The Thick of It warning over ministerial advisers

Ollie Reader from The Thick of It BBC Two's The Thick of It satirises the world of ministerial special advisers

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Ministers should be more careful about whom they appoint as special advisers or they may end up in situations worthy of The Thick of It, MPs have said.

The BBC satire about the inept plotting of politicians and advisers contains "more than a grain of truth", says the public administration committee.

It says special advisers should be better trained and selected so they are not seen as "shady" or "bag carriers".

It adds so-called Spads should be "men and women of standing and experience".

Special advisers - like the Chris Addison character Ollie Reader in The Thick of It - are temporary government employees who are not bound by the same rules of impartiality as civil servants.

They help ministers spread the government's political message by writing speeches, crafting policies and dealing with the media.

'Questionable activities'

Labour leader Ed Miliband and Prime Minister David Cameron are both former special advisers.

Start Quote

Special advisers should not be seen as shady characters practicing the political dark arts, or be political bag carriers for their ministers”

End Quote Bernard Jenkin Chairman, public administration committee

The public administration committee report says they play a valuable role in co-ordinating government policy across departments and carrying out jobs that civil servants are prevented from doing.

But it says they need better training "so they are not left exposed because of questionable activities they undertake in good faith".

The committee's chairman, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, said: "We have chosen this title 'Special advisers in the thick of it' because we want to communicate something of the urgency of the issues we address.

"The satire is extreme and overrated, but its power lies in the fact that there is more than a grain of truth in the drama.

"We have seen special advisers sacked for being the focus of potential scandal; for a past which caught up with them; for being wholly underqualified; and taking the rap for failing to understand the limits of their role, which should have been explained to them."

'Right values'

He said all of this was "avoidable" if government departments took "more care about the character and record of whom they appoint as special advisers".

"Special advisers should not be seen as shady characters practicing the political dark arts, or be political bag-carriers for their ministers," said the MP.

"Governments should recruit people with the right values and the training and support should reinforce their confidence in a positive role."

The report calls for special advisers to become more involved in the work of their departments and to emerge from the shadows, with their names and roles published on departmental websites.

Special advisers have been under the spotlight in recent months, with the resignation of Jeremy Hunt's aide Adam Smith over what he admitted was an inappropriately close relationship with News Corporation during its planned takeover of satellite broadcaster BSkyB.

The ministerial code says ministers are responsible for the conduct of their special advisers - prompting Labour calls for the then culture secretary's resignation.

In its report, the committee says ministers "must recognise that they have responsibility, not just accountability, for the conduct of their special advisers, and actively ensure that they are fully aware of what their advisers are doing in their name".

The report says it "cannot recall any minister ever resigning over the conduct of a special adviser, despite some astonishing cases".

And it calls for beefed-up powers for the prime minister's adviser on minister's interests "so that the prime minister is not able to protect his ministers from appropriate investigation of the conduct of their advisers."

Climate change minister Greg Barker has also been under fire recently over what Labour claims are inappropriate links with a special adviser. David Cameron has ruled out an inquiry as the person in question was hired by civil servants.

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