HL Deb 24 May 2000 vol 613 cc814-53

5.58 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

rose to call attention to the continuing need for a professional Civil Service and the role of special advisers and information officers; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my starting point is the British Civil Service. I then propose to consider the effects and possible future effects of temporary additions to its senior layers. I am glad that many well informed and experienced Peers are to speak. I regard it as a compliment that two Peers—the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Powell of Bayswater—have decided to make their maiden speeches in this debate.

I would claim that the senior ranks of the British Civil Service over the past 100 years at least have been the best in the world. Governments of all colours have benefited from their loyal and dedicated work. The tradition of the service has been to be non-political as servants of the Crown.

I had some personal experience of this when I was a public servant for a dozen years. After spending the whole of the war in the Army, and then well over a year in hospital after being wounded and disabled, to everybody's surprise, including my own, I was successful in the Foreign Office exam. Still under hospital supervision and treatment, my first three years had to be in London and in the Foreign Office. During part of that time I worked personally for Mr Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary in the Labour government of the day for whom I had great admiration.

In my next post at the United Nations in New York I also worked directly for other Labour Ministers, including Mr Kenneth Younger and Mr Hector McNeil, both Ministers of State. A few years later I was assigned to work for two years away from the Foreign Office to be private secretary to the Secretary to the Cabinet when Sir Winston Churchill was Prime Minister.

Noble Lords will not be surprised that I have retained a lively interest in the machinery of government; in the changes being made, changes that may have to be made and in the ability of the public service to work for governments of different complexions. I look forward to hearing the reply to this debate, most suitably from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office.

My Motion refers to the role of special advisers and information officers. It is now recognised that there are two kinds of special advisers—political and expert—the latter being recruited for their expertise in the subjects of a Minister's department or task. I make clear at the beginning that I am in favour of political and special advisers. My aim is not to try to abolish them. My concerns are whether they are needed in such large numbers; how their functions are defined and how they fit in with the operations of the regular Civil Service.

It has been recorded by my noble friend Lord Blake, the eminent historian, that the first political adviser in the United Kingdom was probably used by Disraeli. In their present form political or special advisers started in 1974 when Ministers in the incoming Labour government were allowed to appoint them within limits. There had been very few individual appointments before 1974. As I was a Cabinet Minister before 1974, I did not have one myself.

The numbers of special advisers have increased and strikingly so in the past three years. At the beginning of 1997 I understand that there were 38. The latest figure I have is 77, not including Scotland. I hope that the noble and learned Lord can confirm that figure or bring us up to date, and also say whether it is correct that no fewer than 30 of them work at No. 10, as reported. Individual Ministers under the ministerial code are supposed to appoint no more than two special advisers each. I ask the noble and learned Lord whether it is true that five current Ministers have exceeded that quota.

I turn now to information officers. Normally they have been part of the professional Civil Service. In my debate on 28th October 1997, I drew attention to the departure of eight heads of information divisions in government departments in the first four months of this Government. Some of their work was taken over by specially appointed replacements. I have seen a recent report that the press officers in the Cabinet Office have been increased in number from seven in 1997 to 16 now, thus more than doubled. As that is the noble and learned Lord's department, I ask him to comment. I also sympathise with him because I suspect that the additions were made because of the difficulties with the Millennium Dome. He was given an unenviable responsibility.

There is a particular provision in regulations allowing up to three special advisers to have executive powers over civil servants. Two of these places have been filled, the chief press officer, a fellow member of the Clan Campbell, and the chief of staff at No. 10, Mr. Jonathan Powell, who I believe is the brother of the noble Lord, Lord Powell, who is to make his maiden speech this evening.

That brings me to functions and how special advisers are expected to do their jobs besides the Civil Service. In reply to my debate two-and-a-half years ago, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, confirmed that special advisers are bound by the Civil Service code. He also stated that it was the Government's intention that, for the first time, the code should be made statutory. Can the Minister this evening bring us up to date on that?

What is the situation in Scotland and Wales? While at present there is no limit on special advisers in England, limits have been imposed for Scotland and Wales—12 and four respectively. In Scotland two of them had to leave in embarrassing circumstances, which is something that has also happened in England. I remind the House that the professional civil servants working for the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament, consisting mostly of the former Scottish Office, are still part of the United Kingdom Home Civil Service, subject to the same terms of service and codes. The same is true for the arrangements for the Welsh Assembly.

The vital, important difference concerning the Civil Service code is that special advisers are not required to observe impartiality or objectivity as the Civil Service is. Indeed, that is an essential part of a civil servant's duties.

That leads to ambiguity. For example, when the media are being briefed by two people from a department, perhaps in separate telephone calls—one from the Civil Service information officer and the other from a special adviser—the messages may differ considerably, one being "on-message" from the point of view of Millbank Tower. The present Secretary of the Cabinet is on record as stating that there is a grey area between the promotion and defence of government policy and of the ruling party's policy. The aim of the special adviser may be very different from the objective of the information officer. That is illustrated by an episode that puzzled the British Medical Association. The same announcement about £20 million for a new system of booking hospital appointments was made four times within a year, giving the impression each time that the announcement was new and that the money was also new. The fourth announcement made last September, in a health department press release, even brought in the Prime Minister, saying that he was that day announcing a £20 million revolutionary booking service.

There is nothing wrong with the repetition of announcements in order to keep the public fully informed, but it should be made clear that it is not new money and not a new announcement. I am sure that that view is shared by professional civil servants. However, a special adviser, acting as a spin-doctor, might have counted the four-fold announcement as a great success if it had not been rumbled. I do not suggest that the Civil Service is already politicised, but I warn of the danger that that could happen in certain areas.

Managing news is an art in which all governments dabble. They can decide when to make their own announcements, which is sensible. It is sensible for them to choose dates and to spread the issue of statements and releases. I understand that a programme that is now held centrally of dates of announcements in Whitehall is commonly known as the "grid". Manipulation of news is another matter; such as, for example, having sensational stories ready for issue quickly to blank out other news or opposition parties' activities. That is the trade of the spin doctors.

Last January the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, reported on the role of special advisers. I understand that as yet the Government have made no comment or reply. I find myself in complete agreement with its main recommendations, particularly two of them for reasons that are clear from what I have just said: first, that there should be a limit on the total number of special advisers and that that should be laid down in legislation; and, secondly, that there should be a separate code of conduct for them, dealing especially with direct contacts with the media and relating to Civil Service information staffs' functions.

The Neill committee recommends that there should be a new Civil Service Act to legislate for those and other matters. I know that the Minister is always bound by parliamentary programmes, but I ask him whether the Government are preparing to introduce a Civil Service Bill and, if so, when?

In my view special advisers have a place in our system for two main reasons: first, Ministers need a political member of their staff to keep in touch with their political party and to carry out political work in developing policy that civil servants should not do; and, secondly, Ministers naturally want their policies and actions to be presented publicly in the best possible light. A special adviser can help in that. However, if this goes too far, a government may seem more concerned with giving favourable impressions than in imparting facts that may be unpalatable.

Another problem is accountability. The Civil Service is accountable to Ministers and Ministers to Parliament, a system that has been observed and well understood for decades. The House will know of occasions when Ministers have resigned but the faults have clearly been with officials. At present, special advisers are outside that system. Action on the Neill committee's report could rectify that omission. So we await the Government's reply to that report. Let us hope that, in that reply, there will be no sign or suspicion of any kind of spin. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.13 p.m.

Lord Roper

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for having selected this subject for debate this afternoon, thus giving me an opportunity to speak so soon after my arrival in your Lordships' House. At the outset perhaps I should confess that I speak in your Lordships' House at some comparative disadvantage on this subject, in that I have never been a professional civil servant, a special adviser, an information officer, nor, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, a Minister. I also confess that I have always had more than a slight regret that I never tried to become a professional British civil servant.

However, in the early 1990s, I spent a period directing a policy research institute for the Western European Union and, therefore, in a sense I was an international civil servant. One of the advantages of that period was that it gave me an opportunity to see the professionalism of the British Civil and Diplomatic Services and that of a number of their continental and transatlantic counterparts. For me, that was a most educative experience and certainly taught me the inestimable value to this country of our professional Civil Service.

I also remember how difficult I found it to explain to my continental colleagues the difference between a ministerial private office and a cabinet. The idea that a Principal Private Secretary could continue to serve with equal efficiency and loyalty a new Minister of a different political party after a change of government was almost inconceivable to them. Yet, I suggest, that it clearly demonstrates the ability of our professional civil servants to act with complete discretion on matters of the highest political sensitivity.

In this country, we do not always appreciate the value of the continuity and commitment that our system provides. It was only in comparing it with that of other countries that I truly understood the advantage that we have. Therefore, I completely agree with the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, and his colleagues, including my noble friend Lord Goodhart, in the sixth report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life when they say, that we take for granted what many other countries are still trying to establish". In a moment, I shall return to what we can do to assist others in establishing more effective, more honest and more professional civil services.

Before doing so, I should like to say a word about special advisers of whom, over the years, I have known quite a number of various political flavours and some of whom I see in your Lordships' House, including of course, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. I do not see any necessary contradiction between the exemplary ethos provided by our Civil Service and the appointment of a limited number of special advisers. Therefore, I am happy to find myself in complete agreement with the present and past Secretaries of the Cabinet who recently, in their evidence to the Neill committee, argued that in terms of numbers there is no present threat to the Civil Service from a limited number of special advisers.

However, I feel that there can be qualitative problems if, for instance, special advisers are perceived as gatekeepers who appear to insulate Ministers from the advice of other officials in their department. Issues can also arise if appointments of special advisers to posts such as that of Chief Economic Adviser or indeed some of the senior information officers are made too frequently from outside the Civil Service. In reducing career prospects, it seems to me that that could reduce the morale of permanent civil servants and perhaps in the long term have an effect on recruitment.

We should not be complacent, but I believe that the opportunities for scrutiny, both in this House and by the Select Committee on Public Administration in another place, as well as by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, provide a system of checks and balances that demonstrates that one does not need a written constitution, or perhaps even statutory provision, to maintain the all-important ethos of public service.

My other experience of the past decade has been in post-communist societies, particularly in south-eastern Europe. As this Motion refers to the professional Civil Service, I should like to say something about that aspect of civil service. In south-eastern Europe I have seen the central problem of developing a professional civil service that understands the very changed ethos of operating in a democratic society. It is easier to change the formal political structures, to create new democratic political parties, to organise and hold free elections in post-communist countries than it is to transform the public administration and to ensure that civil servants understand that they are now at the service of the citizen, rather than the reverse, as was the case under communism.

