Anti-sleaze watchdog to dig deeper into Labour's use of spin doctors

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Indy Politics

The parliamentary anti-sleaze watchdog promised yesterday to launch a fresh investigation into the Government's use of spin doctors and special political advisers.

Sir Nigel Wicks, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said rules governing the conduct of party appointees cannot "go far enough in the light of recent experience". Tony Blair published the first detailed guidelines governing special advisers earlier this year in response to concern about the increase in spin doctors under Labour.

But Sir Nigel said he was "disappointed" that a series of recommendations aimed at improving conduct and self-regulation in the Commons had not been adopted. He warned that MPs had not been given the chance to debate limits on the number of advisers, and criticised the Government for failing to publish a timetable for introducing new legislation to regulate the civil service.

He said the new Ministerial Code and the new guidelines for special advisers were "live issues" that the committee would want to re-examine. Sir Nigel also said it was "timely" to look at Government relationships with the private sector, in the light of moves to increase the involvement of companies in public services.

The Government's anti-sleaze rules, published in July, include guidelines ordering party political appointees not to "take public part in political controversy" and to "express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks".

They can brief the media on their minister's views, but purely party political briefing must be left to the party machine. Special advisers cannot speak at party conferences but there are no controls on private, off-the-record briefings.

The growth in the number of special advisers, particularly for Mr Blair, has been bitterly attacked by opposition MPs. Special advisers have doubled to 79 since Labour came to power, and now cost the tax payer £3.6m a year. Mr Blair has limited the number of advisers to two per cabinet minister, except in exceptional circumstances, but Sir Nigel warned that MPs had not had the chance to debate the overall growth in numbers.

Last month, the First Division Association, which represents 11,000 civil servants, sounded a warning over the increasing number of advisers, claiming the Government was running the increasing "politicisation" of the civil service.

Sir Nigel spoke as the committee launched a public consultation exercise into attitudes to sleaze. The committee wants to find what the public regards as the boundaries of acceptable behaviour for MPs and other public servants.