HL Deb 01 May 2002 vol 634 cc691-731

3.7 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

rose to call attention to the case for a Civil Service Act clarifying the respective responsibilities of Ministers, political advisers and civil servants; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, some of your Lordships may be wondering what is the point of holding this debate when the Government are committed to imminent legislation. It is precisely because that assumption is a little over-optimistic that the debate is timely.

Last November, Sir Richard Wilson told the Public Administration Committee in another place that consultation on a Civil Service Act would start in the New Year. Two months ago, on 26th February, the Cabinet Office again promised that consultation on a Civil Service Act would start shortly. Subsequently, an issues paper was promised, hot on the heels of the significant speech made by Sir Richard at the end of March calling for an Act as outgoing Cabinet Secretary.

It is now 1st May, and there is no sign of government-initiated consultation on the issues. So perhaps the Minister and the Government will take this debate as a little bit of do-it-yourself consultation—an attempt to kick start what appears to be a rather tardy process within Westminster and Whitehall. I am also conscious that this is one of those precious second Chamber moments that we have from time to time when the Minister responsible is here to respond. I very much welcome that.

I also thank so many noble Lords with such a wealth of relevant and distinguished experience for putting their names down to speak this afternoon. I can only say how sorry I am that each of them has so little time in which to speak. I shall try to conclude my remarks in less than the 15 minutes allotted, to leave a few seconds each for those noble Lords who have more to say than they can say in four minutes. Unlike the great majority of them, I am an innocent abroad, in the sense that I have been neither a Minister, a civil servant nor a special adviser. Whether that makes for objectivity or naivety, we shall have to see, but I must declare an interest as chairman of the Hansard Society, which has a long-standing commitment to the value of our democratic institutions and to the need to ensure that our governance is refined and improved where necessary.

I begin with three questions. First, why should we need a Civil Service Act? Secondly, given that we do, what might be the nature of such an Act? Thirdly, when will the Government honour their promise to propose a Bill?

I shall start by saying that, despite the feverish efforts of the press and the unstinting determination of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to do his best to help, I doubt that Whitehall is or was in chaos, to use Sir Richard's word. There was a bit of effing and blinding and a lot of embarrassment, but I do not think that there was chaos. Those of us who want an Act do not see it as another piece of short-term crisis management; we probably have too much of that sort of legislation before us already. There is no crisis in the Civil Service. This country has a Civil Service that is notable for its good sense, its good ethos and its good advice and is, rightly, the envy of many other countries.

There are, however, legitimate anxieties, not least on the part of the civil servants themselves, as the service adjusts to the massively raised expectations of governments and citizens. There are new, intensified pressures on the Civil Service to deliver. The senior Civil Service can no longer be properly described as being administrative, with all the calm, static virtues that that implies. The Senior Civil Service is now managerial and is concerned with allocating resources and increasing productivity to achieve objectives, often in relatively short time-scales. That is a more dynamic model than the one with which we all grew up. That has happened in the context of the endemic partisanship of our public culture. Excessive politicisation is creeping in everywhere.

We have had impatient Ministers in Conservative and Labour governments driven by an even more impatient No. 10 and committing themselves—overcommitting themselves—to specific public service targets. They want deliverables, and they want them fast. The temptation for Ministers—and often for senior civil servants—is to micro-manage. That is wrong and should be resisted—indeed, it often is. A change from policy generation to strategic leadership is necessary and is probably only half-realised, as the new Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, made apparent in an interview with The Times this morning.

The impatience to achieve leads to the use of other tools. Special and expert advisers are recruited. Consultants—some thinly disguised as Members of your Lordships' House—are taken on. There are internal reporting systems that drive performance. There is an emphasis on news control and spin in a bid to win the space, make the changes and get the credit. There is a certain can-do attitude to the cutting of corners and, on occasion, a deplorable crossing of the boundaries between national and party interest. 1t is too easy to create a culture in Whitehall in which achievers and believers are pushed ahead, and cooler heads are pushed aside. Prime Ministers notoriously favour those who bring them solutions.

The first reason why we need a Civil Service Act is to make sure that, in the face of the pressures and amid a torrent of understandable change, the well-established virtues of impartiality—or objectivity, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life prefers to call it—political neutrality, promotion by merit and not through patronage and ethical or professional standards of behaviour are not swept away. Rather, they should be entrenched throughout Whitehall and the executive agencies, with a proper process for dealing with any fall from grace. We need a fixed point of reference in a fast-changing world.

The second, related reason for an Act is less well understood. Indeed, it merited only one short sentence in Sir Richard's lecture. By passing such an Act, we shall ensure that the ultimate accountability of the Civil Service for propriety and process is to Parliament, not to the executive. That is a constitutional development of the first importance. The Hansard Society Commission on Scrutiny, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, said that Parliament should be the "apex of accountability". So, alongside a Minister's responsibility for the performance of his or her department, such an Act would create a parallel and clear accountability for the way in which the Civil Service carries out its important functions. That accountability would be to Parliament.

There seems to be widespread recognition of the desirability of such an Act. It formed part of the Government's manifesto commitment; it appeared in the manifesto of the Liberal Democrats; and many Conservatives and commentators are in favour. The First Division Association is also in favour. Of course, such a move was originally recommended by Northcote-Trevelyan in 1853, a prospect scuppered, not least—I must admit—by Lord John Russell, the Liberal Prime Minister. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Russell, his descendant, is not in his place. Be that as it may, the Liberal Democrats are now fully committed to such an Act.

What sort of Act should it be? Like Northcote-Trevelyan, I think that it should be short. The description that they used was "a few clauses". It should create accountability to Parliament via the Civil Service Commission in respect of compliance by Ministers, civil servants and various sorts of advisers with their respective codes of conduct. The codes should be refreshed and refined with the help of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and agreed by Parliament separately. The Civil Service Commission should report to Parliament annually on the state of the service, and civil servants should have easier access to the commission if they believe that there have been infringements of the codes. The commission, either at the request of Parliament or on a discretionary basis if it has substantial grounds to believe that a code has been breached, should have powers to investigate and report. The cultural and career barriers to whistle-blowing must be demolished.

It would clearly establish the proper gearing with Parliament if there were a matching committee here— preferably consisting of Members of both Houses—to consider and initiate reports by the commission. The Public Administration Committee, which has done such valuable work under its chairman, Dr Tony Wright, might provide the right basis for that. I must say that I miss the marvellous work that the old Royal Institute of Public Administration used to do; I am sure that other noble Lords feel the same. We miss RIPA when considering such issues.

My focus in introducing the debate is on getting structure and systems of accountability right, so I shall confine myself to mentioning only two areas of current controversy only. First, we should stop demonising political advisers. No doubt, some are more special than others, and, certainly, some are more expert. However, any government need help and will look for it. I am not inclined towards setting an arbitrary quota to fix the number of such advisers, although, as a matter of political judgment, a bit of restraint, particularly on the part of No. 10, would not go amiss. The line should be drawn in a different place and should not be crossed. If advisers are seen as suitable for an executive role, they should become civil servants—albeit temporarily. They should not otherwise be permitted to issue instructions to civil servants. It is one thing for a chief executive of a company to call in McKinsey—that often happens—but it would be extraordinary for him to put consultants in executive control of his management, unless he hired one or more of them for his management team.

Secondly, there is the apparent misuse of public service advertising for party advantage, an issue that has not been sufficiently discussed. Between 1999–2000 and 2000–01—election year—public service advertising went up by 69 per cent, peaking at an all-time record in March, in the immediate run-up to the election. So far, so circumstantial—but now we also find that the chief executive of the Central Office of Information has been on a direct reporting line to Mr Alastair Campbell since February. Important conventions relating to public service advertising are being breached. In suggesting that that matter should also be part of the code, I invite the Minister to comment on that worrying situation in particular when he responds.

That brings me to my final questions. When shall we have the consultation document? When shall we have the Bill before us in Parliament? Sir Andrew, the new Cabinet Secretary, thinks that, as we have waited 150 years already, there is no particular hurry. That is not the manifesto pledge made by the Government. I trust that the Minister will have something positive to say to us about that. It has become one of the issues on which the Government's credibility depends. Procrastination does not look good in matters of standards. When the Government drag their feet on clear manifesto commitments to bring forward legislation, the Minister might remind himself that the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill has shown that this House and these Benches are capable of finding another way forward. I hope that we shall not have to. I beg to move for Papers.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, I welcome the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, even though I have only four minutes. There has always been a strong concept of service by those seeking to join the Civil Service. That was especially true in the post-war years. There had been a number of men and women who had served their country well and looked to the planning of the post-war society in which they would play a leading role. That idealism resulted in much of the ensuing work of restoring and repairing our country.

That attitude was a consequence of the great Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the previous century. The report was momentous. The reforms which followed have been the bedrock of our administration and produced the professional non-party-political Civil Service which we have had the privilege to enjoy. They were the greatest development of public service in modern times. The standard set by the Civil Service filtered down into local government, into the professions and even to some extent into industry. That was a development which, looking back, must make us proud that it was in our country that we were able to devise a system of administration which was high-minded, ethical and practical, which actually worked, and which delivered what was promised.