The task, therefore, of building effective professional public administrations with an ethos of public service is one of the main requirements not only for the 10 central and eastern European countries which are candidates for membership of the European Union, but also, I would suggest, for the other countries of the western Balkans now included in the Stability Pact. Without honest administration in those countries based on a professional civil service, popular support for democracy and an effective market economy can all too easily be eroded.

This country already does a certain amount to assist in the development in other countries of professional civil service structures. I am aware of the work that is done by the International Consultancy Group of the Civil Service College, the International Public Service Unit in the Cabinet Office, the Department for International Development and others; but, looking at the scale of the problem and the importance of developing healthy public services in countries, the success and stability of which are essential for the future of our continent, I believe that we should ask whether this is an area where we have a satisfactory overall strategy and whether we could not do more. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Minister in his reply to this debate could say whether, as we approach the sesquicentenary of the Northcote-Trevelyan report, which provided the basis for our own professional Civil Service, we could expand on what Britain is doing to help others to develop equally professional civil services.

An area in which the Officers of this House and of another place already provide considerable service in Europe, and further afield, is the provision of the procedural backbone to the parliamentary meetings of a number of European and international bodies. I therefore first became aware of the courteous rigour of the Officers of this House when serving on the assemblies of the Council of Europe and of the Western European Union when I was in another place some 20 years ago. I am most grateful for the continued assistance of the Officers of the House and for the welcome that I have received since my arrival from so many noble Lords, many of whom, irrespective of where they sit in this House, seem to be old friends.

6.22 p.m.

Lord Sawyer

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for giving this House an opportunity to debate this issue this evening. I also pay tribute to the excellent maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Roper. I am sure that his experience in politics, in the academic world, and in public life, particularly in the European field, will be a great asset to this House. His speech this evening was interesting, well informed and challenging. I hope that in the weeks, months and years that go by we shall have the opportunity of hearing further from him on this and other subjects.

I should like to say something about special advisers, and I want to take a fairly wide interpretation of the issue and perhaps treat it in a rather unorthodox way. In essence, I believe that it is important and essential that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet should have the benefit of independent advice in two forms. First, they should have available to them special knowledge and experience from outside the Civil Service relating to the key tasks before them and the particular issue that they need to tackle. This should be wide ranging and should include the possibility of helping politicians not just to become effective cabinet members but also effective political leaders; secondly, that should provide a link between government and party, about which I shall have more to say later.

I hope that this debate will not be narrow or inward looking. It is not just about numbers or costs or narrowly defined rules, and we should not in a debate of this kind be trapped into addressing this issue in conventional or traditional ways. The role of special advisers relates essentially to the culture of government. It is about the kind of government that we really want. To appreciate the need for special advisers, we need to take a view of the big picture, we need to take a strategic view of the issue, and we need to think about how we can obtain from the Government the best for the people. In addition, we increasingly need to look outside the traditional confines of politics and civil servants and into the industrial and commercial revolution that is taking place in the wider world. We need to ask ourselves what we can learn from the wider world to help us to do our job more effectively here. Politicians of all parties moving into government from opposition need help and advice which will not always be available from civil servants. If that advice is of a political nature or dimension, it should not be available from civil servants.

The big picture is how we can get the most effective government for the people out there who vote for parties and for governments. In the first place, of course, it is about delivering on manifestos and commitments. The Civil Service is essentially there to deliver on that task, but government is about more than delivering on manifestos and implementing policies; it should also be about culture. It should be about creating a culture in which people feel positive about elected political leaders of all parties. That does not mean that people will not make choices about differences—that is how it ought to be—but people should not feel negative about politics, politicians and political power.

The parties in this House and in another place which put forward politicians for election, and the voters who vote for those candidates, want something more from politicians than service delivery. They want more than policies on education, health, or whatever it may be. People want pride in the political process and in politicians; they want to trust the political process and politicians; they want openness and honesty; they want respect for both the people and the politicians; they want to be heard; they want their views to be taken into consideration. These matters are not about policy delivery. They are about the nature of government and the culture which governments create to govern people. What we need to achieve these things is leadership, in the widest possible sense.

I believe that this is the context in which need to look at the role of special advisers. It is to help men and women who often have little experience of leadership to face the challenge when they enter government, to give these politicians with enormous responsibility some support and advice which, for them, is outside the normal civil service environment. Sometimes it will be special, sometimes it will be political, but more often it has to be about leadership. If we think about it in these terms, we shall make progress. Any senior executive in the world outside politics would be surprised at a debate about whether a Cabinet Minister with enormous financial, political and personal responsibilities is over-serviced by having two special advisers. I believe that they would be surprised at that fairly narrow view. We therefore need to open things up. We need to look outside; we need to listen to what people say; and we need to look at what people do outside politics in order keep pace with the growing, changing world outside.

For the Prime Minister's Office, it is, of course, crucially about leadership. The new arrangements in the Prime Minister's Office—the Policy Unit, the Strategic Communications Unit and all the other new initiatives—are there to prepare and to extend his leadership capacity, and that is very important. It is about strategy and co-ordination; it is about making joined-up government work; and it is a phenomenally difficult and complex task for anyone to carry out. We have, of course, to be very careful. When we create new institutions in which we have new people close to power, the people in the old institutions which still exist outside, who are still necessary, sometimes feel left out. It is therefore important with new institutions that people in the Cabinet, and in the PLP in the case of my party—in the party machine—should not feel excluded. This is the essence of leadership, and that is why leadership is so important.

An innovative government looking to strengthen leadership at the top need to find ways of including people in the middle and at the bottom. So the role of the special adviser is partly about scrutiny and accountability to Parliament—I fully accept that that is necessary—but it is also about much more. It is about a culture; how we flatten the structures; how we bring government closer to people and how we bring people closer to the Government. That is essentially the new and developing role that I should like for special advisers.

I should like Government Ministers to have the opportunity to have special advisers who particularly take an interest in those leadership issues. They could be part time. They could be from another walk of life; they do not have to come from the Civil Service or political appointments. They could comprise a wide range of people. But that is a subject for an extended debate. In the context of being positive about the new ways of working with civil servants and special advisers—both having important roles to play—I hope that the Minister will give consideration to some of the points that I have made.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Powell of Bayswater

My Lords, as a former civil servant; as the grandson, the son, the brother and the father of either former or current civil servants, I obviously find this debate irresistible. I should start by declaring an interest, but whether it is a fraternal interest in a special adviser or a paternal interest in a civil servant I am not sure. Perhaps they cancel each other out.

I had my first knowledge of this House as a civil servant sitting in the Box during a debate on Rhodesia in 1979. The late and much-lamented Lord Soames was uncharacteristically flummoxed by an intervention. I scribbled out the answer and an aerodynamic and fleet-footed Whip carried it to him, whereupon he waved it in the air and said, "Manna from heaven, my Lords; manna from heaven!".

I do not aspire to offer much manna today, but I should like to make a few points on the Motion based on my rather atypical experience both as a civil servant and, more recently, as a merchant. Perhaps I may start by saying how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for tabling a Motion on which I dare to make a maiden speech, and on a day on which I am unusually in this country. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roper, on his maiden speech, while inwardly chiding him for setting a higher standard than I can possibly aspire to.

My first point is that I do not sense that politicisation of the Civil Service is a serious issue. Despite all the talk of "one of us", I can think of no case in the time as Prime Minister of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when a Civil Service appointment was affected by ideological leanings, and I am sure that the same is true today. There was a preference for men of action over purely cerebral types, and quite right too.

I am pretty sure that civil servants do not feel themselves at risk from politicisation. It is much more of a bogyman for politicians, and their concern seems miraculously to vary depending on whether they are in government or opposition. And if on rare occasions civil servants become, or even appear to become, politically tainted, there is an honourable way out. They may even find themselves on the Cross-Benches of the House of Lords.

So rather than tilting at windmills, it is better to focus on improving the performance and professionalism of the Civil Service. The present Cabinet Secretary is to be congratulated on some first-class work in that direction, in particular on adopting business planning methods and creating inter-departmental groups rather than pitting one department against another; and linking rewards with results—a long overdue change. Unfortunately, some management gobbledegook has crept in too; things like, "360 degree feedback". But I hope that we can get back to the tradition where civil servants speak and write good plain English.

Anything which breaks down the notion of the Civil Service as a priesthood, cloistered and aloof from the rest of the world, and brings it into the marketplace is very desirable. Our system does not encourage the extensive leavening of outside experience which comes with the in-and-out system in the United States. All the more reason therefore to second civil servants out to jobs in the private sector to gain experience. But they must go into real jobs if the experience is to be valuable. In my experience, one of the greatest differences between the Civil Service and the private sector is the degree of responsibility and accountability which relatively young people running a business experience compared with their Civil Service counterparts at the same stage of their careers. That is something which needs to be experienced by civil servants, and I am sure they would welcome it if given the chance.

Secondly, the Motion refers to the role of special advisers. Once again, I do not see any great threat to the professional Civil Service from them. Wise civil servants know how to work with special advisers and make the best use of them, and vice versa. But to my mind, too many of the special advisers are in the wrong places. The great majority, virtually all, are attached to Ministers' offices, where they tend to cabal, gossip to the press and intrigue on their Minister's behalf, creating unnecessary conflicts. I would much prefer to see their undoubted expertise, which they bring to government and Whitehall, spread more widely through the government machine. I believe that there is scope to appoint more outside experts, whether political or not, to what are traditionally Civil Service positions, in particular where new policy initiatives need to be worked up. That would make the most of their specialised knowledge and their commitment to change in key policy areas. It is also in the spirit of breaking down the barriers between the Civil Service and the world outside and letting in some fresh air.

To say that that would infect and politicise the whole Civil Service is simply crying wolf. It happens in other systems, notably the United States, without the sky falling in or the end of democracy as we know it. We need to avoid being overly sanctimonious on these issues.

In the case of information officers, the market will surely determine whether or not they are overly politicised. Journalists expect good hard news delivered straight. If they feel they are receiving excessive spin or political slant, they will discount both the story and the source; it is a self-correcting mechanism. There is indeed the problem of repetition to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred. It brings to mind the case of Lord Whitelaw, who was once repeating the same page of his speech and was challenged on it. He said, "Of course I am repeating it. It is the most important part of my speech".

