HL Deb 19 December 1996 vol 576 cc1622-65

11.39 a.m.

Baroness Hayman rose to call attention to the need for a comprehensive statutory code of conduct and ethics for the Civil Service to ensure that civil servants give impartial advice and do not carry out tasks which would jeopardise their political neutrality; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is becoming something of a tradition in your Lordships' House to debate matters relating to the Civil Service on the last day before the Houses rises for the Recess. I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have delayed the start of their Christmas break to be in the Chamber for the debate today. I hope that they will agree with me that the timing of the debate may be personally inconvenient but, politically, very apposite.

Next year we shall see a general election and a change of administration. We shall either, as I hope and believe, see a change in the party of government and a new Labour Administration or, the Lord forfend, an unprecedented fifth Conservative term extending even further a period of one-party government unparalleled in this country this century. In either eventuality I believe it essential that we take on the difficult and challenging task of drawing up a comprehensive and statutory code of ethics and conduct for civil servants to enforce high standards of impartiality and political neutrality.

The purpose of such a code would be two-fold: first, to ensure that the duties of civil servants are perfectly clear to those entering and working within the public service and, secondly, and equally importantly—for these matters are two sides of the same coin—to act as a curb on Ministers tempted to make improper and incorrect demands of those civil servants.

Such a project would be a formidable and not a simple task. It would entail looking at the whole of the content of Questions of Procedure for Ministers and of giving a definition to what Professor Vernon Bogdanov has described as, tautology dressed up as guidance

at the centre of that code that Ministers should have a duty not to ask civil servants to do things which they should not do".

It would mean having to seek to define the crucial areas of ministerial responsibility and ministerial accountability, highlighted by the Scott and Nolan reports, brought into sharp relief by the creation of the Next Steps agencies and the privatisation programme and so clearly illustrated by the ongoing saga of Mr. Michael Howard and the Prison Service, although I must admit that on the question of definitions we may need to invoke a little help from the Jesuits in getting it right.

I am not so naive as to believe that a statutory code would of itself ensure proper behaviour or protect us from the difficult problems of interpretation that inevitably arise in areas such as this. But what it could do, and what it would be essential that it did do, is create the framework in which we all recognise that high standards are expected and that lapses will be punished. It could make explicit those expectations about the behaviour of civil servants, and it could also, and crucially, protect those civil servants from Ministers who are often shown to be less fastidious than they should be in these areas.

This is not an issue in which we can afford to demand anything less than the best. As the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee in another place put it in its Fifth Report in 1994: The civil service's commitment to the highest standards of performance and conduct is a guarantee of constitutional and financial propriety and good government". The quality of our Civil Service is crucial to the quality of our democracy. We tamper with its structures in ways that undermine its value at our peril.

The Government's rhetoric in this area is absolutely impeccable. Only two weeks ago, on 5th December, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who will speak for the Government today, told us, at col. 781 of the Official Report, that the Government were committed to, A permanent, politically impartial Civil Service, recruited through principles of fair and open competition and selection on merit and determined to, uphold the values of integrity, impartiality and objectivity across the service". I share those ideals. I freely admit to a rather passionate conservatism in regard to the Civil Service and the pillars of its values put in place by the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms last century.

But we all recognise in this House that there have been profound changes in the structures and organisation of the Civil Service in the past 17 years. Those changes have amounted not only to a revolution in the structures but, some of us fear, to an undermining of the values on which the service was built.

The scale and profundity of these changes is such that your Lordships' House has set up a special Select Committee to investigate, the present condition and future development of the Public Service", We all, I believe, look forward to the results of that wide-ranging inquiry with enormous interest.

Most of the organisational changes that have gone on have been motivated by the twin aims of seeking greater efficiency and value for money. These are not considerations that any of us should dismiss lightly. But some have been ideologically based and have reflected the Government's inability to see and understand that market mechanisms and managerial theories are not always transferable to, or desirable in, the public sector. In education and in health the people of this country have learnt those very hard lessons. In the crucial area of policy advice from civil servants the culture of the market can not only be inappropriate but highly damaging.

In his analysis of the effect of these structural changes on the three pillars of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, Lord Bancroft, who is so sadly missed in this House, concluded that the first two pillars—a unified service and a career service—had been, as he put it, "chipped away" by the organisational changes. Then the Government took a sledgehammer to the third with the privatisation of the Recruitment and Assessment Service, undertaken, as the Deputy Prime Minister volunteered so cavalierly to the Select Committee of your Lordships' House, in order to "free" that organisation from, the whole ethos of public service life". What a world of prejudice can lurk in a single phrase!

I want to concentrate today on the political neutrality and impartiality of the Civil Service in its crucial, core task—the giving of policy advice. In these days of performance indicators, if there were one "stretch objective" given to Whitehall encapsulating its ethos and purpose it would be that it should always obey that noble injunction, to speak truth unto power". To give frank and fearless advice of the highest quality to those set in political authority above them is the supreme duty of the career civil servant. To receive such advice is not always a comforting or comfortable experience, as I hope many of my noble and honourable friends are soon to discover. But it is in all our interests that it should be safeguarded and robustly exercised.

The reason that I believe we need a statutory comprehensive code, over and above that which already exists, is not because I accept the argument that some crude politicisation of the Civil Service has gone on over the past four Conservative administrations. But 17 years is a very long time. People become set in their ways: a pattern of what has been called "thought colonisation" sets in. In the words of my noble friend Lord Callaghan, officials, pick up the scent and they begin to present to ministers what they want to hear". And for Ministers in power for too long there is the temptation of corner-cutting, which comes with easy familiarity with executive convenience.

The non-statutory code introduced in January of this year has not, it appears, worked to anyone's satisfaction. Mr. Heseltine, adopting, I suspect, the old adage that attack is the best form of defence, says that the Civil Service is now infested with a culture of politically motivated leaking. Others, more seriously, are concerned that the combined code and the publication of Questions of Procedure for Ministers, with its revision after the Scott report, have not prevented a series of disquieting incidents in which Ministers' adherence to the injunction that they, must not use public resources for party political purposes has been brought into question.

Perhaps we may look at a few examples. There was the widely criticised use of the Cabinet Office to draw up a press release in the wake of the Scott Inquiry claiming that the report of that inquiry exonerated the Government from any criticism whatever.

There was the highly unusual White Paper A Service with Ambitions, issued by the Secretary of State last month. It contained no legislative proposals whatever but was full of glossy pictures and fictional case histories of totally mythical patients. The document was prepared by career civil servants and cost £170,000 to produce. It was nothing less than a campaigning document which was intended—according to one's degree of cynicism—to persuade either the electorate that the NHS was safe in Conservative hands or Tory loyalists that their party might be safe in Mr. Dorrell's.

More recently, there was the publication of another work of fiction heralded by Dr. Brian Mawhinney, New Labour's Public Expenditure Plans. That purported to be an objective assessment of the cost of Labour policies. From the outcry following that disgraceful document, we learn that it is apparently permissible under current arrangements for taxpayers' money and civil servants' time to be spent on providing costings of whatever the fevered imaginations of government policy advisers conjure up as Opposition plans, regardless of how ludicrous those assumptions may be. Exactly how far from reality were those proposals costed in that way by civil servants at public expense was shown in detailed Answers to Parliamentary Questions elicited by my right honourable friend Mr. Derek Foster in another place this week.

We come to the important and crucial affair of the Deputy Prime Minister and his proposed panel of cheerleaders for government policy in the public services, about which there has been so much discussion. Such cheerleaders were needed because, as he admitted with laudable candour in his letter to the Prime Minister on the subject, an important part of the presentation problem was that the media turned for information and opinion to service deliverers, many of whom were opposed to government policies. There is a message there, but it is not one that apparently the Government are willing to accept. We learn from the same document that the view of the Ministers arraigned to deal with these issues was that the best way to improve public services was to put delivery in the hands of the private sector, as had been done with the utilities.

Noble Lords will recall that, according to Mr. Heseltine, the matter was simply a misunderstanding. When he suggested, as one way to redress the balance, that panels of people who were associated with the public service and who could be proponents of policies, should be set up and he asked Ministers to find candidates for such panels from their own departments, he never envisaged that civil servants would be involved in that task. They would be only political advisers who operated according to much laxer rules. Nothing was further from his mind. Unfortunately, the note sent out by a career civil servant in the Cabinet Office did not make this absolutely clear. It was received by private offices of departments. It was drawn to the attention of Sir Robin Butler. As he confirmed at the hearing of the Public Service Select Committee in another place yesterday, he discussed the issue with Mr. Heseltine, the note was withdrawn, it was agreed by all concerned that it was totally inappropriate for career civil servants to be involved and that the recruitment task should be left only to political advisers who, as Sir Robin put it, provided the bridge between party and ministerial activity.

Mr. Heseltine maintained that as soon as Sir Robin pointed out the possible ambiguity he was delighted to clarify the issue. When he gave evidence he told the committee that he preferred to err on the side of caution in these matters. He never intended that anyone other than the political advisers should do this work. But if one looks at the detail another issue is at stake, and it was one in which Sir Robin also had to intervene. The issue was who should be included in the list of cheerleaders in the first place. The relevant passage reads: These might include fundholding general practitioners, head teachers … and prison governors". Prison governors, my Lords? They may work for an agency but they are still career civil servants and should never be recruited to evangelise for Ministers in this task. There is no ambiguity about that and no generous interpretation can be given to the words of the Deputy Prime Minister or that group of Ministers. Civil Servants were included on the list and the recommendation was put to the Prime Minister himself without any of them calling attention to the blatant contravention of paragraph 1 of Questions of Procedure for Ministers: Ministers should not use public resources for party political purposes". The present code did not prevent that.

In his second Radcliffe Lecture at the University of Warwick, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, summed up the concerns felt by many of us about the state of public confidence and trust in government in this country. He said that in recent years suspicion had deepened into profound scepticism about the motives and intentions of those in public life. I argue today for a statutory code of ethics and conduct to strengthen and revitalise the Civil Service after 17 years of profound change and to provide robust structures to support its enduring values in a changed environment. I believe, however, that in providing that direction for the Civil Service we should also contribute to the crucial, painstaking and very necessary task of rebuilding confidence more widely in the conduct of public affairs in Britain as we approach the next century. I beg to move for Papers.

11.55 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, we are grateful indeed to the noble Baroness for enabling us to discuss the problems of the Civil Service. My first concern is the fragmentation of the service that is being carried out—the Deputy Prime Minister has referred to it as changing the culture—and the effect of that fragmentation and attack on the public service ethos. Next, I am concerned about the way in which the culture is being changed and its effect on the performance on the service which was designed to give impartial and high quality advice, to execute it and, in so doing, to comply with the law and the UK's international treaty obligations.

Value for money is now a criterion by which everything is judged. Every White Paper or report is full of the jargon. They refer to business plans, annual performance agreements, market testing, competing for quality, charter marks and, not least, the private finance initiative—a splendid example of which was the married quarters estate. The diplomatic wing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been told to work on PFIs to help pay for new embassies in Berlin, Beirut, Quito and Tunis. Any country can tender for those PFIs. I do not know whether I am more concerned by the security implications or the demeaning nature of such proposals.

In January 1995 the Government said in their White Paper that they recognised that the Civil Service was not the property of a single Administration. Sadly, they are doing their utmost to fragment and in the end destroy that same Civil Service. They have already committed themselves to a new Civil Service code. I am glad of that. But, alas, it demonstrates that they do not understand the nature of public service and see it as a collection of potentially profitable small sweetshops for sale. According to Command Paper 2748, management of the Civil Service is one of the aspects of the Royal Prerogative which is exercised by Ministers on behalf of the Crown. It follows that it is for Ministers alone to issue instructions concerning the management of the Civil Service, and they do not require parliamentary authority to do so.