A century later it fell to the Fulton committee, on which I had the privilege to serve, to put forward a number of reforms which, though substantial, did not change the ethos of the service, and the important changes in the relationship with government were accomplished with no great difficulty. It has been the expanding role of the special adviser which has brought the questioning of the relationship between Ministers and civil servants to a position it has not occupied since the 1960s. The Fulton committee recommended the use of specialist advisers— experts with political views.

In 1974, six months before I went to the Treasury, I took on the responsibility of the Civil Service Department. There I had the responsibility of agreeing the salaries of certain specialist advisers; Nikki Kaldor, Tommy Balogh, Brian Abel-Smith and some others. Some of them were inherited from the Labour Party opposition. There were others whose qualifications were difficult to discover and, with justification, they were awarded modest remuneration.

In evidence to the Public Administration Committee in November last year, Sir Richard Wilson gave an account of his early experience. He said: I found myself at a much more junior level than I am now in a situation where special advisers were, as it were, giving me instructions and I found myself in quite difficult positions as a result of that. I think this question of how far special advisers in practice can tell or ask civil servants to do things is an issue which has existed for quite a long time as a grey area but has now become a matter of public concern and controversy". That is an important statement to make. It is true that such situations exist. The civil servant knows that the special adviser has a direct link to the Minister and anything that the special adviser says must have a correspondingly high level of power and influence.

We have now reached the stage where the problem of special advisers needs urgently to be addressed. The notion of spin has always been a part of government— putting a good gloss on policies. It has always been part of any administration. What we have seen more recently are some special advisers who have accorded the practice a level of priority which has been in danger of transgressing the boundaries between spin and deceit. The departure of a number of information officers was in itself a serious signal. In the language of our time, they gave out information, rarely with spin even though, frequently, with a touch of gloss. We need to reaffirm the standards of service which we used to see and have come to expect.

Ever since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms there have been from time to time anxious voices raised about the changing role of government and the Civil Service. This is another of those occasions. This time, I believe, it is more serious. A major task for the new head of the Civil Service, Sir Andrew Turnbull, is to accept the case for the specialist advisers who bring skills and expertise. However, the paramount need above everything else is to retain the standards of the Civil Service we have had the privilege to acquire.

3.25 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I welcome the debate. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon. However, as regards being a Minister in the Civil Service Department, I preceded him, rather than followed him, by some four years. I therefore became—although at a junior level—the first Minister of the Civil Service in modern British history.

In those days, the reform tasks of the Civil Service were clear enough. They were to implement the recommendations of the Fulton committee, in which the noble Lord played a distinguished part, and to bring in outside entrants. They are the same changes for which Sir Andrew Turnbull is calling in today's press. Things move rather slowly in Whitehall as that was 30 years ago. There was also the small matter of indexing Civil Service pensions, which seemed to interest and pre-occupy the Civil Service Department to a considerable degree.

We on the political side had our own agenda which we embodied in the phrase "the new style of government". That had two elements to it. The first was that we needed to redefine the outputs and objectives of a great deal of government work in Whitehall so that the organisation behind the achieving and delivering of public services was more efficient. If necessary, we needed to bring in the private sector—that was the dawn of the privatisation idea. The second was that those who were managerially in charge of achieving those objectives would be properly accountable to Parliament via Select Committees, which in those days did not exist in their present form, rather than being lost in the general miasma of ministerial and departmental accountability which we and the public deemed to be extremely weak.

Like today's reformers, we believed that we could clarify the roles between the Ministers, who looked after policy and party-political matters, civil servants, who were supposed to be concerned with administration and impartial advice, and special advisers, most of whom in those days were paid by the political parties and not by the Government and who would be able, it was argued, to help civil servants. That was our high-minded aim.

The brief message that I have for your Lordships from that period, although it was long ago, is that the attempt to spend too much time defining too precisely the boundaries between the different groups does not in the end work. I know the theory—we heard it in the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Holme—that the Civil Service is supposed to be impartial and objective and that a Minister is supposed to inject party politics and so forth with the help of the special adviser. That is the theory and it is also the belief of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Its latest publication is full of such assertions.

In practice, that is not the way it worked or works today. Perhaps we can learn a little from our mistakes of the past and pass them on to the would-be reformers who are drawing up new legislation. The truth is that able civil servants are to some degree partisan and want to see the Government's purposes achieved. Of course, they may not want to see them achieved, which would not involve impartial advice but a policy stance. That is bringing policy views into the carrying out of public purposes.

Therefore, it is a myth to believe that it can always be said that all civil servants are impartial and objective. It would make life impossible for Ministers if they always were. Similarly, it is also a myth to imply that all Ministers are so riddled with party bias and so tainted by being connected with parties that they are incapable of objective thought. An appalling heresy has crept into today's debate; that is, that anyone who has anything to do with any political party is incapable of independent or objective advice and thought. If one looks at Ministers in the present Government and in previous governments, one sees that that is an absurd distortion of the reality.

There is a grey area, as Sir Richard Wilson has told us, where common sense and integrity must operate and where rigid rules cannot be laid down. It may, alas, be necessary to have a Civil Service Act which brings the structure and organisation under parliamentary authority. After the notorious Order in Council of 3rd May 1997 the public and Parliament will no longer accept the business of rule by decree in the matter of the Civil Service. That has been abused and therefore will now have to be ended. In effect, that was the second point made by Sir Richard Wilson in his speech.

A Civil Service Act which seeks to define too clearly the role between Ministers, civil servants and special advisers will come unstuck and will be to the detriment of good government. That, at least, is the message and the lesson that we can learn from the past. I hope that it will not have to be re-learnt this time.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Butler of Brockwell

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for providing the House with an opportunity to hold this debate. It is a well-known phenomenon for retired civil servants to show a surprising enthusiasm for things like freedom of information, for which they showed no great warmth while they were in the public service. Certainly when I was in the Civil Service, I was not in the vanguard of those arguing for a Civil Service Act.

I recall giving evidence to a committee of the other place under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Radice. For the reasons which have just been outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, I argued that the Civil Service was better served in meeting the requirements of governments with the flexibility of the Civil Service Order in Council. Why, then, when a non-political Civil Service has survived for almost 150 years on the basis of the Royal Prerogative and the Civil Service Order in Council, is legislation now needed to provide for it?

In my view, the reason does not lie in the ill intentions of either this or any other government. It lies in the changing context in which government is conducted. That has introduced requirements which have become, I think, dangerous to the concept of a non-political Civil Service. I shall cite one example. Governments have of course become more media driven. Today Ministers need not only expert advisers, they also need expert advisers on the art of presentation, and they do not fall comfortably within the proper role of the Civil Service. In my view, that kind of thing is best undertaken by political appointees. Since Ministers have both a governmental and a party political role, the two have to work together. In my experience, people inside the system are very well aware of the borderline between the Civil Service and party political roles and they observe it.

But I shall not deny that in some cases the borderline is crossed, and we live in a sceptical age. What may seem perfectly proper within the system does not always seem so to those outside, in particular to the opposition parties, on whom the continuance of a nonpolitical Civil Service greatly depends. It is time for the distinctions to be clarified and set out in a form which the main political parties and Parliament understand and are comfortable with.

To that end, some changes in the present arrangements could usefully be made. I have in mind three in particular. First, I believe that the time has come to make a distinction between "political" special advisers and "expert" special advisers and to fund them differently.

Secondly, while "political" special advisers should not be debarred from representing the views of their Ministers to the media, this role should be kept separate from departmental press offices, which should be staffed by civil servants operating in a factual and objective way, steering clear of party political debate.

Thirdly, when people with known or declared political loyalties apply for and are appointed to Civil Service posts, I believe that the Civil Service Commission should have a formal obligation to ensure a nil obstat from the opposition parties. Informal arrangements have been reached in the past, but I think that it would be advantageous to put it on to a more formal basis.

I believe that it would be useful if these and other aspects were enshrined in Civil Service legislation. We should not expect such legislation to avoid all future difficulties over the roles of civil servants and special advisers. But in the long term it would achieve something that is more important: it would offer an opportunity to define the distinction between Civil Service and party political functions in a way that the main political parties and Parliament would understand and have confidence in. It would make it more unlikely that a future government would doubt the political impartiality of the Civil Service they inherit and thus it would help to maintain something which, in my view, is an asset to British government and which we sould seek to retain and foster; that is, a permanent, impartial and non-political Civil Service.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Radice

My Lords, as a new Member, I have been told this is one of those House of Lords debates which are always extremely impressive. I can see that this is definitely going to be such a debate, with contributions from former Ministers and heads of the Civil Service. Indeed, I believe that one former head of the Civil Service is not going to participate because two former heads are already speaking.

I rise briefly and modestly to support the case for a Civil Service Act. I should say that this is not a new question because many of us have long been in favour of such legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, pointed out, I was chairman of the sub-committee which reported in favour of such an Act. We also came out in favour of introducing the Civil Service Code. We even prepared a draft code which was accepted by the Conservative government of the day. I should like to pay tribute to the role played by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, in that. As I have said, we also came out in favour of legislation, but the then government did not see the argument in favour of that proposal.

