HC Deb 24 April 1998 vol 310 cc1152-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

2.39 pm
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I am pleased to be able to raise this most important matter, which I know concerns many right hon. and hon. Members. I am sorry that the timing of the debate means that the Minister has not been able to return to his constituency to prepare for a good weekend. With no disrespect to him, however, it would have been more satisfactory to be able to hear from the Minister without Portfolio, who is mainly responsible for the presentation and co-ordination of Government policy. Perhaps the Government were keen to try to avoid a confrontation of that nature. I hope that that is not the case.

The issues that I shall raise may be batted away today, and the next time, and the time after that, but the Government are on a sticky wicket, and eventually they will find themselves out if they do not take action. I say that as someone who is broadly sympathetic to what the Government are trying to do; who believes that they have made great strides in some areas, notably constitutional reform; and who does not want to see the return of a Tory Government. I hope, therefore, that what I say will be taken in the constructive spirit in which it is intended.

My case is that, although the Government have done much to open the doors and let in fresh air, the method of operation of the press office runs counter to that. The very effectiveness of the Minister without Portfolio and of Mr. Alastair Campbell, the second Minister without Portfolio, and his colleagues is such that I believe that democratic accountability is being undermined. It is being undermined by the bypassing of Parliament by leaking stories to the media before Parliament is given the facts; by the use of the press office for party as opposed to Government purposes; by the incestuous relationship with Rupert Murdoch; and by the power apparently given by the Prime Minister to the unelected Mr. Campbell to order Cabinet Ministers about. I shall deal with each in turn.

Madam Speaker recently raised a most important and serious point, which deserves the serious attention of the House. Many Members, including me, feel strongly about the matter. I refer to the increasing tendency of the Government to leak news in advance to friendly media contacts, most notably in the Murdoch press. How many times have we woken up to a story in the newspapers heralding a Government announcement that trailed on behind in a statement at 3.30 pm? How many Budget leaks were there, playing up the good news and getting people accustomed to the bad, so that there would be a clearly positive reception for the event on the day? As Madam Speaker has said, all Governments have done it. She added that it had been "rather blatant" in the preceding six months.

In opposition, the Labour party was extremely good at news manipulation. I would take my hat off to it if I were wearing one—presumably it would be a top hat in this establishment. The Minister without Portfolio and Mr. Campbell are extremely effective. They played a major role in securing a Labour victory last year. To turn The Sun round from its Kinnock light bulb of 1992 to its support in 1997 was no mean feat.

The trouble now comes from that very effectiveness. What are the constraints upon the Minister without Portfolio and Mr. Campbell? Is it healthy that they should now continue to maximise their returns, when so many extra levers, and so many powerful ones, are now there to pull? A driver progressing from a Mini to a Jaguar?—the Deputy Prime Minister, perhaps—does not put his or her foot flat on the floor. He or she will drive at well below maximum power. That is responsible and in the interests of others—and ultimately, also, in the interests of the driver.

In a recent television interview, Madam Speaker rightly said: There are far too many of what I would term apparatchiks who have been accustomed, when a party was in opposition, to want to get the maximum publicity. Now in government, they have to be harnessed a little more. I entirely agree with Madam Speaker's sentiments.

Let me be clear. I am not criticising Mr. Campbell, who is only doing his job, and is doing it rather well. 1 am criticising the Prime Minister for allowing him too much leeway. I strongly suggest that he should now put a limit on the power afforded to his communications team. I shall be grateful if the Minister will give the House his personal opinion when he responds to the debate. I hope that such leeway is allowed on the Government Front Bench. I should be interested to know whether the Minister has drafted his speech or whether it has been provided for him to some degree from behind the scenes.

The Prime Minister recently made the revealing admission at Question Time that his chief press officer, a civil servant, did an effective job of attacking the Conservative party."—[Official Report, 1 April 1998; Vol. 309, c. 1252.] That was an amazing flash of honesty; clearly the Prime Minister was not on message at the time. Will the Minister say under what circumstances Mr. Campbell or any special adviser is given the authority to act party politically?

