Blair abandons plan for civil service safeguards

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Although the Government is committed "in principle" to a Civil Service Act, it has been quietly dropped by Mr Blair. He is said to believe it would be "more trouble than its worth" and would shine an unwelcome spotlight on the role of politically appointed special advisers.

Officially, Mr Blair wants to focus on reforming Whitehall's traditional culture as part of his drive to modernise public services before he stands down as Prime Minister, probably in 2007 or 2008. But his decision not to proceed with legislation on the Civil Service will disappoint critics who claim that a statutory code is needed to protect the impartiality of Civil Service from political pressure.

Since coming to power in 1997, Labour has been accused of transferring power from neutral officials to party political aides such as Jo Moore, who became embroiled in a bitter struggle with civil servants after saying that 11 September was a "good day to bury bad news". The proposed Act would introduce a legally binding code of conduct for officials and political aides. It has been demanded by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the anti-sleaze watchdog, and the Commons Public Administration Select Committee. Although the Government responded by publishing a draft Bill last November, there is no sign of a final version and sources now say that it will not emerge before Mr Blair stands down.

The First Division Association, which represents the most senior officials, accused the Government of procrastinating and said i t would keep up the pressure for a new law. Jonathan Baume, its general secretary, said: "An Act is not about stopping change but ensuring that change should have the authority of Parliament behind it and preventing a future government from damaging the values of the Civil Service."

Sir Richard Wilson, who was head of the Civil Service until three years ago, backed legislation but never fully convinced Mr Blair, who also turned down his plea for a cap on the number of political advisers, whose ranks have doubled since 1997.

In his valedictory speech this week, Sir Andrew Turnbull, who stands down as the Civil Service's head this summer, reflected the mood at the top of the Government by saying that an Act could "do actual harm" and "is likely to disappoint its champions and could bring unwanted problems". Some provisions could be introduced on a non-statutory basis, he said.

Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has written to the leaders of the three main political parties to seek a consensus on an Act and called for it to be passed "shortly" by Parliament.