I believe that strong arguments can be put forward in favour of a Civil Service Act. They do not arise primarily because of the recent controversy over special advisers, although of course I accept that there have been rows about them. I accept also that there has been an increase in the numbers of such advisers. However, I can recall that the previous government also had special advisers and there is nothing wrong with that; indeed, I think that they perform an extremely useful role. At the time rows broke out over the role and activities of special advisers. I recall in particular the row over the position of Sir Bernard Ingham. The sub-committee commented on the ensuing controversy in one of its reports, so this argument is nothing new.

However, a short Act is needed in the main because—to echo the words of Sir Richard Wilson in his very effective speech made in March—we need, first, to define what a civil servant is—at the moment there is no definition; secondly, we need to enshrine in law rather than simply in a code the fundamental principles of selection and promotion on the basis of merit; and, thirdly, we need to enshrine the political impartiality of the Civil Service. I also believe that the time has now come to put into law the Civil Service Code. We need to define in law the code for special advisers and we need to examine the role and number of such special advisers.

In summary, we need to do all that was recommended in the Northcote-Trevelyan report. The Civil Service Commission needs to be put on to a statutory basis for the first time. Furthermore, I think that we need to provide a role for the Civil Service Commission in the judgment of grievances and redress for aggrieved civil servants. I take that view because I am not satisfied that the present system works adequately.

Finally, we need to underwrite the role of Parliament and, indeed, of the Select Committees in the Act's supervision.

Perhaps I may conclude by saying the following. The case for a Civil Service Act has been accepted by the Government. That was made clear in the election manifesto. On numerous occasions in the other place and, I believe, in this House, the Government have stated that they are committed to such an Act.

The argument no longer turns on whether one is for it or against it; what really drives the matter is when will the Government fulfil their commitment. Noble Lords are right to wait with impatience for the consultation paper, which has been promised for a very long time. We are also right to await the legislation. To that end, I believe that the message of our debate this afternoon can be summed up as follows: "It is time to get on with it".

3.39 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend for bringing these matters before the House. In the 1960s and 1970s, during my own time in government, I would have been rather surprised at the idea of a Civil Service Act. Governments are organic and comprise more than their formal institutions. As the culture of politics changes, a new balance is struck between Ministers, career civil servants and outsiders. Even in the earlier part of the 20th century, as we know from diaries and memoirs, those ubiquitous public servants, Eddie Marsh and Tom Jones, moved in and out at the highest level on a personal and sometimes political basis. More relevant, many outsiders entered Whitehall during the war and some outstanding figures continued into career civil servants.

Other outsiders served Ministers in the Attlee government as irregulars—in effect, special advisers to Herbert Morrison, Cripps and Dalton. There was also the mixed central planning staff under Edwin Plowden, and talented outsiders moved between the economic section of the Treasury and the universities.

The Department of Economic Affairs, the DEA, in which I became a junior Minister in 1964, had a core of career civil servants but many outsiders, some with strong political loyalties. An able political appointee, Robert Neild, became the economic adviser to the Treasury in 1964, causing a fuss; but in 1997 his lineal descendant was given the less controversial title of economic adviser to the Chancellor.

After a stretch of 13 years in opposition, and then 18, new Ministers were sometimes suspicious about civil servants and civil servants about Ministers, but most grew out of their doubts and became resilient and flexible. However, I am persuaded that there is serious anxiety about the morale of the Civil Service almost as disturbing as in the mitt-1980s.

I agree, for example, that there may be a case for capping the number of special advisers, although the main growth has been at No. 10, which raises wider constitutional questions. I agree also that the Byers episode was a mess and that there are important lessons about the management of a department, and not only for Ministers and press and information officers.

I believe that openness between special advisers and senior civil servants, especially with private secretaries of Ministers and permanent secretaries, is essential to the smooth working of government, based on respect and trust.

These and other matters were usefully discussed in the sixth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I welcome its recent Issues and Questions Paper, Defining the Boundaries. But in reviewing a growing literature about Ministers, civil servants, outsiders and special advisers, I hope that options will be brought into sharper focus taking a historical view.

3.43 p.m.

Baroness Prashar

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for introducing the debate. As the First Civil Service Commissioner, I am grateful far the opportunity to contribute to it. I hope that this debate and the wider discussions that will follow the Government's proposed consultation paper on a Civil Service Act will encourage a considered debate and lead to a broad consensus on the framework in which we expect the Civil Service to operate.

I had intended to spend some time outlining the background to our role but, as I have only four minutes, I shall go on to the issues that I wish to raise. In the context of the debate, there are two questions I should like to explore. First, at a time of substantial reform—which I believe is necessary—and when, more than ever, concerns are being expressed about the blurring of boundaries within the executive, is there anything more that needs to be done to support the maintenance of an impartial and competent Civil Service which is equipped to respond to the challenges of today's world, deliver services and serve the best interests of everyone in society? Secondly, does an Order in Council, which is the current means by which the Civil Service is ordered, represent the right legislative vehicle?

First, are the current checks and balances currently in force sufficient to ensure an impartial Civil Service? The role of the Civil Service is clear; it is to serve successive governments with equal loyalty, integrity and deliver the agenda of the government of the clay. Yet the point is increasingly being made that because the number of special advisers has increased considerably under the current administration, that in itself must be a sign that the impartiality of the Civil Service is at risk.

I do not see things that way. For me, the key issue is whether there is sufficient clarity about the roles of civil servants in general and about special advisers in particular; and whether there are effective mechanisms in place to monitor and enforce the various codes governing the conduct of special advisers and civil servants.

I believe that special advisers have a valuable role to play. Their place within the government system is now accepted and they are a useful part of the political landscape. Their relationship with permanent officials and Ministers, of course, depends on their personality, expertise and strength. As we know, things do go wrong. If they are given too much power or influence they will undermine the relationship between Ministers and civil servants.

It is in the public interest that the Civil Service itself should remain a main source of innovation, able to command the confidence of Ministers and execute their policies. It is important to get this balance right, otherwise we risk demoralising the Civil Service and making it more difficult to recruit and retain the high quality individuals needed to deliver public services, now and in the future. Therefore we need clarity about respective roles and arrangements for dealing with situations where boundaries are in danger of being crossed.

When special advisers were first appointed they were seen as a source of party political advice for Ministers, a means by which Ministers—and therefore the government of the day—remained connected with their party. But things have moved on, and the code of conduct for special advisers now includes as part of their role, preparing speculative policy papers which can generate long-term policy thinking within the Department, including policies which reflect the political viewpoint of the Minister's party", and, representing the views of their Minister to the media including a Party viewpoint, where they have been authorised by the Minister to do so". All this seems to go beyond the role of special advisers as set out in the 1995 Order in Council, which states that their purpose is, only of providing advice to any Minister". There appears to be a variance between the legal basis for a special adviser's role and that set out in their code.

There is also the question of the role of special advisers in the management of other civil servants. The Order in Council is again clear in specifying that, with three notable exceptions, special advisers do not manage other civil servants. Yet I saw an Answer to a Parliamentary Question recently which referred to no civil servants being "directly" managed by special advisers, apart from the three exceptions laid down in the Order in Council.

I am not a civil servant, but my knowledge of their specialist drafting skills over many years makes me wonder whether the incorporation of the word "directly" in the Answer might be a cover for relations between special advisers and civil servants that are closer than the Order in Council intended.

Such lack of clarity over the role and powers of special advisers leads not only to speculation about whether there is increased politicisation of the Civil Service but also confuses the rights and obligations of civil servants under both the Civil Service code and the special advisers code.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I remind the noble Baroness of the need to strictly apply the four minute rule.

Baroness Prashar

My Lords, perhaps I may make my final point. I can deal with it quickly.

Moving on to my second question about the right legislative vehicle for such issues, I recognise that some will say that changes and clarifications can be achieved without a Civil Service Act; codes can be re-written and Orders in Council changed. In my view, that would not be an ideal situation.

By enshrining in statute the core values of appointment on merit after fair and open competition, and by incorporating in statute the responsibilities and powers of the Civil Service commissioners, including the obligation to report on their work, we would place the constitutional position of the Civil Service more directly under the oversight of Parliament. By disentangling the constitutional position of the Civil Service—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I remind the House that noble Lords who stray past the four minutes take time away from other Peers who wish to contribute to the debate.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, it is appropriate for this debate that, within the category of "special advisers", it is political advisers whose role requires clarification in a Civil Service Bill. So I agree with the Motion.

Noble Lords will recall that I have drawn attention to the need for clear statements of the functions of special advisers ever since the debate that I initiated in this House in 1997. I advocated the introduction of a new Civil Service Bill. I am glad that the Government are now likely to accept such a recommendation. The functions and roles of advisers should be defined in that Bill, and they should be given statutory authorisation. Do the Government accept such an idea and, if so, when can a Bill be expected?