I do not dispute the need for any organisation to change and develop to meet new situations. The Next Steps agencies have proved to be useful and innovative. My quarrel is with the dogma that says that everything possible from foreign and defence institutions to science and research must be privatised so that the objectives and tasks of the Civil Service are reduced to one big consultancy report.

The Government's policy is to secure and reinforce the cultural change which lies at the heart of the Next Steps programme. Who is running the agencies? They are not run simply by their parent departments but also the OPS and the Treasury. They are to issue further guidance. It is said that increasing emphasis extending throughout the Civil Service will be placed on many of the principles of Next Steps, including maximum clarity about objectives and targets, delegation of management responsibility and a clear focus on outputs and outcomes. That is the language of consultancy sound bites. There is no word of policy advice. Instead, the efficiency unit will be scrutinising management information systems. The Government intend to have leaner, flatter management structures with less emphasis on working though hierarchies". In the new senior Civil Service, those senior civil servants who still survive—the Government proudly say that the strength of the whole service will soon fall to 500,000 from 739,000 in 1979—will be joined and no doubt suitably educated in the mores of the private sector by agency chief executives. The Government of course recognise that the scale of the changes means compulsory redundancies and does not underestimate the unsettling effect on civil servants of the changes being introduced". That is a masterly under-statement.

All this is being done partly in the name of so-called "value for money", partly out of dogma, and partly as a public relations exercise, cutting the mandarins down to size—and partly too out of honest conviction on the part of Ministers who have never served in the public service, never managed people and who cannot distinguish between the mores of business and the ethics of public service. It is rather like Westminster City Council deciding that "the knowledge", which takes up to 18 months for the black cab drivers to acquire, is not really necessary and that mini-cabs will do much better and be much cheaper. The only thing is that they will not know where to go.

The Government in Command Paper 2748 boast of 102 executive agencies; they say that 62 per cent. of the Civil Service now works in agencies; and the Competing for Quality programme every year is to see more privatisation, strategic contracting-out and market testing. With all that going on it is a mystery when the work of providing high quality policy advice could possibly be fitted in. We are at a critical stage in our relations with the European Union. Every document from Brussels contains the potential for high costs and offers significant policy choices. When will anyone be able to take the time from answering all the efficiency questionnaires to do that essential and highly skilled work that the civil servants have always done but which no agency chief executive is trained to do?

At this point, I should say that I have absolutely no doubts about the integrity of the civil servants and the Ministers concerned in the Scott Report. This is not an issue of integrity; I am discussing what is being done to prevent people from using their experience to advise.

Who actually sits down to consider what is value for money? The FCO budget of £872 million—0.4 per cent. of the £212 billion for all government departments—is regularly cut. The FCO now has 23 more countries to serve; 108 out of its 221 posts have four or fewer UK-based staff. Policy cannot be made nor countries be influenced by locally engaged staff, however devoted. There is now a 28 per cent. increase in consular work and an immense expansion of entry clearance operations, for which the Treasury netted £32.3 million in revenue in 1994-95, which is well over one-third of the department's annual budget. Yet that department, a core department, which is expected to operate on a shoe-string, makes regular and considerable contributions to the wealth of the country. According to the National Audit Office, the overseas trade service helped to generate £345 million of additional business for the UK in South East Asia alone between 1993 and 1995 at a cost of £4.5 million. That is a return of £77 on each £1 spent. But that sort of value for money is not apparently recognised; it does not fit. The same short-sighted inability to detect real value for money in terms of influence and respect for the UK is true of the regularly cut ODA budget. The World Service has also only narrowly been saved.

I am truly concerned that we shall never be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again if something is not done to call a halt and to give the Civil Service a period of stability and trust and an opportunity to do its real job of providing advice to Ministers, not responses to citizen's charters. Real damage is being done to the ability of civil servants to do their core job.

My final point is that despite Questions of Procedure for Ministers and the Civil Service code, Ministers have failed the Civil Service. They do not understand it; they do not value it; nor are they interested in the deep and natural concern of civil servants for the public service that they thought they joined. The RAS experience will have left them feeling utterly insecure. A code will not necessarily get us far if Ministers and civil servants do not speak the same language and do not understand each other. To my mind, the one real way to restore morale would be to waive the Royal Prerogative and to consult Parliament before any further dismantling of a delicate and irreplaceable instrument. I fervently hope that it will be a Conservative Government who do that.

12.5 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, with two such formidable opening salvoes, the temptation is almost to say, "Members of the jury, our case rests" and for us merely to listen to what the Minister has to say. I suspect, however, that the Minister is in for a torrid time this morning.

A month ago I was appointed to serve on the Select Committee on the Public Service, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, referred. I must confess that I was something of an "army volunteer", being persuaded by our very persuasive Chief Whip. My appointment coincided almost exactly with the death of Lord Bancroft. Reading his obituaries, and of how even to the close of his life he had been committed to drawing attention to what was happening to our Civil Service, I realised what an important task the House has set the Select Committee on the Public Service in its consideration of the future of the Civil Service.

There is no doubt that we have gone through 20 years of great turbulence with a 20 per cent. cut in manpower, outsourcing, privatisation, short-term contracts and the rest. In part, the Civil Service is no different from the rest of our society. My father worked for the same company for 47 years in the same place. I am afraid that at the end of the 20th century that security of tenure is open to few people in either the private or the public sector. We are all having to accept a rather less secure future.

Undoubtedly, there was a need for change. There was a feeling at some stage that the Civil Service took too many of our best and brightest and that we were trying to run a Rolls-Royce machine when we needed a more modest car, and that the best and the brightest could be better employed entrepreneurially in the private sector. Indeed, it was said that one of the objectives of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was to lower the morale and esteem of the public service so that some of the best and brightest would not enter it. Perhaps that is one of her policies that succeeded. Certainly, although I do not know whether the noble Baroness ever said it on the public record, one of her legacies has been the infamous question, "Is he one of us?". That echoed throughout the 1980s and has set the tone for the public service. It has been extremely disturbing. Whatever Ministers may say about it, that pervading sense of "Is he one of us?" has to be cleansed from the ethos of our public service.

The problem is that the combination of single-party government for almost two decades plus rapid change has blurred the edges of political neutrality and blunted the independence of advice. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, catalogued too many examples for that fact to be denied. The question now is: what is to be done about it? I do not think that there can be any turning back. There is cross-party consensus that government may have grown too big and taken on too many tasks that might have been better performed elsewhere.

However, if we are to take a proper look at the future of our Civil Service and to try to do so on the basis of an all-party consensus, the Government themselves have to lose their bunker mentality. There is a particular need for the Deputy Prime Minister to calm down on this matter. I suspect that we have a Pooh-Bah with too much time on his hands. I do not think that it is helpful when he talks of a culture of leaks. Certainly, having accused a public servant of a misdemeanour, he had to retract it yesterday in a letter to the chairman of the Select Committee on the Public Service in another place, stating: I mentioned in my replies to questions that I understood a Labour candidate had leaked documents whilst a civil servant. On re-reading my papers, I find that I misread the original press report and I would be grateful if the Committee would disregard this part of my evidence". Thanks a bundle, Deputy Prime Minister!

There is a need to establish the core role of government, and the kind of Civil Service that we need. Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Park, made it clear that in establishing that core role the rule of the marketplace cannot apply. We need a code of conduct for civil servants and for Ministers. We need to protect the impartiality of the civil servants as they undertake core policy functions.

The clarification of relationships between agencies and Parliament, agencies and Ministers, and an improvement in parliamentary accountability is needed. There may be a case for broader access of senior civil servants to Select Committees. All those points can be looked at. Another dimension, too, has to be accepted by those who are in defence of the Civil Service. It is good and useful for us to encourage into our Civil Service outside advice, but that, too, must be done on the basis of clearance just as thorough as for permanent civil servants. A comprehensive register of appointments should be established explaining the background of and justification for any such external appointments. But I repeat, the Civil Service itself should not resist outside influence.

My experience in the 1960s was that coming into Whitehall or Westminster on the Labour side, one had the Fabian Society, Transport House or the Trade Union Research Department to go to. Today, the Shadow Cabinet has its own team; there are parliamentary researchers, think tanks, and public affairs consultancies—a large body of non-governmental agencies producing people who have experience of giving advice. It would be a waste not to be able to absorb them into the government machine.

I foresee a wider use of ministerial advisers, perhaps even a move to some kind of hybrid cabinet system for Ministers. That would be healthy. The role of press officer to Ministers should be a political appointment. Many of the problems over the past 20 years or so have occurred when Civil Service press officers have become too enthusiastic in defending their Ministers. The Minister reliably informs, usually over lunch; the press officer briefs; and everybody else leaks.

We need to use industrial, City and financial experts and short-term exchanges in both directions. We should use people with business experience as trade ambassadors, although I put a questionmark against Mr. Robin Cook's idea of appointing businessmen ambassadors. One could have a roving ambassador for trade but the appointment of a businessman ambassador would be too narrow an objective. We need the modernisation of our Civil Service, but as part of the modernisation of our system of government. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, so eloquently said, we want a system of reforms—I took this down—without dogma and not by consultancy sound byte. That is wise advice. We need to work for greater efficiency, flexibility and standards of service, but we need to retain a viable career structure to encourage and sustain an apolitical and impartial Civil Service.

The truth is that Northcote-Trevelyan set us on a wise course over 120 years ago. It would be as well were we to stick to those principles as we look to our Civil Service for the 21st century: flexible, changing, adaptable, but sticking to those principles of impartiality which have been so important in our national life. Perhaps I may again quote the late Lord Bancroft: Conviction politicians, yes; conviction civil servants, no". The last of much great and wise advice that he gave us.

12.15 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I must start with an apology because it is decades since I have had any personal responsibility for the Civil Service. That was because at that time the Civil Service was administered by the Establishment Division of the Treasury. I feel that I have all the more temerity when I consider the list of speakers who are to follow me who speak with not just more recent authority but with far greater authority.

Secondly, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for introducing this debate which identifies valuably the central role of the Civil Service in our constitution. Dare I say also, that in introducing the debate she demonstrated how difficult, even in this sphere, it is to eschew partisanship and party politics?

I mentioned the central role. I mentioned it not just figuratively but because it is the essential function of the Civil Service. The classical statement was made by Lord Balfour in his introduction to the world classic edition of Bagehot's English Constitution. He puzzled as to how we managed to get any consistent line of policy with alternating governments tugging against one another and pulling away from any central line. He identified two points. The first was the sovereign. That lies outside the sphere of today's debate but, looking at Belgium, I do not believe that we should altogether discount that as a continuing influence.

The second and most important point was the Civil Service which he was surveying, at its very peak after the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. What they had produced was an elite within our parliamentary system—an elite drawn from the middle classes, offered a middle-class standard of life, rising to an upper middle class. With that background, and recruited as they were by examination, they established the two great traditions of our Civil Service: probity and loyalty.

With loyalty to one's political superiors goes political neutrality, as the speeches that have preceded me have emphasised. That did not mean that although they eschewed party politics they were any the less influential. One has only to think of Chadwick and Simon in the sphere of public health last century, or Morant in education at the beginning of this century—second only to Balfour himself.

The most important aspect is political neutrality. That was put so well in the preceding speeches that I do not need to expatiate. However, I wish to refer to two matters which are closely allied. The first is the choice of a senior civil servant because he is thought to be congenial to one's political outlook. The second is the importation of political aides into government departments.

As regards the first matter, the Permanent or Second Secretary, I do not believe that the previous examples—and I speak subject to the views of those who are to follow—were propitious. In my time, the outstanding example was the importation by Chamberlain of Horace Wilson from the appeasing Ministry of Labour to advance his policy of appeasement in diplomacy. Incidentally, we ought not always to believe that "appeasement" is a dirty word.

