HL Deb 18 October 2001 vol 627 cc707-10

3.22 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Mr Byers, or his special adviser, Ms Moore, were involved in any discussions or correspondence relating to the removal of Mr Alun Evans from his post prior to his removal.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, when Alun Evans took up appointment as the director of communication it was envisaged that he would move back into policy work in the Civil Service in due course. This he has now done. He has been appointed to a senior post working with Dr Ian Anderson as head of the secretariat studying the foot and mouth outbreak.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am trying awfully hard to be grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that Answer but I am afraid that I cannot manage it. Is he aware that the purpose of my Question is not to trample on an individual, who has committed a grievous error but who has apologised for it and who is at any rate a symptom rather than the problem itself? I invite the noble and learned Lord to reflect on the real purpose of my Question. Perhaps the Government would do well to consider the increasing anxiety that is felt about the activities of special advisers and to reflect on their apparently continuing addiction to the questionable art of spinning rather than presenting facts.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there are approximately 80 special advisers in this Government, something under 10,000 senior civil servants and about 400,000 civil servants as a whole. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, said in the evidence that he gave to a committee in another place that special advisers can assist the process of government. They do so by providing people within a ministry with the views of the Minister. Civil servants like that because they get a better view of what is going on in the Minister's mind. Unlike practically any other system of government, incredibly few people change jobs after an election when there is a change of government. It is sensible and right that when Ministers come to office they should be assisted by people such as special advisers. That view is shared by the Cabinet Secretary and the First Division Association. The arrangement is not a bad thing; it can promote good government.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the Opposition's fixation with this relatively minor—albeit unacceptable—incident represents an attempt to conceal and draw attention away from the very good work that is being done by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which affects the daily lives of each and every one of our electorate? Perhaps he will take this opportunity to outline some of the work that has been recently done in that regard.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, that is an important point. The people of this country want improved transport, better local government, better housing and better urban regeneration. It is those physical changes to their lives that really matter. It may well be that people in the environs of Westminster and Whitehall find it worth while to talk for long periods about special advisers and structures. However, the Government are committed—rightly so—to the delivery of changes to people's lives. That is what the electorate are interested in.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord please say whether the Government are guided by the number of special advisers or by the quality of advice that they give? It is the quality of the advice that is important and it is the number of special advisers that troubles us and the Conservatives.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, of course it is the quality that matters. I referred to the numbers involved in order to make the point that the Government are not remotely swamped by special advisers; far from it. Those advisers represent a tiny proportion of the number of people who serve any government, and their work is to assist Ministers. If one thinks for a moment about the range of things that Ministers have to do, it cannot be unreasonable to suggest that the 23 or 24 Cabinet Ministers should be assisted by one or two special advisers.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord draw particular attention to the latest code of conduct for special advisers? It states that they should not be responsible for line management of permanent civil servants, including their recruitment, and matters covered by their contract of employment.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, that is a very important point. Another important point in connection with their contract is that they are employed as civil servants and they are entitled to be treated as being bound by that contract of employment. That works both ways. They must deliver on their duties under that contract and they can expect to be disciplined and dealt with under its terms. That is what happened to Miss Jo Moore; that should be the end of it.

Lord Peyton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said that his Question was meant to query the future role of special advisers and to express his disapproval of spin doctoring. I ask my noble and learned friend as a matter of fact whether special advisers were invented by this Government or whether we have had them for many years. A fortiori, is it not the case that spin doctoring was certainly not invented by this Government? However, I am bound to say that it appears that we are much better at it than our predecessors were.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I can speak only on the basis of what I have read, which leads me to understand that when the Conservatives were in power they indeed employed special advisers and found them to be of real value in the conduct of government. The answer to the two parts of my noble friend's question is, "No, we did not", and, "No, we did not".

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, as a former private secretary to two Prime Ministers—and proud of it—I ask the noble and learned Lord whether it is true, as is stated in the press, that private secretaries are from now on to be referred to as policy advisers.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I can speak only for my own private secretary. She refers to herself as a private secretary and I refer to her as a private secretary. That is the only indication I can give.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, is it not the case that Mr Alun Evans was removed from his post because he refused to release sensitive information about Mr Bob Kiley, the Transport Commissioner for London, because he regarded that as a party political matter? Furthermore, does the noble and learned Lord agree with the recent statement made by Bob Kiley that: Personal vilification is the last resort of people who are unable to defend their position"?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I welcome the noble Viscount to the Front Bench at Question Time. It is always a pleasure to see him perform this function. The answer to the first part of his question is "No". Personal vilification has no part to play in politics.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that it was proper for Ms Moore to apologise for her most unfortunate and inappropriate remarks? However, would it not also be appropriate for Her Majesty's Opposition to apologise for a most unfortunate privatisation?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, this is the third occasion this week on which I have been in the House answering Questions on transport or related matters. Not once has a Member of the Opposition Benches referred to the privatisation of Rail track. I assume that that is because it is a subject that dare not speak its name.