New curbs for 'out of control' spin

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Whitehall's army of special advisers and spin-doctors is to be subject to a strict new code of conduct designed to prevent it from forcing civil servants to step over the line into party politics.

Responding to criticism that the power of special advisers got "out of control" in Labour's first term, Tony Blair is preparing to publish rules that will include a duty to protect and respect civil servants' impartiality. The new curbs on conduct, accompanied by stiff sanctions including the possibility of dismissal, come after pressure from within the Civil Service to define the limits of advisers' power and provide a framework for their activities within the machinery of government.

The Downing Street initiative represents a move within the Labour leadership to tackle its reputation for "control freakery" and hand back responsibility to the Civil Service.

The Prime Minster is expected to publish, within weeks, the new special advisers' code, which has been drafted by the Cabinet Office and which new ministerial aides will be bound by. But he will reject calls to limit their numbers, which have doubled to 79 since Labour came to power in 1997.

This is the first time that government advisers and spin-doctors have been subject to an official code. A new model contract, which all of them will be forced to sign, will accompany the code and will enshrine their official role in speaking to journalists ­ which was not spelt out in their previous terms and conditions.

Sir Richard Wilson, the influential head of the Home Civil Service, is said by senior Whitehall sources to have insisted that the duties of the advisers be clearly defined after complaints that they had too much power without controls.

During Labour's first term many civil servants, particularly press officers, complained that they were being "bullied" by over-controlling special advisers and asked to cross the line from political impartiality into pumping out pro-Labour lines.

A string of high-ranking information officers left the Civil Service months after Labour's landslide in 1997 because of undue pressure from the ministers' confidants. Some ministers complained vociferously about the quality of civil servants when they came to power in 1997 and one privately said his office was "full of Tory spies". They turned to their advisers, many of whom had worked for them while in opposition, for political and policy advice and to help in dealing with the media.

The new code will make special advisers personally accountable to the Prime Minister and will define the media contacts they can make. Advisers are currently subject to the same standards as those governing civil servants, with the exception of rules relating to political impartiality and objectivity.

But opposition MPs said yesterday that Tony Blair should not be the arbiter in disputes over special advisers and should establish an independent adjudicator to rule in disputes on their behaviour. "If he is going to introduce a code, he ought to agree it with the leaders of the main opposition parties and establish a non-political method of arbitration," said David Davis, Tory MP for Haltemprice and Howden and chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

The code will be on a parallel footing to the code governing the conduct of ministers and Mr Blair will have the power to discipline special advisers under the new rules.

The decision to publish a code will be seen as a sign that Labour is softening its obsession with spin and wants to form a more trusting relationship with the Civil Service.

It follows the publication last year of a report from the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life, which called for special advisers' powers to be formally defined.