The second example was not carried out at the time that Mr. Macmillan was the head of the Treasury but when he became Prime Minister. He had obviously been dissatisfied. He was an arch inflationist—an innate inflationist—and had been dissatisfied with the consistently anti-inflationary advice that he had been given in the Treasury. He brought in someone else to be the new head of the Treasury. I served with him and I had a great admiration for him, but I do not believe that that was successful.

The third example is very valuable because it would fully explain an appearance in Richard Crossman's memoirs. He was very careful in choosing again from top Treasury officials a Permanent Secretary who would be more malleable in his hands than Lady Sharp had been. That was not difficult because Lady Sharp was the very embodiment of strong minded neutrality and had her own view of policy, although it was non-political. I do not believe that what Richard Crossman described was really of any value to the Civil Service.

I must pass on rapidly. The other matter I mentioned was the importation of political aides. It is very tempting for a Shadow Minister to import his aides in order to make sure that his policy is not impeded by the neutrality of the Civil Service. I personally regard that as a very dangerous development. Of course, it has its counterpart abroad where one has a chef de cabinet, but—and I speak subject to the views of those who are to follow—it tends to confuse the role of the Civil Service. After all, the political aide is always drawing on material that is sent to him by the Civil Service and it seems to me to be subject to the kind of objection that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, advanced in a different sphere.

The next matter that I wish to mention briefly is that of leaks. I cannot see the indicator, so I should be grateful if the noble Lord—

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, there is one minute to go.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I am obliged. The leaks inevitably go to an opposition party. They have been repeated in recent years. I have continually protested to Ministers that there has been no proper searching identification of the leak. What I have in my hand was obviously a Civil Service leak to the Guardian newspaper which led to the canard about war pensions. It was highly discreditable on any showing. The matter will not be resolved until it is realised that handling a leak is the equivalent of handling stolen goods. The document or information in question is almost always filched and until it is regarded as discreditable material the leaks will continue.

The final matter is that of a code, which I leave to others. I am very cautious of trying to embody the traditions of the Civil Service in a code. I would have thought it far better to be left to the traditions of neutrality, probity and loyalty.

12.26 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank my noble friend Lady Hayman for initiating this important debate. I also wish to declare an interest. I was until I took my seat in your Lordships' House the General Secretary of the FDA, which represents more than 10,500 senior civil servants in Whitehall and throughout the country. I am now an adviser to the FDA but I no longer speak for it.

I believe that all sides of this House can agree that the political neutrality and the impartiality of the British Civil Service is one of the cornerstones upon which the service rests. The others are ministerial accountability and the recruitment and advancement of civil servants on the basis of fair and open competition.

Our debate today addresses two issues. The first is the importance of ensuring that civil servants continue to give impartial advice and do not carry out tasks which may jeopardise their political neutrality. The second is the importance of a comprehensive, statutorily-based Civil Service code.

In the past, doubts have been expressed about the political neutrality of some parts of the Civil Service. They have been expressed from within my own party by those who have viewed the service as too establishment; who have been worried about the objectivity of the appointments procedure in relation to senior civil servants—the so-called "one of us" culture, to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred—and have been worried, too, about something more elusive, most often described as the "mindset" of senior civil servants which has been described, wrongly, as increasingly Tory in character.

More recent comments, however, have put a rather different complexion on the debate. Now senior politicians from the Conservative Party ask us to believe that some civil servants have become too close to the Labour Party, as evidenced by an alleged "culture of leaking". It is even suggested that there is something approaching a system of such leakers plugged into the Labour Party.

I do not recognise either picture. In my own experience of more than eight years seeing serving civil servants virtually every day of my working life, I have seen no evidence of either caricature. My own belief is that the allegations say more about the ignorance of those putting forward such suggestions than they do about the nature of the overwhelming majority of serving civil servants. Let us be clear. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said, leaks are wrong. Civil servants should not leak. I do not condone leaking nor do I believe that anybody should who believes in the political neutrality of the Civil Service.

Over the course of the summer, the FDA surveyed its members seeking evidence from them as to whether or not they had ever been asked to compromise their political neutrality by undertaking work incompatible with their political neutral status. The survey showed that two areas of activity caused civil servants particular concern: first, the use of civil servants to brief for party political occasions; and secondly, the use of civil servants to cost opposition policies.

Those areas cause so much concern because they are essentially grey areas. When a Minister asks for briefing as a Minister it is of course the duty of civil servants to provide such briefing. But it behoves Ministers to be very careful about the way in which they use such Civil Service briefing when they remove their ministerial hats and put on their party political hats, particularly at party conferences.

Similarly, although it may be quite proper for an individual Minister to ask a civil servant to cost an individual opposition policy, questions can and do arise when such costings are carried out on a wholesale basis in relation to a whole range of opposition policies and then the information is published not as a government document and not through Parliament by means of PQs but as a party political document.

But the question is whether the code which was published on 1st January 1996 has put that right. Much as the current Civil Service code is to be welcomed, particularly by one who campaigned for its introduction for seven years, in its current form it has neither the legislative force which is claimed for it nor is it as comprehensive or precise as it needs to be.

On 11th November 1996 the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: On 1 January, we published a code of practice for civil servants, which I believe has the force of law".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/96; col. 10.] If it is really the Government's view that the code has the force of law, it is the overriding authority on Civil Service behaviour. Clause 3 of the Civil Service code says that, Ministers have a duty not to use public resources for party political purposes". However, we are told that in relation to costings of opposition policies, that point is qualified by three paragraphs in another document entitled Guidance on Guidance which says that departments may be asked from time to time by government to cost qualities and pledges of their political opponents.

However, Guidance on Guidance does not supersede the Civil Service code. It is the code which lays out the guiding principles for civil servants. Nothing but confusion will arise if civil servants are told on the one hand that the Civil Service code is the authority with the force of law under which they work but then told in effect, "except when we do not want it to because there is some other guidance or some other long-established practice which we prefer", and which is actually more politically convenient.

The Civil Service code is a very good starting point. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he is willing to give the code statutory authority. Personally, I shall welcome that development. But the code needs to be more explicit about those grey areas.

Civil servants are accountable to their Ministers, who in their turn are accountable to Parliament. But Ministers are not only accountable to Parliament; they are also, according to paragraph 27 of Questions of Procedure responsible to Parliament for the conduct of their departments and for the actions carried out by those departments in pursuit of government policies. The duty for a Minister to be responsible is not discharged by the duty for a Minister to be accountable. The duties of responsibilities and accountability both for policy and for operations go hand in hand but are separate duties.

Increasingly in the real world, the world outside Westminster and Whitehall, the general public and the press demand that questions that they raise about the responsibility for the running of government are answered clearly. Is it reasonable for one person—a civil servant—to be responsible and another person—a Minister—to be accountable? Will that not lead to civil servants being blamed publicly for what has gone wrong without any opportunity to defend themselves publicly? While government Ministers are quick to claim the credit when things go well, nobody can accuse them of the same enthusiasm when things go badly. Equally, the spectacle of a senior Cabinet Minister making public allegations without credible evidence about an individual civil servant who cannot publicly defend himself has been an unedifying spectacle, particularly when those allegations made so publicly were then withdrawn as quietly as possible.

It has been a matter of regret to many of my former colleagues in the Civil Service that one or two senior Government Ministers have sought to play on the fringes of politics with the Civil Service. Our convoluted system does not lend itself to reform on a piecemeal basis, welcome as the introduction of the code is. There must now be a systematic reordering of priorities as a result of its publication. The whole machine needs to be reviewed and the conclusions must be drawn from the evidence, not from any a priori position of those with a vested interest in certain outcomes.

I believe that a Civil Service Act would be a vital component in ensuring that the Civil Service has a legally defined basis in statute, not in an Order in Council. Such legislation should cover not only the duties and obligations of civil servants to Ministers and Parliament, as is the case in many western democracies, but should also give statutory authority for a comprehensive code of conduct and ethics for the Civil Service so that, as my noble friend Lady Hayman said, we can ensure that the British Civil Service remains the bastion of impartial advice and that nothing is done which threatens its political neutrality or calls that neutrality into question.

12.36 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, this is an important subject and one which we discuss frequently without, I fear, finding a solution for the difficulties we face. I do not know that there is one. After all, it is almost unique, even in parliamentary countries, to have the kind of Civil Service which was created by Northcote-Trevelyan and which lasted almost unchanged through major changes in the country's status and position and major changes in government interest and policy. After all, it was the old Civil Service which designed the Lloyd George origins of the welfare state. It was the old Civil Service which designed the changes in local government and other matters which went forward in the 1920s.

Now we are told by noble Lords opposite that everything has changed for the worse in the past 17 years. I find that difficult to accept. In my view, we would have to look back at least to the Labour Government of 1945 because at that point the amount of legislation, both primary and secondary, which the Civil Service had to process—privatisation and other major changes in the way that our affairs are run—was begun without enough attention being paid to the burdens on the traditional Civil Service which would be the result of that large expansion in its duties.

I concur entirely with the very important issues raised by my noble friend Lady Park. However, even more important is the fact that if we look at legislation emanating from the other place, but originally no doubt drafted by civil servants, in the past several decades, we would say that the quality of our legislation has declined and every time we have a Bill to discuss we make that point again. Therefore, clearly something has gone wrong with the distribution of tasks.

When we come to changing things, there is clearly a considerable difference of opinion, illustrated in today's debate by the difference between the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I believe that the noble Baroness is what one might call a "constitutional conservative" with a small "c"; in other words, she would like to find a way to get back to Northcote-Trevelyan and believes, probably vainly, that some kind of legislative Act could bring back those halcyon days. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, went off in the opposite direction. He wishes to accept a number of the changes which some of us have found disquieting; for example—and I think this will touch the noble Baroness, Lady Symons—the recruitment of outsiders at high levels in the Civil Service, thus blocking the normal prospects of promotion, and the presence of political advisers as part of a ministerial team. I have never thought the latter a good idea and I think less of it as time goes on. However, if there is a new government, I am sure that we will find them there again. The noble Lord said that we should accept all that, that we should have ministerial cabinets and free movement among think tanks, government, the private sector and the public sector. He believes that we should get into a situation with which we are familiar as regards some of our continental neighbours and which, on the whole, is not conducive to good or even honest government.

We really have a problem of which I think political partisanship is perhaps the lesser part. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, that most civil servants—indeed, the vast majority of them—are untouched by political considerations when they advise Ministers or devise ways of carrying out ministerial orders. But, as the noble Baroness must admit, she has damaged that reputation by coming to this House as a nominee of the Opposition (political) party. I say that because that means that we have to wonder whether the views that the noble Baroness expressed on behalf of the trade union of which she was formerly general secretary (and to which she is now adviser) were the views of civil servants engaged in Civil Service occupations, or whether they were slanted in any way by the fact that the person voicing them was a member of a political party.