I add one word about the role of 10 Downing Street, where I worked for an unusually long time. It is a remarkable institution whatever government are in power. What makes it effective is its small size and intimacy. Not only is No. 10 smaller than any other head of government office even now among major countries; it is—or certainly was—the only one small enough to get an instant decision by sticking one's head round the Prime Minister's door. That is a huge advantage envied by other governments for the speed of decision-taking.

While a No. 10 which provides a strong and effective lead in Whitehall is in my experience desirable and welcomed by the Civil Service, it would be a great mistake to allow it to become too big and spill out into a full-scale Prime Minister's department, with hierarchies and a tortuous chain of command. I hope that that temptation will continue to be resisted.

Lastly, I am immensely and more than conventionally grateful for the help and courtesy which I have received from Members of the House, its Officers and staff. It is one of the qualities which makes membership of this House both an honour and an extraordinarily rewarding experience.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Patten

My Lords, we should all be grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for introducing this debate and allowing us to hear the noble Lord, Lord Roper, make an interesting speech. It was most thought-provoking, with his references to what might be done to promote good governance in south-east Europe and elsewhere, and we look forward to more of him in the coming months, as we do most assuredly of the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater. I congratulate him also on his remarkable maiden speech on behalf of the whole House. He said that he came from a kind of hereditary caste of civil servants, administrators and writers of speeches. It is a remarkable double act to have the noble Lord on the Cross-Benches while his brother labours as a most distinguished chief of staff to the Prime Minister in No. 10. Indeed, those interested in genetic engineering may well seek a sample from one or other, or both, to see whether there is a secret in the Powell genes.

Among the secrets which will long be kept, alas, are the thoughts of the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, on his long and distinguished tenure in No. 10 Downing Street as Private Secretary to the Prime Minister between 1983 and 1990. I suspect that we may hear not very much of that. That is probably in the firm traditions of the British Civil Service. However, if the noble Lord seeks to have an edition of memoirs of those years privately printed and circulated, he will find me among the many willing subscribers.

He can also have the satisfaction of knowing that he has probably had a much greater influence on public affairs in this country, in Europe and elsewhere than many a Minister. That is an enviable position for any civil servant.

I have always greatly admired the British Civil Service. There is not much that can be said about it except that there is no such thing as a bad or incompetent civil servant; there is only a bad or incompetent Minister. One of the few sensible remarks ever written by a sociologist was by Max Weber and it was so sensible, I wrote it down. On civil servants, he said: The ideal official conducts his office in a spirit of formalistic impersonality, without hatred or passion, and hence without affection or enthusiasm". There is indeed a great lack of affection or enthusiasm among many of the civil servants with whom I have been privileged to work in the past. But I have never felt for one moment any taste or taint of partiality in the advice that I was given over the years. That must make it all the more galling for some of our distinguished civil servants that some among the special advisers who inhabit Whitehall in growing numbers—and I am not against special advisers, and this is not the beginning of a tirade or rant against special advisers—have begun, so gossip within the Whitehall village tells one, to order around civil servants. That is entirely wrong.

There is a proper place for special advisers. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy spelt out the need that a Minister or Secretary of State may have for someone to help him with speeches and with his links to the political party to which he belongs. He needs someone to explain to civil servants that going to make a political speech is more important than opening a bypass on a Friday afternoon. One needs that service to deal with all those delicate matters.

However, I echo something which the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, said. There is a need to have more special advisers but not the political special adviser. Each Secretary of State or Minister should be limited to one political special adviser to look after his back. I should then happily see a growth of special advisers who were brought in to do the serious strategic thinking policy jobs, because sometimes, in the pell-mell life both of government and the Civil Service, it is difficult for civil servants to find time to pause and to reflect in order to do that. So I should not at all mind seeing more special advisers in government.

A trade-off of that may be getting rid of the superfluity of junior Ministers. That would be a sensible way of saving public expenditure so that money is spent more usefully.

I say to the noble and learned Lord who is to reply to the debate that it is critically important that, in the present grey area that we have concerning special advisers and the lack of definition of their role, we urgently need two things. We need to have a proper code of conduct for special advisers. If there is a grey area, we need to define where the problem is and where the potential nuisance may be. In the case of special advisers, it is not possible to rely on the Civil Service Code of Conduct, excellent though that is, because special advisers are partly political animals. We urgently need a review of their position and role in relation to the Civil Service and the general public. Many of them come from the real world and will return to the real world—and that is very good—learned in the ways of Whitehall and Westminster.

Secondly, because of their particular position—they may be on sabbatical from some bank in the City, from a trade union, a public relations or political lobbying company—there should be a register of interests which is publicly available to those of us in this House and another place and also to the general public. That should contain the declared interests of special advisers who are not professional civil servants. They are necessarily birds of passage, moving from one part of the world into government and out again.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord will find some time in his winding-up remarks to respond to the request for a code of conduct for special advisers and, secondly, for a register of interests of special advisers.

I end by dealing with information officers. There has been a lot of talk about the politicisation of the information officer service. That is not necessarily true. But to a large extent we have government by spin doctors. Spin doctors have had an unfortunate effect, particularly on some of our news broadcast services. I see the noble Lord, Lord Birt, in his place on the Cross-Benches. As a former distinguished Director General of the BBC, he might like to tell the House his views on the high standards which obtain to the following situation. In the morning, thanks to some spin doctor from the Government, we are told on the news service that "a Minister or a Secretary of State will later on today say that…". Later on in the same broadcast an opposition Conservative spin doctor says "Later on, the opposition spokesman on this subject will say that…". We never hear whether it has been said. There is little analysis by what used to be one of the great news gathering and news reporting organisations in the known universe. We look forward to hearing any views which the noble Lord, Lord Birt, may have on that.

I believe that the best people to speak for government are Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, said that he thinks that it is good to have a lot of information officers in No. 10 because they enhance the leadership capacity of the Prime Minister. One can imagine the late Lord Attlee, one of the great Prime Ministers of the 20th century, taking his pipe out of his mouth and making a pithy comment about the need to have his leadership capacity enhanced by spin doctors gathering in larger and larger numbers.

There is a warning for the Government here: live by the spin doctor; die by the spin doctor. Wait and see.

6.47 p.m.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for giving us the opportunity today to discuss this particular issue. I pay tribute to the two maiden speeches, especially the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Powell. I recognised some of those sentiments from my own experience as a civil servant.

I speak in this debate from the double position of having been a senior civil servant for about 20 years and having worked as a special adviser. I can certainly say that as a senior civil servant, I have crafted some crackingly good speeches for Ministers of all persuasions, often on subjects about which I profoundly disagreed with them. So I know only too well the capacity of the Civil Service to carry out that function in a dispassionate and objective way.

I have also worked as a special adviser in the present government. In that capacity, I have observed no unwillingness on the part of Government Ministers to listen to the views of civil servants or to cast to one side the views and advice of the Permanent Civil Service. Indeed, there may have been occasions when Ministers in the Home Office might have wished they had listened more to the advice of the special advisers than to the Permanent Civil Service on some of the particular episodes which have arisen in the past two to three years.

In my experience of the British Civil Service, there is a strong attachment to continuity. I wish to explore that particular issue for a few moments. That attachment to continuity is a strong feature of the working ethos of much of the Civil Service. I certainly have subscribed to that notion of continuity in my time as a civil servant. It may be that in my formative years, I was over-exposed to long pep talks on that subject by various Permanent Secretaries. But it is certainly an important part of public policy-making because continuity of policy serves as a benchmark against which to measure change.

One of its strengths is that it gives a starting point from which the Civil Service can advise Ministers on change. But for that system to work, I suggest that it requires two things: it requires confidence on the part of the Civil Service to put forward the downside of particular policy proposals; it also requires tolerance on the part of Ministers to listen to the downside arguments of particular policies to which they have become emotionally extremely attached.

One of the problems that arises from time to time, and one which leads to accusations of politicisation, is that the Civil Service can sometimes lose confidence in its ability to expose the downside. I noted some aspects of that in the 1980s, which were certainly contributory factors to my leaving the Civil Service. I have also noted, from time to time, individual Ministers of both major political parties displaying a certain intolerance and impatience about listening to the downside arguments. Those are the critical factors in making the machinery work effectively.

However, the reverse side of the continuity coin is that we need agents of change. My noble friend Lord Sawyer exposed many of those considerations in his speech. Policies outlive their relevance. In my own experience, the political cadres are rather quicker to spot this than the bureaucratic cadres. That is why there is a continuing need for a substantial leavening of outsiders in the machinery of government. It seems to me to be wholly irrelevant whether you call such people special advisers, consultants, task forces, advisory committees, review bodies, or whatever. We do the public interest no great service by pressurising politicians to rely on the permanent Civil Service as their major, if only, source of advice on complicated policy issues in a modern society.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, seemed to cite with a sense of shock the fact that the number of special advisers had doubled under this Government. One could actually interpret those figures as meaning that previous governments have shown a dereliction in their duties in not using special advisers enough and in not opening themselves up to alternative viewpoints in the way that they developed public policy.

We must accept that the Civil Service machinery has inertia built into it. I have certainly been part of that machinery, but I shall not confess publicly to some particular episodes on this; indeed, my lips are sealed on the issue. But the philosophy of continuity, the strong emphasis on departmentalism, the lack of direct operational management experience among many senior civil servants and the gender and ethnic imbalance in senior posts, all raise considerable doubts in my mind about how well equipped the senior Civil Service is for modern government today.

Perhaps I may give noble Lords a quotation. It is one that I have given before in the House, but it bears repeating. It comes from John Major's autobiography, and reveals how unsupported a Prime Minister can occasionally feel when trying to take forward his particular policy areas. This is Mr Major's account of the 19 departmental responses to a minute that he sent them about action on the "Citizen's Charter": The responses from most departments were slow in coming and weak in genuine content. Some failed to address the key issues service quality, real or surrogate competition, local delegation of power and improved accountability, and appeared to believe that institutional change within Whitehall would see me off. Wilfully or carelessly the point was being missed". That is a Prime Minister five years before the 1997 election. Some of those concerns seem to me to have been echoed very recently by Sir Richard Wilson and his Permanent Secretary colleagues in their proposals for reforming the culture of the Civil Service.

I see no reason why this Government should be apologetic about using more special advisers and outsiders to bring about change. From my own experience in the Home Office, I believe that that can often be for the good, although, as I have already mentioned, this has caused problems on one or two occasions. We must recognise that this Government were elected on a manifesto of change. I believe that they are entitled to bring in those with such expert outside advice, as well as those with a political background, to engineer that change.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this Government inherited a senior Civil Service in which posts had been cut by 20 to 25 per cent in the two years before the 1997 election through senior management reviews in that period. I suggest to your Lordships that that represented a considerable reduction in the policy capability available to the new Government. In these circumstances, they have a duty to enhance that capability by bringing in some outsiders.

