HC Deb 23 March 1976 vol 908 cc362-72

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise the subject of the employment of special advisers by the Government. There are at present 28 special advisers to Ministers. The latest estimate of the cost of their salaries alone during the current year is £196,000.

The employment of special advisers to Ministers is a legitimate matter of public interest and concern. Their salaries are paid for out of public funds. It is the duty of this House, and, above all, of Back Benchers, to scrutinise public expenditure and to be vigilant over the conduct of the Executive. The need for such scrutiny and vigilance is great at any time; with this Administration, and in the present financial circumstances, that need is paramount. It is in that spirit I approach this debate. I am sure the Minister will welcome the opportunity to tell the House and the country what is the Government's policy in regard to special advisers, and to answer certain questions.

For some time now Ministers have appointed professional experts and advisers of their own. These have been personal appointments by Ministers. These appointments have increased the power of the Executive and the extent and patronage of government. I do not object to the principle of the employment of special advisers, but it is reasonable to point out that the practise has been growing steadily in recent years. The present number of special advisers—about 28—and the present bill for their salaries—£196,000 a year—has been exceeded on one occasion only, namely, in October last year, under the present Administration, when the number of special advisers was 29 and the annual cost of their salaries was £205,000.

Paragraph 129 of the Fulton Report on the Civil Service, published in June 1968 said: We are satisfied that a Minister should be able to employ on a temporary basis such small numbers of experts as he personally considers he needs to help and advise him. The Report continued: They should be men and women of standing and experience. We consider, however, that this practice should be put on to a regular and clearly understood basis. Paragraph 278 of Fulton said that it is healthy for a democracy increasingly to press to be consulted and informed. There are still too many occasions where information is unnecessarily withheld and consultation merely perfunctory". It is in the light of those remarks by the Fulton Report—remarks endorsed by the Government—that we need to consider the present, though not the past, practice of the Government in giving details of the salaries of special advisers.

On 5th November, I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what was the salary of Lord Kaldor, who is the special adviser to the Chancellor. The Minister of State, Treasury, replied that Lord Kaldor's salary was £14,000 a year. But when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked, two months later, in February of this year, what was the salary of the other special advisers, this was the answer I was given:

It is not the general practice to specify the salaries of special advisers."—[Official Report, 6th February 1976; Vol. 904, c. 776.] On 22nd March I was told by the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, in answer to a Question from me: Ministers will continue to answer questions relating to the pay of civil servants, including Special Advisers; and indeed a great deal of information has been given to the House about the pay of Special Advisers."—[Official Report, 22nd March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 28.] The Government cannot have it both ways. I cannot be told that the salary of Lord Kaldor is £14,000 a year on 5th November, then be told in February that it is not the general practice to specify the salaries of special advisers, and then be told on 22nd March that Ministers will continue to answer Questions relating to the pay of civil servants, including special advisers.

This reticence on the part of the Government in disclosing the salaries of special advisers is in direct conflict with the recommendation of the Fulton Report, which said that there were too many cases in which information was unnecessarily withheld.

Fortunately, some of the special advisers themselves are not as reticent about their salaries as are their employers. The special adviser to the Lord President of the Council, Miss Vicky Kidd, told The Times last month—although the Lord President declined to give this information—that her salary was £6,145 a year. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House tonight whether that figure is correct. If the special adviser herself is prepared to tell The Times what her salary is, would it not be better if the Government came clean and honoured the Prime Minister's own pledge about more open government, and told the House and the country frankly and freely what the salaries of the special advisers are?

It is not only that I have been given those answers by the Government; it is also the case that the Prime Minister has shown particular reticence in this matter. On 4th February this year I asked whether he would place in the Library a copy of the Memorandum of Guidance to Ministers in charge of Departments which he issued in December 1974 dealing with the appointment and conditions of service of special advisers. The Prime Minister replied: No. It has not been the practice to publish guidance to Ministers."—[Official Report, 4th February 1976; Vol. 904, c. 620.] Why not? Why do not the Government honour their own commitment to more open government?

I turn to the second matter that I wish to raise. Are the House and the country getting value for money from these special advisers? We have been told—I am sure that it was an error on the part of the Treasury—that the salary of Lord Kaldor is £14,000 a year.

Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)

Incredible! What a waste of money.

Mr. Gow

That is £1,000 a year more than the salary of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Chancellor receives a salary of £13,000 a year. We may also ask what are the qualifications of Lord Kaldor, and what kind of advice he has given to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that merits a salary of £14,000 a year. We are told in the current edition of Who's Who that Lord Kaldor is special adviser to the Government on taxation. I wonder whether the British people heave a sigh of gratitude when they learn that the man responsible for imposing taxation upon them is not the Chancellor, who is a candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party, but Lord Kaldor, who is, so far as we know, not a candidate—and nominations have now closed.

Of course, the noble Lord has had certain experience in these matters. We are told, according to his own entry in Who's Who, that he was a Member of the United Nations group of experts on international measures for full employment, 1949. Under this Administration, with Lord Kaldor as special adviser to the Chancellor, unemployment has reached the highest level since before the war.

