HL Deb 16 February 2000 vol 609 cc1217-20

2.44 p.m.

Lord Patten

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to appoint a Minister of information.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the Government have no plans to appoint a Minister of information. There has never been a Minister of information, except in times of war. Ministers are responsible for the information output of their departments and the Prime Minister is responsible for the overall information strategy of the Government.

Lord Patten

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful and full reply. But does the noble and learned Lord realise just how disturbed ordinary people in this country are by the sight of a government being predominantly run by spin doctors, rather than by Ministers? In the country at large, people want to see Ministers answering for the crisis in the health service, for chaos over constitutional reform, and for the problems and delays at the Dome. Further, does the Minister recognise that there is no true form of accountability either in this Chamber or in the other place? Indeed, we saw this only yesterday when the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was reprimanded in another place for excessive spin-doctoring and for the mendacious activities of these spin doctors—

Noble Lords

Order! Question!

Lord Patten

Would it not be better for them to be brought under democratic control''

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, if I may say so, that was a grotesque misrepresentation of the position. Ministers do answer for decisions. They answer to Parliament; they answer to the media; and they answer to the people.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in deference to my noble friend Lord Patten, perhaps I may ask the Minister a question. Does the noble and learned Lord realise that some of us will be very grateful for the reply that he has given? We congratulate the Government on finding one thing in this country that they do not wish to change.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am very grateful for that question, coming as it does from a somewhat unaccustomed source.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord say whether the Government are aware that the three information papers issued by the Cabinet Office this year—namely, Reaching Out, Wiring It Up, and Adding it Up—cost, in total, £54? Is the Minister aware that it is now possible to spend a weekend in Paris for rather less than that sum? Is it not seriously the case that such information documents are way beyond the resources of normal citizens?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I believe that the documents to which the noble Lord refers are three reports from the Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office. They are intended to be serious studies of such matters as government policy in the regions. They are not simply information sheets; they are serious studies which have been carried out over a long period of time. It seems to me to be right that they should be as long as they are.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that a Minister, whether new or existing, is needed to prevent the multi-announcement of statements giving the impression that new money is involved with each repetition? I have in mind the case of the £20 million for a "new" hospital admission system, which was announced four times within 12 months.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not know the particular announcement to which the noble Lord refers. However, it is important that the Government have been able to say what they are doing; indeed, this has been so since governments began. Governments must do so in an honest and straightforward way, as is the case with this Government. But, from time to time, that will inevitably involve repeating things that have been announced before.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, has the noble and learned Lord read the press reports to the effect that managers in the health service have been thoroughly confused by the numerous repeat announcements of new government expenditure to the extent that they have not the faintest idea whether or not it is new money? What on earth is the point of announcing a new spending initiative on three or four occasions, unless the intention is to convince the public that new money is available when, in fact, it is not?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in making announcements, for example, about health provision, I do not accept that the Government seek to mislead in any way. Press statements frequently refer to matters that have previously been mentioned. There is nothing misleading about that.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, has the BMA got the matter completely wrong then? The doctors have recently complained bitterly that they are faced with precisely the circumstances that my noble friend Lord Waddington has described. Are they all wrong? Will the Government publish their reply to the BMA strictures?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not know to what the noble Lord refers when he refers to the BMA. As I say, it is absolutely right and proper that the Government Information and Communication Service, which issues the information to which the noble Lord refers, should explain both to the medical profession and beyond what the Government are doing. That it does so repeatedly is, in my view, sensible where the public are unaware of what is going on.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, while it is acceptable that the Government should be able to repeat their good messages, is the noble and learned Lord aware that it is not only in the National Health Service that this problem arises? The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is notorious for putting out press releases stating that farmers are being helped to the tune of x-million or x-billion pounds. Often we find that, instead of this assistance being given at the time of the announcement, it has already been given, or is to be given at some time in the future. The public have the impression that farmers are feather-bedded when they are struggling.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am quite sure that the public's view on farmers is not based on press releases issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; it is based on far more profound matters. I do not know the detail of the particular press release to which the noble Countess refers, but it is perfectly appropriate that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should set out what it is doing.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord understand the real concern that lies behind this Question; namely, the increased politicisation of the government information machine and its increased non- accountability to the democratic process, and in particular to Parliament? What has been the cost and the number of the press releases that have been issued over the course of the past 12 months, or for the latest date for which figures are available? What was the comparable figure under the previous government?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it is incredibly important that the Government Information and Communication Service retains the confidence of the people; that it complies with the Civil Service code; that it has guidelines with which it complies; and that those guidelines state that its activities should be relevant to government responsibilities, should be objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical, and should not be liable to misrepresentation as being party political; should be conducted in an economic and appropriate way, having regard to the need to be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds. I believe that it complies with those guidelines. I believe that it is an important part of the Government's operation. The fact that various elements in the press complain about press releases that are made does not mean, nor does it justify, an outright attack on the GICS, which I believe to be an honourable and effective part of the Civil Service. As regards the number of press releases issued and the comparable costs, I am afraid that I do not have the figures with me, but I shall write to the noble Lord.