6.54 p.m.

Lord Chadlington

My Lords, I am also most grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for initiating this important debate. I should like to join others in congratulating the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Powell of Bayswater, on their excellent maiden speeches. As someone who spent his entire working life in the world of public relations and presentation, perhaps I may declare my professional interest in the way that government present themselves and their policies to the electorate.

As other speakers have said, the Civil Service is really the backbone of government. It provides the transition of seamless democratic government from one administration to another. Its impartiality is sacrosanct. I quote from the Civil Service code: The constitutional and practical role of the Civil Service is, with integrity, impartiality and objectivity, to assist the duly constituted Government of the United Kingdom, the Scottish Executive or the National Assembly for Wales … whatever their political complexion". Equally, I am convinced that no modern, progressive government can underestimate the importance of policy presentation and the role played by special advisers and information officers in that process; it is indispensable.

The issues then, as I see them, are, first, the interrelationship and clarity between the Civil Service and the special adviser network; secondly, how both are managed and funded; and, thirdly, what codes of conduct apply, both during and after employment in government.

Politicians, in common with all other responsible professionals in our society, need to have the benefit of best practice advice in the presentation of their decisions. This is an era of mass communication. The Internet, global 24-hour news and a media, adversarial in its approach, with an insatiable appetite for comment, simply demand this.

However, the more professional these presentational PR skills become, the more difficult it is for the public—the voters—actually to get at the truth and really to believe that they know what is going on. Fact, fiction and spin all meld together into an indiscernible fog. This, in turn, makes the media even more adversarial and probing—a vicious circle.

The result, of course, contributes to the prevalent very deep mistrust of politicians and a disinterest in politics. The Performance and Innovation Unit publication, The Future and how to think about it, alleges that almost three quarters of young people now believe that voting will have no impact on their lives and they are disinterested in national politics.

As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy pointed out, at the start of 1997 there were 38 special advisers across government. That number has now more than doubled under the present administration, and I understand that it has more than trebled in Downing Street. Previously, special advisers in 10 Downing Street were restricted, on the whole, to the Policy Unit. They now hold an unparalleled number and range of senior advisory roles, including the Chief Press Secretary, the Chief of Staff and the Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury.

The ministerial code states that each Cabinet Minister may appoint up to two special advisers—"political" or "expert". But as the Neill committee points out in Reinforcing Standards: At a recent count five Cabinet Ministers employed more than two special advisers". Therefore, perhaps I may join my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and ask: who are these five Cabinet Ministers; and what role do these special advisers play?

Of course, other countries do have similar systems to those which appear to be evolving in this country. It may be that such a system is right for this country, but I am concerned that we appear to be moving from one system to another by the back door, without any public debate. Is there not a danger of special advisers in large numbers usurping career civil servants and the important impartial, politically neutral role that they have to play?

If the Civil Service is even perceived to be losing its influence, will that not also make it a less attractive career prospect for our very best young graduates? In the same report I mentioned a moment ago, one survey, found only 1 per cent [of graduates] interested in a career in the civil service". A dumbing down of the Civil Service can only be detrimental to our Government and to our country.

With accusations that special advisers are doing political work while technically being civil servants, the Civil Service has reason to be concerned that perceptions of its impartiality are being jeopardised. To find proof of this look no further than 10 Downing Street where two special advisers, the Prime Minister's Chief Press Secretary and his Chief of Staff, have executive powers over civil servants. The Independent newspaper described the Chief Press Secretary in a recent article as, an unsatisfactory hybrid, half civil servant, half special adviser". Currently all special advisers are, of course, funded by the taxpayer and their cost has more than doubled since the election, to about £4 million.

I have, on several occasions in your Lordships' House, lamented the fact that Ministers, after a testing day, could no longer let off steam to close political allies without the nagging fear that, usually at a most inappropriate time in the future, these explicitly expressed concerns would appear in print or on television. Now, of course, we must add the Internet to that—a medium which has no editor and no accountability. The Internet is increasingly the source of stories which find their way into the traditional media. It is the vindication for the use of gossip and insubstantial rumours.

A special adviser, often plucked from media obscurity, can one day be writing for a newspaper, be employed by the BBC or a PR company, and the next be at the heart of government. It is a two-way street. Advisers may be drawn from the media and PR but they go back there too. There is limited vetting and limited loyalty. I join others in asking the Minister to address whether there is not a case now for an agreed code of conduct for special advisers. Of course we should remember that every special adviser is not a vengeful hack looking for a story to spin or a back to knife. It is, however, the free movement between the heart of government and particularly the media which raises issues not only of actuality but of perception.

And so I look to this Government, who have done more than any other to show how to manage perceptions—rightly and professionally in my view—to ensure that the Civil Service's impartial role is strengthened, clearly differentiated from political advice, the costs of which should not only be managed but properly allocated, and that a code exists to ensure those who move from the commercial world to government behave in a manner which reaches the standards we have every right to expect from those who lead and develop our country's future.

7.2 p.m.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for introducing this debate and providing us with an opportunity to speak on what I certainly believe to be an important subject. I very much enjoyed the embarrassment of riches in the two maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Powell. I was particularly struck by the reference to the need for democratisation in eastern Europe as that is something close to my heart.

I wanted to speak in this debate because the Nolan committee, on which I served, dealt with some aspects of the role of civil servants in its first report in 1995. I remained on the committee when the noble Lord, Lord Neill, became its chairman. In 1999 we reviewed progress on our recommendations in the first report. We looked specifically at the role of special advisers.

We had, in both cases, the benefit of a large number of comments not only from parliamentarians Put also from commentators, academics and members of the public. A large number of concerns were aired, some of which have surfaced in the debate this evening. I wish to address just two of them in the light of the evidence which the Nolan/Neill committee received; namely, the possible politicisation of the Civil Service, linked to the role of special advisers, and whether the role of special advisers is being abused.

Twenty-five years ago, in the 1970s, I was a trade union official representing staff in a range of government departments. Therefore I was able to get to know the machinery of government pretty intimately and to appreciate the role of civil servants in it. It gave me an abiding respect and admiration for the professionalism and integrity of almost all the civil servants I got to know.

My contact over the years with the Civil Service, in various jobs and voluntary posts, has remained close. I still retain that same respect and admiration. Then, and now, I believe that the country had, and still has, some of the brightest minds and the clearest thinkers in its Civil Service. Some of the contributions that we have heard tonight from former civil servants have demonstrated that.

I agree with one of our witnesses in the first Nolan inquiry who said, it is a priceless gift that we have an impartial, non-corrupt civil service". That is not to say, of course, that things cannot go wrong. That first inquiry took place at the same time as the investigation by Sir Richard Scott into the export of defence equipment, in which civil servants along with Ministers were implicated. However, in general we received no evidence that in the Civil Service standards of political impartiality, or the ideals of public service, were under threat.

Since my time in the 1970s, the Civil Service has been transformed. The demands on it have changed dramatically. Management skill—this was not something that was much talked about by senior policy civil servants in my day—is now an essential feature of the professional civil servant, as is the ability to manage budgets.

There has been a real shift in culture. Civil servants now regard themselves as providing a service. Back then, I remember all the heat and opposition that were generated when civil servants were asked to give their names to members of the public who telephoned them. My noble friend Lord Warner echoed some of those concerns about service and accountability.

Back in the 1970s there were 750,000 people in the Civil Service. There are now about 450,000. To manage that kind of downsizing, as anyone in business will know, requires good leadership and good management. As government has opened up, civil servants have had to face demands for greater accountability for the work they do. I do not think that there is any doubt that they are a professional body of people. However, they are not just professional managers. They are expected to give impartial advice. We in this country have the notion of a permanent Civil Service able to transfer its loyalty and its expertise from one elected government to the next. Despite some ritual huffing and puffing when governments change, all governments have accepted that the Civil Service has done this admirably.

But there is also the issue that Ministers have to wear many hats. They are not just policy makers; they are constituency MPs; they are Members of a House of Parliament; and they are members of their own political parties. They have to organise their lives to fulfil their responsibilities in all those roles. Civil servants cannot advise on all of them.

The role of special advisers, providing both a political dimension and expert advice, certainly makes that easier. At the same time, as the Ministerial Code states, it reinforces, the political impartiality of the Permanent Civil Service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support". However, I was much struck by a comment of the economist, J K Galbraith, who said, Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable". I suspect that that does not sound hugely appealing to politicians who largely want to be seen as knights fighting for the right because in those circumstances the "right way" becomes distinctly indistinct! Therefore I do not think that it is at all surprising that Ministers look both to the professional Civil Service and to special advisers to provide them with guidance on how to navigate the currents between the Scylla of disaster and the Charybdis of the unpalatable.

I return to the Neill committee. Almost all the witnesses we heard were quite clear that special advisers were a valuable component of the machinery of government. Indeed, the union representing senior staff, which one would expect to voice concerns if there were concerns to be voiced, supported the system. The First Division Association stated that special advisers, performing their job effectively, and reflecting the views of their Minister, can assist greatly in the smooth working of a department in their liaison with civil servants". The main concern expressed to us, which has been referred to by one or two noble Lords today, was about the exponential growth in the number of special advisers. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, raised the point about gatekeepers; that it was not only a question of numbers but of the privileged access that a specialist adviser has to his or her Minister. There is clearly no ideal number. I do not think that anyone feels they can indicate the number they think best; different governments will have different needs.

But the need to remain vigilant about the impact on the Civil Service is crucial. Its role and impartiality are too precious a part of our unwritten constitution to allow it to be tainted by default. On the other hand, it is important for all concerned, including the media, to understand the role played by the political adviser as well as the role played by the civil servant. I join others in believing that a separate code of conduct for special advisers would be a good idea. That is only one of several recommendations made by the Neill committee. Like other noble Lords, I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate he will come forward with a timetable for the consideration of the overall recommendations of the Neill committee.

7.11 p.m.

Lord Birt

My Lords, I shall swim against the current a little and focus on the requirements for a professional Civil Service and not on the issue of special advisers. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, will forgive me if I do not yet spring out of the trap and share with your Lordships the true confessions of a retired director- general on the issues that infuriate him so much.