I am grateful to the Minister for referring me this morning to a document from the Library, the "Model Contract for Special Advisers". Paragraph viii at page 12 states that special advisers must not take part in political controversy, must observe discretion, and must express comment with moderation. I humbly suggest that those descriptions do not fit Mr. Campbell and his press team. Will the Minister clarify whether the Prime Minister regrets making such an overt comment about Mr. Campbell's political activities, or does he stick by it?

Party and Government interests appear to have become clouded and dangerously entangled. The Government must realise that the interests of the Labour party are not the same as those of the Government, let alone the country. Will the Minister confirm that the Government accept that?

The attendance of the chief press officer at Cabinet meetings is also a cause for considerable concern. Is he now the unofficial 23rd Cabinet Minister—a surrogate who is a Minister in all but name? I cannot help wondering what purpose is being served. Does the Minister agree with the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who said: Alastair Campbell's attendance at Cabinet meetings is perhaps another step down the path towards a presidential system. Does he agree with the Cabinet Minister who on Sunday 5 April told The Sunday Times:

It is all right if you are a fully paid-up Blairite. But if you are not, and you speak your mind in cabinet, there is a fear that No 10 will brief against you."? That can only cause suspicion about the way in which the Government are dealing with Ministers, let alone Labour Back Benchers.

Hon. Members will recall that a stiff reprimand was recently delivered to the Secretary of State for Social Security in a letter from the press secretary which was published by the Sunday Express. According to the Sunday Express, Alastair Campbell wrote: I see from today's papers that no matter how much we urge silence, congenital briefing goes on about who was responsible for what… I do not want to see interpretation of either in tomorrow's press. It is time facts took over from personalities. Did the Prime Minister authorise the letter? Does he endorse unelected officials treating Ministers like naughty children who need their pocket money withdrawn? Is it not humiliating for a Minister to be treated in such a way? Ministers may be reluctant to say anything publicly in case an unflattering article about them appears in the Murdoch press the next day.

Will the Minister clarify the chief press secretary's role in internal disputes between Ministers? The Prime Minister should publish as soon as possible a document about the press office that sets out the powers and responsibilities of those in it, how far they can go and the role of the strategic communications unit. There should be personalised job descriptions for such apparatchiks: we need to know their powers in relation to Cabinet Ministers, and what line management exists.

The Minister will say that things were the same when Bernard Ingham was the voice of Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps they were in some ways, but I thought that the Government wanted no truck with the sleazy behaviour that characterised the previous Government. I know that things are different, but they are not different in this area. The Government should be new Labour, not old Tory.

There is a deeper problem. The importance afforded to media image in recent years is at such a level that it distracts people from real issues. Instead of deciding what the Government want to do and marketing that accordingly, it seems that much time is taken up with how something will play in the media, with policy consequences following on behind. We must guard against that.

Recently there has been publicity over the relationship between the Prime Minister and those in his circle with Rupert Murdoch. It seems that no offence must be given to Mr. Murdoch. His media ownership in this country, which, at 40 per cent., is excessive, must not be touched. The Lords amendment that would have limited his power is to be overturned. Does the Minister understand how uncomfortable his Labour colleagues are with that line? Perhaps he, too, is uncomfortable with it.

Between 1985 and 1995, Mr. Murdoch's company, News International, paid only £11.74 million in tax on profits of almost £1 billion, at a rate of 1.2p in the pound. Such generosity to an American citizen who was born in Australia can hardly help the Treasury. The motivation is clear: it is to keep Mr. Murdoch on board and his newspapers on side. All Governments want maximum media support, but what if the price is to allow distortion of the media market and to play down, even tone down, the Government's European policy and credentials, so that he who is alleged to be virulently anti-European is not upset? Should a Government acting in the interests of the country pay that price?

If that motivation seems far-fetched, let us consider the article in The Observer of 19 April, in which the Minister without Portfolio, the spin doctor in the House, spoke about the extraordinary importance that Downing street attaches to maintaining the support of Mr. Murdoch's newspapers. He suggested that the Prime Minister feels that he has to "convert Murdoch" before a referendum can be called on the European single currency. Incidentally, the Foreign Secretary revealed that the Cabinet was never consulted on that.

