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Editorial: Bring the spads out of the dark

The role of political appointees in government is a controversial one. For some, they are the much-needed oil without which the wheels of Whitehall grind impossibly slow. For others, they are either the ineffectual "tsars" so popular with Gordon Brown or the hired guns brought in to force through their masters' pet projects regardless of the objections of officials.

In fact, the case against outside expertise can only be compellingly made against individuals, not against the concept. Not only is there more than a grain of truth in Whitehall's reputation for resistance. The business of running the country is also extraordinarily complex, difficult and varied; the Government should have access to all possible talents. Indeed, such has long been the case; as far back as Lloyd George, politicians have looked to the expert and the sympathetic to help get things done.

Even so, there are grounds for complaint. Time and again, departmental special advisers – "people who live in the dark", as Clare Short once described them – have run amok. Damian McBride, for example, was so vicious as to prompt a new clause in the code of conduct prohibiting personal attacks. Equally, political appointees' responsibilities are too often ill-defined. Nor are their lines of accountability sufficiently clear. Ministers are supposedly responsible for their advisers. And yet they wriggle free. Although Adam Smith resigned over his close contacts with News International at the time of its BSkyB bid, his boss – Jeremy Hunt – pleaded ignorance and kept his job. A similar situation appears to be developing at the Department for Education. Michael Gove claims no knowledge of allegations of bullying against several members of his team. Meanwhile, insiders report an "aggressive, intimidating culture" and a clique of special advisers who believe themselves untouchable. And one, Dominic Cummings, now faces questions over his aggression towards journalists.

A degree of tension between permanent officials and political appointees is unavoidable. Open warfare and charges of ideological crusades are not. But until the activities of "spads" are more clearly prescribed and controlled, such problems will continue. The issue is not the existence of external advisers, it is the netherworld in which they operate.