The British Civil Service is one of Britain's most successful institutions. From a long involvement with it from the outside, I learnt to appreciate the talent of its people. The Civil Service is still attracting some of the best and most able people in the country. I learnt to admire their shrewd dissection of policy issues, their steeliness—an oft not mentioned quality—and their dedication to public service and to high standards of probity—all qualities abundantly exemplified by the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, whose characteristically witty and wise maiden speech we all enjoyed.

In recent years I admired, but was not surprised by, the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, managed a seamless transition from one administration to another. Civil Service traditions run strong and deep— serving well any party in government is an unassailable conviction of everyone whom I know in the British Civil Service. That conviction gives us the continuity that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, rightly valued in his carefully argued maiden speech.

Over the past 15 years or so I noted with approval the path of reform and modernisation, which continues under the considered leadership of Sir Richard Wilson. Sir Richard has identified the challenges for today's Civil Service. I read with interest the strategy for further reform that he presented to the Prime Minister in December last year.

Perhaps I may underline some of the challenges that Sir Richard identifies. First, we have started the journey but we have a very long way to travel before the public sector matches the best standards of customer service achieved in the private sector. Secondly, the Civil Service has started to use new technology to communicate with itself and the citizen, but, in my view, it was slow to appreciate the opportunity and it is behind where it should be.

Thirdly, I am sceptical that the generalist tradition of the Civil Service is any longer right for a world of growing specialism and expertise. Unless the British Civil Service has highly professional functions—in finance, in technology, in human resources—with a state-of-the-art understanding of the latest techniques and thinking, it will fall behind best private sector practice. I have no doubt the Civil Service can grow its own in all of these expert disciplines, but it should not be afraid to recruit specialists in every function at every level from outside the Civil Service.

Fourthly, from my own experience, the greatest leap the Civil Service needs to make is to acquire the strategic and analytical skills developed by business schools over past decades and embraced by successful private sector companies. Helping civil servants at every level to acquire those skills is the challenge for the new centre for management and policy studies that Sir Richard has set-up.

In a world marked by globalisation, by technological revolution and by the so-called wicked, profound, complex problems, governments have to be able to acquire and to use knowledge and insight to look and plan ahead. I am not persuaded that the centre of government or individual departments yet have the capability to do that.

The overall challenge for the British Civil Service—a great institution of the 19th and 20th centuries—is to grow and to develop a new professionalism for the 21st century.

7.16 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I worked for three years as a bottle washer for the great Lord Beveridge when he was drawing up his famous report and afterwards. I used to hold his coat while he made many speeches to audiences. He always began in this way: I rise to greet you and after that, with your permission, I will remain seated". Today I am afraid that I have to go a little further and not rise to greet your Lordships. I ask your permission to remain seated, for reasons which I hope are temporary.

I never cease to marvel at the mental and moral adjustments made by the great civil servants—referred to so ably by previous speakers—who have made invaluable contributions to the country. We are told in the Gospels that we must not serve two masters, but civil servants have to serve at least two masters. They have to carry out the orders of the Government and of Ministers, and they have to follow their own consciences. So they are following two masters. It is no good questioning them too closely about this; one will never get an answer. It is like asking lawyers, "I-low do you defend a man when you know he is guilty?"; one will never get an answer.

Perhaps I may offer a few reflections based on varied if slightly out-of-date experience. I served in four Ministries. I joined the Attlee government of 1945–51; I was Secretary for War; Minister for the British zone of Germany; Minister for Civil Aviation; and First Lord of the Admiralty. I was never quite in the Cabinet—that came a bit later—but I served in all those government departments.

I had never heard of any special advisers in those days, but when Sir Winston Churchill arrived, of course, his special advisers were popped into the Cabinet. That is rather a different approach. My dear old friend, Professor Lindemann, the Lord Cherwell—one of Sir Winston's closest friends—became a Cabinet Minister. That was one way of dealing with it.

However, leaving that aside, in the years when I was in those offices and later when I was Leader of the House and in the Cabinet, it never occurred to me that civil servants voted and actually had political instincts at all. They were just there to carry out policy. Only the other day I discovered that a lady who was a dear, close secretary of mine in the Cabinet when I was Leader of the House was in fact voting Conservative at the same time, It never struck me at the time, but of course they have to live a schizophrenic life; that is what we expect of them. On the whole, it works as well as, or perhaps even better than, anything else would.

Following my time as a Minister in the Foreign Office, I met Dr Adenhauer, at that time the Chancellor of the Federal German Republic. He begged me to go back to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary (Clem Attlee and Ernest Bevin) and urge them to join the Franco-German iron and steel pact from the beginning. That would have brought us into Europe straight away. I was laughed to scorn and shown a document from a high Treasury official saying that if we tied ourselves to Europe we were tying ourselves to a corpse. That was the Treasury line, which I do not think was very different from the Foreign Office line in 1950.

By the time I was Leader of the House here in 1964 I was being urged by the Foreign Office to go further, further and further towards Europe—further than the government line. The people in the Foreign Office were thinking hard: they were very clever people and they were gradually going to have a definite influence. Who can say what the influence amounted to?

Again, turning to the Home Office and penal affairs, with which I was much concerned how much influence has the Home Office exerted? It is impossible to say. There have been various ups and down in penal policy for many years, with a kind of progressive tendency towards reducing the number of prisoners. Then when Mr Michael Howard became Home Secretary the prison population went up in four years by 50 per cent. Maybe the Civil Service influenced that, I do not know and I do not think that anybody knows.

All that can be said is that over those years the Civil Service promoted a lot of criminological research, and certainly they helped in the movement which led to the greatest improvement in our time in the life of this country: the abolition of capital punishment. I think the Civil Service must have played its part in promoting thought and discussion on this matter.

So today, have I got anything to recommend at all? As to special advisers, I have never had much to do with them. The only time I was at all close to the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, when I was with hire on one occasion in the Cabinet Office. At a critical moment he suddenly said: "Send for Gerald and Marcia". He meant Gerald Kaufmann and Marcia Williams. They were called in. I do not know whether they would be called special advisers, or what they would be called, but when it came to a crisis they were the people that Harold Wilson sent for.

We see all these special advisers, of one sort or another, and we have had all the figures quoted today. There has been a tremendous expansion. Of course I am biased very much in favour of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. That is for two reasons. I am now honoured to think that he and I are linked in a family sense. Also, he is a supreme example of how a person can face physical handicap—in his case heroically received, while others of us have received it in a far from heroic fashion. We look up to him as a "senior prefect" and therefore I am inclined to go along with everything that he says.

I must add a further thought. What we have benefited from in recent years have been the inspectors who play a particular part in the penal realm, in which I have operated for a long time. We owe an enormous debt to Stephen Tumim and the present David Ramsbotham. These two are great men. They are officially appointed but they are independent. Their job is to criticise, and I hope that, whatever arrangement we make in future, we preserve the essence of our Civil Service, and that we shall preserve more and more the arrangements to make it possible to have a critical spirit.

7.24 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter today. I also take this opportunity to join other speakers in congratulating the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Powell, on their stimulating and witty contributions tonight.

It will come as no surprise to the noble and learned Lord the Minister that I want to concentrate on the role of special advisers. I wholeheartedly accept that they can and do contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of government. As has been made plain by many of your Lordships tonight, they have their uses. However, that is not the point at issue. We have to wrestle with the fact that concern about their role, their remit and their numbers has mushroomed during the life of the current administration. In many respects the situation is rather like a ball of string. In the hope of unravelling its complexity, we can tug on what may seem to be separate strands but then, far from unravelling, the knots pull ever tighter.

The Government have argued that these anxieties owe more to perception than to substance and, as such, they are unfounded. But here is the rub. Justified or not, the perception does exist that special advisers or, more correctly, the way in which their political incarnation is operating under, and being used by, this Government is beyond the pale. The substance of concern is neatly encapsulated in the definition: a government special adviser is a study in power without accountability.

What this necessarily implies is that the rules regulating their conduct need to be both certain and robust. In effect, it is a constitutional issue. Unfortunately, we need look no further than the Neill committee's comprehensive analysis of the issue in Chapter 6 of its sixth report to detect some of the weaknesses and inconsistencies in the current regime. I, therefore, like other noble Lords, would ask the noble and learned Lord the Minister whether and when the committee's recommendations R18 to R25 inclusive will be implemented. In particular, pending the appearance of the proposed Civil Service Act, will the Government afford the opportunity to both Houses of Parliament to debate both, a limit on the number of special advisers that can be appointed", as advocated in R20 and, to echo my noble friends Lord Patten and Lord Chadlington, to debate also a draft free-standing code of conduct for special advisers, as called for in R25?

Moving on, the suggestion has been made—the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, repeated it tonight in his remarks on leadership—that the use of special advisers, particularly those in No. 10, can be justified because it makes for a much stronger and more effective centre. However, I find it difficult to reconcile the concept of a strong centre, suffused with an innate tendency to centralise, with the stated intention to devolve power away from the centre. The two concepts are chalk and cheese.

Of course, excellent advocate that he is, the noble and learned Lord has a pre-prepared defence here. In replying to a Question for Written Answer, he has argued that: Strengthening the centre of government to co-ordinate and oversee the delivery of policy is quite different from the Government's programme of devolution and local government reform".—[Official Report. 31/1/00: WA 12.] This is an intriguing insight into the way in which the Government themselves perceive the effectiveness and role of their special advisers. It is the phrase, co-ordinate and oversee the delivery of policy", that is so telling. This is echoed in a recent article from the Evening Standard: Another mandarin, a Blairite sympathizer, sums up: 'On a PR level having a strong centre is working and co-ordination in principle is obviously a good thing. But on a practical level, although there is a lot more machinery at the centre, at the end of the day it provides more of a forum for discussion than for making decisions and getting things to happen. So in that sense, nothing much has changed—. In effect, not only the perception, but also the experience—even from those within the machine—is that this "strong centre" is singularly failing to deliver in any meaningful way. As Sir Peter Kemp puts it: Mr Blair may be pulling on the levers, but are the delivery cables joined up or just waving in the wind? What matters in the end is the actual delivery of improvement on the ground, not just the elegant thinking and machine-building". All this underscores how urgent the problem actually is. It is all the more ironic, therefore, that the Cabinet Office has recently launched the most intensive investigation yet into why people are so disengaged from the political and electoral processes. But is not the reason already well known? In very great part, Parliament has ceased to matter. The perception— that word again—is that decisions are now made behind closed doors by unaccountable and unelected special advisers. In this, there is a, geography of politics in which proximity to power is everything. The title special adviser under New Labour has given the holder—whether in Downing Street, the Department of Health or the Welsh Office—unparalleled access to ministers". In other words—rather ironically I noted that the noble Lords, Lord Powell and Lord Roper, both made this point—they perform a "gatekeeper" role. They are the grit in the oyster of the traditional lines of communication within Whitehall and Westminster. What flows logically from this is that the reins of control are shifting remorselessly away from the electorate. People sense that the tentacles of an already over-mighty executive are being fashioned in a way that is designed to bypass both their anxieties and their mandate.