That is a serious question and one to which I think we are entitled to have an answer. My inclination would be to say that the noble Baroness probably managed to balance her two allegiances satisfactorily and that we can use the evidence that she presented, for example, to Select Committees in another place as a genuine representation of Civil Service concerns. However, there is a problem here. I give way to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I feel that the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, demand an answer. I should like to point out that when I became general secretary of the FDA I stated—and it was published to FDA members—that I was a member of the Labour Party. I was elected unopposed in 1989 and again in 1994. My membership was well known. I should also like to point out to the noble Lord the fact that Mr. Douglas Hurd was once a civil servant and is now a very active member of a political party. Moreover, the same is true of Sir Edward Heath. I wonder whether the noble Lord would impugn their integrity in the way that he has just impugned mine. I think not.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I have not impugned the integrity of the noble Baroness. After all, she said what is perfectly true; namely, that her political allegiance was known to the civil servants who chose her to head their trade union. If they were content with that, it is no blemish on her but it might be considered a curious thing for public servants to elect someone identified with a political party. I would say the same if it were a matter of my own political party.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has retreated, just, from the brink of gross impropriety. He has exonerated my noble friend Lady Symons of behaving wrongly herself, but he has maintained—and, indeed, continues to do so—the proposition that there is something wrong in the leader of a Civil Service trade union being a member of a political party, even though my noble friend has acknowledged that membership. Indeed, my noble friend reminded him of the position of Sir Edward Heath and of Mr. Douglas Hurd. Moreover, will the noble Lord also acknowledge that Sir George Young, for example (who is a member of the present Cabinet) was a civil servant not only before he became a Member of Parliament but remained so under the rules which then applied even after he had been selected as a Conservative parliamentary candidate?

Under those circumstances, I believe that the noble Lord should think very carefully not about whether he has impugned the integrity of my noble friend—he has clearly withdrawn from that—but whether he should revise his opinion about the distinction between the beliefs of civil servants and their public behaviour.

Lord McNally

My Lords, while doing so, will the noble Lord also consider that a number of distinguished civil servants choose, on retirement, to sit on the political Benches?

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, as this is a timed debate, I think that we should allow my noble friend to continue with his speech.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I believe that it has been the custom for most civil servants who come to your Lordships' House to sit on the Cross Benches.

Noble Lords

Not all!

Lord Beloff

Perhaps not all, my Lords. I believe that that is to be regretted.

I am trying to find a way by which we can get back to the strict Northcote-Trevelyan procedures. I do not think that that means that people who have served in the Civil Service should not enter into political life. It is a separate life; it is not a life connected with their previous occupation. Therefore, I find it difficult to accept the contention made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. Nevertheless, I would agree that anyone who accepts a parliamentary candidature while a civil servant should cease to be one. That seems to me to go without saying if we are really trying to create this division.

It is a pity that so many of the changes that have been made—I need not rehearse them because they have been so well put by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and by my noble friend Lady Park—to try to assimilate the conduct of public affairs with private business have been an error and have put off our getting the best possible use out of the Civil Service. I do not know whether that can still be remedied or whether we are simply looking back to something that we cannot any more revive and will merely continue along the path of our continental neighbours—or even degenerate into the spoils system of the United States. That is something I regret.

12.47 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I regret that I should rise to speak at a point of some controversy in this debate. I must say that we on these Benches deplore the attack on my noble friend Lady Symons. On this side of the House we would not dream of impugning contributions to the debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, or any other Member who chose to sit on any Bench in this House because of their previous public service. Indeed, it is a contribution to that debate and not a diminution of it.

I wish to approach the issue from a slightly different angle—that of an unashamed political apparatchik, but one who was in his distant youth a civil servant and sometimes in an exposed political position; and one who, in more recent years, has had some experience of governmental systems in Europe where relationships are, perhaps, in some ways better managed and have probably a better record of government over the past half century.

If I speak to some extent with greater sympathy with the plight of Ministers than might otherwise be expected, it is simply because, to use a term of my noble friend Lady Symons, I have got into the mindset of an alternative government, rather than the fact that I necessarily support some of the outrageous actions by some Ministers to which reference has been made.

Perhaps I may make it clear, first of all, that I am in absolute support of the need to protect the integrity of our Civil Service. We need a fully statutory code of conduct. Ministers must not transcend that code. We need to clarify the ambiguities between the code and some of the other guidance that is given to civil servants and to Ministers. Individual civil servants need a clear and independent system of appeal to an independent Civil Service ethics tribunal.

There have been a number of major changes in the Civil Service since I was a member of my noble friend's former organisation some 25 years ago. Some of those changes blur the distinction between Civil Service activities and political action. As my noble friends have already said, that is caused partly by deliberate and unacceptable actions by individual Ministers, which have been detailed by my noble friends Lady Symons and Lady Hayman. However, it is partly caused also by the unconscious but insidious effects of 17 years of one-party rule; and partly because the nature of government has changed. I believe that the structure of Whitehall has also changed in that time. There are smaller central departments with the hiving off of executive agencies and next step agencies. This has meant that the central Whitehall departments are seen to be more associated with a particular Minister and his or her own political strategy than was formerly the case.

All of these changes make it more difficult to distinguish between the legitimate political strategy of a government and party political propaganda. Some distinctions are obvious, and we have heard examples of those. However, in other areas there are genuinely grey areas, but ones of greatly increased political significance. I wish to give two examples of that. First, there is the compilation and presentation of official statistics and, secondly, the operation of the public information machinery of government. In order to save time I shall deal in detail with the second aspect, although it is clear that the presentation of statistics is potentially even more insidious in that it not only misleads the electorate but also leads to private decisions being taken on important economic entities following misleading statistics. The Central Statistical Office should be a genuinely autonomous and independent body outside the influence of Ministers or other departments.

As regards government propaganda, I refer to an extreme but interesting case. I recall the great privatisation—irrespective of a slight slip on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff—programmes of the 1980s rather than the nationalisation programmes of the 1940s. The jewel in the crown of the Thatcherite era, or, as the late Lord Stockton used to say, the "selling off of the family silver", constituted a great political issue. I hasten to make it clear, as I understand it, that we on this side of the House do not have any intention to reverse the issue of privatisation, at least not in this debate! However, at that time there was a clear and distinct ideological divide between the parties. There was a massive 20-fold increase in the amount of propaganda issued by the Government during that period. It can, of course, be argued that that was legitimate and that its intention was to inform the public and to initiate a marketing exercise to attract buyers for the shares which were on offer. However, I have to say that to a trade union official or to one sitting in the Labour Party offices it appeared to be rather more than that. I suspect that to those sitting on the Clapham omnibus it would also have appeared to be party political propaganda, just as much as the Stakhanovite posters and the May Day parades were communist propaganda rather than the benign public information service of the Soviet state.

Of course we in this country can change governments, and we shall do so. However, there has been a change since I was serving a Labour Government in the 1960s in a fairly politicised private office. When I say it was fairly politicised noble Lords will understand when I refer to a Minister who had rather dramatically eschewed membership of your Lordships' House, and I am glad to say still sits as the Member for Chesterfield in another place. That Minister's sole involvement in political propaganda constituted about half an hour a day with his own press officer at an early hour in the morning. That was deeply resented both by staff in the private office jealous of diary time and by senior Ministers who wanted the Minister to concentrate on more important matters and who believed that press releases were something to be dealt with in the bowels of the Central Office of Information in an unintelligible and tedious form.

The position is now vastly different. Ministers concentrate on their public image and on the media aspect. We have a vast and co-ordinated range of press and information officers, some of whom feel abused by the position they have been put in, but others of whom, frankly, glory in it. I am not arguing that we can turn the clock back. I am not arguing even that this activity of government is illegitimate, but I am arguing that it involves what is essentially party political propaganda. That has serious implications for the role of civil servants who commission and carry it out.

I hope I do not offend some Members of this House when I point out that in some European countries they manage things differently and better. Of course there are a number of differences in the governmental systems of our European partners. In many countries there are coalition governments and it is much easier to distinguish between government policy and party policy in those circumstances. In many of those states many civil servants have known political views and political connections. Both they and non-political civil servants move quite comfortably between jobs which are advisory and managerial and jobs which are "political".

Many of those states, particularly those in northern Europe, have a culture of freedom of information which both puts outside pressures on Ministers in the public arena, but at the same time maintains the confidentiality of internal advice from civil servants to Ministers. That protects both their integrities. I hesitate to say it, but in most of those countries there are far fewer junior Ministers than in our system, and those tasks undertaken by junior Ministers in our system are undertaken by civil servants. However, given the expectations and aspirations of many of my colleagues in this House and another place, I do not necessarily argue that we should go down that road, but it creates a different atmosphere.

As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has already mentioned, many of those countries operate a cabinet system of government. Successive governments and successive reports, from the Fulton Report onwards, have rejected the idea of cabinet government here. However, if we are not to choose a cabinet system and if we are not to choose an American style spoils system, we need to take other steps to ensure that the political and Civil Service functions of giving advice to Ministers are differentiated. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that we should appoint more special policy advisers to Ministers, not to block the promotion of those in the established Civil Service but to enable advice to be given to the Minister which it would be inappropriate for the established Civil Service to give.

I also believe that political parties themselves will need, in government as well as in opposition, more support for their own political advice functions to Ministers. That brings us into the whole area of state funding of political parties. We should end the hypocrisy and protect our civil servants so that those jobs in grey areas are clearly designated as such. As did the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I refer particularly to press officers. No civil servant who undertakes such jobs should be required to do so against his or her will. No civil servant outside those jobs should be required to provide for those post holders information which is inappropriate to the Civil Service. No party political criteria should apply to those jobs and no civil servant who undertakes such jobs should be prejudiced or penalised in his or her future career for having undertaken them. That I believe would end some of the hypocrisy, recognise the reality of both the political and the administrative dimensions of government, protect permanent civil servants and provide for a healthier relationship between them and Ministers. That we can all agree on.

12.58 p.m.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, this is the first debate we have had in this House since the death of my noble friend Lord Bancroft after a long illness borne with characteristic courage. Our friendship went back 45 years to the time when we were both young assistant principals in the Treasury. I have vivid memories of the competent, effective and deft young civil servant who made it all seem such fun, and who was clearly destined to rise to the top ranks of the service. He cared passionately about the public service but he sprang to the defence of its values not only as head of the home Civil Service but also in this House when he saw them in danger or under threat. We miss his contribution to these debates.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, on her speech today, to which we have all listened with attention and respect. She has represented the interests of first division civil servants—how archaic that sounds today—articulately, with skill and sagacity. As she gives up the calm and neutral role of shop steward for the Mandarins in order to take up a more overtly political role as a Member of your Lordships' House, we shall all look forward to her continuing contributions to your Lordships' deliberations on public service issues, and indeed on other matters.

We are in a time of intense party political activity, with a Parliament which has at most only four months to run, with a governing party defending a record of getting on for 18 years in office, and with at least a possibility of a change of government after the general election.

After 18 years it is natural to wonder whether the Civil Service is becoming politicised in the sense of becoming conditioned (perhaps even unconsciously) to the party politics of the government of the day.

There are today many civil servants who have never worked with or for Ministers of any other party than the present Government. But those in the senior ranks, to whom falls the responsibility of providing leadership and setting an example, have lived through previous changes of government. They understand from experience the line that has to be drawn between, on the one hand, the duties and responsibilities of civil servants in relation to Ministers, and the commitment to public service which underlies the proper discharge of those duties and responsibilities, and on the other hand an inappropriately personal and overt commitment to the partisan policies and politics of the government of the day.

It may be that the danger, if there is any, exists on the other side of the relationship: that after 18 years in office ministerial perceptions of the line become blurred, and that, in particular at a time of rising political tension, Ministers become too ready to take civil servants and the services they provide for granted, even in relation to party political issues on which they should be looking elsewhere for support.

So it is right that we should recognise, and guard against, the potential danger of politicisation, and remind ourselves, and in the process remind present and potential future civil servants and Ministers, of the importance, indeed the necessity, of honouring the rules in the observance and not in the breach. And we should be careful not to let the subject become, even at such a time as this, a party political football.

I believe that it is testimony to the durability of public service traditions and values that, I can say with confidence, the Civil Service has not become politicised, not even covertly or unconsciously. I am confident that whatever government takes office after the general election—and whatever party or parties find themselves on the Opposition Benches—will find a Civil Service as fully committed as ever, in practice as well as in principle, to the standards of integrity, political impartiality, dispassionateness of advice and freedom from corruption which have characterised the British Civil Service at any time this past 100 years.

