Reform system of spin doctors, say MPs

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Wide-ranging reforms to limit the number and powers of Government special advisers and spin doctors are recommended in a new report by an influential committee of MPs.

Wide-ranging reforms to limit the number and powers of Government special advisers and spin doctors are recommended in a new report by an influential committee of MPs.

Moves to allow unelected party political advisers to wield executive power should be halted, the Commons Public Administration Select committee said. They expressed "reservations" over a change in civil-service rules to allow some advisers to exercise power over civil servants.

Commentators and Opposition MPs have expressed unease at the spiralling growth of the number of political advisers and spin doctors paid for by the public purse since Labour came to power. The list ranges from back-room policy advisers to some of the highest profile figures in Government, including Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, and Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

The all-party committee called for a cash limit on public spending on advisers and recommended new rules to ensure that advisers are appointed on merit, rather than simply at the discretion of ministers.

MPs also recommended reform of the way advisers are funded to put the Government's political advisers on the same footing as opposition political researchers.

The number of advisers, who are appointed directly by ministers outside normal civil Service rules, has more than doubled since 1997. While the last Conservative government had 38 special advisers, there are now 78 special advisers working for the Government, at a cost of £4.4m a year, including 22 in Downing Street alone.

But while many special advisers occupy overtly party political roles, others, including Keith Hellawell, the drugs tzar, have roles more like those filled by conventional civil servants, the report said.

The Committee's report, published today, recommends that many special-adviser posts could be filled through a process of competitive applications, as with civil-service jobs.

They called for more information to be made available about advisers. The report said: "We believe that much of the controversy surrounding the use of advisers results from this lack of transparency. It is easy to complain that ministers are allowing 'callow youths to usurp the functions of experienced officials' if little information is made available as to who is advising ministers

Funding for political posts should be combined with the so-called Short Money, which pays for opposition parties to employ parliamentary researchers, the committee said. But the report backed the principle of special advisers, arguing that much criticism of the expansion of advisers was "misdirected".

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