HL Deb 28 February 2002 vol 631 cc1534-9

3.24 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What codes of conduct apply to special advisers and to whom special advisers are held accountable.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers and the Civil Service Code, with the exception of the provisions of impartiality and objectivity, apply to special advisers. The Guidance on the Work of the Government's Information Service also applies to special advisers when dealing with media-related activities. Special advisers are accountable to Ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, first, does the Minister agree that some of the comments in another place suggesting that there is a contradiction between efficient government and honest government were very unfortunate? Does he recognise that the Northcote-Trevelyan principles of independence and impartiality have been a crucial element in establishing the reputation of British governments for honesty?

Secondly, does the Minister agree that while special advisers often do an excellent job, the network of special advisers associated with the Policy Unit of No. 10 are seen, at least in some quarters, to be rather more powerful than elected Cabinet Ministers and other Ministers to whom they offer advice?

Finally, in order to close the circle of accountability—accountability through Ministers to Parliament, which the Minister mentioned, is pretty distant—would the Minister consider the possibility of Parliament being consulted on a ceiling on the number of special advisers and of Parliament having to approve the appointment of any special adviser who has the executive power to give orders to civil servants?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I readily agree with the implication that the British Civil Service is the best in the world. We all have a shared pride in its integrity, propriety and, indeed, impartiality. As to the suggestion that there are special advisers who are more powerful than Ministers or Secretaries of State, that has not been my experience in government.

As to the other questions that the noble Baroness raised, we have promised that we shall bring in a Civil Service Bill. That will be preceded by full consultation. Those issues would best be dealt with at that point.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Select Committee on Public Administration in the other place has tried repeatedly to get special advisers to appear before it but its requests have been consistently refused? Will the Minister lift that unwarranted barrier on their coming before the committee to give evidence about what they do?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, Ministers are accountable to Parliament and, as I have said, special advisers are responsible to Ministers. It is for Ministers to judge who should appear. That includes permanent as well as temporary civil servants, such as special advisers. We have a very thorough system of accountability. The most accountable Minister of all is the Prime Minister, who answers questions every week in Parliament. The present situation and the Government's present practice are well justified.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, since two special advisers were transformed into civil servants four years ago—that is, the chief of staff and the head of communications at No. 10 Downing Street—according to government spokesmen in this House at the time, have any more special advisers undergone that transformation to the Civil Service?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords. to repeat, all special advisers are temporary civil servants. The noble Lord refers, I am sure, to Article 3(3) of the Civil Service Order in Council of 1997, which provided scope for the government to appoint three special advisers, who would have the power to direct other civil servants. Only two have been appointed, as the noble Lord said—the director of communications and strategy and the Prime Minister's chief of staff.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should keep a sense of proportion about recent events and recognise that under this Government, as under the previous government, civil servants and special advisers rub along together most of the time tolerably well? Does he further agree that no codes of conduct, however well drawn up, will work if there are individuals who are determined to prove themselves the spin doctors from hell?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords. I agree with the general thrust of that question. It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who has great experience in these matters, say the other day in this House that no Act can prescribe for personal relationships. The noble Viscount. Lord Astor, referred to that as office politics. I have no doubt that for the people involved that is a very serious matter.

However, all governments have certainly suffered from these problems in the past. I was looking at evidence that the then Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, gave in 1996 when he complained about leaks. He said that from 1980 430 leaks were reported—about one every fortnight—which were worthy of investigation. He concluded—as I am sure would the party opposite—that any leaks are to be deplored.

Lord Butler of Brockwell

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there was nothing novel in 1997 about two special advisers in No. 10 Downing Street giving directions to civil servants? That has happened in the press office and in the Policy Unit of No. 10 many times in the past. What was novel was that proper provision was made for it under the Civil Service Order in Council.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. It emphasises the comment made by the Public Administration Select Committee, which praised the Government for their commendable progress on special advisers. For the first time we have a specific code of conduct and, as the Select Committee said, for the first time we have transparency, which did not exist under previous administrations.