The noble Lord was adviser to the Government of India in 1956, fiscal adviser to the Government of Ceylon, economic adviser to the Government of Guiana, fiscal adviser to the Government of Turkey, and special adviser to the Labour Chancellor from 1964 to 1968. Since March 1974 he has been special adviser to the Chancellor. I am bound to say that I think the Chancellor would do very much better if he did not follow the advice of the noble Lord, who is the high priest of deficit financing and the arch-apostle of the policy that the Government can go on borrowing and borrowing, because by the time the debts have to be repaid the noble Lord will have ceased to be a special adviser.

It is instructive to consider those Ministers who have special advisers. One wonders how the criteria are applied. The Secretary of State for Employment has no special advisers. The Secretary of State for Social Services has four. How is that reconciliation made? On what criteria are special advisers appointed to Ministers? Why does the Lord President of the Council, who does not preside over any great Department of State but who, it true, is responsible for the devolution Bill, need a special adviser?

May we take it that the right hon. Gentleman's special adviser was responsible for the White Paper on Devolution? If her advice was given in connection with the preparation of the White Paper would it not be better for the Lord President to seek another and better adviser elsewhere? I sometimes think that the quality of advice that the Government have been receiving from their selected special advisers is an indictment of the judgment of the Ministers who make these appointments. I sometimes think that it would be better if Ministers were to accept rather more advice from my right hon. and hon. Friends, which they would get free, gratis and for nothing, rather than that they should pay out £196,000 a year to get advice that is leading the country to economic disaster. I hope that the Minister will reply in the same constructive spirit in which I have made my observations.

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Iain Sproat (Aberdeen, South)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving me a few seconds to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) has said. I wish to make only one point. Like my hon. Friend, I do not object to Ministers having special advisers, but if they have such advisers to keep them on the right political lines, those advisers should be paid for by the political parties, whether Labour or Conservative, and not by the British taxpayer. It is repugnant to the House and country that £196,000 should come out of the generality of taxes just to give political advice to Ministers. I hope that the Minister will say that it is his intention to advise his right hon. and hon. Friends to cease this practice forthwith. If they want advisers, let the Labour Party pay for them.

11.34 p.m.

The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Charles R. Morris)

I have listened closely and carefully to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). No one could accuse him of lacking in consistency on this issue. Tonight's debate follows over 30 Parliamentary Questions which the hon. Member has tabled on this subject. During a period of five months he and some of his parliamentary colleagues have waged what I can best describe as a campaign on this issue. The hon. Gentleman has rightly referred to the need to be vigilant and to scrutinise the actions of Government in this area.

I accept that it is right that Ministers should be questioned and called upon to justify the circumstances in which they appoint individuals to the public payroll, but in some respects this has been a squalid campaign. On occasion, one is left with the impression that some of the probing has been calculated to embarrass individual special advisers rather than to seek information from Ministers.

Mr. Gow

No, no.

Mr. Morris

We have had an example from the hon. Member tonight. Two public servants have been attacked by name, and they have no right of reply.

If hon. Members want to indulge in that sort of parliamentary behaviour, that is a matter for them, but, in one case, to describe a group which includes distinguished academics and professionally qualified experts as "party hacks" is offensive. It misrepresents the role and functions of the special advisers and it adds nothing to the public knowledge of the contribution that they make in the crucial area of ministerial decisionmaking.

Mr. Gow

I am sure that the Minister will recollect that I have never used the phrase "party hacks" about special advisers, and that I have not used it tonight.

Mr. Morris

I accept that the hon. Gentleman has not used the phrase, but it has been used. If he is looking for the source, he might discuss the matter with his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), who made the point in a letter to the Prime Minister, to which I had the duty of replying.

I want to deal first with salaries—a matter on which the hon. Gentleman displayed an insatiable curiosity. He justified his curiosity by quoting the Fulton Report as saying that there are too many occasions on which information is unnecessarily withheld.

Mr. Gow


Mr. Morris

The Fulton Report did not say that in the context of the salaries of special advisers.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government had been excessively secretive and coy about revealing these salaries to the House. He claimed that the House had a right to know. Certainly the House and the country are entitled to know the cost to public funds of this group of temporary public servants. That information has been given. The House has been told the range of salaries involved and it has been given other information about salary limits.

The question of individual salaries raises different issues, and I shall try to explain why these have not been revealed in detail. The explanation is simple. The special advisers are distinguished from the permanent Civil Service in that they hold limited period appointments which end when the Administration comes to an end. They have no security of tenure. This fact has been highlighted by the events of the last few days. Their appointments are to be terminated on the date on which the present Prime Minister's resignation takes effect.

Special advisers have left other employment to work for Ministers of the Crown for an entirely unpredictable period. About one-third of them are able to give their services only part-time, and their appointments reflect this fact. The Government believe that it would not be fair on these individuals, and, indeed, that it would be quite invidious, bearing in mind the very temporary nature of their employment, if their salaries were the subject of exchanges across the Floor of the House. Nor do I think that that would assist the public interest. It may be argued that some special advisers have given the Press information about their salaries. That is a matter for them. But it is not the Government's present intention to list the individual salaries of special advisers.

