HL Deb 16 October 2001 vol 627 cc473-5

2.57 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the total number of special advisers working for Government Ministers.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, there are 81 special advisers working for UK Government Ministers.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Has it been correctly reported that special advisers and Civil Service private secretaries have collectively been renamed "policy" advisers? Is it an accepted function of a special adviser to arrange for unpopular news to be released at a moment when it is likely to be smothered by news of events such as acts of terrorism and their consequences?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I confirm that the advisers in question are still known by the title of "special adviser". On occasions, some might be known as "special expert advisers". The noble Lord may be referring to the policy directorate in No. 10, for which many of them work. In answer to the second part of the question, I have seen no evidence to support any allegations that the Government have used the appalling events of 11th September to rush out difficult announcements. For example, the Home Secretary has made it clear that a difficult announcement relating to asylum seekers originally scheduled for 11th September was immediately delayed to avoid any such impression.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, what is the total cost to the Exchequer of special advisers in the past 12 months and what was the comparative cost of those employed by the previous Conservative administration?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, the current figure of 81 special advisers compares with 79 under the last administration. The cost is about £4.4 million. I have no figures for the cost of special advisers under the previous administration, but I recall that it was mentioned in a debate in the House last year that the cost in 1991 was about £1.1 million.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, I declare an interest as a founder member of the National Union of Special Advisers—a group of men and women, perhaps I may say, liberally represented on all Benches in this House. In that context, does the Minister agree that, given the political burdens on modern Ministers, the fact that they can carry out their political work with the aid of only two or three aides each is a remarkable miracle of productivity, not a source of criticism?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I am ready to agree with my noble friend. I also cite the figures that Sir Richard Wilson quoted previously in saying that the 80 or so special advisers among the 3,500 members of the senior Civil Service, who lead 450,000 civil servants, do not constitute a threat to their integrity.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is growing genuine concern about the extent to which the difference between the interests of the Government as distinct from the party is becoming increasingly blurred? Can the noble Lord provide a definition of where the line is to be drawn?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, it is argued to the contrary by the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Richard Wilson, that the very existence of special advisers in many ways guarantees the impartiality of the Civil Service and its reputation by making a clear distinction between permanent civil servants and temporary civil servants who come in as special advisers. The latter are subject to the same rules of conduct as other civil servants but they have the ability to represent Ministers on political matters. That is clearly understood and judged by many members of the Civil Service to be to its benefit.

Lord Roper

My Lords, although I accept that there are sufficient former special advisers on various Benches in this House to indicate that they have some value, does the noble Lord accept that some of the proceedings in recent weeks in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions have caused a good deal of concern? Is he satisfied that the revised code of conduct introduced after the general election is operating satisfactorily? Can he tell the House when we are likely to see the Civil Service Act, which we were promised at the election before last?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I believe that the code of conduct for special advisers brought in by the Government after the election on the recommendation of the Neill committee has, indeed, now been fully applied. A large part of that is to the credit of this House and due to the arguments put forward for such a course of action.

As to the events of recent times in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, I know that Jo Moore made a statement in the past few minutes in which she said that, no matter how much she would wish to, she cannot take back the terrible error of judgment. However, she hopes that people will accept that her regret is genuine and heartfelt.

In relation to the question of bringing in legislation on the Civil Service, we are committed to such legislation and, as soon as the programme of business allows, we shall take it forward.

Lord Peston

My Lords, speaking as a former special adviser, perhaps I may say that, deplorable although Jo Moore's remarks were, she is not the first person to have got such matters wrong. As a former special adviser, I certainly got many things wrong. However, the advantage that I had in those days compared to now was that such information was not leaked. That difference is not unique to the present Government. Does my noble friend agree that the main point is that special advisers end up doing all the dirty work and speak to Ministers in ways that civil servants cannot? My experience was that special advisers were still working when the rest of the Civil Service had gone home.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I agree with the first of my noble friend's comments. I believe that I speak for Ministers and former Ministers on both sides of the House when I say how valuable special advisers can be, especially in difficult times.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford has tabled a debate to be held next week on the subject of the ethic of public service? In that context, is he aware that Ms Moore is paid almost as much for a three-day week as the hard-working government Whips in this House are paid for a full-time job? Does he not believe that that is a complete distortion of the ethic of public service? Also in that context, does he share the widespread sense of shame and revulsion at the remarks made by Ms Moore in her memo?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, as I stated in quoting Ms Moore, there is no doubt that she committed a serious error of judgment. She has accepted full responsibility for her action and has given a very full apology. She has been dealt with under the proper disciplinary procedures. It is the view of the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister that someone should not lose their job for one such mistake and that it is time to move on. As for the relativities of the salaries involved, I believe that noble Lords will appreciate that many disparities exist within the pay scales of government. However, one consolation is that they are not quite as extreme as they are in the world of private business, from which the noble Lord and myself have come.