3.31 p.m.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely:

Whether Her Majesty's Government are satisfied with the operation of the EU growth and stability pact.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we have said consistently that we support a prudent interpretation of the stability and growth pact, taking into account the economic cycle, sustainability and the important role of public investment.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, is it not regrettable that an important White Paper was published this morning and not made the subject of a Statement in both Houses of Parliament? In view of that, will the Minister ensure that an early debate on the White Paper takes place in your Lordships' House?

Are we not witnessing, in the words of the Chancellor this morning, a crude attempt by the Government to rewrite the EU's convergence programme and the rules of the EU growth and stability pact by including or omitting figures to suit themselves? Is that not because the Chancellor can see from today's published zero growth figures for the UK economy that the public finances are heading into a massive deficit, even more horrendous than the £54 billion of borrowing already planned over the next four years?

There are EU rules. The Government are in breach of them. What is their solution? It is to change the rules. Is that not what the Chancellor's words this morning really meant?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I resist the suggestion that the Chancellor behaved in any way improperly or discourteously towards the House of Commons. He went out of his way to ensure that he was able to unveil the White Paper personally to the House of Commons. He agreed to the Speaker's request that he should defer answering the first Question until the end of Treasury Questions in order that there should be sufficient time for him to make a Statement on the White Paper and for there to be debate on it. Of course, the White Paper has been available in the Printed Paper Office and the Vote Office since 11.30 a.m. today.

I also resist the suggestion that there is any way in which this country is in conflict with the stability and growth pact. We are in conformity not only with our own fiscal rules but also well within the criteria of the stability and growth pact. When the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, refers to zero growth, he is referring to this morning's headlines, which relate only to the fourth quarter of last year. Growth in the whole of last year was of course within the margins which we set for ourselves and which we expected both in the Budget last year and in the Pre-Budget Report. As the noble Lord knows, this country has been outstandingly successful in resisting the dangers of volatility in global economies.

Lord Peston

My Lords, although one has had only a couple of hours in which to examine this document, is my noble friend aware that it is a remarkably interesting and important document? It raises almost every important question confronting our country in the economic sphere and the European Union. I am genuinely surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, takes such an acid view of the document. It does not hide anything. Quite the contrary; it exposes almost everything that needs to be exposed.

None the less, is my noble friend aware that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, on one matter; namely, that this document is so important—I am not sure what my noble friend the Chief Whip is about to say—that, instead of wasting a whole day on the trivial matter of foxhunting, if your Lordships' House is to have any future, and in my black moods I sometimes wonder whether it has, we should give a debate on this subject absolutely top priority? I hope that my noble friend will speak to my noble friend the Chief Whip on the matter and press him on it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Peston rightly reminds me that 1 did not respond to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, about a future debate. Of course, as the House knows, that is a matter for the usual channels. Personally, I should be very happy to have a debate on this subject.

My noble friend is entirely right about the content of the White Paper. It was promised in the Chancellor's speech to the CBI in November last year. It addresses the reforms which are necessary in Europe in our labour, capital and product markets in order to increase competition and modernise the European economy. Those are matters of the most profound importance and they will be of great importance at the Barcelona Summit meeting and beyond. They were foreshadowed in the Lisbon Summit.

Lord Newby

My Lords, I support both noble Lords who have already spoken in pressing for time to be given to a debate on this subject. I hope very much that the Minister will speak to his noble colleagues in the usual channels, just as I shall speak to mine, in order to press that case.

Does the noble Lord agree that if we are to have growth and stability in Europe, the level of the currency and whether we are to join the euro, which we debated earlier, will be only one factor in determining whether growth and stability come about? This White Paper, whether or not one agrees with everything in it, deals with the other factors which will be crucially important; that is, the way the labour markets work, the way the capital markets work, and, indeed, Europe's place within the world. Therefore, given the

importance of all those issues within the context of the development of the EU, I return to my first point: we should have more time in which to discuss the matter.

Lord 'McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have already indicated my personal sympathy with that view. I am glad to hear that the noble Lord will express the same view to his own Chief Whip. I do so now.

Of course, these issues are of far greater significance in terms of what we can do about them than the matter which we debated in Starred Questions on Tuesday and today. That brings us back to the very important debate which we must continue to have on whether we comply with the five economic tests which the Chancellor has set.