HL Deb 13 March 2001 vol 623 cc688-91

3 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the total cost to public funds in the last financial year of the Government's special advisers, compared with the cost in 1991–92.

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

My Lords, the cost of special advisers in 1999–2000 was £4 million. The cost at September 1991 was £1.1 million.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, while I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer, as a Minister in the Labour Government, does he not feel a little ashamed of it? It is a fact that the number of special advisers has more than doubled over the past four years, while the cost has gone up threefold. Is that not an example of taxpayers' money essentially being used by spin doctors to put over the Government's message? Given that, does he agree with the first recommendation made in the report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration published today; namely, that in future, special advisers should be limited not by number but by a specific sum of money, voted by the Commons for that purpose, and including No. 10?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

No, my Lords, I do not think that this matter is shameful in any shape or form. Special advisers include people such as Keith Hellawell, who has made a real contribution to the fight against drugs misuse. When giving evidence to the Public Affairs Select Committee in another place, the Cabinet. Secretary indicated that special advisers do a good job. They provide an interface between the Minister arid civil servants. The Cabinet Secretary went on to make it absolutely clear that he thought that 75 special advisers would not overwhelm 3,000 senior civil servants. The Neill committee recommended that an upper limit should be put on the numbers; the Government have indicated that they accept that proposition. However, the report published today by the PAC states that a total amount of funding should be set, rather than a number. Obviously, we shall have to consider that proposal, but it looks inconsistent with the proposal put by the Neill committee.

Lord Peston

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as a former special adviser to Ministers in an earlier government. Is my noble and learned friend aware that I thought that the sum was going to be very large? Four million pounds seems to be far too little. Is my noble and learned friend further aware that, certainly those of us in the past and, in my view, those serving in the present, work for Ministers at a rate well below our market value? We did and still do subsidise the taxpayer rather than the other way around.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it is impossible to imagine what was the market value of my noble friend Lord Peston, but whatever it was, I am sure that he worked well below that figure. Furthermore, I am sure that many special advisers today work at considerably lower rates than those which they could expect in the marketplace. They do that because they are committed to the goals of this Government. The Cabinet Secretary has indicated that they make a worthwhile contribution to good government and I, too, am sure that that is the case.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, has the number of special advisers increased since my debate on the ministerial code, which was held in 1997? The number then given by the Government was 78.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not think that the number has increased, but if it has, it would be by only a small figure. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord with a precise figure.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, would it not be a good id ea for special advisers to be paid out of party funds, if they are not Members of Parliament? Instead, like civil servants, they are funded by the taxpayer. If my proposal were adopted, might that not lead to a healthy reduction in their number?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, special advisers provide a service to government. They undertake tasks like that being done by the drugs czar, Keith Hellawell. It would be wholly inappropriate for him to be paid out of party funds. Those advisers who are more political provide a means whereby civil servants can find out the views of the Minister. As I have said, the Cabinet Secretary and the Select Committee on Public Administration have stated that the advisers provide a good service.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I declare not an interest but the experience of having been a special adviser. Does the Minister agree that what is undesirable is to have special advisers who seek to duplicate and then to take over the jobs undertaken by career civil servants? That causes alienation. What is totally legitimate and necessary is to have in place a sufficient number of high calibre special advisers so that they can form a network to add to the political thrust of any government in power.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I entirely agree with the comments made by the noble Lord. Special advisers should not seek to take over the roles of senior civil servants. In this Government, they do not do so. They add value rather than seek to duplicate roles.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend help the House by saying whether he has to hand any figures on the exact amount of money which has gone to opposition parties in the form of Short money? Is he able to give noble Lords some idea of by how much that sum has increased over the same period? Furthermore, is he totally satisfied with the propriety with which that money has been spent?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am very glad that that issue has been raised. Somewhat spookily, the report published today and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, examines this serious issue. Short money—payments to opposition parties—has risen threefold. That money is for parliamentary matters. The report states that: We suggested to the political parties that it might be appropriate to publish the accounts of how they spent Short money. All agreed in principle. We note that the Official Opposition and its auditors were unable to give a categorical assurance that its Short Money funding was used exclusively for parliamentary business". That means that Short money has been provided to the Conservative Party, but the party itself and its auditors are unable to give an assurance that they have spent the money on what it was given for. I hope that the Conservative Party will look into this as a matter of urgency.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, following the publication today of this report, which noble Lords will know is entitled Special Advisers: Boon or Bane?, does the Minister accept that special advisers are now actively undermining the integrity of the advice given to Ministers and politicising the communications of government to an unacceptable degree?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, not a word of that nature appears in the report, as the noble Baroness knows. As I have said repeatedly in my responses to these questions, special advisers make a significant contribution to good government. That view is shared by the Cabinet Secretary.

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