Perhaps the Prime Minister's recent willingness to help Mr. Murdoch with his Italian business interests was an attempt to make him more sympathetic to Europe. Helping Mr. Murdoch by personally discussing his business on the telephone with the Italian Prime Minister was a generous gesture on his part. We are lucky to have such a considerate and caring Prime Minister. What a shame that the episode has been surrounded by what the Labour Chair of the Public Administration Committee described as the rather unedifying spectacle of half truths and non-denial denials".

At the beginning, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said that there was "no such phone call." The suggestion that our Prime Minister had helped Mr. Murdoch in that way was described as "a complete joke" by the Prime Minister's press secretary. The Financial Times revealed that an Italian official had confirmed the phone call and had told the paper that the impression that the Prime Minister was acting on behalf of Mr. Murdoch would appear to make sense.

It was left to Mr. Murdoch's own paper, The Times, to confirm that the Prime Minister had indeed spoken to his Italian counterpart on Mr. Murdoch's behalf. No such phone call? A complete joke? If it was all so above board and proper, why was there a cover-up? We must conclude that senior Government figures have been somewhat economical with the truth from beginning to end. It seems that the Prime Minister is very much in bed with Mr. Murdoch, and I do not envy the Prime Minister in that respect.

This is all a pity, because the Government made such a good start with their freedom of information proposals. The episode is clearly at odds with the openness and progress elsewhere, although I note with interest a parliamentary answer that I received from the excellent and much leaked-against Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to the effect that the No.10 press office and the strategic communications unit will be covered by that forthcoming legislation. Perhaps that sort of commitment explains why the Chancellor of the Duchy is so often leaked against. His assurance is in marked contrast to the Prime Minister's recent answers on the same subject.

Inquiries about how much the strategic communications unit will cost the taxpayer have been answered in non-committal terms—"The budget has not been finalised," or, "The budget will be set in the usual way". I keenly await freedom of information legislation.

There are other connections between the Prime Minister and Mr. Murdoch. We recently learned that another member of the Prime Minister's press office, deputy press secretary Tim Allen, had jumped camp to take up a senior job with BSkyB. It seems that News International has hired the lobbying firm Lawson, Lucas, Mendelsohn, which is well placed to whisper in Government ears. Neal Lawson once worked for the Chancellor of the Exchequer; Ben Lucas for the Home Secretary; and John Mendelsohn for the Prime Minister. It seems that among their roles is work on media ownership legislation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) recently joined in the widespread expressions of concern over the matter when he drew attention to it at Prime Minister's Question Time. He spoke about the "seemingly unstoppable growth" in the media power and political influence of Mr. Rupert Murdoch, saying that the Prime Minister must do something about media ownership, and that the only way of doing so was to amend the Competition Bill.

What is to be done to rectify these matters? The press function must be more accountable and less powerful, and that would be in the interests of democracy and of the Labour Government. As I said earlier, the Prime Minister should publish a paper setting out the exact remit of his press team. We need an annual report detailing the activities of the press office and an opportunity for Parliament to debate that. We need a commitment from the Prime Minister not to drive his press team with his foot to the floor, and a commitment that his press team will work in a Government rather than a party role. We need a commitment that important statements will be made first to the House and not leaked to the media in advance. Ministers must be allowed to do their jobs without being subjected to vilification by unelected officials and without having to worry about who is leaking against them.

I hope that the Government will take these issues seriously and will act accordingly. Will the Minister add his weight to such proposals? If he does, it will go some way towards addressing the many issues that I have raised.

I note that Mr. Campbell is due to appear before the Public Administration Committee in coming months to explain his actions in more detail because of the seriousness of the matter. I congratulate the Committee on its determination to hold the Government to account, and 1 look forward to reading its deliberations.

I hope that both the Minister and Government take on board the criticisms that I have raised—constructively, I hope—and continue down the road to fully accountable and transparent government. if the Government are brave, they will find many people to support them.

2.54 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)

I certainly put my weight behind all sorts of things. Whether I will put it behind the many contentions of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) is a moot point. I came here to answer him on the subject of Prime Minister's press office, but, as usual in his scatter-gun approach, he seems to have ranged across a series of targets and, true to form, to have missed most of them.

