HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc150-1
21. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

What recent guidance he has provided to Ministers on the public identification of civil servants they believe are responsible for mistakes made by or within their Department. [166189]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the decisions and actions of their Department. That is clearly set out in the ministerial code and a resolution of the House carried on 19 March 1997.

Mr. Luff

Has not the Government's treatment of civil servants in general been utterly shameful? Special advisers are given powers over civil servants in the burying of bad news; the Lord Chancellor is held to be in contempt of Parliament for his treatment of a civil servant; and recently a Home Office Minister blamed an individual in her private office for policy errors for which she should have carried responsibility. If the Government are to squeeze an extra Bill into the legislative timetable, should it not be a long overdue Civil Service Bill, not a Bill to ban hunting?

Mr. Alexander

I am intrigued by the Opposition's legislative priorities, as I have previously noted that a Bill that won the support of the Opposition included a provision for executive powers for special advisers retained under that measure. That said, the Government have introduced a code on special advisers and brought unprecedented transparency to their work in government, so we will take no lessons from the Opposition.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab)

When drafting the Civil Service Bill, will the Minister look at opportunities to deal with this serious problem, which affects not just individual civil servants but the trade unions as well? Will he confirm that he meets civil service trade unions to discuss those issues?

Mr. Alexander

I assure my hon. Friend that I meet regularly with the Council of Civil Service Unions. The Public Administration Committee published its own draft Civil Service Bill on 5 January, and my officials are currently preparing a draft Government Bill.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

The Minister holds that it is not important to protect the civil service and define the relationships between civil servants, political appointees and Ministers, but that is not what he said in January, when we called for a Civil Service Bill. He promised one then, just as Labour have done every year since 1997, but in the three months since, the Lord Chancellor has been found guilty of contempt of Parliament for his treatment of a civil servant. What a disgrace. On top of that, we have a Home Office Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call the Minister.

Mr. Alexander

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I shall try to rescue the Opposition spokesman from the difficulties in which he finds himself. The Conservatives had 18 years in which to introduce a Civil Service Bill, but did not take the opportunity to do so in any of those legislative Sessions. We gave a commitment in January in the House, and we will honour it.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab)

Is it not the case that if something goes wrong in an organisation it will want to know exactly what happened and who was at fault? With the civil service, however, when the issue comes to public notice, the media's thirst for news makes it inevitable that the identity of civil servants who prove to be at fault will come out. Should we not reflect that reality in a new Civil Service Bill?

Mr. Alexander

I will bear in mind my hon. Friend's comments in relation to the work that is under way on the Civil Service Bill. As regards some of the specific cases in the news in recent months, there is little that I can usefully add at this stage.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD)

Is not the question whether civil servants make mistakes sometimes difficult to establish because of the confusion over the role of special advisers? Can the Minister explain, for a start, why Jonathan Powell should have the right to issue orders to civil servants? Would it not also be helpful if there were a process for identifying publicly the mistakes made by special advisers, such as some of the rubbish put forward by Lord Birt?

Mr. Alexander

The basis on which power is exercised in Downing street by Mr. Jonathan Powell was made clear in the Order in Council when Labour came to power in 1997. As I said, it is significant that the Conservatives chose to support a draft Bill earlier this year that maintained the power of two executive positions in Downing street for a future Administration. Nevertheless, I shall bear his comments in mind.