Peter Riddell's article in The Times of last Monday is grist to that mill. As he so rightly points out: The real question is whether the Commons is able, and being allowed, to hold the Government to account and scrutinise its activities". Inevitably, as special advisers lay their hands ever more decisively upon the levers of power and control within Whitehall and Westminster, so the capacity of all Members of Parliament to hold the executive to account is diminished. Little wonder that, as a reaction to Ministers' response to the Liaison Committee of another place, Mr Riddell commented: The Government has not only rejected all the most important recommendations but its response is also evasive and mendacious. The style is almost a parody of Sir Humphrey Appleby trying to look positive, but being almost wholly negative in substance". We can only speculate on the extent to which political advisers were involved in the drafting of that response.

The words used in the Labour Party's general election manifesto bear repetition: There is unquestionably a national crisis of confidence in our political system". It has not gone away; and it is inextricably linked to the way in which the current administration, however inadvertently, is changing the architecture of the executive to the detriment of transparency and accountability. Lest anyone doubt this, I offer noble Lords an extract culled from an article by Benjamin Wegg-Prosser in the Guardian in January of this year. I make no apology for quoting it at some length: There is no greater fear for a senior civil servant than a cabinet minister's special adviser stepping on his toes or bypassing officials. However, much of the great progress that this government has made since the election would not have happened without the energy and drive of the special advisers involved. Political appointees were instrumental in many significant decisions: granting the Bank of England independence to set interest rates; implementing devolution in Scotland and Wales; creating the Social Exclusion Unit; and, within Whitehall, in implementing the communications revolution which has dramatically improved the way government departments present their achievements to the public". Gosh! And I thought all of that was the responsibility of those who have been elected to office.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, the excellent initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, in tabling this debate has been rewarded by excellent contributions, but in particular characterised by two very fine maiden speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Roper, and the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater.

I wish to speak as a member of that most powerful of unions, the union of ex-special advisers. I have taken the precaution of having two other members of my union sitting on either side of me. However, this House enjoys the presence of many more special advisers. Three distinguished heads of the No. 10 Policy Unit sit on the Benches opposite: the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, and the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach and Lord Blackwell. We have on this side my noble friend Lord Donoughue. Special advisers even sit on the Liberal Democrat Benches: the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay" who is not in his place, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. There are none sitting on the Cross Benches; it would be a little odd if any were to do so.

Leaving myself out of that list, I do not believe that any noble Lord would doubt that those noble Lords bring a great deal to the proceedings of your Lordships' House. These are people with a great weight of experience. It is puzzling that in our newspapers we read about a completely different breed: wicked spin doctors who use their arts to undermine the great tradition of the impartial British Civil Service.

What is the answer to that puzzle? Perhaps it could be that the new lot are much worse than the previous lot. I know that many more younger people are included in the new group and that the quality may vary, as it always does. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that many of them will one day sit in this Chamber. However, I believe that the No. 10 Policy Unit, under the leadership of David Miliband, is as strong as any that I have seen in my time working in and around Whitehall.

Perhaps it could be that the job itself has changed and that these people wield vastly more power Before the debate I was reminded of Harold Wilson's classic description of special advisers when he first introduced them in the Labour government of 1974. Nothing has changed since then and the substance of the job is the same now as it was then. In essence, "We brief and they spin".

However, one change cannot be denied; namely, that the number of special advisers has risen. Thirty-eight were in place when the last government left power, while at the last count there are 72 today. I do not know, but that number may possibly be rising further. Perhaps I may make two reflections on that development. First, that is not a large number of people for our Government, given that we have some 3,000 senior civil servants. The figure represents around one special adviser for every 5,000 regular civil servants. The notion that these people are in complete control simply is not plausible. Secondly, this was a new Government who came into office with a huge agenda to deliver. It was not surprising that they needed more special advisers than the previous administration, which, in the immortal words of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont of Lerwick—who, I am afraid, is no longer in his place—was, in office but no longer in power". I do not believe that we have encountered a new phenomenon here, even though it suits certain people to stir up that suspicion.

I shall take my argument a little further. I think that it was the invention in 1974 of the special adviser that has made it possible for the British tradition of the impartial Civil Service to survive and flourish. In 1976 I left the Department of the Environment because my Minister, Tony Crosland, had been made Foreign Secretary. The telephone rang in my new, grand office. It was the late Sir Ian Bancroft, who will be known to many in this House. He was a distinguished civil servant and Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment. Sir Ian said, "David, I have a problem and I need your help. The new Minister has arrived and he does not want to have a special adviser. Can you speak to him because you know that this department cannot function without one? Who will write the speeches for Conference? Who will do all the jobs that only special advisers can do?"

I popped back to the Department of the Environment to see the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney—he was Peter Shore at the time—and put my argument to him. He did not seem to be very interested and asked whether I had anyone in mind. I said that, because Barbara Castle had just lost her job, someone very good had become free. As a result, the noble Lord, Lord Shore, appointed a promising young man named Jack Straw. The department welcomed him, as it welcomed me. To this day, nearly a quarter of a century after I left, my best friends include many of the people with whom I worked so closely there.

The relationship between the established Civil Service and political advisers is a complicated one but it can be made to work. As in any case where power is at stake, there will obviously be tensions. People will bump into each other from time to time and there will be problems. Almost universally, the most effective political advisers are those who work with civil servants, each understanding and respecting their different roles, skills and jobs and finding a way of working together.

I do not like to introduce even a moment's dissent into the debate, but I am slightly sceptical about the idea of codifying these matters. I note that Sir Richard Wilson, when he appeared before the Neill committee, said that he had transcripts of Alastair Campbell's press briefings, and that Alastair had said that if there was anything he did not like he would pop in and tell him to knock it off—I paraphrase of course! It is a fascinating scene to imagine, as Alastair is a good deal bigger than Sir Richard. I am sure that he used a poetic phrase. I do not think that hard rules are the answer. What makes the arrangement work is the relationship between the people involved and their desire invariably to work together in the national interest.

The invention of special advisers is not an example of the corruption of the British constitution; it is an example of its huge strength in building on institutions that work and evolving them so that they work in new circumstances. Occasionally, it suits members of the party opposite to make political capital out of the growth in the number of special advisers under this Government. I understand that. But when they come back to office, if ever that dire day dawns, they too will want their special advisers to bring in their programme; and I shall be very surprised if they are any less numerous. I hope and trust that, when they do so, they will have my support and that of the House.

7.42 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating this important debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Roper and the noble Lord, Lord Powell, on their stimulating and interesting maiden speeches. We have been privileged to hear excellent speeches and I thank both noble Lords.

I must declare an interest—a minority interest it appears—for having been, for a short while at the beginning of my career, a full-time permanent civil servant rather than a special adviser. Also, throughout my life I have been married to a permanent civil servant. I come to the debate with an interest in the main question that is posed regarding the professional Civil Service. It led me to look up some information on the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, which were vital reforms that took place in the middle of the 19th century. They comprised three important factors. The first was selection by open, competitive examination rather than by pulling strings, influence, father's influence and so forth. The second was promotion by merit. The third was paying our civil servants a salary high enough for them not to be open to bribes. Those were the three important elements in the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms.

What I find interesting is the degree to which the reforms were controversial at the time. I have in front of me a speech that was made by Gladstone in the other place, in which he tried desperately to persuade people that it was a good idea to introduce promotion by merit and competitive examinations. He said: Promotion by merit is not believed in but is looked upon with distrust, and regarded as a cover for jobbery … The consequence of this is that, although there are many excellent incomparable men in the service, yet a low tone pervades the public service: the quantity of duty performed is small; bad and middling men are overpaid, and therefore the good men are under-paid". He went on to say, you must throw open the civil service to all the world, you must obtain for it the best men as far as you can ascertain who are the best men by an examination and by the most rigid scrutiny, and then, whatever other evils you may incur, you give it to be understood that the men who come into the civil service do not receive their appointments by favour, and have not any other right to obtain or hold their places except the right which depends upon efficiency". It was quite strong stuff. He did eventually persuade the Civil Service to do it; it took 15 years.

I am pleased to say that one of my predecessors on these Benches, John Stuart Mill, also wrote of the reforms: The proposal to select candidates for the Civil Service of Government by a competitive examination appears to me to be one of those great public improvements the adoption of which would form an era in history. The effects which it is calculated to produce in raising the character both of the public administration and of the people can scarcely be over-estimated". He was prescient in his comment. Indeed, the reforms have lasted for 150 years.

The importance of the reforms was brought home to me, as it was to my noble friend Lord Roper, in the course of my work in the European Union relating to issues of cohesion and the structural funds. My job was to try to advise governments on what might best promote innovation and policies leading to innovation. One of the issues that arises there is the capability of the administrations to carry through reforms and to administer the structural funds coherently and well. Many look with admiration on our the Civil Service. As my noble friend Lord Roper said, we possibly take it for granted, but it is a great privilege to have a Civil Service of this nature.

I said that the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms have stood the test of the past 150 years. That is not completely true. There has been a distinct change over the course of the past 20 years. In some senses, by the end of the 1970s, when the role of special adviser was introduced, many people were questioning whether the administrative civil servants who dominated the Civil Service at the time and the ways of Whitehall were appropriate to the increasing powers that had been gained by the Civil Service through the welfare state. Indeed, the increasing centralisation of Whitehall was being called into question. Many of the executive roles in health and social services which had traditionally been for local government were taken into the centre, leading to large executive agencies. The problems of handling increasingly complex problems caused a loss of faith in the Civil Service. It led, first under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher and subsequently under John Major—and even now under the present Government—to increasing concern as to whether we were getting value for money as regards the whole issue of accountability. There is now a clearly perceived need for checks and balances on professional probity and a much more integrated and interlocking process.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, made clear, there is also a need for public servants to see themselves as servants of the public rather than as above the public. Fire walls between professional advice and political decisions might be desirable but cannot always be maintained, as was well illustrated in the BSE affair. As a result, at present the Civil Service is in a bit of a mess and does not quite know where it is going. In many senses the reforms of Sir Richard Wilson and the White Papers on modernising government which preceded them were an attempt to pull the Civil Service out of that difficulty and to look to the future.

