Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith

Westminster and the media were fascinated, first in September 2001 and then again in February 2002, by a row involving the Secretary of State for Transport and the Regions, his Permanent Secretary, his Special Adviser Jo Moore and his Director of Communications Martin Sixsmith. But most informed observers - although not the Public Administration Select Committee (see its Eighth Report) - concluded that it was very much a storm in a teacup, for the following reasons.

There were two strands to the story.  It began when Jo Moore sent the following email on 11 September 2001, after the World Trade Centre towers had been hit in terrorist attacks but before they collapsed: "It's now a very good day to get anything out we want to bury.  Councillors' expenses?".  Miss Moore was not universally popular and her email was read out at an event some weeks later, and then leaked to the media by someone who was not a civil servant but who had attended the event.  Miss Moore apologised profusely but stayed in her job.  But deeply felt tensions remained between the special adviser and the press office and the Secretary of State. This in due course led to the sacking of Martin Sixsmith and the resignation of Jo Moore.

These sorts of tensions do of course exist to some extent in most government departments because press offices are responsible for presenting Ministers' views without becoming 'political' whilst special advisers, who are also employed to present the Minister's views, are allowed to behave politically, for instance by criticising political opponents and making unsubstantiated claims on behalf of their Ministers. Some Special Advisers regard press offices as a bit wet; and indeed, although some departmental press offices are excellent, others are probably less proactive and effective than they could be.

In most cases, however, the two rub along pretty well. Press officers, in particular, know that Special Advisers (a) can be very pushy but (b) generally read their Ministers' minds very effectively. So it is often sensible to take advice from Special Advisers. Equally, however, press officers know that if they cannot be ordered to do things by special advisers and they should if necessary discuss media handling proposals with Ministers themselves. It is absolutely no use losing sleep over the behaviour of Special Advisers. Like Ministers, they are part of the political landscape within which we work and it would be very boring if they were all undemanding angels. It is not at all clear that Martin Sixsmith (who was not an experienced civil servant and had only been in post for 3 months) or his staff were wise to get so exercised about the behaviour of their Special Adviser Jo Moore.

But it seems that some of them did - and that led in turn (and perhaps inevitably) to the breakdown in the relationship between the press office and the Secretary of State. It is always difficult when such breakdowns occur, but Ministers are (a) elected and (b) appointed to a very difficult and responsible positions. They are entitled to be supported by staff in whom they have confidence and there can therefore be only one consequence of such a breakdown:- the civil servant has to move on and (if there is no other job for him/her) he has to leave the civil service. Martin Sixsmith is far from the first to find himself in this position, and he will be far from the last. But his dismissal - even if in some senses unfair, and even if demanded by the Secretary of State - was certainly not constitutionally improper.

The Public Administration Select Committee published a report on the Moore/Sixsmith affair in July 2002.

On a point of detail, the committee reported that "the ultimate sanction, dismissal [of Jo Moore], was not available to" the Permanent Secretary. I am not sure this is right. If the Permanent Secretary had indeed formed the view that Ms Moore's conduct merited dismissal, and in the unlikely event that the Secretary of State refused to ask her to resign, then surely the PS would have had to dismiss her anyway? Isn't that what PSs (with their Accounting Officer responsibility to parliament for the conduct of their department) are paid to do?

Martin Stanley

Spotted something wrong?
Please do drop me an email if you spot anything that is out-of-date, or any other errors, typos or faulty links.