I do not believe that we need any more codes to ensure that this should be so, and to enable us to achieve the objectives described in the Motion proposed by the noble Baroness.

The principles which govern these matters were promulgated in a memorandum of guidance on the duties and responsibilities of civil servants in relation to Ministers issued in December 1987 by the then Head of the Home Civil Service after consultation with and with the full support of his Permanent Secretary colleagues: a document that has come to be known as the Armstrong memorandum.

The guidance set out in that memorandum was combined with material from the Civil Service management code into the Civil Service code, to which reference has been made, which was introduced at the beginning of this year as a result of the initiative of a Select Committee in another place.

The Civil Service code goes directly to the concerns which have been expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and other noble Lords in the debate. Given the shortage of time, I shall not read aloud the sections, but I draw attention in particular to Sections 3, 5 and 11 of the code.

There is nothing new about the principles laid down in the Civil Service code. Members of the Civil Service are well aware of them, not to say thoroughly familiar with them. They know perfectly well what they can do and what they should not do.

We should not improve matters if we were to try to codify them in great detail, prescribing how the principles are to be applied case by case in a wide range of possible situations. There are two reasons for taking this view. First, it would be impossible to foresee and prescribe for every one of the great variety of cases and situations that could arise. Secondly, the more detailed the rules laid down, the greater would be the temptation for the barrack-room lawyer to claim that what he was proposing to do must be all right because there was nothing in the rules explicitly forbidding it.

It is the duty and the responsibility of civil servants—and indeed of Ministers—to think for themselves how to apply the principles to any particular case or situation, and then to act responsibly. We should do nothing to absolve them from that duty or relieve them from that responsibility. It is usually obvious enough to all of them, but, if they are in doubt, there are people to whom they can turn for advice: the Permanent Secretary; the Head of the Home Civil Service; in the case of a Minister, the Prime Minister. And if, in the heat of the moment, something happens or seems to have happened that should not have happened, the Head of the Home Civil Service is able to remind people—as indeed we saw him doing only the other day—that all concerned should conform with the principles that are clearly laid down, long established, and well understood.

We have codes enough, and we shall not help by making them statutory. These matters do not lend themselves to statutory coding. What we need is for people to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the principles which are already enshrined in the code and other documents to which I referred and then for them to live their lives in accordance with those principles, as I know the overwhelming majority of civil servants already do.

1.8 p.m.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, first, perhaps I may say what a privilege it is to participate in the debate today with a speakers' list so full of distinguished experts on the subject. We are all grateful to my noble friend Lady Hayman for giving us the opportunity to discuss such an important topic.

I should like, first, to say that in over 20 years of government service I always found British civil servants to be overwhelmingly dedicated to a proud tradition of giving politically impartial and highly professional advice and service. It is therefore a matter of regret that there is currently an atmosphere of concern and uncertainty about these very principles both inside and outside the service. Although not myself a member of the Home Civil Service, I had throughout my career close dealings with many different departments and ministries.

I entered government service in the second half of the 1960s and left in mid-1991. I can certainly say that I left a very different Whitehall from the one that I joined; and, I am afraid I have to add, not all the changes by any means were for the better.

One particular aspect of change since the 1960s which I should like to highlight and which I find disturbing is the way that some able young people have ceased to be attracted to government service and in fact feel that, in a strange way, they are ineligible because of their political values and beliefs. I do not say that the civil and diplomatic services were the natural habitat in the 1960s for non-Oxbridge Labour Party members like myself, nor indeed, I have to add, for women. But I and many contemporaries never felt that any part of the Civil Service or the Diplomatic Service was a no-go area, nor that one could not climb any career ladder that one started upon.

I am afraid that I find that that belief is not now held by our present day counterparts. From many discussions with young graduates since I left government service it is clear to me that they have a perception that a political inclination, let alone a commitment on record to any party other than the one which has been in power for so long, is a hindrance if not to recruitment then certainly to advancement.

It could perhaps be argued that one party having been in government for a long, uninterrupted period would be expected to test any system of impartial civil service. But I question whether more could not have been done to ensure against the erosion and slippage which we have seen between what is and is not legitimate for a civil service to be asked to provide.

The problem in Britain, if one party is in government for a long period, is compounded by the way our Civil Service is so cut off—I would say unhealthily so—from any regular contact with the Opposition. That is not the case in many other democracies such as the Nordic countries. Their systems are the better for the greater openness and exchange between civil servants on the one hand and parliamentarians in general, not just those in government.

I note that the Treasury and Civil Service Committee in another place, in its report of November 1994, welcomed the decision to permit confidential briefings by senior civil servants to Opposition politicians further in advance of a general election than previously. It went on to say that it believed that there might be scope for more frequent briefings at other times and recommended that the Government issue guidance to Ministers on circumstances in which it would be appropriate to offer briefing to Opposition politicians on matters which related to machinery of government or which were not of current party political controversy. I think that such contacts would go some way towards ensuring that the Civil Service was not in danger of being put into invidious situations compromising its impartiality or of being perceived as being politically partial.

In my first 10 years or so of service I served both Labour and Conservative governments. So for my generation it was a self-evident fact that professional impartiality had nothing to do with personal political beliefs. The point which I was going to make anyway is even more pertinent, I feel, in view of some of the remarks made earlier in the debate. I feel a tremendous disservice has been done to the country by those in political power who have—to put it at its mildest—allowed an atmosphere in which it appears that if your face does not fit or, in that infamous remark quoted by my noble friend Lord Whitty, "If you are not one of us," you will not prosper in the Civil Service. In this kind of issue, perception is almost as important as reality. Unless we can continue to recruit from a wide spectrum, we shall not have the broad-based, able and dedicated service we need for the 21st century.

We can only achieve that if it is demonstrably clear that civil servants will be expected to give completely impartial advice and to serve any democratically elected government and will not be expected to carry out tasks which would jeopardise their political neutrality. Only a code of ethics which deals with these issues without dubiety will satisfy that need. The present Civil Service code introduced in January 1996 is only a partial answer. It leaves several very important issues unaddressed, expertly pointed out in detail by my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean. I shall not rehearse them again. All these issues and other such issues need to be clarified. And they need to be clarified in a statutory code.

There is an urgent need to resolve the doubts about the present Civil Service code if we are to restore confidence and morale inside the service and if we are to recruit from among the brightest and the best of our young people for what ought to be an honourable and attractive career of service to their country.

1.13 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, my experience of the Civil Service has been, over the past 40 years, mostly with the Home Office. Like my noble friend Lady Ramsay, my experience of civil servants has been that they have been people of great knowledge, dedication and integrity. However, the particular theme that I want to pursue is the effect of the loss of status of the Civil Service over those 40 years. I believe that a strong Civil Service is an important democratic counterbalance to politicians and that therefore a high-ranking status for the Civil Service is extremely vital to our country.

Early in my police service, the Home Office formed a background which provided continuity of research and policy, and long-term stability. My earliest experience of learning about the law as well, of course, was based on the statutes that went back to the 19th century. Examples are the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and the offences against property legislation. But over the years we have seen an increasing plethora of legislation, often based on popular media hypes. The Dangerous Dogs Act is constantly quoted, but there have been a number of others where short-term political advantage has been placed above the long-term needs of policy and stability in the criminal justice system.

There have been considerable technological changes in the country over the past 40 years, but the basics of human behaviour have not changed. Nor has the kind of crimes with which the police service has dealt changed over that time. Larceny may nowadays be called "theft", but it is still the same effective part of human behaviour.

The civil servants at the Home Office provided a broad background of stability and there were people of outstanding status, like the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who is not with us, and Lord Bancroft, who has been referred to several times in this debate, who were giants in the land. They provided the necessary counterbalance to the short-term coming and going of a succession of politicians, Home Secretaries and so on who, in a sense, provided the froth and bubble on the surface of the underlying current of Home Office policy. There were one or two exceptions. We have had one or two great reforming Home Secretaries—such as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead—who made profound differences to our criminal justice system and liberalised it in many important ways.

My earliest direct experience of the Home Office was in the 1970s when I began to be directly involved in recruitment and selection for the police service. I was a member of Home Office working parties and had the opportunity to meet civil servants of various ranks in the Home Office. They were at that stage providers of wisdom and long-term policy. I viewed them with considerable respect and admiration.

I then had 10 years of various operational police experience and it was in the mid-1980s that I was back again at Scotland Yard, a member of working parties at the Home Office to do with various aspects of reform of the judicial system. The whole atmosphere at that stage had changed. The then Home Secretary was a politician who is now a European Commissioner. I found that his civil servants were suffering from stress—from conflict in the role that they saw for themselves. They were being required to carry out short-term political objectives. The long-term regard for research and policies and an understanding of the underlying nature of criminal behaviour was being disrupted by the efforts of that Home Secretary to gain status for himself rather than having any sensible policy for the police force, the Prison Service or other aspects of the judicial system.

Much more attention was paid to the popular press and that has since increased, with a tendency to rely on sound bites and short-term political advantage. The slogan of "War on Crime" appeared for the first time and other military language was used in relation to attempting to reform criminals. Deep-seated sociological problems were thus reduced to simplistic battles, wars and soldiers. In a situation where you cannot win, it is not sensible to use those metaphors in relation to complex sociological problems. A similar slogan now is the absurd, "Prison works", which totally distorts all the budgets of our judicial system, money being put into building hundreds of prisons rather than much more cheaply using crime prevention and other ways to deal with offenders.

The National Audit Office report which came out recently pointed up the absurdity of some of the current policies. It says, among other sensible comments: The efficiency and effectiveness of the system could be improved by… giving more intensive community supervision to persistent offenders rather than spending millions and millions of pounds on building prisons.

Over the past few years, civil servants have lost status and the confidence that they used to have because of their views, based on knowledge and experience, which were valued not only by police officers and those who had to work with the Home Office but also, I believe, at that stage by politicians. They used to have the job security that enabled them to express independent views and to resist the short-term time horizons of politicians. The rush to privatisation, the hiving-off of parts of Whitehall into agencies and the widespread and expensive use of consultants have all led to extensive demoralisation.

I had a depressing letter this morning from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis which talked about "outsourcing" many of the civil staff functions of Scotland Yard and mentioned the disruption to morale and other effects on the staff there. It seems to me that disruption to morale and working practices and to expertise and knowledge gained over many years is in itself a considerable expense. The idea that it is cheaper to use outside agencies is often very much misplaced. Many of the best civil servants in the Home Office over the past few years have felt obliged to take early retirement and seek careers elsewhere. The late lamented Lord Bancroft very much gloried in his nickname of the Great Obstructor, but I fear that there are very few of his ilk nowadays in the Civil Service.

My most recent experience of the Civil Service between leaving the police service and joining your Lordships has been as a recruitment interviewer for the Recruitment and Advisory Service. Over the period of a nine-months gap, I spent several days at the other end of Whitehall interviewing potential candidates for the Civil Service. Like other noble Lords, I deplore the removal of that particular agency from the mainstream of the Civil Service.

While I was there, I was struck by two particular aspects. One was that no other interviewer asked the bright young graduates how they would deal with the possibility of a clash between their advice and what the politicians wanted to do. None of my fellow interviewers in the Civil Service asked that question. Yet I understood that that was always one of the core difficulties for civil servants. I was surprised that I was the only person dealing with that particular problem for them.

What also struck me was that one of my fellow interviewers said that nobody should be selected for the Civil Service unless they were capable of working in the Treasury and were sufficiently numerate to do so. That, again, suggested to me that there had been a considerable change in the Civil Service as I had known it.