I believe that four issues emerge from that. First, there is a need for a much more fluid civil service structure, with interchange with the outside world. Secondly, there is a need to take into account evidence-based data and their use in policy-making. That has led, for example, to the establishment of bodies such as the Performance Improvement Unit in No. 10. Thirdly, there should be much wider public consultation and awareness of the role of the Civil Service in public relations. Finally, there should be emphasis on joined-up thinking both within and between arms of government.

I make three comments on the scenario as it now presents itself. First, as to the need for a more fluid civil service, during the 1970s I was privileged to spend four years in the United States. At that time I came into contact with both permanent civil servants and political appointees. My perception at the time, which has not changed since, was that the bringing in of political appointees at the top levels of the civil service provided a catalyst for much new thinking. There was nothing wrong with it, except that it was clear from conversations with full-time civil servants that they were cut off from the top levels of the service. That process removed from them the ultimate positions of power and authority to which they could aspire, and that was a detriment. But that leads me to believe that some movement in and out has benefits and provides a catalyst for new ideas. It is important, nevertheless, that the Civil Service leads to permanent secretary posts for those who look to it as a full-time career.

Secondly, I turn to the role of specialist advisers and information officers, on which much of this debate has centred. Ministers have for some time had specialist advisers, but it has always been understood—we return to the distinction in Northcote-Trevelyan—that the permanent civil servants are the professionals. Before that, those civil servants were courtiers. To an extent, today specialist advisers are courtiers and perform much more closely the role of a cabinet than a private office. Here there is a distinction between a cabinet and a private office. Nevertheless, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, made clear, specialist advisers help the system to function more smoothly. But it is of vital importance—perhaps we come back to "Sir Humphrey"—that at the end of the day the permanent civil servants should be able to give the best possible advice plainly and fearlessly. As the noble Lord, Lord Powell, said, it is a matter of being able to say to the permanent secretary that he is wrong, and why.

Finally, I refer briefly to the true professional civil servants: scientists, medics, lawyers and economists. Over the past few years there have been many changes in Whitehall. With the development of modern technologies it is sad that very few scientists and engineers have been attracted into the Civil Service. I should like to draw to your Lordships' attention a report entitled Review of S&T Activity Across Government published last year by the Council for Science and Technology. The council said that it was, not convinced that any department was really staffed, organised or sufficiently aware to make the best possible use of science and technology in delivering their short and medium term objectives … a key source of recruitment to departments, particularly at middle management levels, has largely dried up as a result of the privatisation of, or arm's length relationship with, research establishments which were previously staffed by civil servants". One matter of which we should be aware is that the old public sector research establishments provided a route whereby scientists and technologists within the Civil Service could come into the mainstream. That has dried up. In this modern age it is extremely important that that happens. I end by again congratulating our two maiden speakers and emphasising the importance of this issue.

7.55 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, not only your Lordships but all members of the public should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for having introduced this most important debate and allowing us to hear so many interesting contributions from all sides of the House, in particular the two excellent maiden speeches. Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Roper, said that he did not speak as either a civil servant or special adviser. However, the noble Lord, Lord Powell, pointed out that he came from a family of virtually hereditary civil servants. He himself had worked for many years in the Thatcher government and now his brother is chief-of-staff to the present Prime Minister.

Soon after the Government came to power I became concerned about the status of two advisers employed by the Prime Minister, especially as they were to be invested with powers not normally given to advisers. I tabled a Question for Written Answer to obtain details of their salaries. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, was unable to reply on the ground that their terms of employment had not yet been fixed. I repeated the Question some time later, but it took over four months before I received the information. The wait was disturbing because the law requires a written memorandum of terms to be issued to an employee within two months of the commencement of his employment. I could not imagine that the two excellent, highly qualified gentlemen in question had started work without a contract and, therefore, unaware of what they would be likely to be paid.

Since I accept unreservedly that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, was merely passing on the information that he had been given, or reporting that he had not been given any information, it appeared that the Government had sought to avoid disclosure of those figures to Parliament. Eventually, the figures were made public. Mr Alastair Campbell and Mr Jonathan Powell currently each receive £93,562 per annum.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and other noble Lords have referred to the number of special advisers which has risen from 38 under the previous government to 72 in 1998–99. According to a recent Written Answer given by the right honourable Dr Mowlam in the other place, the cost has risen to £4.2 million, apart from the cost of their staff and offices, details of which I have been unable to discover. It has been reported, however, that the bill for foreign trips for special advisers was £500,000 last year.

Perhaps I may refer to another phenomenon to which I have referred in the past. There exists within Downing Street a mysterious organisation called the Strategic Communications Unit. Despite requests, I have never been able to discover whether its functions are to do with the strategy of communication or communication about strategy. What I do know, following a reply by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, on 18th June 1998, is that the cost was then expected to be in the region of £500,000 a year. Doubtless the cost will have increased since. Perhaps when he replies the Minister can tell the House the current cost. If not, perhaps he will be able to bring me up to date by writing to me. I understand from a letter from the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the noble and learned Lord who is to respond to the debate, that the costs were looked at as recently as February this year. In the original reply I was told that the cost was to be met from across Whitehall within existing budgets, but it does not really matter how many government departments share the cost. The question is: on what is the money being spent? It is clear that that particular unit is the centre of government spin—a veritable gyroscope—for which, I believe, the taxpayer is paying.

The fact that Ministers have special advisers is not a new phenomenon. They date back at least to the days of Gladstone and Disraeli. According to Lord Blake's biography, when Disraeli brought his private secretary, Montague Corry, into Downing Street, he was described by one protesting Cabinet Minister as the "in fact Prime Minister". That is a foretaste of the protests which have been made about the status and considerable power and influence of Alastair Campbell more than 100 years later. Lloyd George appointed temporary ministerial advisers. In 1974 Harold Wilson authorised the appointment of up to 30, including a new No. 10 Policy Unit. He defined them as advisers to Ministers in the development of government policy and its effective presentation. With the complexity of modern Government, the intrusiveness of modern communications and the demand for instant answers by the media, the existence of special political advisers is undoubtedly a necessity, not only here, but in most democratic governments.

However, in the United Kingdom we have another almost unique asset: a wholly independent nonpolitical Civil Service which has attracted over many years the finest of graduates from our best universities. I do not think that it is too great an exaggeration to describe them as the Rolls-Royce of our system. But they should not be abused, as I believe has clearly been the case as regards the Dome. Will the Minister reply to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish today? It is a simple question. Did Michael Connor, the accounting officer for the Millennium Commissioners, request a formal letter of direction from the Minister, Chris Smith, before agreeing to the latest £29 million; and did Chris Smith order his Permanent Secretary, Robin Young, to write such a letter?

The existence of special advisers with the duties described by Harold Wilson as, advisers to Ministers on policy and presentation", is. I believe, a necessary safeguard against the independence of senior civil servants being compromised. However, the fact is that the advisers themselves are usurping and undermining the functions of the Civil Service.

In another place, the Prime Minister boasted that his official spokesman—a job normally performed by a civil servant—does an effective job in attacking the Conservatives. The strategic communications unit and a research and intelligence unit with a staff of 11 between them report to Mr Campbell. We all recall the speed with which the Government, as soon as they came to power, dispensed with the services of 16 out of the 18 long-standing, established departmental press officers, replacing them, one assumes, with others perhaps more sympathetic to the Government and thereby undermining the neutral Government Information Service.

The Ministerial Code, published by this Government, limited the number of special advisers to two per Minister. In some de0partments, according to the Neill committee, it seems that this number is being breached. Several noble Lords asked the Minister for information on that. The Government must ensure that the boundaries between the work of special advisers and civil servants is clearly defined and, as recommended by Neill, advisers' contracts should require them to comply with a code of conduct.

My noble friend Lord Northesk quoted the description by the Independent on Sunday of a special adviser as, a study in power without accountability". I believe that that was derived from Oscar Wilde who over 100 years ago said, "an eminence grize shares one attribute of a prostitute. Both have power but no responsibility".

With their power and influence, it is essential that those special advisers should be directly answerable to Parliament, not merely through their Minister. The activities of special advisers—they are set out in the model contract which designates them as temporary civil servants—must be properly enforced. For example, Mr Bill Bush is employed under the model contract. Yet he is in charge of the so-called research and intelligence unit at. No. 10 whose brief is to run the rebuttal database dedicated to defending the Government against criticism. This is the super-databank called Knowledge Network that Dr Mowlam assured another place on 8th March would be put on the net so that there will no question of work being done that honourable gentlemen will not see.

That database is funded by the taxpayer. However, it transpires, contrary to the assurances of Dr Mowlam, that its contents will not be available to all Members of the Government, much less to Labour or Opposition MPs. The contents of the databank can be exported easily to the Labour Party's Millbank database which is similar and compatible.

I do not have time to continue this catalogue. In seeking to sideline Parliament, the Government are trying to set up a presidential system with a power base which will give the Prime Minister unprecedented power over Whitehall. We hope that in his reply the Minister will not deny the undeniable but will assure us that the normal neutrality of the Civil Service of which this country is justifiably proud—it is a model for all other democracies—will be cherished and never put at risk.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating the debate. It has been extremely interesting. With one or two exceptions, there has been a wide measure of agreement about interesting issues.

I join noble Lords in offering my most sincere congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Roper, on his extremely interesting maiden speech. He struck a chord when he referred to the need to try to help southeastern Europe in the setting up of their administrative systems in the light of their history which has not encouraged a system serving the citizen rather than bureaucracy. My geography may be wrong, but the British Government have engaged in significant numbers of projects, in particular in the Balkans, to try to help in that situation. In Albania, for example, we are providing assistance for the establishment of a civil service. In Montenegro, we have for several years provided support to public administration reform. I shall write to the noble Lord setting out the details.

I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, on his maiden speech. As he began his speech it was impossible to see any notes and I assumed that the noble Lord was about to deliver his maiden speech without one note. It indicated a degree of sang-froid. However—disappointingly, I thought—the noble Lord then produced a wodge of note:; which somewhat spoilt the early effect! His speech was incredibly interesting. He spoke with particular authority having been in Downing Street, as he said, for an unusually long time in a somewhat unusual situation. His speech should therefore be given particular attention.