What emerged clearly from the hon. Gentleman's speech tonight is that he has reservations about the appointment of special advisers—at least under this Administration. He is entitled to that view, but he will need to support it with sounder arguments than he used tonight before anyone will take his case seriously.

Mr. Gow

Since the Minister has said that it is not the policy of the Government to disclose the individual salaries of their special advisers, will he say why the salary of Professor Lord Kaldor was disclosed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Parliamentary Answer to me?

Mr. Morris

I am certain that in disclosing that salary my right hon. Friend consulted the individual concerned.

What I found fascinating was the hon. Gentleman's acceptance that there is nothing new in the practice of Ministers calling on people other than permanent civil servants to assist them in fulfilling their responsibilities. I accept that he is right in that regard.

The practice of employing small numbers of experts and advisers personally appointed by Ministers has been followed by successive Administrations. People with individual qualities and experience have a great deal to contribute. If their contribution serves to increase the effectiveness of political direction of the Government machine, one might have supposed that even the hon. Gentleman would see some value in the practice, at least if his own party were ever again to be entrusted with the responsibilities of government.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Report of the Fulton Committee on the Civil Service. It is true that that Committee recognised the advantages associated with the appointment of special advisers and experts. What it said was: We welcome this practice as a means of bringing new men and ideas into the Service of the State. Exactly—and the Conservative Administration took the same view, though I accept that the hon. Member for Eastbourne was not then in the House. Not only did that Administration have political advisers; they also had a team of business men, under the then Mr. Meyjes, including the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) before he joined the House. Their function was, as I understand it, to apply their business expertise to administrative problems.

Then we had very considerable numbers of advisers in industrial matters, who normally were appointed for limited periods, and consultants of various types. I believe that at one time there were 56 of these appointments, all giving the Government of the day the benefit of their experience.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Commercial experience.

Mr. Morris

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways: either a Government should be entitled to draw upon such experience as exists or they should refrain entirely. Both this Administration and their Conservative predecessors have taken a pragmatic view. They have gone outside the Civil Service if the necessary expertise and experience could not be found within it.

The hon. Gentleman appears to take an extremely dogmatic view, and I wonder how far it is shared by his own Front Bench. Is it now official Conservative policy that Ministers should seek advice only from the permanent Civil Service? I would be the first person to acknowledge the contribution that the Civil Service makes to public administration—

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Morris

Indeed, I seem to spend a great deal of my time defending the service from unjustified attack. But neither I nor permanent civil servants—nor the Civil Service trade union movement—would claim that the permanent Civil Service has a monopoly of wisdom.

Mr. Crowder

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. The hon. and learned Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder) has been in the House long enough to know that if the Minister does not give way, he must resume his seat.

Mr. Crowder

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman had the advantage of seeing me. I am sure that he will give way to me.

Mr. Morris

Very briefly.

Mr. Crowder

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House the difference between the money paid by his Government and that paid by the previous Administration to these people?

Mr. Morris

In terms of the expenditure in both categories, I shall write to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Crowder

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is not an answer to my question.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There is no point of order that can arise out of the Minister's statement.

Mr. Morris

I was saying that neither I nor permanent civil servants—nor the Civil Service trade union movement—would claim that the permanent Civil Service has a monopoly of wisdom. On the contrary, they recognise that temporary advisers have a role to play and, moreover, that they should play this role as temporary civil servants, paid from public funds.

Mr. Sproat


Mr. Morris

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is erecting his case not on the principle of taking advice from outside the Civil Service—a principle that his Front Bench accepted when in office—but on the scale on which this has been done under the present Government. If the charge was that the number of special advisers had proliferated so tremendously that our system of government involving relations between Ministers and Members of Parliament, and between Ministers and civil servants, had been fundamentally changed, the hon. Member would be right to be alarmed.

Mr. Crowder

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. To what extent is the Minister allowed to read out this rubbish without really giving any consideration—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that it is a custom of this House that Ministers are allowed to use copious notes at the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Morris

I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the hon. Member for Eastbourne also consulted extensively the notes that he had prepared.

Mr. Crowder

But he did not read out his speech.

Mr. Morris

Having made that point, I was about to indicate that I should share the anxiety of the hon. Member for Eastbourne in that regard. But the facts really are quite different. I should certainly not wish to see a day when the Civil Service ceased to be a basically career service. I believe that one of the strengths of our system of government is the permanence and continuity of the Civil Service. But is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that while it was acceptable for his Government to employ a few advisers, together with a lot more business men, the present total of under 30 special advisers represents a threat to democracy?

In fact, the number of special advisers today is about the same as it was in November 1974. Moreover, that some Ministers have not thought it necessary to appoint special advisers is significant. This must surely indicate that the conspiracy theory, seemingly embraced by the hon. Member and about which some might think he and his parliamentary colleagues—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twelve minutes to Twelve o'clock.