An important reason for introducing such a measure is that special advisers are not accountable to Parliament. Presumably, they cannot be summoned to give evidence to Select Committees. Ministers have recently responded to questions on this subject by comparing numbers. They have pointed to the several thousand civil servants working in Whitehall and to the figure of about 80 special advisers. I suggest that such a comparison misses the point. The special advisers work directly for Ministers—mostly on political subjects—and are expected to depart when a general election leads to a change in the party in office. The large majority of the civil servants are engaged in work which does not involve dealing with Ministers directly on political subjects.

Of course, the two categories have to work together, and they must understand and acknowledge each other's functions. The duties of civil servants have been fairly clear for many years and are set out in documents. The role of special advisers is not yet similarly specified.

I make it clear that I have never objected to the existence and activities of special advisers. I tabled a Question recently, not because I object to them, but because I like to be kept informed of what is happening. The reply confirmed that two special advisers working at No. 10 have the power to instruct civil servants. They are the chief of communications and the chief of staff at No. 10. Is the number to remain at two, or are there likely to be more appointments of special advisers with powers to instruct civil servants?

3.53 p.m.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, on his success in the ballot and on choosing this subject for debate. I strongly agree with him on the need to clarify the respective responsibilities of Ministers, political advisers and civil servants.

Ministers are supported by a permanent, nonpolitical, professional career Civil Service, with, in the words of G. M. Trevelyan, its accumulated stores of knowledge, experience and sound tradition. The result of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 19th century was the removal of the Civil Service from the field of political jobbery by the adoption of open competitive examination as the method of entrance.

Of course, the public service is not, and should not be, immune to reform. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that there has been a more or less continuous process of public service reform, at least since 1979 if not since the Fulton committee, of which the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, was a distinguished member. However, there are continuing values that we should be seeking to retain throughout the process of reform. If, as I believe, the system of government in this country has been relatively free of political and other forms of corruption, that has been at least partly because the permanent Civil Service, as it has been developed, is an important force for integrity in that system.

Special advisers are not a new breed. They have been around in one form or another for a good many years, under governments of both the main political parties. In my experience, a special adviser can be a very useful addition to the support of a busy Minister—to advise the Minister on the specifically political dimension of his policies and actions, and to assist in interpreting the Minister's political views and needs to civil servants—so long as he does not act as though he is usurping the authority of the Minister.

But one can have too much, even of a good thing. There are now over 80 special advisers, 26 of them in 10 Downing Street. That is more than double the number before 1997. I believe that the machinery of government would work just as well, and I dare say better, with a good many fewer special advisers—and not only in No. 10. I am not persuaded that all departmental Ministers need two special advisers in addition to a raft of junior Ministers. I would make the quota one, with two being allowed only in exceptional cases.

So I agree with noble Lords who have proposed that there should be a limit, either on the total number of special advisers paid from public funds, or on the total amount of public funds expended on the employment of special advisers.

We also need to define the role of special advisers and to distinguish it from that of civil servants. Special advisers have a different function—one might say a different agenda—from civil servants. Civil servants are accountable to Ministers for honest and dispassionate advice on policies, for making sure that Ministers are as fully and accurately informed as possible, for the execution of policies once decided upon, and for the administration and management of government.

Special advisers are also accountable to Ministers— in so far as they are accountable at all—but they are advisory, and their agenda in the task of advising Ministers is, first and foremost, party political. The two strands of accountability come together at ministerial level. In my view, it is unwise to try to bring them together below that; the functions and the agenda are so different.

I do not believe that it is wise to put special advisers in charge of civil servants. I know that there are at present only two special advisers—both in 10 Downing Street—who are in that position. Nevertheless, when I learn not only that the Central Office of Information (or whatever it is now called) has been brought under the umbrella of the Cabinet Office, but also—as the noble Lord, Lord Holine, reminded us—that for some of her functions the head of the COI reports and is responsible directly to the Director of Strategy and Communications in 10 Downing Street, Mr Alastair Campbell, then I fear that the Government are laying themselves still further open to the perception that party political considerations are being allowed to exert too great an influence on the activities of the Government's public relations service and the integrity of the Civil Service is at greater risk of being seriously compromised.

I have not been in favour of a Civil Service Act, My preference would be to continue to rely in such matters on codes of guidance and practice which can be more flexible and susceptible to adjustment in changing circumstances than can statutory legislation.

My primary care and concern are for the integrity of the Civil Service. We must not lose sight of the value of that and of the need to preserve it. I. have been out of the public service for 14 years. If the judgment of those who are closer to these matters than I am is that the preservation of the integrity of the Civil Service now requires a Civil Service Act, then so be it.

3.58 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, welcoming the Motion as I do, I must declare that I was a special adviser for over five years, heading the Downing Street Policy Unit, where I worked with six of the speakers in today's debate. It is quite a club reunion for us. Four were civil servants and two were special advisers. As such, I strongly believe in the valuable role of special advisers. They are important and their existence is justified in the crucial political dimension of government—and governments are political. Not all special advisers are, or have been, perfect, but that is true of some civil servants and even of some politicians. I am not convinced that legislation would remedy that.

My main purpose in speaking today is to take what is, I think, a minority view, although in a special area, and to question the need for legislation to clarify the specific issue of relations between civil servants and special advisers. We may well, however, need an Act for other reasons, and I believe that the noble Lords, Lord Holme, Lord Butler and Lord Radice and others, will make an excellent case for that. Although I certainly agree that relations between the political and the official side require clarity—problems arise if it is not clear who does what—we do not necessarily need heavy, detailed legislation for that particular purpose. I am not sure that the existence of an Act would have solved those problems in the Department of Transport.

I should perhaps mention one aspect of my experience on entering No. 10 Downing Street, in March 1974. The then Cabinet Secretary, Sir John Hunt, and I had a series of intensive negotiations, assisted by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, on precisely this subject. The result was what we called the concordat, a list of so-called general rules on access to committees, papers and people which was issued to Whitehall. This concordat gave the policy unit necessary access, and in return we assured permanent officials that we would not cross wires, usurp the role of Ministers or seek to replace the normal channels of communication between officials and Ministers. It established in detail where special advisers go and what they see and set no limit on their access to their Ministers. It allowed the flexibility of extra access following consultation so that everyone would know what was going on.

I believe that the arrangement worked, although my four Civil Service colleagues may dissent. I also suggest that it is a more practical and flexible path on this specific issue than legislation, which is often rigid and—as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said from his experience—set in concrete and too heavy handed. Each department could take this approach with its own general rules together with the existing code of conduct, refined to specific needs and subject to revision with each new administration and Minister.

I also think that special advisers might benefit from a brief period of training and induction. They do perform a distinct and valuable role, and I do not believe that a mere six or seven dozen of them are a mighty threat to the great Civil Service machine. However, they will perform their distinctive role better for their Ministers if they work closely with the official machine and if both sides are clear and educated on their own territorial boundaries and responsibilities.

I was encouraged by the characteristically sensible comments by Sir Andrew Turnbull in The Times today and think that this particular issue can mainly be settled departmentally. Sir Andrew says that it can be done following the No. 10 Downing Street Policy Unit model. I hope that that is the task which will be followed, even within the context of an Act addressing the wider issues raised in this excellent debate.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Holme on initiating this vital debate. As he observed, it is particularly timely coinciding as it does with Sir Andrew Turnbull's interview in today's The Times.

As many noble Lords have remarked, in the past 20 years, the Civil Service has had to operate in a very turbulent milieu. Successive governments have introduced a plethora of innovations in the name of modernising the apparatus of the state. It is of course the duty of government to bring in new methods in order to discharge their duties in whatever efficacious way they think fit. But these have occurred without the slightest attention being paid to the need for proper accountability. It is not any one particular reform that may be objected to in this context; rather, it is their aggregative effect that is at question. As I have said before in your Lordships' House, in sum total they have given rise to the political demi-monde, a labyrinthine series of quagmirish networks populated by "hived off' state agencies, quangos, task forces, think tanks, policy czars, unaccredited peripatetic plenipotentiaries, management consultants and lobbyists. They are the policy context in which the Civil Service has to work.

It is this demi-monde that the Civil Service has had to learn to live with somehow or other. If we had a written constitution, these recent innovations in the workings of the state could not have occurred without adequate provisions being made for robust public accountability. Some of the senior Whitehall mandarinate, such as Sir Andrew Turnbull seemingly, believe that there should be an extension of the demi-monde and that he and his official colleagues are quite capable of adapting to it in some sort of undefined manner. That, of course, is the problem. Others such as Sir Richard Wilson, current head of the Civil Service, appear to argue that the service and many of its qualities for independence, objectivity, merit appointment and non-partisanship, will be unable to withstand much more encroachment by the demi-monde. That is why Sir Richard proposes a Civil Service Act which would put the permanent element of the Executive on a statutory basis. Such an Act is commonplace in most other liberal democracies and would go a long way in delineating the precise role of the service vis-ä-vis the denizens of the demi-monde.