In a healthy democracy it is essential that there should be checks and balances between the politicians and other parts of the system. We have seen a considerable centralisation of power in Whitehall over the past 18 years nearly, and a considerable loss of status for local authorities which used to provide some of the necessary checks and balances in our unwritten constitution. Therefore, it is all the more important that the civil servants of Whitehall should have the courage and the status to stand up to the politicians whom they serve. I believe that a statutory code of conduct and ethics would provide them with a very small plank on which to stand when they attempt to express views which may not be popular with the politicians of this country.

1.23 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, although we are debating whether civil servants should be subject to any statutory provision to tender impartial advice and act without political bias, I rise to remind the House that members of the Armed Forces who reach senior appointments are also responsible for giving advice to Ministers. Indeed, there are a number of senior appointments in the Ministry of Defence which may be held by either a serving officer or a civil servant. Any new arrangement for civil servants would probably have to be applied to the Armed Forces.

I shall touch on just one aspect of the relationship between Ministers and their public servants which raises important issues about impartiality. There is, though, no suggestion, so far as I am aware, that those in the Armed Forces who have had to give advice over the years have been doing so in any way that might be construed to breach the principle of political neutrality. Moreover, there are safeguards. No serving officer can stand for Parliament.

All officers' performances are recorded throughout their career and they are reported on at least annually. As they approach the top of their service, their performance is also seen and judged by a number of their superiors in the Armed Forces outside as well as inside their own service. Clearly, there has to be a process of planning future appointments so that people can be given warning of their moves and gaps in post do not occur. The Chief of the Defence Staff chairs a senior committee with the other chiefs of staff and considers candidates and those forward plans. One of the important features of that process is to ensure a reasonable rotation between the services of appointments open to all. A mix of services is essential to achieve the best results and to encourage a feeling of equity and fairness throughout all ranks.

The culmination of that process will be a recommendation from the appropriate chief of staff through Ministers to Her Majesty the Queen, who is graciously pleased to approve the forthcoming appointment or promotion. The recommendations have taken account of the officers' performance over many years in a variety of appointments. The recommendations have been instigated by their own superiors, and so by those who know them well and are well known to them. There is thus a strong feeling of confidence in a system which has been tried and tested over many years. Incidentally, it is important to remember that all who reach the highest ranks will have had 25 to 30 years already in their service. Therefore, they are very well known by their service superiors; far better known than by others from outside the forces. Moreover, there can be no realistic prospect of filling the highest appointments in the Armed Forces from any other field of employment. A chief of staff or a commander-in-chief cannot be headhunted from outside the service.

If the system of promotion and appointment is to retain the confidence that it has enjoyed over the years, it is important that the service recommendations are generally followed through by Ministers, no matter how minded they might be to make alternative recommendations to the Queen. The careers of the brightest officers are noted and anticipated by their colleagues, who are usually able to forecast the likely advancement.

A series of changes to the chiefs of staff recommendations instigated by Ministers could soon lead to a loss of confidence in the system and to a belief that the services were becoming politicised. That would do no favours to our all-professional Armed Forces, to the standing and quality of their leadership, to the trust of juniors in their superiors or to the whole system of promotion and selection.

And what if the appointment of an officer under one government could be overturned or shortened by the next? Such a prospect would cause great unease. Happily, I have little fear of that happening. But if servicemen are to have faith in their system of promotion and appointment; if they are to be seen to be free from political favouritism; and the services themselves are to be seen—as, of course, I believe that they must—to be politically neutral, those longstanding conventions need to be upheld and understood.

Of course, no system is perfect. On rare occasions political preferment has been exercised. But those who choose to do so must be made fully aware of the implications. Could that process of preferment—indeed, should it?—be regulated in any way to safeguard the principle that professional military advice is given impartially and has not been and is not likely to be influenced by any suspicions that advancement will be secured by biasing advice towards some party political position?

Despite a few occasional differences between Ministers and their advisers over the years, I would not wish to see such legislation, which would be more likely to introduce problems than solutions. What rights of appeal might be appropriate, what redresses might be sought, what protection would it achieve? Those are difficult and inevitably delicate questions. I do not believe that the answers lie with a statutory regime.

The protection from bias, and from actions which might be seen to compromise political neutrality, are better left to judgments and stand as another widely accepted feature of our much heralded unwritten constitution.

1.30 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I speak with diffidence in following such a distinguished service chief. I joined the Army as a private soldier and collapsed with ill health soon afterwards and therefore do not question any of the points he mentioned.

We are all grateful to my noble friend Lady Hayman for introducing the debate. It is quite a ladies' day today; it seems to be a subject about which ladies feel particularly strongly. But I have my own views and my own credentials. There are not many present today, apart from the Minister, who have been government Ministers. I am partially sighted and it may be I cannot see some of them. But on the face of it I appear to be one of the few Members present who has actually been a Minister.

In the days of the Attlee Government I was not in the Cabinet, but I served in the War Office and in the Foreign Office. I was Minister of Civil Aviation and First Lord of the Admiralty. Later, in the times of the Wilson Government, I surveyed things from the Cabinet angle as Leader of this House and, for a short while, as Colonial Secretary. Those are my own humble credentials.

The debate poses difficult questions. As my distinguished noble friend said, this is a grey area. The more I think of it, the harder the subject becomes, like all great issues; for instance, why does one do one's duty? I remember well in the time of the Attlee Government I was assisting Lord Jowitt, the Lord Chancellor, to carry the Iron and Steel Bill. He sent me to the official Box to clear up a point. When I got there I saw two huge portfolios in front of the official. I asked why he needed two. He said, "We have one for the nationalisation of steel and the other for its denationalisation, which is to follow, we understand, quite soon after an election".

That was a problem for civil servants then and remains a problem for them now. They want to be absolutely loyal to the Government, but must bear in mind that the Government will not be there forever. They want to do things in the national interest and help those who are to follow them. I have always felt enormous sympathy with civil servants. I am in favour of a code if it will help. In my varied experience with government servants, I have never found any who lacked loyalty, integrity or any of the other basic qualities. However, they may well benefit from a code. If that is decided, all well and good.

One question which could be explored today is how far civil servants are supposed to go in carrying out orders to give effect to policies and how far they should go to create policies. I can give one large example. In 1950, as I mentioned in an earlier debate, the Labour Government—the government of Lord Attlee and Ernest Bevin—was utterly opposed to going into Europe. A top civil servant refused to accept his statement that, "Tying ourselves to Europe would be tying ourselves to a corpse".

The Labour Government reappeared 13 years later in 1964 and by that time the government service were on the side of going into Europe—the Board of Trade, the Treasury and the Foreign Office favoured it. As one of the spokesmen for the Foreign Office and as Leader of this place I was briefed by the Foreign Office, as far as it could, to speak up for Europe. The Labour Party at that time were not pro-Europe. Two years before my admired friend, Hugh Gaitskell, made a speech at the conference which was generally regarded as very anti-European. But gradually, as time went on, under the influence of expert advice and the personal initiative of Lord George-Brown, the party became pro-European. There was a famous meeting, not attended by civil servants, when it was decided by a vote of 2:1 to support going into Europe.

That was where the government service played a creative part. They had been working away for 13 years; they had all the expert information; it would have been ludicrous for them not to try to pressurise the Government into those policies. And that remains a problem. How far do they go in doing what they are told as though they were waiters in a hotel leaning forward to accept an order? Or how far do they go in helping to create policy? I gave one example but there are many others where the experts, the people who have given their lives to solving these problems, provide expert advice which finally changes the policy.

There is no getting away from it. It is a delicate balance. On the whole I find that civil servants have kept the balance well. But some speakers are more up-to-date; they are more behind the scenes than I am. The balance may not have been perfectly kept. We heard some striking examples in the opening speech of my noble friend Lady Hayman where the Government have leaned too far in the direction of using the civil servants for their own purposes. But always there must be that balance. We must draw on the civil servants to maintain their integrity.

In earlier speeches I noticed a great deal of criticism of the present Government. That is not surprising. I am ready to criticise them. I cannot remember a government who did a worse job in 17 years than this lot but others, with a more historical perspective, may think of one.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, Lord North.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, my noble friend says "Lord North". That was some time ago and I was not there. But terrible things may develop and we may need a code. By and large, civil servants are high-minded and honourable men. But there is always the problem of how far we press the policy that we believe to be right and how far we carry out orders. We can consider Question Time today, or any day, in any House. The Ministers come down heavily briefed by the civil servants. They are told how to cope with fiendish opponents like my noble friend Lord Mclntosh. They are given the answers. That is all part of the job—to defeat the Opposition. So it is a big problem and will always be a problem. If a code helps, so much the better.

1.37 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, perhaps the most important asset any organisation can have is its brand or identity. It is through its brand or identity that we trust and relate with organisations and companies. We accept their quality, their reliability and their integrity. We rely on brands for medicines, transport and equipment. We trust and rely on organisations like the Red Cross, Save the Children or the RSPCA to deliver help for us where we cannot do it ourselves. We trust and rely on the reputation of schools, universities and hospitals. Of course, all those organisations have to progress and change with the times. But with change and progress, maintaining the reputation of the brand is essential. The most important thing about the brand is that its identity, its reputation and trust outlive the individuals. I would say to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, that the Armed Forces have been outstandingly successful in that regard.

I can see noble Lords wondering what on earth all this businessmen's talk about brands has to do with today's debate. I will tell them. In this country we had a wonderful brand. It was owned by all of us. It had all of the attributes that I have just described—trust, reputation, integrity and continuity. It was called the British Civil Service. The British Civil Service had all those attributes, and they have been adequately described by my noble friend Lady Hayman and other speakers.

Then along came a group of managers who understood nothing about the value of a brand or an identity but thought they knew everything about cost. It was a management which looked no further than cutting costs, important though that is; in short, a management which knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. It set about running down the brand's reputation; by denigrating it with phrases such as "public bad" and "private good". It set about destroying the authority of the brand. Once that happens, the value of the brand is seriously eroded; a mistake for which any brand manager in one of our companies would have been sacked on the spot.

Perhaps one of the ultimate ironies is that many of the organisations which helped to dismantle the Civil Service brand use this work to build up their own identities. I cannot do better than to illustrate this by quoting the noble Baroness, Lady Park, who, during the debate on the privatisation of the Recruitment and Assessment Services, said: If I were the Principal of Somerville today and an undergraduate came to me to ask for advice on how to enter the public service, I would have to advise not the CSSB procedure, but an early application to KPMG, Coopers and Lybrand, McKinseys, NatWest Markets, Price Waterhouse or some other city consultancy firm, for it is they who decide what will happen in the Civil Service".—[Official Report, 25/7/96; col. 1551.] My noble friend Lady Ramsay described how the Civil Service depends on people. Indeed, the best people try to work for an organisation with a good brand identity because part of the signal given out by that brand is that "the best people work here". Yet not only do the Government disregard the basic rights of civil servants who join the public service to be public servants; they also try to sell them as the intellectual property of agencies, and this without winning their loyalty. I suggest that the Minister should listen very carefully to what the DTI is saying to industry about the importance of human capital in today's knowledge society. Working with human capital means that you have to work with the grain, and the best achievements are those achieved through consent.

Now, obviously, Ministers started to get worried about this poor management of people. Their solution was to introduce charters and charter marks to define the relationship between civil servants and the public. That was an extraordinary decision for two reasons. First, we live in an age when reputation and integrity are the signals given out by a brand. They are not proclaimed by certification. Certification depends on the brand, and not vice versa. Secondly, people wondered whether the charter was a stick with which to hit public servants or whether it was a set of standards in which organisations could take pride.

I imagine the truth is that it was intended to do both—the kind of "double whammy" so beloved of noble Lords opposite. The result is that the introduction of the charters which were meant to achieve two objectives have achieved none. Not only are people unsure of what the charters are meant to do but the charter marks are being exposed to ridicule. I know how talented the Minister is, but perhaps even she may find it difficult to explain how Severn-Trent Water can successfully be prosecuted 42 times for pollution and be awarded a charter mark.

