Blair urged to curb powers of two key aides

An influential Westminster committee today urged Tony Blair to curb the powers of his two top aides and stop them giving orders to other Government departments.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended limiting the powers of Number 10 communications director Alastair Campbell and chief of staff Jonathan Powell so their work should be strictly confined to Downing Street.

Sir Nigel Wicks, who chairs the committee, said the role of politically appointed special advisers – distinct from the permanent civil servants – should be clarified in a Civil Service Act to help boost "public trust in Government".

Limiting the powers of the Prime Minister's two top aides – Mr Campbell and Mr Powell – was a key recommendation of the committee of experts.

Sir Nigel acknowledged that the Prime Minister should have "some freedom" to organise his offices as he wanted.

"But having freedom to arrange his own office does not mean that that office should have special powers over the rest of the Government," Sir Nigel said.

He added that it was "not at all essential" for a figure such Mr Campbell to direct the work of other Whitehall departments on media relations and announcements.

Sir Nigel said that someone in Mr Campbell's position "has to be able to run the press office" at Downing Street.

But there was "no reason" why Mr Campbell or Mr Powell "should have responsibilities that go outside Number 10".

The report concluded: "The existence in the Prime Minister's Office of two posts with executive powers should be a matter for Parliamentary debate and agreement."

"Neither post should have power to be able to direct civil servants outside Number 10."

Committee member Lord Goodhart QC explained: "It has been uncertain whether what is coming down are orders or is simply co–ordination."

The report stressed that special advisers with executive powers should not "ask civil servants to do anything improper or illegal, or anything which might undermine the role and duties of permanent civil servants".

Nor should they "undermine the political impartiality of civil servants".

The Prime Minister must be "personally accountable to Parliament for the management and discipline of his or her special advisers".

Sir Nigel said he had sent a copy of the report to Mr Blair, adding: "Now it is up to the Prime Minister to consider it and respond."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the Government would consider the report "seriously".

But he questioned the idea that Mr Campbell ought to stop directing the work of officials in other Whitehall departments.

"I don't think it is realistic to expect him to do his job as Government Director of Communications and Strategy, for example on Iraq, if he is not in a position to direct different parts of the Government machine.

"That's a very important part of his job."

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