4 March 2011

So, Cameron has been told to rein in his special advisers or 'spads' as they are known...

The cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has written to Cameron asking him to rein in government spin doctors, saying that some have behaved "unacceptably" - read the article from The Guardian http://is.gd/L2a7Go. 

It turns out that one of Pickles' Special Advisers has been criticising Jenny Watson, who is Chair of the Electoral Commission and sits on the board of the Audit Commission.  Unacceptable remarks were made about her, which I shall not replicate, during a briefing.   The remarks, which are in the Guardian article linked to above, came to the notice of Sir Christopher Kelly who condemned the language.  The remarks first came to light in The Times last September.

It has become clear that there was mounting concern about the behaviour and language of some Govt special advisers. Gus O'Donnell raised the matter with Cameron asking him to rein in the spads. It was expected that Cameron would have words with those concerned, but it appears that no such action was taken.  Basically, whoever made defamatory, arrogant remarks about Jenny Watson got away with it.

PR Week, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested letters, emails or faxes sent by Gus O'Donnell to Cameron or Edward Llewellyn last autumn regarding the status, role or conduct of special advisers. The Govt response was to deny information, including any of the correspondence in question stating, I gather, that this would be considered to be personal data and would contravene a data protection principle. However, the official from the Cabinet Office replied  ‘I can confirm the Cabinet Office holds some information relating to your request on the role, status or conduct of government special advisers.’. The official ignored and/or refused repeated requests to provide a redacted version of the correspondence. This week the official said "We are still considering your request".

In response to a separate Freedom of Information request,No 10 said it had no records of any meetings between Cameron's and Pickles’special advisers to discuss the issue of the said behaviour.  But Ministers recently admitted that no-one has been disciplined in this matter.

Caroline Flint, Shadow LG & Communities Minister, wrote to the Minister, Eric Pickles, asking him to confirm whether he'd taken legal advice on this matter and if so how much that advice had cost the taxpayer. She also asked if he knew the identity of the adviser who made the comments. (It is alleged that the comments were made by one of Mr Pickles two special advisers, Sheridan Westlake or Giles Kenningham, who receive an annual salary of  between £52,000  and £69,000. They are on the civil service paylist I gather.)  Eric Pickles replied that it was a “long-standing” position of the department not to disclose the nature of legal advice and in some circumstances even to acknowledge “whether or not we have sought and received such advice”.
“I am unable to say whether or not such advice has been sought or given in this case,” he said.

Well, that's very interesting.  If that is the case, what's all this fuss about the tory-led govt being transparent about public spending ?  This is what Eric Pickles said about government transparency “The sunlight of openness may be uncomfortable for some, but it will expose how taxpayers’ money is being wasted,”  Feeling the discomfort Eric ?

So that's the background.  What now for Jenny Watson...  Won't these remarks be damaging to this woman's career not to mention her emotional state...  The following rule was ignored "Special advisers should conduct themselves with integrity and honesty."  Arrogance,  rudness and intimidation replaced integrity in this case. I wonder if she's taking them to the cleaners...

And after all the criticism from the tories, one question I'd like to ask is "How many government special advisers are there now...?"  More, or less than before May 2010 ?