Formal codification of this sort would not only restore a large measure of accountability to the Executive branch of government but would have the additional benefits of making it more amenable to effective scrutiny by the legislative branch and review by the judicial branch. While the institutions and processes of government may become outdated, the basic principles of democracy, of which accountability is among the most important, do not. The constitutional canons of the 19th century are still valid, and they need equally to be applied and adapted to meet our contemporary arrangements. Governments are criticised for their acts of commission when these fall short or go awry, but they are really upbraided for their acts of omission that may well be equally harmful to the good ordering of affairs.

The introduction of a Civil Service Act, now long overdue, would restore public faith in the Government's commitment to constitutional reform. This received a welcome fillip last week when it was announced that the Prime Minister was willing to appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee consisting of the Select Committee Chairmen of another place. That is a clear example of improving public accountability. Commitment to speedy introduction of a Civil Service Act would be another.

4.7 p.m.

Lord Burns

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for introducing this debate. I am encouraged that there is much agreement today about the role of Ministers, political advisers and civil servants and about the need for clarity. It goes without saying that I agree about the enormous value that we derive from a non-political permanent Civil Service that includes appointments to the most senior level. However, I also agree that there is much benefit to be gained from continuing to open up appointments at senior levels to give outsiders the opportunity to compete on merit. Some progress has been made in recent years, but I think that there is probably scope to go further.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Butler, I am also persuaded that there is an important role for temporary "expert" advisers who have proven policy skills which appeal to Ministers to assist in the policy process. However, it is important that Ministers, in taking advantage of those skills, appreciate the policy skills that the permanent Civil Service brings. I do not particularly like the fashionable distinction that maintains that Ministers and advisers should set policy whereas delivery is down to the Civil Service. In my experience, it is important that those charged with delivery are fully involved in policy design, and furthermore that policymakers understand that the quality of their design will have a substantial influence on the chances of successful delivery.

I do not think that anyone who has worked at a senior level within Whitehall now doubts that there is also an important role for "political" special advisers. Throughout my time in the Civil Service, there was very little problem with "the borderline" with permanent civil servants. Although there have been some high-profile exceptions, I do not think that they should cloud what has generally been a very positive relationship. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that it is vital that departmental press offices should be staffed by civil servants who provide information in a factual and objective way. That gives confidence to the world outside that they are getting a straight story.

However, I am in the minority today in that I am not yet persuaded that there is an urgent need for a Civil Service Act. I am not sure that such an Act would make a huge difference in practice. It seems that Ministers, civil servants and political advisers generally do know their responsibilities, and the arrangement works well most of the time. When it does not, it tends to be because of personalities and circumstances rather than the absence of statute.

My perception is that within Whitehall there is a marketplace for advice. In practice Ministers will listen to advice from a variety of sources and make their judgment on their view of the merits of that advice. Civil servants do not have a monopoly of policy skills and therefore cannot expect to have a monopoly in the supply of advice. Like all marketplaces there is some role for rules to ensure fair trading, but my tentative view remains that this is best achieved through codes of conduct and clarification. At the same time we need to be sufficiently flexible to cope with future evolution rather than trying to fix things at any point in time.

In coming to that view I was very much influenced by the observation that in the commercial world management practices evolve over time in many ways. We see this in relation to outsourcing and in relation to the proportion of senior management who come from within or outside organisations. We see it in different methods of appointment and the extent to which people use consultants and outside advisers in a whole variety of ways. I am wary about seeking to legislate for best practice today knowing how far life and management practices could evolve in the future. I worry that whatever we set out to define today would not be terribly robust very far into the future.

My own view is that before deciding on whether or not we need legislation, we need much more debate and a greater degree of consensus about some of the substantive issues that have been discussed today. Only when that consensus has been achieved and some of the issues that clearly concern noble Lords have been resolved should we consider whether legislation is necessary or whether just as much could be achieved by a rather greater degree of clarification that could be brought about in some other way.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Holme. I wish to reinforce the call for a Civil Service Act and, in the few minutes available to me, to suggest that such an Act is a necessary but not sufficient condition for improving the quality of government in this country.

The case for a Civil Service Act is a persuasive one because of changes in the nature of government. Government in this country has never been some homogeneous whole. It has comprised several parts, and the relationship between them has been one of interdependence. It has been an interdependence of defined parts, each proceeding on the basis of respect for the others. That mutual respect has declined in recent years. We have seen conflict and, more especially, a blurring of the boundaries that have been a feature of British government.

The change that has occurred is, I believe, largely though not wholly, for the reasons mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, the consequence of a trend towards a centralisation of power—the Prime Minister seeking greater autonomy in policy making—and in recent years exaggerated and hence unsustainable expectations of what civil servants should and can do. The Cabinet Secretary has been left with the unenviable task of defending what were previously well-understood norms as to the respective roles of Ministers and civil servants.

Exaggerated expectations may to some degree be attributed to the lack of previous experience on the part of Ministers. There has always been a problem in that each Minister, when appointed to head a department, has basically had to re-invent the wheel. Ministers come in with no training and usually with very little guidance as to what is expected of them. The way in which one Minister runs a department may bear little relationship to how other Ministers run theirs. This is a problem but one ameliorated to some extent if Ministers have spent some years in junior office. In 1997, a new government was elected and most new Ministers had no prior experience of government. There had been some seminars laid on for them in opposition, but in practice this did not appear to equip them for the management of departments.

This analysis leads me to the conclusion that a Civil Service Act is necessary but not sufficient. It is necessary in order to establish the relationship between the different parts of government. However, by itself it is not sufficient. As Sir Richard Wilson mentioned in his recent speech, such an Act would be no guarantee of good behaviour. I believe that it should be complemented by a structured programme of training for senior Ministers. Government in this country has been the preserve of amateurs: Ministers and senior officials have never been subject to professional training. Senior civil servants are managers but their focus has been primarily that of policy advice. Some training is provided through the Centre for Management and Policy Studies, not only for officials but also now, I gather, for junior Ministers. What is needed is a more rigorous training for senior Ministers so that there can be a dissemination of best practice and also in order that Ministers can gain some understanding of the role and relationship of Ministers to civil servants. Stipulating functions and responsibilities by statute is valuable—arguably now it is necessary—but it only takes us so far. To understand the fundamentals of relationships, of how government has developed and how Ministers can get the most out of their departments—in a way that brings out the best in their officials—requires normative guidance and an understanding of best practice.

I have little doubt that the Minister will reiterate that the Government are committed to the introduction of a Civil Service Bill. I shall be interested to know whether the Government also accept that such a measure should be complemented by a training programme for all incoming Ministers. Stipulating responsibilities and relationships is one thing; appreciating them is another. The two must go together.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, I also welcome the debate. I do not want to be a "party pooper" by opposing the convivial atmosphere in favour of a Civil Service Bill. I am in favour of a Civil Service Bill. I believe that a well conceived Civil Service Bill could do a bit of good and not much harm. However, I lay stress on the words "well conceived".

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, is in a hurry as regards a Bill. However, what is in the Bill matters much more than that we have a Bill. A rush to legislation would not necessarily be right in this case. I say that particularly because if we rush to legislation now we should be rather dominated by what seems to me a febrile and short-run controversy about political advisers. There are many public servants present who are more distinguished than I should ever dream of being. However, if one looks at the governance of our country and the state of our Civil Service and the issues facing it—openness, the skills required, the way it is managed and so on and so forth—special advisers come rather low down the list. I hope that we shall not become fixated on that. Having said that, as a former special adviser I shall demonstrate that I am fixated on it by stating my view of how to deal with the problem, at least in part.

Much of the problem with special advisers arises because we treat them like some kind of ersatz civil servants or centaur civil servants, half man, half beast. We cannot quite get the special adviser concept to fit into the Civil Service box. That is partly because civil servants and special advisers are paid out of the same pot of money voted in the same way by Parliament and subject to the same scrutiny.

My proposal, which I put to the Public Administration Committee in the Commons, is that special advisers should be treated differently. They should be treated in the same way as aides to the opposition are treated and provided for through the Short money, which is specifically voted by Parliament for that purpose. That means that every year the Government would have to justify to Parliament the amount of money they wanted to spend on special advisers and the number of special advisers that that would support. I am pleased to say that the Public Administration Committee adopted my proposal. I was not the least bit surprised that the Government rejected it because of course they would like to be able to appoint as many special advisers as they like at whatever salaries they think they can get away with and with the minimum of parliamentary scrutiny.

I believe that Parliament should take a different view. There is now a chance to get this matter going again. The Wicks inquiry, which I very much welcome, heard evidence from the proposers of the measure and is taking an interest in it. I hope that with the support of this House the Government can be made to think again and the position of special advisers can be regulated at least in the regard that I mentioned.

Finally, let us suppose that a Bill came before both Houses. This week a Joint Committee was established to examine the Communications Bill. That is a complicated piece of legislation involving big but not partisan issues. If we have a Bill on the subject we are discussing, there is a great deal to be said for having a Joint Committee of Parliament to examine it—it should he bipartisan as the legislation will be of use only if it is bipartisan—taking in the great wisdom we have seen displayed in this House and which I know exists in the Public Administration Committee and elsewhere. We should incorporate within the Bill not just the interests of government as an institution and those of civil servants as an institution but also the fundamental interest in all this of Parliament as a representative of our democracy. I hope that the Government and the Houses of Parliament will pick up that proposal and run with it.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for introducing this important topic. I should declare my interests: my father was a permanent civil servant, my son was a political adviser, my daughter works for the National Health Service and I was a contract civil servant for five years —I was chief executive of a government agency: the Met Office. Because of its international activities, I was able to observe how civil services operate in other countries.

