British Union Wants Investigation Into Former "Special Advisors"
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British Union Wants Investigation Into Former "Special Advisors"

Britain’s general union, the GMB, commissioned a report into the activities of so-called “special advisers” upon leaving office, and is calling for an inquiry into their subsequent work in the private sector.

Paul Holmes

After an employment tribunal in Newcastle earlier this year uncovered the fact that Tim Allan, a former communications adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, has helped Asda—a U.K. subsidiary of Wal-Mart—in its union-busting efforts, Britain’s general union, the GMB, commissioned a report into the activities of so-called “special advisers” upon leaving office, and is calling for an inquiry into their subsequent work in the private sector.

Allan worked as a policy researcher at Number 10 Downing Street for two years and was then deputy to press secretary Alistair Campbell for four years before leaving to become director of corporate communications for satellite television company BSkyB and then launch his own consultancy, Portland PR, which the GMB says received £50,000 from Asda to run “a scurrilous campaign” that led to the defeat of a unionization campaign.

The GMB claims that the report commissioned by the union shows that several former special advisers have “cashed in” on their Whitehall experience. The report tracked the career paths of 79 people who served in the first two years of Blair’s government.

The use of special advisers—whose salaries are paid by taxpayers but who are allowed to engage in political activity forbidden to ordinary civil servants—has been a source of criticism of the Blair government in the past, with charges that many function as “spin doctors” to promote the government’s strategy and message.

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny says: “Special advisers are paid from the public purse. We are calling for an inquiry into the rules governing the subsequent employment of special advisers when they leave their role in government… to see what changes are needed to ensure that they cannot cash in on their privileged personal access.”

The Cabinet Office has rejected the calls for an investigation, saying strict rules are already in place. According to a spokesperson: “Special advisers are subject to clear rules on the acceptance of outside appointments they may wish to take up in the two years after leaving the civil service. For each such appointment they are required to submit an application to their former department.”

Applications are reviewed by a permanent secretary in the relevant department and in some cases referred on to a business appointments committee.

The GMB report claims that 20 former special advisers went on to “very well paid jobs” that appeared to have some connection with their former role in government, while another 10 had set up their own businesses or were working for firms that provided consultancy services to the corporate and voluntary sectors in a way that seemed to relate directly to their former positions.

Among those profiled in the report are several senior public relations professionals: Andrew Hood, senior partner at Brunswick Group; Andrew Lappin, who works for Fleishman-Hillard government affairs unit GPC Scotland; Sophie Linden, a director at Bell Pottinger; Cathy McGlynn, also of Bell Pottinger; Darren Murphy, a director at APCO; Huw Roberts, head of public policy, marketing, communications & audiences at the BBC; Kieran Simpson, public affairs director for Scottish & Newcastle Breweries; and Tim Walker, deputy managing director at Bell Pottinger.

Darren Murphy, one of those identified in the report, was himself a member of the GMB until Monday, when the union issues its call for an investigation and he resigned.

He defended his work “Anyone who believes there is no gulf between the understanding of business by government and the understanding of government by business doesn’t understand reality. While it is right that there are checks on what former special advisers can do, I believe anything that helps the mutual understanding of business and government is actually good for both, and that means ultimately it’s good for employees too.”

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