Standards Committee criticises Government's civil service plans

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Government proposals to "enhance" the role of special advisers to allow them to hold meetings with civil servants about advice to ministers were yesterday criticised by the standards watchdog.

Sir Nigel Wicks, the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, will today make the Government's plans to amend the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers public. He will warn that the amendment could lead to politicisation of Whitehall.

"There is an inevitable risk here that such involvement of Special Advisers in civil servants' advice to ministers will prejudice the provision of objective and independent advice from civil servants," he will say. Sir Nigel, in an interview with The Independent, warned that legal curbs on the role of special advisers should be introduced in the form of a civil service act.

The committee chairman urged Tony Blair to take personal responsibility for bringing in a Bill and preventing the civil service from becoming "politicised".

Sir Nigel said a Bill was crucial to prevent a re-run of the Jo Moore affair - in which a special adviser told civil servants that September 11 was a good day to "bury" bad news.

His advice will be published in his committee's official response to the Government's proposals on curbing Whitehall sleaze. The response comes ahead of the publication of the Hutton inquiry into the Dr David Kelly affair, which is expected to have far-reaching implications for the civil service.

Sir Nigel criticised the Government for failing to introduce a Bill protecting civil servants from bullying by ministers and their special advisers.

"The responsibility for this lies with the minister for the civil service and the minister for the civil service is the Prime Minister," Sir Nigel said.

He will call for more powers to be given to the Civil Service Commissioners, who oversee the appointment of civil servants, to investigate allegations of bullying of civil servants on their own initiative. Sir Nigel also warns against allowing ministers to have a choice in the appointment of civil servants from outside Whitehall. This could lead to party activists or friends of ministers gaining preferential treatment in the appointment process and an erosion of the principle that Whitehall officials should be politically impartial.