As other noble Lords have noted, there is no questioning the fact that the British Civil Service continues to have very high calibre staff. They are trusted by Ministers and are expected, as they have done for 200 years or more, to take independent decisions. They do that knowing very well that if they make mistakes, they cannot be quite sure that they will not take the rap. They certainly cannot be sure that the doctrine of ministerial responsibility always prevails.

That theoretical aspect to the operation of the Civil Service is one that a new Act needs to address, especially in light of more open government. It is that unclear element in the relationship between civil servants and Ministers that sometimes gives rise to anonymous briefings and extraordinary misunderstandings about the truth. One remembers Hilaire Belloc's ditty: Matilda told such Dreadful Lies, It made one Gasp and Stretch one's Eyes". I agree with other noble Lords about the need for political advisers. Implicitly, they refer only to political advice to Ministers, but every senior civil servant needs extremely acute eyes, ears and political advice to perform effectively in relation to Whitehall, Westminster and the wider world.

No one is proposing to offer political advisers to the chief executive of the Met Office or the Passport Agency, so what is to be done? Short of recruiting the extraordinarily sophisticated cadres from the French grandes écoles, we need drastically to improve the political training of all civil servants. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. Most civil servants work far from Whitehall but they need to understand how the Civil Service, government and politics work. They also need to understand the demimonde, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, called it, and how that relates to the UK system as a whole. I recall inviting a senior police officer to a local Labour Party meeting. He had never previously been to a political meeting in his life.

Many civil servants and politicians sometimes have a better education of the whole system when they visit the United States as Fulbright scholars than they have ever experienced through the UK. I very much hope that the training of UK civil servants is improving in relation to that more political role.

Finally, I very much hope that the Minister will allow civil servants to give evidence during the discussions on the new Act and the new arrangements. In the past, some civil servants have been severely criticised or prevented from doing so. We need to have a wide range of input, not simply from Cabinet Secretaries.

4.23 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, there has been legislation on the public service before, but one has to go back to the 18th century to find it. That legislation arose because Ministers in charge of departments had made it a practice to recruit Members of Parliament and put them on the departmental payrolls so as to control their vote. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the first legislation regarding the Civil Service was to prevent the corruption of Parliament.

We should remind ourselves of what the Northcote-Trevelyan report was up to. It was trying to improve the quality of public service, as we are doing today, to eliminate, in its words, "the unambitious, indolent and incapable" and to recruit the best graduates from the universities, which were themselves then subject to fundamental reforms. It concluded that, it can only be done through the medium of an Act of Parliament". The Cabinet decided in 1854 to introduce a short Bill on that subject, but it did not do so because there was a barrage of criticism when the Northcote-Trevelyan report appeared. It was only when the administrative bungling and scandals of the Crimean War brought that matter again to its attention that it set up an arrangement that was based on an Order in Council under the Royal prerogative. That has been the basis for all subsequent legislation. The Orders in Council that were recently passed were not particularly controversial. The public have not been particularly well informed about what is happening. The Civil Service Department no longer exists. It is not clear how its responsibilities are being discharged or who is responsible for them.

The main point that leads me to feel that we should move towards legislation on the public service is the fact that something is happening to the unwritten constitution. It is changing in front of our eyes. It has been widely noted that the Cabinet now meets less regularly and for shorter periods. I suspect that our inherited constitutional system is undergoing a gradual but definite change. It is certainly an advantage of unwritten constitutions such as ours that they are able to respond to new situations more quickly and with greater ability. That flexibility may be its greatest strength.

However, the converse must also be noted—that underlying principles and concepts tend to be overlooked in our scheme of things. It is a characteristic of British thinking that we tend to concentrate on practical matters that need to be dealt with and that we have less regard for the underlying principles that should motivate us. We need to review the workings of our present arrangements, possibly with a view to an Act that sets out some principles—not detailed points of administration—so that we know what we are aiming for. That is why it would be desirable to produce a Bill containing those principles.

We still need to recruit the ablest young men and women to work for our society as a whole. The process must be open and fair. Any tendency to revert to political patronage in the service of the state should be carefully controlled. One possibility is to execute the decision of the Cabinet in 1854 and to pass a short Bill on the subject that sets out those principles. As they say, it is never too late to mend.

4.26 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I add my voice to those who are totally unpersuaded about the need for legislation on this matter. First, that is because we have had much too much constitutional legislation, and a period of digestion would be in order. Secondly, it is because if there were such legislation, it would either be far too restrictive and inflexible—it would not enable the government to adapt to what is happening in the real world, which we cannot predict—or it would be so full of loopholes as to be pretty useless.

I am reminded that between 1967 and 1970, my noble friend Lord Howell and I spent some time working on potential changes in the machinery of government. Because the election of 1970 was a busy moment for important politicians, I was delegated to discuss some of our ideas with the two great giants in Whitehall—Sir Burke Trend, then Secretary to the Cabinet, and Sir William Armstrong, then head of the Civil Service. At that time, one of our main proposals was to set up a body that became the Central Policy Review Staff, or CPRS. At that time, we thought that it should be under the Prime Minister. I was quickly persuaded by those two mandarins that that was not a good idea and that it should work for the Cabinet as a whole. That, of course, is what happened. It was a useful exercise, particularly, I suppose, because it was set up under Lord Rothschild, to whom the famous adage of Lord Curzon really did apply: No man should be Viceroy of India to whom that job is an honour". It was only when Lord Rothschild departed that the arrangement crumbled and subsequent Prime Ministers scrapped it. That was an important innovation which required no legislation either to set it up or wind it up.

Why does all of this matter? One reason is because we want good government. That means honest, responsive and cost-effective government. Perhaps even more, it is because we want government that is perceived as being honest, responsive and cost-effective. To the people of Britain—this is the case in many countries—perception of government is at the same time both fuzzy and sharp. It is fuzzy because they do not make a clear distinction between the legislature and the executive—or even between the executive and the judiciary, let alone between the Commons and the Lords or between permanent, temporary, political or special adviser civil servants. That is unlike the United States whose constitution deliberately separates the legislature and the executive. British government is even more fuzzy in relation to Ministers, civil servants and the hybrid special adviser. Equally, perception can be quite sharp. For the individual citizen, the impact of government is of huge importance, when it is important at all. The great thing about France is that we can learn from it in particular matters because so often things happen in France that—thank God—never actually quite happen in Britain. The French government system is most elitist and authoritarian. The typical Frenchman does not believe that a parliament is capable of defending his interests. Thus when the mob takes to the streets, the people support the mob—which is totally different from the United Kingdom where the people support the government of the day.

In our country, there is confidence in Parliament and still in the Civil Service. It may be eroding but confidence is largely a product of commonsense behaviour. It is the responsibility of those in government—particularly the head of the government of the day—to ensure that standards of behaviour are observed. I have always been a great believer in the need for Ministers to resign when necessary—not because they are necessarily to blame but it gives more power to their successors. When things go wrong, action should be taken. But I do not believe that legislation is needed. The machinery of government is far too complicated to legislate on the lines to which the Motion refers. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's view, if he has one.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Powell of Bayswater

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for taking the initiative in arranging this debate. On an earlier occasion, I declared both my fraternal interests as a special adviser and civil servant. I am probably the most junior ex-civil servant to take part in the debate. I never was a Cabinet Secretary, Permanent Secretary, Chief Executive or anything similar. Maybe that is to the good.

Clearly we will get a Civil Service Act because the Government have committed themselves to having one. It will come eventually. But in their shoes, I would not hurry—especially not to produce a Civil Service Act on the lines suggested in the Motion. Focusing so tightly on clarifying and defining roles smacks to me of the boilermakers union at the height of its powers. Defining roles is a subsidiary issue. I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that it is likely to be counter-productive, by setting in concrete something that needs to be flexible. We may end up stifling change instead of encouraging it.

Equally, further important changes are needed in the Civil Service but one does not need legislation that can be done, as it has been done satisfactorily in the past, by executive order.

A number of noble Lords are het up about special advisers. My own experience of them has been almost entirely positive. I found them a lively source of ideas that offered a fresh perspective from outside. 'They helped to insulate civil servants from political pressures by keeping political tasks at bay. Far from seeing special advisers as a threat to the independence of the Civil Service or to our constitutional order, the process of government would probably benefit from having rather more of them.

I would like a higher proportion of special advisers selected for their expertise, rather than just for their political affiliation, and to see them spread more widely through the government machine or process—instead of them all congregating around ministerial private offices, where they can become a centre for skulduggery.

We want to avoid at all costs the French or German model, where a lot of politically affiliated civil servants hang around waiting for their lot to get back into power. I hope that we shall not approach the issue of special advisers from the point of view of limiting and restricting their role but of maximising their usefulness to government.

