Parliament to curb powers of ministers' special advisers

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Indy Politics

Unprecedented curbs on the power of government special advisers and the Prime Minister's head of communications, Alastair Campbell, will be presented to MPs next week.

The Public Administration Committee has drawn up a draft Civil Service Act in a challenge to Tony Blair to ensure he will include the long-awaited controls in this year's Queen's Speech.

If the Act were to become law, Mr Campbell and Jon-athan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, would be deprived of what the committee describes as their "special treatment". The number of special advisers would be limited while new rules to prevent "abuse" and a duty to "act with integrity and honesty" and "not knowingly mislead" would be enshrined in law to stop a repeat of the Jo Moore affair, which eventually led to the resignation of Stephen Byers as Transport Secretary.

There is also a separate order regulating the conduct of special advisers to prevent them bullying civil servants and trying to make them break their duty to be impartial. The Public Administration Committee, which is responsible for monitoring Whitehall conduct, wants the removal of Mr Campbell's and Mr Powell's executive powers, which allow them to give orders to civil servants across Whitehall.

The Act, backed by MPs from all parties and the Wicks Committee on Standards in Public Life, also suggests lifting the ban on "aliens' ­ foreigners without EU or Commonwealth passports ­ joining the Civil Service. "The intention would be to help stop any inappropriate politicisation of the Civil Service and preserve it as a resource for government of whatever persuasion," the committee says.

Douglas Alexander, the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, who is responsible for the Civil Service, is among ministers who have repeated their desire for an Act.

But, until now, Downing Street has appeared to lack the political will to introduce it, despite it being proposed by Sir Richard Wilson, former head of the Home Civil Service.

The blueprint for the Act will be sent to Downing Street and the Cabinet Office for consultation. It includes measures to ensure the incident in which Ms Moore, a special adviser in the Department for Transport, told civil servants that 11 September 2001 was a good opportunity to "bury bad news" could never happen again.

The Act would create a new "Order in Council" limiting the number of ministers' advisers and their roles. "The new Order in Council could, for example, remove the special treatment for the recruitment of up to three persons in the Prime Minister's Office ... which allows them to be recruited without selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition and does not limit their role to that of giving advice," it says.

"They can, for example, give instructions to other civil servants and assume management responsibility for them." The document says that the "model contract" now in use for special advisers "seems a rather inadequate defence against abuse, since a third party cannot readily enforce the terms of a contract to which he is not a party".

It suggests that Westminster should follow the example of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and limit the number of special advisers ministers can employ.

The law would also ensure the responsibility of special advisers to behave "with integrity and honesty, to comply with the law".