HL Deb 22 April 2002 vol 634 cc1-4
Lord Sheldon

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consideration they are giving to the role of specialist advisers following recent remarks by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson.

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

My Lords, the Government plan to issue a discussion paper to invite views on what should be included in legislation for the Civil Service. It will take full account of the views expressed by Sir Richard Wilson in his speech of 26th March on the Civil Service.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Sir Richard Wilson has pointed out that in what he calls his 'junior years", he came close to being instructed by special advisers and that that was a very serious matter? More recently, the Select Committee on Public Administration has taken evidence which demonstrates that special advisers have come close to taking positions at higher levels within the machinery of government. Is that not a rather serious matter, given that the Government do not allow special advisers to appear before Select Committees? If special advisers are to hold such powers, is it not essential that the Government relax their views and allow advisers to appear before Select Committees in order to explain what it is they do for their money and in order to meet their responsibilities?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, it is for Ministers to decide who should appear on their behalf before Select Committees. I believe that the case the noble Lord may be referring to related to one of our unpaid advisers who was a Member of this House. All the arguments implied by the noble Lord will be fully taken into account in the consultation which has been planned on the basis of a paper to be issued shortly.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is it still the case that special advisers cannot give instructions to civil servants except for two who have been specially nominated for that purpose? Is that still the situation?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, that is indeed the case.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, over recent years, we have moved dangerously far away from the concept of the man in Whitehall knowing best to the concept of the man in Whitehall knowing nothing at all? In that respect, does the Minister join in the general welcome for the appointment of a career civil servant, Sir Andrew Turnbull, to the post of Head of the Civil Service? Does the Minister not agree that, as well as producing Civil Service legislation, it would be a good idea to give Sir Andrew a mandate to create a Civil Service for the 21st century that is flexible enough to use outside talent, but which also combines the old ethos of public service and political neutrality? Those have been the strengths of the British Civil Service for 130 years.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I do not believe that it is necessary to give Sir Andrew any kind of mandate because, as I say, a consultation document is to be issued and every opportunity will be given to noble Lords and others to set out their views on the way forward for the Civil Service. I readily concur with all the positive comments that have been made with regard to the Civil Service. In responding perhaps I may also pay tribute to the excellent work that has been carried out by Sir Richard Wilson over the past four years.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the tone of the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Sheldon was rather at variance with what was said by Sir Richard Wilson in his speech of 26th March, during which he commented to the effect that special advisers have a legitimate contribution to make to the working of government? He went on to say that he believed it was right for Ministers to be able to access special advisers to act as their political eyes and ears, to help departments understand their particular Minister, to work alongside officials on the Minister's behalf and to handle party political aspects of government business. In other words, I believe that Sir Richard Wilson endorsed the principle of special advisers and paid tribute to the work they do.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I would follow my noble friend by suggesting that noble Lords should take the opportunity to read what Sir Richard Wilson had to say. No doubt his speech will inform the documents being drawn up by the Government and will inform the discussions during the consultation period that is to follow.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, it may be rather a long time since I was a Minister, but at that time a clear distinction was drawn between those specialist advisers brought in to disseminate their special knowledge and experience in their advice to departmental Ministers, and political advisers, who were able to help Ministers with the functions just referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. Is it not desirable that those very clear distinctions should be re-established? I refer, for example, to the rule that political advisers should resign the moment an election is called.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, it is indeed the case that they resign when an election is called. I take the noble Lord's point about the distinction between political advisers and expert advisers. That will be one of the issues in the forthcoming consultation.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, is it not the Government's insistence on centrally managed command and control of micro targets throughout the public services that explains both why the targets are rarely met and why so many people feel that the impartiality and neutrality of the Civil Service is being compromised?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I do not believe that to be the case. The role of special advisers is in the development and presentation of policy. There are 81 special advisers and a senior Civil Service of almost 3,500, so there is no shortage of competent civil servants to drive policy.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it does not help the interests of transparency and accountability when the officials involved, whether paid or not, refuse to attend Select Committees of either House, and that the Government do not help by advising them not to? Will this be considered in the review to which my noble friend referred?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, it is an issue which could no doubt be raised. However, I would again suggest that noble Lords should support the primacy of government Ministers in deciding who should represent them at Select Committees.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, will the Government consider supporting the request that I have made to the Committee on Standards in Public Life—that is, that all those who advise government, including prime ministerial advisers, should be obliged to give evidence to committees of both Houses, and that we should change the rules of Parliament to oblige Members of this House to give evidence to Select Committees and, at the same time, to oblige government Ministers to give evidence to Select Committees of this House?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I readily accept this will be an important issue in the consultation that is to follow. I am sure that the noble Lord will put it as eloquently then as he does now.

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