As to further Civil Service reform, I agree with the views reported in The Times this morning of Sir Andrew Turnbull—the new Cabinet Secretary and my former colleague. We need far more people whose talents and expertise lie in delivering services to the public and project management. Civil servants ought to be given much more responsibility earlier. In my experience, one of the greatest differences is that people outside the Civil Service are given responsibility much sooner and stand or fall by their performance. We need that culture in the Civil Service too, so that poor performers will be dispensed with. Sir Andrew is quoted as saying that the Civil Service cannot be a job for life.

I should like to see time-limited contracts for all appointments at senior civil servant level, with those appointments advertised outside. I have little doubt that my own Civil Service career would have foundered earlier had I needed to meet those requirements. Even so, it is desirable to make changes of that sort. My worry is that by focusing on a Civil Service Act, particularly of the scope proposed, we may be neglecting what is really important and pursing instead a rather legalistic and pedantic approach—which will do nothing much to improve the effectiveness of government.

4.35 p.m.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme, who is, not for the first time, a valuable and timely voice for common sense. Finding refuge in the opaque may be amusing and can certainly be clever but it is seldom particularly honourable. That, for me, is the great attraction of a Civil Service Act—not a neurotically rushed Bill but one that offers the possibility of injecting clarity and order into what has become a disorderly and thoroughly negative national obsession.

I do not believe for one moment that we can get the genie back into the bottle, so we have to deal with the situation as we find it. I entirely understand the reservations that have been expressed during the past one and a half hours because, to a degree, I work within the system. But please believe me—even the best arguments against such an Act would strike discord among a public conditioned to accept transparency as the desirable norm.

My limited contribution to this debate is as someone who, for the past five years, has served—to quote the noble Lord, Lord Holme—as one of the "thinly disguised" consultants. Or was it thinly disguised peers? Most of my family would probably agree with the latter. Five years ago today, I entered what was, to me, an alien world of hierarchies, some of them hard to fathom. I met civil servants involved in policy creation, a group involved in policy advice and, well down the totem pole, a larger group involved with policy implementation. It was there, among the untouchables, that I found my natural niche.

What followed has been without doubt the most satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable period of my working life. I have met and worked with remarkable and entirely committed people. For the most part, the people whom I have met in public service could give a real lesson in commitment and decency to the vast majority of the people that I met over 30 years in the private sector.

I work across departments, urging coherence and timeliness to a group of evermore receptive colleagues. I do not recognise for one moment the scenarios painted in the wake of the Jo Moore shambles. I have dealt with remarkable people, who displayed remarkable civility and a remarkable sense of what is best for this country. I am very proud to have worked with them.

I agree also with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, when he urges us to stop demonising political advisers. It may sell newspapers but does not serve the objectives of good or effective government.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, I do not know whether any Civil Service Act would apply also to the Diplomatic Service, which relies on an entirely separate Order in Council. My own experience as head of the Diplomatic Service for five years was that the relationship between the small handful of special advisers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the career public servants who staff that office and overseas posts was not only unproblematic but that they worked extremely closely together as members of a team. I understand that happy situation still applies, some 11 years later.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for intervening, but in the brief time available I want to deploy some of the arguments for ensuring that the Diplomatic Service continues to operate as a highly effective and professional branch of the public service—and that it receives the necessary resources to cope with the wide and increasing variety of diplomatic, political and commercial challenges that faces it around the world.

I remind the House of the regular support and advice that our 226 overseas posts provide to government and business, by lobbying—often through personal contacts that would not be easily accessible from occasional visits or by long-distance communications; by professional advice that draws on commercial and political expertise, and a good knowledge of the people involved locally at top decision-making levels; and by underpinning the Government's foreign policy work overseas, which has strengthened Britain's reputation abroad and helps to create a climate that promotes the United Kingdom's political, strategic and commercial interests.

I commend this Government for maintaining, as their predecessors have done, a global foreign policy. But an ambitious foreign policy agenda requires adequate resources. I hope, therefore, that the forthcoming spending review will be generous in allotting extra funds for the Diplomatic Service to enable my successors in King Charles Street to retain an effective, and truly global, service.

The three Secretaries of State whom I served as Permanent Under-Secretary—two of whom are Members of this House—will recall the constant necessity to have contingency plans ready for post closures, in case of the need for financial retrenchment. If the Foreign Office had been forced in the last spending review to close any posts, it is easy to imagine that the axe might well have fallen on some in Central Asia, with serious subsequent consequences for our influence and effective diplomacy after the events of 11th September.

I still believe, as strongly as I ever have, that we possess in the Diplomatic Service a uniquely effective tool to promote our interests world-wide. It is also remarkably cost effective. The Foreign Office budget for this year is no more than 0.09 per cent of GDP. I should point out that 87 of our overseas posts have no more than four UK-based staff, and 21 have only one. Even if one includes expenditure on the British Council and on the BBC World Service, the total budget of £1.2 billion is roughly equivalent to the budget of Birmingham City Council.

Even a small amount of money spent now on conflict pre-emption will save much larger sums required later on conflict prevention. Adequate funding for the service is important for British industry and, indeed, for Britain's wider interests, including the consular protection and advice that the service can provide for the 56 million, or so, of our compatriots who now travel overseas each year.

I make no apology for using this debate as an opportunity to remind your Lordships of the vital contribution that the professionalism of this small branch of the public service makes towards global stability. I do not believe that an Act is required for the Diplomatic Service, but I urge the Government to ensure that it continues to receive the resources that it needs.

4.42 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I shall not follow the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, in his argument about the Diplomatic Service, although my two years as a special adviser in the Foreign Office left me with nothing but admiration for that service and the task that it performs. Similarly, I shall not spend an over-long time congratulating my noble friend Lord Holme on initiating this debate. Indeed, the quality of the debate is congratulation enough. However, when the Minister responds, I hope that he will promise a much longer debate on the subject, and further consultation with the expertise that exists in this House. Although I understand the conventions of the House—as I am sure is the case with the noble Baroness—stamping on, and cutting short, the First Civil Service Commissioner when she was trying to give noble Lords some information earlier reminded me a little of the Labour Party conference giving Dennis Healey four minutes to explain his policy towards the IMF.

When the Labour Government came to power in 1997, it is perhaps worth remembering that the big question was whether the Civil Service was capable of adapting to new masters after 18 years of one-party rule. Most observers have concluded that the service passed that test superbly—something for which the noble Lord, Lord Butler, deserves great credit. In addition to the fears of politicisation, there were concerns that what has been called "the public service ethos" had been weakened by the various initiatives of out-sourcing, privatisation, and market testing that had been undertaken during the Thatcher era.

The latter was one of the aspects that we considered in the Select Committee of this House, chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn, of which I was a member and which reported in 1998. It is worth repeating our conclusion: The evidence we received testified to the high standards of efficiency, integrity, impartiality and intellectual rigour which continue to characterise the Civil Service". In 1997, this Government inherited a Civil Service, which, although reduced in number, retained both the ethos of public service and a capacity to serve the government of the day. Yet, after five years of Labour Government, there are both criticisms and concerns about the Civil Service and its future direction Which make this debate timely. As the Guardian pointed out in an article headlined "Labour's wear and tear on the Whitehall machine" on 2nd March 2002: It should have been a marriage made in heaven. Instead the honeymoon lasted barely months. Long before the Stephen Flyers affair the applause had stopped; now the relationship has become seriously dysfunctional". It is no use No. 10 Downing Street pretending that there have not been media briefings expressing dissatisfaction at the inability of career civil servants to carry through radical reforms. It is equally pointless to deny that there have not been complaints that political appointees have tried to bully public servants into actions of a political nature.

Of course, there are other factors at work. In his recent, much-publicised, speech on the state of our public service, the outgoing Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, pointed out that today's public servants have to operate in a society less deferential, more service demanding than in earlier generations. It also operates with a far more intrusive media. That is why I cannot agree with the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong, Lord Donoughue, Lord Burns, Lord Marlesford and Lord Powell, who said that a Civil Service Act was not needed.

Just as the City can no longer be governed by an unwritten code that "my word is my bond", or Parliament assume that we are all "honourable" or "noble" and, therefore, in no need of codes of conduct or declarations of interest, so the Civil Service and its values need to be protected and sustained by statutory underpinning and clear codes of conduct for both career civil servants and political appointees.

It is true to say that what had not been anticipated in 1997 was the influx into government, as part of the intake of political advisers, of a new breed of communications experts honed in a much more aggressive "get your retaliation in first" style of media relations. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, observed, there were—and are—cultural tensions between career civil servants trained to disseminate information and political activists trained to promote partisan political propaganda Those tensions need to be acknowledged and addressed in codes and legislation. For it is in that grey area between government information and party political propaganda that most problems have arisen.

I believe that there is a broad level of public support for the concept that the Northcote-Trevelyan principles, which have served this country well, should be the bed-rock on which our 21st-century Civil Service is built. I am not sure that there is a need for a statutory limit on the number of special advisers and other outside appointments, as long as other reforms are in place and there is full transparency about what call, and cannot, be done, with the process being kept under regular parliamentary scrutiny.