The theme of the debate focused almost exclusively on the relationship between special advisers and the Civil Service. The Government are totally committee to maintaining a non-political permanent Civil Service. In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, we have given a commitment in principle to legislation for the Civil Service. We have a heavy forward legislative programme and will take forward that legislation as and when a suitable opportunity arises. I am not in a position to give a more detailed answer.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has been in the Foreign Office and was private secretary to the then Cabinet Secretary. He therefore has particular knowledge of how the Civil Service works. He thought that the British Civil Service was the best in the world. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, echoed that belief, describing it as the "Rolls-Royce" of civil services. I have not worked with any other civil service. However, my experience has been of an excellent, well-motivated, independent, impartial Civil Service, genuinely dedicated to serving the public interest. I agree with all noble Lords who said that if we lose such a jewel, we lose something of huge importance to the quality of administration in this country.

The Civil Service, above all, recognises that to retain that standard it is necessary constantly to see whether change and improvement can take place. Many noble Lords referred to the reforms introduced by Sir Richard Wilson and to his determination to ensure that the Civil Service deals with today's challenges. That is to be applauded and is an indication of the quality of the Civil Service.

I turn to the issue of special advisers. I hope that my remark will not be regarded as disrespectful, but even the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, accepted that special advisers were a good thing. Characteristically and with her usual flair, the noble Baroness then heaved off on to something else. However, the noble Earl and other noble Lords asked several questions about special advisers.

First, they accepted that special advisers were a good thing in principle and helped the good running of government, but they were worried about particular aspects. They were concerned about the number of special advisers and referred to the fact that there are 79 in this Government. They feared that as a result there was politicisation of the Government. Let us consider the comments of people in the front line and involved in the process. In evidence to the Neill committee, Sir Richard Wilson said: I do not think the Senior Civil Service of 3,500 people is in danger of being swamped by 70 Special Advisers. That is not what is happening and I do not see it as creeping politicisation". The noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, said that politicians like to refer to "politicisation", but the Civil Service does not find it particularly problematic.

Peter Riddell, commenting in The Times on the Neill report, stated: Talk of the wholesale politicisation of Whitehall is much exaggerated. There is a strong case for special or political advisers and for the current total". A leader in the Independent stated: The number of political appointments remains tiny in relation to the size of the policy-making arm of the Civil Service". Therefore, the independent judgment is that there are not too many special advisers. The Civil Service says that there is not politicisation. A large number of today's speakers have indicated that they do not believe the number of special advisers is too great. With respect to those who have raised the issue, I suggest that there is no evidence to support their case. Those who would be expected to know do not believe that politicisation is a problem.

The second concern raised today is that special advisers should be accountable. The question was asked: what about a code of conduct for them? The point was mentioned in particular by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, and the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington. It is important to make three points in relation to it. Of course, we shall consider the recommendation, but the present position is that the Government were responsible for introducing for the first time the model contract for special advisers. It sets out in a schedule the duties and responsibilities of special advisers. No previous government had done that. It indicated clearly their responsibilities. There is therefore transparency about the terms on which they are employed.

Secondly, special advisers are subject to the Civil Service Code which applies to them save in relation to objectivity and impartiality.

Thirdly, they are subject to the same rules on conflict of interest as would be any civil servant. If they take a job subsequent to leaving the service, it is for the Civil Service to determine whether they act in accordance with the conflict of interest rules.

Therefore, there are a number of safeguards: a clear code and clear contractual responsibilities. Yes, we shall consider seriously the Neill recommendation, but it is wrong and ill informed to suggest that there is not proper accountability.

It was then suggested that special advisers are not accountable. They are civil servants; civil servants are accountable through their Minister; so are special advisers. No reason was given as to why special advisers should have different arrangements from those which apply to civil servants. Is it seriously being suggested that the Principal Private Secretaries to Cabinet Ministers, because they have access to them should be directly accountable to Parliament? With respect, the suggestion is absurd. A special adviser is just as accountable to his Minister as is any member of the Civil Service.

Whether it be on the basis of numbers; whether it be on the basis of a sufficient clarity of their rules; whether it be in relation to accountability; if one looks at the evidence one sees that there is no basis for the attacks which have been made during today's debate. Indeed, many of the speakers accepted that that was the position.

I turn to other issues raised. I refer first to the position in relation to Scotland and Wales. Separate arrangements apply to the appointment of a limited number of special advisers in Scotland and in Wales. Ministers in the devolved administrations account for those appointments and their costs. In order to allow for those appointments, an amendment had to be made to the Civil Service Order in Council. Under the terms of the devolution legislation, the appointment of special advisers, as with all other appointments to the Civil Service, is a reserved matter. The Prime Minister, as Minister for the Civil Service, would be expected to approve appointments of special advisers in Scotland and in Wales. The amendment to the Order in Council was designed to reflect the spirit of devolution. Provided that the new administrations stay within the upper limit on numbers and appointments are made in line with the terms and conditions set out in the model contract, the Prime Minister would not expect to become involved in the appointments process.

Questions were asked about which Cabinet Ministers have more than two special advisers. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment has three full-time and two part-time advisers. One is an expert adviser, Professor Michael Barber; the other additional member is to help the Secretary of State with his paperwork because of his disability. The Deputy Prime Minister has additional advisers because of the vast range of his department's responsibilities and his specific responsibilities as Deputy Prime Minister. The Secretary of State for Scotland has an additional adviser part-time and unpaid. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has additional advisers: three expert members of the Council of Economic Advisers. The Minister for the Cabinet Office has appointed two special advisers as the UK anti-drugs co-ordinator and his deputy. Those seem perfectly sensible reasons why there are additional special advisers in relation to those five Cabinet Ministers.

Perhaps I may pick up a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who identified the Members in this House who have previously been special advisers or heads of policy units. I agree with him that they are people of considerable standing who make a real contribution to this House and have made a real contribution in their jobs as special advisers. Looking across the range of special advisers who are presently serving this Government, one sees an equally impressive bunch of people. There are people such as Michael Barber, Keith Halliwell, Gary Hart, Andrew Adonis, Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell; people who have had considerable success in their previous careers and are bringing that to the benefit of the Government.

I turn to the GICS and the knowledge network. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, made a number of complaints about the knowledge network. It involves the storing of basic facts and figures on a network that would be accessible throughout departments. It is like an IT filing cabinet. If in a large organisation there were not the means to access such information from a number of points throughout, it would be behind the times. It is a means whereby all departments can access the same information and it is a measure that any institution should properly introduce.

I move on to the question of press officers and information officers. Questions were raised in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, about the number of press officers and information officers who had resigned or left in the course of the government changes. It is not unusual to see moves of officials who work for Ministers after ministerial changes. Therefore, after a complete change of administration it is not surprising to see a number of moves.

Since May 1997, all vacancies at head of information level have been filled either by existing civil servants or through fair and open competitions, each supervised by a Civil Service commissioner. Between January 1979 and 31st December 1981, l 3 changes affected 12 of the 18 posts. Therefore, on a previous occasion where there was a change of government, there was a substantial number of changes of post. Again, I do not believe that it would be right to say that that is something either unusual or wrong.

I deal with the question of the position of the two special advisers at No. 10 who have executive powers. It has been suggested that the decision to amend the Civil Service Order in Council and to provide No. 10 with two special advisers with executive powers is another step towards the politicisation of civil servants. Again, I quote what Sir Richard Wilson said to that suggestion: I do not see that as in any way politicising the Civil Service. I see it as being a very minor and rather technical development or recognition of what happens in No. 10". Again, there is nothing at all to back up that allegation.

It has also been suggested that briefing of the media by special advisers is something new under this Government. Successive administrations have used special advisers in this way. Under the terms of their contract, special advisers can brief the media on matters of government policy. Their contracts clearly state that they are appointed to advise Ministers on the development of government policy and its effective presentation. In evidence to the Neill committee, Mike Granatt said: Special Advisers in departments have always in my experience to a greater or lesser degree spoken to the media on their Minister's behalf. Some Special Advisers do not like doing it and have not done it. But I have worked for Ministers in two departments under the last Government where the Special Adviser had a specific role in talking to the media". Those are the words of the current head of the Government Information and Communication Service, who was describing in public the position under the previous government. Therefore, I do not believe that there has been a change or that there is anything unusual about this.

Of course, it is easy to make the sort of allegation that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, made, supported by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk. However, when one examines the detail, one sees very little in that allegation. One sees that the people at the coal face of the administration do not agree with that view. By that, I do not mean the politicians; I mean the civil servants.

Finally, perhaps I may deal with the point that the noble Baroness raised with regard to the Millennium Dome. She referred to matters that affected advice given in relation to the Millennium Commission. I am not privy to advice given to that commission; nor should I be. The Millennium Commission is an independent body. Advice given to it would not be given to a body such as the New Millennium Experience Company, which funds it. Therefore, I am, not in a position to answer the question that she has asked in relation to that matter; nor should I be.

I am greatly obliged to all noble Lords who have contributed to this very interesting debate. Again, I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating it.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, in the short time available before the debate must come to an end, I should like to thank all speakers who have taken part and have made it, in my opinion, a debate of very high quality. There were two outstanding maiden speeches by the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Powell. The contributions that followed have come from a wide range of experience: the Civil Service, business, public relations, former special advisers and also membership of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I am extremely grateful that speakers with those backgrounds have taken part in the debate.

I should like to thank especially the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for his reply and for dealing in the time available with most of the questions raised. He confirmed that the present number of special advisers is 79. Different figures have been given. I suggested 78, so that was not too bad. However, that type of information all helps. It is not so much the present number that is important as the fact that the number has doubled in the past three years. I believe that most of us are concerned about the rate of increase and whether there will be a further increase, perhaps doubling in the next three years. That is an issue that many of us will be watching.

In his reply, the Minister spoke also about accountability. I was particularly interested in that issue because I had pointed out that the professional Civil Service is responsible to Ministers and that Ministers are responsible to Parliament. My interpretation of what he said is that special advisers are also responsible to their Ministers. However, I do not believe that it is clear whether Ministers must answer to Parliament about the conduct of their special advisers in the way that they do for the Civil Service. That will all come out when the Government respond to the Neill committee's recommendations because the committee queried that subject.

At the end of his response, the noble and learned Lord also mentioned the question of problems that arise from special advisers who brief the press. I do not believe that any of the speakers were criticising that. They were pointing out that confusion arises when a Civil Service official briefs the media at the same as a special adviser from the same department. That can be muddling for the media because the two do not necessarily send the same message. Again, that will all come out when the Neill committee's report is considered by the Government because the committee raised that particular point.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister and to others who have taken part in the debate. I now beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.