Advisers have corroded trust in Whitehall

By Sue Cameron Published: April 7 2003 20:09 | Last Updated: April 7 2003 20:09

Lord Wilson, who until last autumn was cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, once admitted that in Whitehall's top job he felt like Saint Sebastian - there were arrows coming at him from all directions.

The media took pot shots at him. Ministers targeted him for failing to transform New Labour's inchoate dreams into vote-winning policies. Worst of all, his own officials sniped at him for allowing politically appointed spin-doctors to usurp the role of Britain's impartial civil service - with disastrous results on policymaking.

This last issue, the crucial boundaries between civil servants and political advisers, is the subject of a report due to be published today by Sir Nigel Wicks and his Committee on Standards in Public Life. Theirs has not been an easy task. Britain's unwritten constitution ultimately depends on governments behaving honourably. Legislating for good conduct is never easy - particularly in a place as intimate as No 10 where power politics, personal relationships and policy imperatives are inextricably mixed. Yet it is from No 10 that Tony Blair's political advisers wield the most influence, commanding the rest of Whitehall with the magic words: "Tony wants . . . ".

Concern about New Labour's small but powerful cadre of so-called "special advisers" centres on party allegiances. Whitehall has no problem with advisers who are specialists in their fields. Professor Peter Hennessey of London University suggested to the Wicks committee that this group should continue to be paid out of public funds - unlike their party political counterparts who should be taken off the public payroll.

It is not hard to see why Whitehall is so wary of political advisers. They are unelected and unaccountable in any true sense. Unlike proper civil servants, also unelected, they owe their loyalty not to the public interest but to the narrow, factional business of keeping the party in power. Unlike proper civil servants, who are there on merit not because of who they know, the political advisers are there generally because of who they know.

More worrying than the manner of their appointment has been their approach to policymaking. Over the past six years it has sometimes seemed like amateur night in Whitehall as party political advisers, inexperienced in government, have put aspirations before realistic programmes and slogans before solid planning. The culture of spin has not been limited to presentation; it has infected the policymaking process itself.

The results have been apparent in the handling of the foot-and-mouth epidemic - surely a textbook example of bad government - and in the government's failure to convince the public that it has the vision and the competence to reform any of the public services. It is small wonder if civil servants have found it hard being sidelined in favour of party loyalists.

This is not to suggest that the civil service always gets things right. Whitehall can bungle with the best of them and often has. But at least senior officials recognise the need to think things through and to look further ahead than tomorrow morning's headlines. At their best they have a collective wisdom and experience that Mr Blair and his ministers have been foolish not to use more effectively.

But what to do about it is the hard part. The government has already agreed in principle to limit the number of political advisers and bring forward a civil service Act giving parliament more say. Some in Whitehall believe such measures would mark a line in the sand. But with the tide of cronyism running so hard, that could be the King Canute school of thinking. Those who believe Tony Blair will consider sacking some of his political advisers or neutering the powers of people such as Alastair Campbell, his chief spinner, may need a reality check.

Clearly nobody can or should tell a prime minister who he should go to for advice. Yet cutting off public funds for the advisers he most wants raises the spectre of rich men with vested interests taking over from the civil service entirely. We could have the Hinduja "Policies 'R' Us" emporium - to say nothing of a Sainsbury's Local offering deliveries of eye-catching initiatives.

The vision is not entirely frivolous. Sir Nigel and his committee offer the last chance for Britain's political parties to reach agreement on the civil service element of the constitution. If they fail, the government that succeeds Labour will regard Whitehall as having been "Blairised" and will go over to a US-style politicised civil service. Yet America's constitution rests on a set of checks and balances designed precisely to stop any one individual accruing too much power. Britain has no such safeguards.

The writer is author of The Cheating Classes, Simon & Schuster 2002