The Government's overall political strategy, direction and style is set by the Prime Minister. As he has made clear, the Government intend to address serious problems with the consideration that they deserve. We shall co-ordinate the development of our policies within government, across departmental boundaries and in discussion with our private sector partners and the wider public and voluntary sectors. We shall communicate those policies clearly and coherently.

The Prime Minister has appointed his chief press secretary as a special adviser to advise him on the effective presentation of policy and to lead the No. 10 press office to ensure that the essential messages and key themes that underpin the Government's strategy are sustained. The strategic communications unit, which was established at the beginning of this year, adds a strategic dimension to the communication of Government policy. The unit reports to the Prime Minister's chief press secretary.

The No. 10 press office gives a clear sense of purpose and direction from the centre, liaising closely with departmental press offices, agreeing how departmental communications can best play into broader Government objectives, and ensuring that Government announcements are communicated in a structured and coherent manner—for example, through clearing major interview bids and the timing and form of announcements.

Authority for the co-ordinating and leadership role of the chief press secretary and the No. 10 press office flows from paragraph 88 of the ministerial code, which states: In order to ensure the effective presentation of Government policy, all major interviews and media appearances, both print and broadcast, should be agreed with the No. 10 Press Office before any commitments are entered into. The policy content of all major speeches, press releases and new policy initiatives should be cleared in good time with the No. 10 Private Office, the timing and form of announcements should be cleared with the No. to Press Office". That is not a new requirement; it has been the practice—as the hon. Gentleman said I would remark—of successive Administrations. The only difference is that this Government are enforcing the rule.

On the specific issue of the memo that was issued by the chief press secretary to the Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women and to the Minister for Welfare Reform, that was issued on the authority of the Prime Minister. The chief press secretary was acting entirely within the rules.

Incidentally, the No. 10 press office is staffed mainly by career civil servants, but this Government take the view that the post of chief press secretary—a post in the most politically exposed area of government—should be performed by someone who is not expected to have to perform a similar role for another Government.

There are many precedents for political appointments to the chief press secretary job at No. 10; we have to think only of people such as Joe Haines, who fulfilled a similar role. As a Government, we wanted to be above board and open about our intentions for that role, which is why, immediately on our election to government, we amended the Civil Service Order in Council to allow a maximum of three special adviser posts in No. 10 to have executive powers, allowing the people occupying those posts to have civil servants working directly for them.

We have heard from those on the Opposition Benches that those appointments are the first steps towards the politicisation of the civil service. That is most definitely not the case.

Mr. Baker

Just for the record, that comment was made by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, who is a Labour Member, and not by me.

Mr. Kilfoyle

It may have been made by a variety of people, but, as I have said, it has been made from those on the Opposition Benches.

The terms of the special adviser contract, of which the hon. Member for Lewes said that he was aware as a result of a debate on the radio this morning, allows the chief press secretary and other special advisers to discharge their role with a degree of party political commitment that would not be permissible for a permanent, politically impartial civil servant.

Special advisers are free from the obligation placed on all other civil servants to be politically impartial. Unlike other civil servants, special advisers are not required to act in a way that would enable them to gain the confidence of future Ministers of another Administration. We believe that, by distinguishing clearly and openly the roles of special advisers, it avoids any creeping politicisation.

The hon. Gentleman made certain charges, including the one that uncontrolled power was wielded by the chief press secretary. He said that we should exercise some constraint over the operation of the press office and that we needed some clarification in writing of the powers and role of the press office. That is rubbish, even by the hon. Gentleman's standards.

The chief press secretary, like all other civil servants, is accountable to a Minister, who in turn is accountable to Parliament. The terms and conditions of employment are based on provisions set out in the model contract. What can and cannot be done by special advisers, including the chief press secretary, in such circumstances are circumscribed by the model contract for special advisers, which is published; by the ministerial code, which is published; by guidance on the work of the government information service, which is published; and by the Mountfield report, which sets out the relationship between special advisers and members of the government information and communications service, and which is also published.