The situation is rather like the magician who asked for the loan of a watch. A trusting member of the audience gave him a watch, a watch perhaps a little old fashioned but reliable. The magician took the watch, folded it up in a handkerchief and said the magic words over the folded handkerchief; magic words like, "public bad, private good". He then took the hammer, smashed the folded handkerchief and slowly unfolded it. There was the smashed watch.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, has asked how we are going to put it together again. She is absolutely right. It will take a new administration to sort all this out and create a Civil Service operating in partnership with the private sector to achieve public goals; a Civil Service where people have pride and confidence in themselves and work with a sense of national obligation and are not demeaned by constant threats of being sold off for short-term gain; a Civil Service that helps business to add value, not one that apes some of its worst short-term failings; a Civil Service allowed to retain the values of its brand and identity in which civil servants and the public can take pride and which the public will trust.

To achieve this we require a Civil Service with a comprehensive statutory code of conduct and ethics to ensure that civil servants give impartial advice and do not carry out tasks which would jeopardise their political neutrality. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayman on moving the Motion.

1.44 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, this has been a very interesting and worthwhile debate, although marked, I regret, by the thinness of attendance on the Conservative Benches opposite and by the thinness of participants from the Conservative side of the House.

This is, after all, a constitutional issue. We know that as we enter the general election the Conservatives will be campaigning as defenders of the British constitution. We have heard a great deal in the past two hours about how much this central element of the British constitution—the role of the Civil Service at the core of the state—has been transformed in the past 20 years. Yet I remember the Prime Minister introducing Cmnd. 2627, the White Paper Continuity and Change, describing it as "a revolution in the structure of government". If it is a revolution, the whole defence made so eloquently by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House of the constitution as it currently stands falls apart. I, as a constitutional reformer rather than a constitutional conservative, would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that we cannot go back to where we were before; we have to go on from what has happened in the past 20 years and reconstruct a coherent state for the 21st century.

There has been radical change over the past 20 years. There has been a reduction in the role of the Government, most of all over the economy. There has been the introduction of the management ethos of which the noble Baroness, Lady Park, spoke; the use of "management speak", the introduction of the "value for money" mantra which we have heard in this House on a number of occasions in the past year without, so far as I recall, on any occasion the Minister who used the term being able to define what "value for money" means, particularly in Civil Service matters; the move towards executive agencies and beyond that the introduction of privatisation into the very heart of government—into the Civil Service itself—with Recruitment and Assessment Services—with the attempt, so far resisted, to privatise the Civil Service College; and the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative into government buildings and their management.

Some of this takes us clearly too far. We have seen the erosion of the distinction between party and government and the erosion of the distinction between government and Crown. I was happy to see in the new Civil Service code a rather greater distinction between government and Crown than there was in the Armstrong memorandum. My definition of the Crown—the British state—is Queen in Parliament, which is to say that a civil servant's loyalty is not just to the government of the day but to Her Majesty's Government as represented by the state continuing and all Members of Parliament. Part of what has gone wrong in the past 10 to 20 years has been Ministers attempting to use civil servants to deceive Parliament, to disguise from Parliament and to withhold information from Parliament. We cannot get the structure of our Civil Service right again unless we also tackle the reform of Parliament.

The underlying argument made by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, is the case for a statutory Civil Service code embodied in a Civil Service Act. That is a piecemeal constitutional reform which lies rather unhappily with a number of other piecemeal Labour proposals for constitutional reform. I worry that if they were all made they would add up to less than the sum of their parts. Once one starts tinkering with the unwritten British constitution, as our current Government have been doing, the whole thing begins to unpick. We have seen the whole thing begin to unpick.

One of my greatest worries about what has happened to the whole structure of British government and of the role of the Civil Service and Ministers has been that we begin to see the edge of the old corruption coming back as Ministers deal with companies dealing with privatisation, which are themselves contributors to the Conservative Party; as civil servants deprived of the ideal security of tenure begin, as one put it to me the other day, "To look over my shoulder to wonder where the next job is coming from and to worry whether now might be the time to move over into the private sector to join the company with which I am dealing as a civil servant". That is the beginning of a very dangerous slope and we are already beginning to slide to the top of it.

There is a risk that the Labour Party in government will be tempted in its turn to make the most of executive power against parliamentary scrutiny and public openness. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is already speaking, as he said, in the mind-set of an alternative government. We have to be concerned not simply with government but with Parliament and democracy. I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that there are not just two possible outcomes of the forthcoming election. There is a third, in which no party might win an overall majority, at which point it might be a little easier to change the style of government itself and to move away from executive dominance.

We need a change in the overall style of British government, in the relation between government and Parliament and in that between Ministers and MPs. We shall not protect the impartiality of the Civil Service unless we achieve that. Sadly, I doubt whether the Labour Party has yet thought through the implications of changing the way in which government operates. We should note, for example, the extraordinary increase in the number of Ministers that we have seen in the past 20 years even as the numbers of the Civil Service have been cut back and government have retreated and hived off into executive agencies. I note that the Labour Party now has the largest single shadow team of Ministers that anyone has yet seen in British Government.

If we are to rebuild the principle of an impartial Civil Service serving the British Crown and the British state, and the long-term interests of this country, it clearly requires a shift in the balance of government and Parliament, which needs fewer Ministers and not more. It requires the recreation of an independent Commons with Members of that House who see themselves as Members of Parliament first and people who hope to become Ministers, second. The independent Back Bencher has largely disappeared. It requires stronger parliamentary committees and more assistance and advice for those committees. It seems to me that part of the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, as to what one does with the Statistical Office is that, like the National Audit Office, it ought to be responsible to Parliament and not simply to the Government. That would give it the status and independence that it needs.

It also requires us to redraw the boundary between the political and the administrative. If we are to have fewer Ministers, then we clearly need more political advisers. My noble friend Lord McNally and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, have both suggested that we now need to move towards ministerial cabinets. We perhaps need to look very seriously in making senior appointments more open; subject to much more open ministerial decision and parliamentary oversight. That means that as we strengthen parliamentary committees we should be considering whether or not the heads of executive agencies should have their appointments confirmed by parliamentary committees.

We also need a more open process of government, which provides not only a freedom of information Act, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, remarked, for officials to have more open relations with members of the opposition parties; with whoever may be in or out of government at the present time and direct relationships with parliamentary committees. Above all, we need a more consensual, less sharply partisan, process. That is rather easier to achieve with a multi-party government than with a switch from one team to another hungry for power and desperately feeling that it has been deprived of power for nearly 18 years. We need a statutory code, but that on its own is not enough. It is difficult to have a little bit of constitutional reform—and this is a little bit of it, welcome as it is—but if we are to achieve it we need rather more.

1.55 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hayman may well believe that, in introducing a debate on this topic today, she has hit pay dirt. She certainly has in the quality of her speech and that of the succeeding speeches, mainly from our Benches, but also from the other Benches in the House. The House must acknowledge its gratitude to her for raising this important subject at this time.

It is not only that the subject is of enormous importance—it can even be of constitutional importance as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said—but in recent weeks we have been going through some very painful experiences concerning the abuse of relationships between Ministers and the Civil Service. Wrong conclusions have been drawn and wrong impressions have sometimes deliberately been given to the public about the nature of the disputes that have taken place. It is appropriate that this House, when the other place has gone off for the Christmas holidays, should take the time, as it has today, to address these issues.

Perhaps we may take the three essential characteristics of a successful public administration in this country. I believe that we can agree that they are ministerial accountability, objectivity and free and open competition in recruitment and promotion. All those three principles have been under attack in recent weeks, months and years.

Ministerial accountability has been under very recent attack although it is significant that the only Minister to draw attention to himself by resigning when he was criticised for his public activities rather than for any sexual or other less relevant activity was Mr. David Willetts. The criticism of him was not as a Minister but as a Whip. In other cases where Ministers have been under serious attack resignations have been very far from their minds. There have not been any examples of the admirable example given by Sir Thomas Dugdale in the Crichel Down case.

Ministerial accountability has also been under attack not only at a personal level, but because of the extent to which agencies have taken over the core functions of departments of the Civil Service. I do not say that that is administratively a bad thing. There are many ways in which the increased internal accountability of agencies is valuable. The fact that they are required to produce targets for themselves and to live up to and account for them, is of itself valuable. I do not attack the devolution towards agencies.

But there can be no doubt that that has led to a diminution in ministerial accountability to Parliament. Questions raised by Members of Parliament to Ministers are in fact answered by director-generals of agencies. We have to be absolutely sure in our minds, which I am not, that Ministers do not hide behind those answers and sometimes even alter them when it is politically convenient to do so, while still not acknowledging responsibility for them.

I turn to the issue of competition in recruitment and promotion. In that sense this is properly a Bancroft memorial debate. Lord Bancroft has been referred to with admiration so many times and so rightly because he led the fight for the Civil Service against the privatisation of the recruitment service. This factor also applies to promotion within the Civil Service. It must be a principle that those in the Civil Service are advanced on their merit rather than on their opinions. There are suspicions that that is not always the case, particularly at higher levels. There are certainly suspicions that the variety of career paths brought about by the Next Steps agency process damages the advancement of the most able.

My noble friend Lady Hayman gave many examples of ministerial abuse of the Civil Service in recent months. There was the unpleasant episode of the search for "proponents of our policies". There has been the issue of leaks and the blame for them which has been placed on civil servants. My noble friend gave so many examples that I do not need to—indeed, I could not—equal the authority with which she made her case. What is interesting is that instead of there being any sense of humility among Ministers, Ministers have instead turned to attack the Civil Service for the things that have been going wrong. It is Ministers—notably, the Deputy Prime Minister but also the Minister without Portfolio, Dr. Mawhinney, the chairman of the Conservative Party—who have been talking about a "culture of leaks" rather than accepting that there might be something wrong with some of their actions.

The case of Helen Goodman is a very good example. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to that earlier and said that it was only yesterday that Mr. Heseltine was obliged to apologise to Giles Radice, the chairman of the Select Committee on the Public Service. Even so, Mr. Heseltine was not really apologising; he was blaming press reports for the gross injustice which he perpetrated on Helen Goodman by blaming her, as a would-be Labour candidate, for leaks of a document which indeed ought not to have been leaked. The Treasury inquiry proved conclusively that it was not leaked by Helen Goodman, but Mr. Heseltine made no reference to the fact that she had been completely cleared by that inquiry of any impropriety either in terms of being a parliamentary candidate or in relation to the report in which she played a part. Helen Goodman had no opportunity to reply, yet the Treasury (having cleared her) made no attempt to protect her from police intrusion and made no attempt to correct the misrepresentations that had been made about her. That was only compounded by the slur upon her which Mr. Heseltine uttered and which he has now partially retracted.

Who has been defending the Civil Service and its objectivity? As my noble friend Lady Symons has made absolutely clear, it is the First Division Association which has led in terms of protecting the neutrality of the Civil Service and which, as my noble friend Lady Symons did this afternoon, has always condemned any leak of confidential documents from the Civil Service. That body and other trade unions in the Civil Service have been outstanding in the defence of Civil Service standards, as have individual civil servants themselves. It is they who have stood up against the ministerial pressure to which noble Lords have referred. It is they who have provided the defence against the attacks which I have described.

The issue before us is whether there should be a statutory code rather than the present code under an Order in Council. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, referred to the need to waive the Royal Prerogative. I take it that she means that there should no longer be such an Order in Council, and that the provisions should be statutory.

