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Special Adviser Appointments

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 2 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the correct procedures were followed in the dismissal of Sonia Khan as a special adviser.

My Lords, the Government do not comment on personnel matters regarding individuals. Special advisers are temporary civil servants appointed in accordance with Part 1 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. They are bound by the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers and the terms of the Model Contract for Special Advisers, which sets out how special advisers are appointed and leave their role.

Noble Lords will recall that on 29 August Sonia Khan was summarily dismissed by Mr Cummings and shown to the front door of No. 10 by an armed officer. Paragraph 3.3 of the Ministerial Code, which was updated on 23 August this year, says:

“The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment”.

The Chancellor knew nothing of this, so under what authority did Mr Cummings—a man who was summoned to give evidence to a Select Committee in another place, told the chairman to “get lost” and was then found to be in contempt of Parliament—dismiss Sonia Khan? Finally, on treatment of special advisers, was it appropriate for Mr Cummings to say to his fellow special advisers:

“If you don’t like how I run things, there’s the door”?

If he continues to act in this arrogant manner, should that invitation not be extended to Mr Cummings?

My Lords, as I just said, my noble friend will understand that I cannot comment on personnel matters relating to individuals. I can say in general terms that, in line with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, special advisers operate under the authority of their appointing Minister. Therefore, special advisers in No. 10 act under the authority of the Prime Minister. Section 8 of the 2010 Act also allows special advisers to exercise any power in relation to the management of another special adviser if permitted by the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers. The code of conduct does so permit.

My Lords, it is the right of civil servants, if dismissal is contemplated, to have access to a disciplinary board before a conclusion is reached. Is that available to special advisers, and was it available in this case?

I cannot comment on this case, but the status of special advisers is set out in legislation in the 2010 Act to which I referred. Because of the Crown’s power to dismiss at will, special advisers are not entitled to a period of statutory notice when their appointment is terminated. However, the terms of their employment are set out in their model contract.

My Lords, I will ask the Minister two questions. Given the report in the Daily Telegraph that Sonia Khan was later offered a pay-off of around £40,000 following her treatment, does he consider that an appropriate use of public money? I also refer him to the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, this time paragraph 14, which says:

“Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy… They must observe discretion and express comment with moderation”.

Does he consider that the Prime Minister’s special adviser is abiding by that or, as journalists have been told, is this just “classic Dom” and supposed to be tolerated?

My Lords, I cannot comment on the reported offer of a payout, as I hope the noble Baroness will understand. Having said that, the model special adviser contract sets out severance arrangements for when special advisers’ contracts end, as I intimated to the noble Lord, Lord Butler. As I mentioned, all special advisers must adhere to the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, which applies across the board to every special adviser in government. They are also bound by the standards of integrity and honesty required of all civil servants, as set out in the Civil Service Code.

My Lords, I will keep this simple. Does the Minister accept that the behaviour in the Sonia Khan case must never be seen as some form of precedent for the way these people are treated? It must never happen again.

My Lords, No. 10 has always been involved in the performance management and appraisal of special advisers and other personnel management issues. Disciplinary matters fall under the heading of performance management. That reflects long-standing practice. It is also set out in successive versions of the Ministerial Code.

My Lords, are not special advisers appointed to assist their Secretaries of State and Ministers in the performance of their duties? What on earth is the purpose of Dominic Cummings holding meetings with all the special advisers, who should be responsible to their Secretaries of State and not to him?

My Lords, the 2010 Act, to which I referred, says that all appointments of special advisers must be approved by the Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister may terminate the contract by withdrawing his consent at any time. That is also made clear in the Ministerial Code.

My Lords, paragraph 11 of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers states:

“Any special adviser found to be disseminating inappropriate material will be subject to a disciplinary process”.

Can I ask the Minister about the process? What is the process that should have been applied, or that should be applied in these cases more generally?

My Lords, the terms of employment for any special adviser, as I have said, are set in their model contract. They are bound by the Code of Conduct. The process will depend on the terms of that contract. Dominic Cummings is ultimately accountable to the Prime Minister for his conduct, as is the case for all special advisers.

My Lords, is it not acutely embarrassing to this Government that they have put Parliament in a position whereby it is granting a pass to somebody who is deemed to be in contempt of it? I hope that any compensation to Sonia Khan comes not from the pocket of the taxpayer, but from Dominic Cummings.