The hon. Gentleman also made the charge of statements being leaked to the press in advance of being made in Parliament, and suggested that that was somehow attributable to the chief press secretary. The ministerial code clearly states: Ministers will want to bear in mind that the most important announcements should be made in the first instance to Parliament"— and so they should. The hon. Gentleman referred to the letter from the chief press secretary to the Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women and to the Minister for Welfare Reform. If he read the letter, he would recognise that the chief press secretary was exhorting people to stem the alleged leads from the Department.

The hon. Gentleman again spoke of an incestuous relationship with Mr. Rupert Murdoch, and linked it directly with the chief press secretary. Mr. Murdoch is not treated any differently from anybody else. The hon. Gentleman referred to the telephone conversation between the Prime Minister and Mr. Prodi. Again, it has been made abundantly clear by the Prime Ministers and others that the reality is that the telephone call was initiated by Mr. Prodi, not the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that he will go in to bat for any British company—indeed, he does so regularly. He did so for BSkyB.

The hon. Gentleman inferred that the chief press secretary speaks for the Labour party and so confuses his office. I want to make it clear here and now that the chief press secretary is not a spokesman for the Labour party; he is a spokesman for the Government and responsible for the presentation of Government policy. He also questioned whether the chief press secretary attends Cabinet meetings. There is nothing strange about civil servants attending Cabinet meetings as observers. If the hon. Gentleman wants to attribute some sinister motive to that, that is down to him. I assure him that he is far removed from the truth.

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would begin to understand the very different roles of the Minister without Portfolio and the chief press secretary. I do not know whether it is by design or through confusion, but he tends to mix up the two roles and the two personalities.

The hon. Gentleman referred to The Observer report of an anonymous member of the Cabinet who apparently made allegations about the way matters were conducted at No. 10. He should not expect anyone here to respond to anonymous allegations of any sort—whether they come from those on the Opposition Benches or those on the Government Benches, or are some fabrication by a third party.

The hon. Gentleman has also misunderstood line management in the context of the role of special advisers. It is abundantly clear exactly how the line management operates in terms of the chief press secretary's role in the press office at No. 10 and his relationship with the strategic communications unit. That unit was set up on the recommendation of the Mountfield report. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Robin Mountfield is a permanent secretary. The unit was set up with the full co-operation of the Government Information Service.

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the civil service and, within that, the Government Information Service, would willingly lie down either before the politicisation of the civil service or before particular individuals or politicians trying to ride roughshod over its interests and professionalism, he not only misunderstands the civil service, and in particular the Government Information Service, but demeans its professionalism.

Civil servants are as interested as any politician in presenting for the Government of the day an effective case for Government policy. Clearly, politicians would be partial and political, but civil servants are not. They are professional people who accept that, with a change of Government, changing personalities and, indeed, changing times, the way in which the Government's message is communicated, across government, in the House and certainly to the wider public, is a matter to be reviewed. They have been extremely supportive.

Mr. Baker

For the record, I make it clear that I am in no way impugning the civil service; I was talking about the special advisers.

Mr. Kilfoyle

I accept that the hon. Gentleman made no direct imputation that the civil service was somehow weak or vacillating, but the thrust of his argument that there are certain special advisers and, indeed, elected politicians who ride roughshod over the service does not do sufficient credit to its professionalism and the fact that its members would respond dutifully according to their own code of conduct. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seriously misunderstands that they appreciate that they have a very different role from that of the special advisers, which is especially so in the case of the job that the chief press secretary has.

I found some of the hon. Gentleman's charges a bit rich—he said that, somehow, the Government's message was being distorted and that we were not being wholly truthful about the way in which the press machines operates, whether in No. 10 or elsewhere—given that he represents a party renowned for the use of, for example, the focus leaflet. That leaflet is famous for its mixture of half-truths, innuendo and downright lies—it is a Heinz 57 variety of politics. A different version of that leaflet is appearing for different councils in different parts of the country, so we shall take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman or his party.

I submit that the No. 10 press office is performing a function that is key to success of the Government's communications strategy. It is working well—excellently, in fact. Nothing that we have heard today suggests otherwise. Indeed, the fact that some Opposition Members are reduced to attacking us on this matter rather than on any serious policy issue confirms just how well the No. 10 press office is performing that task.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Three o'clock.