Ethics adviser to investigate ministers

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is to announce curbs on the role of special advisers and the appointment of an official "ethics adviser" to investigate ministerial sleaze.

The adviser, whose post is likely to be advertised this week as part of reforms to curtail spin, will be able to investigate irregular financial dealings and potentially damaging conflicts of interest, such as those exposed by the Ecclestone, Mittal and Hinduja affairs. He will also provide independent advice to ministers on how to behave.

The ethics adviser will assume the power of permanent secretaries, the most senior civil servants in government departments, to rule on how a minister should behave. He is also expected to assume the Prime Minister's role in judging whether a minister has breached the code of conduct.

But the proposal could face criticism for being not far removed enough from the inner workings of government. The adviser will be called to investigate only at the behest of the Prime Minister.

Mr Blair, in his official response to a report by the Wicks Committee on Standards in Public Life, will also announce plans to bring forward a draft Civil Service Act - responding to the publication of a model Bill by the Public Administration Committee of MPs - which will define in law for the first time the role and boundaries of civil servants and ministers' special advisers.

The move follows criticism that special advisers have been heavy handed in their dealings with civil service press officers and have overstepped their responsibilities. The outcry over the treatment of the weapons expert Dr David Kelly and a string of critical reports calling for controls on special advisers have added to the unease.

The Government's response to the report, to be published tomorrow, will further define the boundaries of special advisers by rewriting their official code of conduct. The redrafted code will include details of what they cannot do - including giving orders to civil servants or pressuring them to politicise their work.

There will also be a clearer structure for complaints if a special adviser steps out of line. During the Jo Moore affair there was criticism that she was too close to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, to enable a proper sanction of her behaviour. Ms Moore caused outrage when she sent an e-mail on 11 September 2001 suggesting bad news could be "buried".

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