The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, resisted that view on the ground that a statutory code would be difficult in law. The existing code is, however, part of the terms and conditions of employment of civil servants and could therefore be referred to in, for example, an industrial tribunal. It is thus in effect secondary law. Let us recognise that fact; let us put such a code into legislation in a Civil Service Act as the Labour Party and my noble friends have proposed. That is necessary not only in itself and because of the demands of the freedom of information Act which the Labour Government will introduce, but also because of the repatriation of our obligations under the European Court of Human Rights. If we have those general principles of freedom of information and of human rights enshrined in our legislation, civil servants will need to be guided by a statutory code.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, described that as "piecemeal constitutional reform". If I was a member of any Administration in which the noble Lord might participate, I would not look forward to the general constitutional reform legislation which the noble Lord appears to prefer to reforms which he describes as "piecemeal". I prefer to address the issues as they arise and to deal with them in a finite way. That is what the Labour Party proposes.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, made a distinction between "constitutional conservatives", which is how he described my noble friend Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who was more inclined to change the relationship between the political process and the Civil Service. I think that that is a false distinction. In this case, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is right. The description "constitutional reform" is perhaps better. If we want to strengthen the objectivity and effectiveness of the Civil Service it will be necessary also to strengthen the ability of our political process to operate effectively. To that extent, I disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who thought that it was proper to ask that we should eschew party politics. I think that party politics and an objective Civil Service are the necessary corollaries of each other. That is the basis on which we should be approaching reform.

I know that I am over my time, but as there is still time available for the debate, I should like to make one final point about objectivity. There is a distinction between objectivity of behaviour and advice and objectivity of thought. I address these remarks particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, who in my view did not seem to appreciate the difference. It is the responsibility of an objective civil servant to behave in an objective way and offer objective advice to Ministers. That must be so, and I believe that it has been the case in the vast majority of instances in recent years. But that does not mean that members of the Civil Service are supposed to be eunuchs and should not have their own views and thoughts about political, administrative and other matters. If that were so we would exclude the brightest and the best from the Civil Service, and we would lose that remarkable character of the Civil Service—good people with their own views who serve governments objectively. It must be that for which we strive.

2.8 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, so newly arrived in this House, not only for her courage in bringing to our notice a subject of such importance but for having attracted so many distinguished speakers. One regret I share with many noble Lords is that Lord Bancroft is no longer with us. I am sure that he would have made an invaluable contribution to the debate.

I cannot applaud the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. To me it was a travesty of the truth. Your Lordships have raised a wide range of important points. I should like to address most of those points before summarising the view of the Government. In reply to my noble friend Lady Park, who spoke about funding of the FCO, no part of government can be exempt from the need to seek ever greater efficiency and effectiveness. The Foreign Office, too, must respond to changes in demand and use available funds in the best possible way to achieve value for money.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and a number of other speakers referred to a culture of leaks. I note that the noble Lord did not examine the figures in the memorandum submitted by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister to the Select Committee. Since 1980 over 400 leaks have been notified to the Cabinet Office. That represents between 30 and 40 significant leaks every year, compared with 13 in 1982, for example. I suggest to the noble Lord that the expression "culture of leaks" may not be misplaced.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, spoke about special advisers. Special advisers were a development formalised by the last Labour Government. This Government have set out clearly and openly the roles that both special advisers and civil servants must play, and that is the important matter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, expressed concerns about accountability and responsibility. The Government made clear their position last month in response to the report on ministerial accountability and responsibility by a Select Committee of another place. The Government accepted many recommendations of that committee. The proposed resolution of the other House on these matters was accepted in principle. It is now the subject of cross-party discussion. The noble Baroness also said that an FDA survey revealed civil servants' concern about political activities. I entirely endorse the concern of the noble Baroness that there must be a clear separation between political activities and the proper duties of civil servants. Perhaps I should declare a type of interest as a former temporary civil servant. Appeals made to Civil Service commissions under the Civil Service code have not so far included any relating to political activities.

The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, drew attention to the Armstrong memorandum and the Civil Service code. Those answer the concerns raised in this debate. I fully agree with the views of the noble Lord. I strongly welcome his expert contribution based on his long and highly distinguished career in the Civil Service.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, said that the Civil Service felt isolated from Opposition. The need to avoid that problem is precisely the reason why the Prime Minister has enabled the Opposition to benefit from factual briefings from senior civil servants for a longer period before the next general election than ever before. The noble Baroness also spoke about recruitment and the promotion of those whose faces fit as "one of us". I reassure the noble Baroness that the Civil Service strictly maintains fair and open recruitment and promotion on merit. Recent moves such as the expansion of the role of the First Civil Service Commissioner and revision of recruitment provisions serve to underline and reinforce those principles. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, spoke of the tried and tested personnel system in the Armed Forces. I am grateful to him for reminding the House of the importance of this critical area of the public service. We take very seriously his point about the need to continue systems that underpin the absolute political neutrality of the Armed Forces.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mused on how far it was intended that civil servants should carry out and create policy. The noble Earl raised an important point. The Government are convinced that civil servants should give honest and impartial advice to Ministers concerning both options for new policies and how existing policies should best be carried out. That point is covered explicitly in the Civil Service code.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that Next Steps agencies dilute ministerial responsibility. Not so, my Lords. Nothing with regard to agencies affects the rights of a Member of this House or the other place to demand a reply from a Minister. The Minister remains fully accountable to Parliament for all the activities of his department and agencies.

Let me sum up the Government's view through a quotation: The British Civil Service is a great national asset. Since the 1870s, it has been the permanent and impartial instrument of all administrations. Governments have always seen it as their duty to preserve its efficiency and honesty for their successors". Those are the words of the all-party House of Commons Treasury and Civil Service Committee in its fifth report on The Role of the Civil Service, published in November 1994. That view is shared by the Prime Minister and all other government Ministers.

As a former Under-Secretary in the Department of Health and Social Security and as a Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I should like to pay my humble tribute to the quality of service and huge help, although not always what I wanted to hear, which I received from the civil servants with whom I came into contact—not least, I would add, for today's debate.

The Civil Service plays a vital part in underpinning the constitution, and in sustaining good government in this country. As my noble friend Lord Beloff said, it has done so since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. It still does. The important challenge facing us all is to retain and strengthen the traditional principles—independence, impartiality, integrity, objectivity, permanence, recruitment through fair and open competition—that have made the British Civil Service the envy of the world.

Our system of government benefits hugely from our tradition of a politically impartial Civil Service, offering frank and objective advice to Ministers. A clear example of that is shown in the advice given by Sir Robin Butler in the matter described by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, as, "the cheerleaders". The noble Baroness has summed up the sequence of events. It was never intended that civil servants would do that work.

With regard to the panel, the record of the seminar recorded that the panel of public service providers might include prison governors. It was accepted subsequently that that was not appropriate since prison governors are civil servants. No action whatever was taken to involve them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, calls attention to the need for a code of ethics for the Civil Service to ensure that civil servants give impartial advice and do not carry out tasks which could jeopardise their independence. We already have such a code. The Civil Service code came into force on 1st January this year. Clearly, it deserved more attention than it received, evidenced by the fact that we are having this debate today.

The Civil Service code provides a succinct statement of the constitutional framework of the Civil Service and the values—integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity—that every civil servant is expected to uphold. It restates that civil servants owe their loyalty to Ministers—of whatever political complexion—and that Ministers must account to Parliament. Pocket-sized copies of the code were distributed to all civil servants.

The code also sets out the role of Ministers in ensuring that those values are upheld. It provides a new, independent line of appeal to deal with cases where civil servants feel that they are being asked to do something they should not do.

Where a civil servant has reported a matter and believes that the response does not represent a reasonable response to the grounds of his or her concern, he or she may report the matter in writing to the independent Civil Service Commissioners.

The Government's commitment to a politically impartial Civil Service has never wavered. However, one might argue that there was at one stage a need for more clearly and publicly spelling out the relevant rules and requirements. That has now been done. The rules covering the political impartiality of the Civil Service are clearly described in five pages of the Civil Service management code, which sets out regulations and instructions to the departments and agencies regarding the terms and conditions of service of civil servants. The essence of those rules is distilled in Section 9 of the Civil Service code, distributed to every civil servant, from which I have quoted extensively.

Nor is this simply a requirement on civil servants. The corollary that Ministers must not misuse the Civil Service for political purposes is set out in paragraph 1 of Questions of Procedure for Ministers, and again that is repeated in Section 3 of the Civil Service code. Every one of those documents is open and can be found in the Libraries of both Houses. The Government are prepared to consider going further. They have an open mind about legislation concerning the terms and conditions of employment of civil servants and the powers of Civil Service Commissioners. They have offered discussions with other parties on that. The ethics of the Civil Service could now hardly be more clearly defined and publicly laid down.

Stewardship of the Civil Service is a vital task. I submit to the House that, judged by any standard, the Government have carried out this task, as they have others, responsibly, effectively and well. They will continue to do so over the next five years. In conclusion, I trust that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and all Members of this House will acquaint themselves with the Civil Service code. Let us be reassured; there is no need for a new code of ethics as it already exists.

2.22 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in today's debate. Their contributions made me realise that my fears when I saw the distinguished cast which my Motion had invoked in your Lordships' House were fully justified.

Perhaps I may respond briefly to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and assure her that I have my copy of the Civil Service code even as I speak—

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it did not sound like it!

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I was grateful for the open-mindedness which the noble Baroness suggested that the Government have about looking at the possibility of bringing together the existing codes in statutory form. I welcome that. I was not very grateful for her assertion that my speech was a travesty of the truth—

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I did not feel that the evidence in her own speech held out that assertion. I know that noble Lords do not like Members to get party political on this, but in defence of my own integrity I must say that in the dying days of this Government the conduct of Whips and Ministers in another place is more a travesty of proper behaviour than my speech was a travesty of the truth.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that I thought I was being rather intellectually open-minded in envisaging two possible outcomes to the general election. However, I take to heart what he said and I am sure that in the circumstances it will be taken into account. I was extremely grateful for the remarks of my noble friend Lord McIntosh about pay day having come and I look forward to my Christmas bonus when I leave the Chamber.

I felt that from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, there was a hint of gentle criticism about the issue of party politics entering into this debate. It is very difficult when the stewardship of the Civil Service, which, as we all know, is not the property of any single government or administration but is the property of the nation, is in the hands of the Government to suggest that one should not be able to examine the quality of that stewardship and the behaviour of Ministers towards it. That was what I was attempting to do in my speech today.

This has been a fascinating debate. We have had some toing and froing about whether a statutory code is necessary or whether what exists is sufficient to ensure good standards of behaviour and to safeguard political neutrality. I intended to be absolutely neutral and even-handed. The noble Baroness is shocked. The code that I am suggesting would equally discipline civil servants who misbehave as it would discipline Ministers who misbehave. As regards the culture of leaks to which there has been reference, I am sure that the noble Baroness would find it interesting to read the transcript of Sir Robin Butler's evidence yesterday to the Select Committee in another place. I listened to it. Sir Robin pointed out what a tiny proportion of civil servants misbehave and what a small proportion of the leaks are politically motivated in the sense of going to political parties. It is an interesting piece of Christmas reading.

I maintain my belief and argument that the profound nature of the change that has taken place over the past two decades in the structure of the Civil Service, the additional issues raised about accountability and responsibility and the distinction between the two that the Next Steps agencies and the changes they have invoked and the conduct of some people both on the Civil Service side and the ministerial side are such as to suggest that, if we wish to be good stewards of that precious national asset, a statutory code would be one way in which to help reinvigorate the values of the Civil Service. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that I am a conservative but that the structures and processes must change and I wish to see them changed and reformed in the 21st century. However, we are reaching the end of the debate and the end of the session. At last, noble Lords on the Government Front Bench are smiling. With the leave of the House, I beg to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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