Special advisers `misusing' taxpayers' money

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS' SPECIAL advisers are misusing taxpayers' money by providing policy briefings to Labour backbenchers, it was claimed last night.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, has discovered that Labour changed the rules when it came to power in May 1997 to allow the written briefing of Labour MPs. Former special advisers to Conservative ministers said last night that their party had to pay the government on the rare occasions when they produced such documents.

Several government departments refused to give Mr Foster details of briefings to Labour members on the grounds that they did not keep records. But a leaked Department for Education and Employment briefing was clearly numbered and listed others on related subjects.

The leaked document included details of the Government's Green Paper on teachers and suggested possible rebuttals for opposition attacks on the policy.

Mr Foster has asked Lord Neill, who is in charge of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to look at the issue. The committee is at present considering the role of special advisers, whose numbers have swelled under Labour, as part of a review of standards.

"When special advisers were first introduced, their role was to provide a party political balance for ministers, not briefings for backbench MPs," Mr Foster said. "This now amounts to an unfair advantage for the party in government and a gross misuse of taxpayers' money."

A model letter of appointment for special advisers under the Conservatives said: "You should not engage in activities likely to give rise to criticism that you are being employed at public expense for purely party political purposes. You are subject to a duty to avoid public controversy."

A new contract produced by Labour added a clause which said there was a need for "consistency" between government and party. "To secure this consistency, the Government will also want to make sure that party MPs and officials are suitably briefed on issues of Government policy," it said.

Andrew Tyrie, a Conservative MP and former special adviser, has told the Neill Committee that when Margaret Thatcher came to power she appointed seven advisers. By early this year, the number had risen to more than 70, with 20 in Downing Street alone. In the 1970s under Labour, there were 20 advisers in total.

David Ruffley, a former adviser to Kenneth Clarke and now an MP, said the only written MPs' briefing he prepared was an annual budget summary, for which Conservative Central Office paid the Treasury. He said the Public Accounts Committee should investigate the matter.

"The idea that we should have been on tap for Tory backbenchers is just preposterous. Briefings for MPs were always a party function," he said.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said special advisers' terms and conditions had been similar under the Conservatives.