Government plans law to curb power of spin doctors

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Indy Politics

Laws are to be brought in by the Government to control special advisers to ministers, in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the Whitehall war between Jo Moore and civil servants working for Stephen Byers, the embattled Transport Secretary.

A new Civil Service Bill, which could be included in the Queen's Speech in November, would prevent party political advisers in government departments giving orders to civil servants. Ms Moore, who was accused of "bullying" officials, resigned last month after a campaign to force her out by civil servants at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR).

The legislation will set out strict boundaries between civil servants, who are meant to be impartial, and political advisers, such as Ms Moore. The existing code of conduct for advisers, which says they must respect the neutral stance of the Civil Service, will be beefed up and given statutory force.

Ministers are also expected to bow to pressure to put a ceiling on the number of special advisers, whose numbers have increased from 38 to 81 since Labour came to power in 1997.

Cabinet ministers admit that a law might not have prevented the "personality clashes" at the DTLR. But they hope a Civil Service Act will "change the climate" in Whitehall and improve the relationship between political and neutral officials.

The Cabinet is expected to discuss the lessons to be learnt from the DTLR crisis and the row over Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian tycoon at the centre of the "cash for favours" row over his £125,000 donation to Labour, when it gathers at Chequers on Friday for an "away day" strategy session. It will also examine how to ensure a more coherent approach to public-sector reforms, amid concern that there are too many "mixed messages".

Officials have long been pushing for a new Civil Service Act. Ministers have been accused of foot-dragging but conceded privately yesterday that the Moore affair had made action inevitable. The drive for new legislation will be launched in aspeech next week by Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, who is determined to see some progress before he retires this summer.

He is expected to argue that special advisers have an important role to play and can safeguard the neutrality of Whitehall by ensuring that civil servants do not fulfil party political functions. But he will support a legally backed code to ensure the advisers do not overstep the mark, while insisting that aggrieved officials use proper procedures rather than leak damaging material.

The new law may also put the code of conduct for ministers on a statutory footing. To answer criticism that Tony Blair has been "judge and jury" over whether former ministers such as Keith Vaz have breached the code, an independent commissioner may be appointed to police it.

Mr Blair hopes the new moves will finally enable the Government to draw a line under the controversy that has engulfed Mr Byers. But yesterday the Transport Secretary faced renewed claims that he misled the Commons last week in his statement on the affair. An 18,000-word dossier by Martin Sixsmith, the outgoing director of communications at the DTLR, claimed that Mr Byers blocked a compromise plan for him to move to another Whitehall department. Downing Street dismissed the dossier, extracts of which were published in The Sunday Times, as a "partial account" and a "retread" of a front-page article in The Independent last Thursday.

Tim Collins, the shadow Cabinet Office Minister, said the Government must answer the allegations. If it was unable to, he said, "it will be unarguable that Mr Byers misled Parliament and should bring his time in office to an end".

Last night Tam Dalyell, the longest-serving MP, told BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour programme that Mr Byers should have resigned and that Mr Blair should now be a "good butcher" and sack him.

"Certainly the Labour Party and the Labour Government, to my dismay, are getting a reputation for not being quite straight, and it's very damaging," he said.

Writing in The Independent, Sir Robin Mountfield, former permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, accuses Labour of sidelining the Civil Service and says: "The sooner an Act on these lines is brought forward, the better."

The Committee on Standards in Public Life will launch an inquiry today into the relationship between civil servants and special advisers.

Sir Nigel Wicks, its chairman, said: "There is a case for a Civil Service Act. Most other public organisations are under the control of Parliament ... but not the Civil Service."

* Lakshmi Mittal has been asked to appear before a Belgian inquiry looking into alleged back-handers to secure major Eastern European infrastructure projects, it was reported last night.