording of ministerial meetings with lobbyists
  • The publication of parliamentary party information on the internet.

Revealing the report, committee chairman Lord Neill said: "We believe that the evidence is that on the whole people think that standards have improved.

"But there is no room for complacency and there is room for amendments to the law."

neill Lord Neill: "Fair trials" for MPs

Lord Neill said that the committee had taken a mass of evidence on the role of politically-appointed advisors but that the evidence "had all been one way".

"There is great advantage from the special adviser system," he said.

"But the numbers have been burgeoning. There should now be consideration given to introducing an overall number.

"We are not in the business of telling government how to govern.

"If it believes that the use of advisers and taskforces is an efficient form of government, that is a matter for ministers.

"You do get to a point where standards issues do arise.

"Parliament should be allowed to consider this issue because at the moment there is no way that someone in Parliament can take a look at it."

Lord Neill said that it had sought evidence specifically on allegations of a politicisation, looking at historical and current claims.

"There are those appointed to government because they are genuine experts in a field or those appointed for their political work," he said.

blair Tony Blair: Explosion in political advisers

"But we have not come out with any conclusion that the civil service is being politicised."

Turning to the conduct of MPs, Lord Neill said that alleged breeches of standards could be best dealt with by a special tribunal, chaired by a legal figure from outside of parliament.

This would allow senior MPs sitting with the chair to take expert legal advice in order to deal more effectively with errant MPs.

Lord Neill stressed that the new law of bribery, first proposed 24 years ago, would allow criminal acts to be dealt with by the courts and not internally by Parliament.

Had the law existed at the time of the cash-for-questions scandal, former MP Neil Hamilton may have faced a criminal investigation over his conduct.

At the same time, the proposed law seeks to ensure that outside parties can no longer offer payments or inducements to MPs without facing prosecution.

The committee said that while it did not oppose the sponsorship of government activities, the details should be subject to the "maximum transparency".

Government defends advisers

Reacting to the report, Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam defended the use of special advisers and said that the government would study the recommendations.

"We have made no secret of the number of advisers or their cost or their work," she said.

"Their role, to provide strong central support and political focus, is clearly defined.

"Cabinet ministers are required to obtain the Prime Minister's approval for all appointments of special advisers.

"The Government is totally committed to maintaining a non-political civil service."

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See also:
12 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
How sleaze entered the political dictionary
12 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Special advisers - modernisation or politicisation?
12 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
The Neill Committee: Key recommendations

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