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Barbara’s Blog



The resignation of Damian McBride over “smeargate” has Barbara Panvel pondering the role of Downing Street’s “special advisors”.

The latest scandal is part of a pattern according to journalist Libby Purves, who writes that “there is a long history of gossip being scientifically disseminated to “destabilise” people”, remembering that “During the David Kelly affair the dead scientist was unforgivably described as a “Walter Mitty” character by a Downing Street aide”. (

What is the role and value of special advisors?

The Cabinet Office website publishes the Code of Conduct for them: the special adviser should undertake certain secretarial duties and assist in framing policy documents, giving party political advice which civil servants are not allowed to do. (

Many come with their own agenda formed by previous work with corporates and the McKinsey consultancy which promotes privatisation, out-sourcing, PFI schemes, GM & nuclear technology world-wide.

As columnist Simon Jenkins wrote, they have never run so much as a whelk stall, so how much informed assistance can they give with framing agricultural, industrial, transport, financial, energy, environmental or defence policy documents?

Some also break the Code of Conduct, which says:

Special advisers should conduct themselves with integrity and honesty.

They should not deceive or knowingly mislead Parliament or the public.

They should not misuse their official position or information acquired in the course of their official duties to further their private interests or the private interests of others.

They should not receive benefits of any kind which others might reasonably see as compromising their personal judgment or integrity.

Special advisers . . .must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks . . .

Harold Wilson had six special advisors and the Heath government set up the Central Policy Review Staff - to give ‘strategic advice’, but estimates of the growth in numbers under the Blair government range from 70-80, with 20 in Downing Street alone.

Ferdinand O. Ayim’s 2003 article asks “Special Assistants and Advisers: Are they Necessary?” He noted that “in the Blair administration, where some see them as the breed at "the cutting edge of the New Labour project", there are more than 80”. (

What was the outcome of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s enquiry – held ten years ago - into “the role of special advisers, whose numbers have swelled under Labour, as part of a review of standards”?

There is clearly cause for concern about the quality and quantity of special advisers. Those who are retained should be ‘fit for purpose’ and - as the code says - conduct themselves without compromising their personal judgment and integrity.

Will another ten years go by before the system is cleaned up? Will this ever happen?



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