The interview given by Sir Andrew Turnbull in today's edition of The Times is both a significant and timely contribution to our debate, although I hope that it is not his last on the matter. His comment: We have lived without [a Civil Service Act] for 150 years", as a justification for further delay, sounds to me more like Sir Humphrey than "the mandarin as meritocratic manager" that The Times dubs him. Having listened to today's debate, I believe that this is an idea whose time has come.

Likewise, when Sir Andrew says in the interview that worries about, cronyism, the wrong people getting in, people with no merit or claim", relate to "the battles of yesteryear", I believe that that seriously underestimates the concerns that the Northcote-Trevelyan principles are being undermined by what The Times describes as, the clash between the West Wing style of new Labour and the Yes, Prime Minister ethos of the Whitehall establishment". As I said, I served on the Slynn committee, and I believe that some of its recommendations bear revisiting. It specified a call for a mechanism by which civil servants could, in the public interest, report breaches in the provisions of any Act. It said that a Civil Service Act should include a requirement for an annual report to Parliament. I certainly endorse the call made by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for pre-legislative scrutiny of any such Act. It also said that Parliament's views on any prospective significant changes should be taken by the Government.

Today, the Guardian has an article assessing five years of Labour rule. It quotes an anonymous Labour insider as saying: If there was a mistake we made it was in not showing how much we value those who work in public services". The question which I believe this debate raises is: have those lessons been learnt? Can we now embark on a reform of public services which is built on trust and respect for our public servants? And can we bring Parliament fully into that process of reform, which sees freedom of information as part of the fabric of a modern Civil Service and not as a damage-limitation exercise? I believe that the Government have the opportunity to obtain a genuine all-party consensus on a reform of our Civil Service. In Sir Andrew Turnbull's phrase today, it would give us a Civil Service of, professional management, professional people and professional tools", but one which I believe and submit should still be on those old Northcote-Trevelyan principles of merit and political neutrality.

4.51 p.m.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for the extraordinary timeliness of his debate and also for providing in his introduction an overview of a situation which the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, referred to as a matter of public concern and urgency, and which the noble Lord, Lord Butler, called "dangerous". The noble Lord, Lord Holme, has brought together some of the most distinguished public servants in the land in a clarifying debate which, I believe, could not have occurred anywhere but in your Lordships' House, and that is a great tribute to it.

It seems that the Government have achieved a modern miracle: an all-party consensus on a controversial constitutional issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Holme, and many other noble Lords on all sides of the House said, statutory protection is now needed for the Civil Service, codifying best practice and laying down ground rules, rights and duties, and so on.

I believe that that consensus has arisen because critics see three problems. The first, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, concerns publicity or, if one prefers, vanity. Let us consider for a moment the incoming Minister. He is an omniscient being. He has seen the new Jerusalem—a vision of staggering novelty, if only people were sufficiently advanced to grasp it. He needs an advocate or a messenger—someone who can spread the news of his glory far and wide. Instead, what does he find? The classical bureaucracy, where the ideal official, according to Max Weber, conducts his office in, a spirit of formalistic impersonality, without hatred or passion, and hence without affection or enthusiasm". That is not what the Minister requires at all. Enter the special adviser, who provides a magnifying glass so that onlookers can better observe the scale of the Minister's achievement.

Thus it is that half of all the 81 special advisers are now directly involved in communication work and a government press release is issued every four minutes. But let us contrast that approach to publicity with the Civil Service tradition of confidentiality. If the Civil Service had a logo, it would be a light under a bushel. Its rule of thumb is: why say one word when none will do? Therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, the stage is set for drama in the cultural clash over publicity.

But that first problem is minor compared with the second, which strikes at the heart of the vital constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility. Most certainly, there are far greater experts than me in the Chamber today, but I am told that the position is quite clear on this. A civil servant's duty is to his Minister. He carries out ministerial instructions and the Minister is answerable in public—that is, here in Parliament—for decisions made in his name. Furthermore, I gather that all decisions made by civil servants, other than those that could be construed as misconduct, are constitutionally expected to be defended by Ministers on behalf of officials who cannot answer publicly for themselves.

But what if officials were themselves perceived as having power? What if they actually did have power? Then, of course, a procedure would have to be put in place so that they became answerable in another place and in your Lordships' House. That, of course, is precisely the problem created by those famous Orders in Council for the two officials in Number 10. Those orders gave authority and, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, and my noble friend Lord Campbell said, as did the Public Administration Committee in another place, authority should be followed by accountability to Parliament and its Select Committees.

That brings me to the third problem, before which, I have to say, the first and second problems which I described pale into insignificance. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, described it as the "demi-monde"; that is, the world of units, task forces, tsars, and so on. Many of them are peopled by those who know or are friends of politicians or, even worse, by those who are involved in raising funds for politicians.

In order to address this most sensitive of questions, perhaps your Lordships would forgive a moment of comparative history. As many people say, this Government seem to have moved us closer to a US system. To capture the genius of the US Government, scholars usually turn to the formal clauses of the US's constitution—its separation of powers, its federal system, its Bill of rights and so on.

But, curiously, the US constitution is almost silent about the type of personnel issues which we have been discussing today. Therefore, for example, when John Adams arrived as President, he showed open preference for those of his own political leanings. Jefferson sought to replace federalists with his own partisans. When Andrew Jackson took office in 1829, he found federal offices occupied by political opponents. Therefore, in his first annual message to Congress, he recommended time-limiting official appointments. His concept was simple. He said, "To the victor the spoils". That was the so-called "spoils system", which regarded government office as the peculiar property of a successful political party to be used for its own advantage.

That system caused many problems down the years, and the issue was brought to a head in America early in the first Eisenhower Administration when, by executive order, the President created "Schedule C" and transferred to it all positions of, a confidential or policy-determining character". Many career officials with long and honourable records left federal service in America the next day.

The President justified his action, saying that the posts vacated should be filled by people who sympathised with his policies and were called upon to defend them. But, to critics, the move was reminiscent of the patronage and spoils system of old.

Today, the harshest critics say that we have arrived at, or are getting closer to, such a patronage system in Britain. I shall not go as far as that today but only because of my genuine sympathy for the occupants of Number 10 on whom descends a remorseless, 24-hour, round the clock, seven-day-a-week pressure from the media from the first day that they arrive in office. For them, it is war.

I also have great sympathy for them because it is clear from this debate that the difficulties arise not from the behaviour of particular individuals but from the uniquely unwritten nature of our constitution. There is no fundamental legal document to which officials and advisers can refer which contains a statement of their organisation and their responsibilities.

As many noble Lords have said, things have gone too far in the wrong direction. I would say, although I do not know whether the Minister will agree, that the present arrangements are not good for Ministers because they begin to look too clever by half; they are not good for the country either. As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said, it adds to cynicism about our institutions.

I hope that the Minister will say why he considers that this rare consensus of all the parties has been achieved on the need for change. I am afraid that so much damage has been done to confidence that we now need legislation to solve the problem.

5 p.m.

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for initiating this important debate. Like other noble Lords, I have been impressed by the breadth of experience and the weight of authority deployed in this debate. Clearly, too many points have been raised for me to do justice to them all at the Dispatch Box, but I shall certainly respond by letter as appropriate. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Holme, immediately on one of his central concerns regarding this Government's intentions. The Labour Party's manifesto of last year stated: Our Civil Service is world renowned for its independence. Labour is committed to maintaining the political impartiality of the Civil Service". I assure noble Lords that this Government are totally committed to maintaining a non-political, permanent Civil Service.

Much of the theme running through today's discussion is consistent with the aims and objectives of the modernising and reforming programme that is already in our Civil Service. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, I did not detect an overwhelming consensus in the House. Rather like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I heard caution expressed by noble Lords, such as the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey, Lord Powell and Lord Marlesford and even the noble Lord, Lord Howell. I also heard direct opposition to the idea of a simple Act being expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue, Lord Burns and Lord Armstrong. Of course, there may have been a weight in favour of legislation, but it is clear to me that this important debate should continue.

Like many noble Lords I welcome the contribution made by Sir Andrew Turnbull who said this morning that he wanted to see greater movement in and out of the Civil Service. I believe that that will benefit not only the Civil Service but also the private and wider public sectors and the individuals inside the Civil Service. Like the noble Lord, Lord Powell, I appreciated the emphasis that Sir Andrew appeared to place on the need for greater accountability and incentive.

We have heard wise, if conflicting, counsel on the need for legislation. As has been said many times, the debate is timely. It is an important contribution to a debate that is already under way on the future of the Civil Service. I remind noble Lords of how much work is being done in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, implied in his thoughtful contribution, as he reviewed the history of this debate, that there had been a space that now is increasingly filled by committees that are busy with analysis and recommendations on greater accountability.

The process is being taken forward, for example, by the inquiry currently being conducted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the roles of special advisers and other civil servants. The Government welcome the committee's consultation paper that has just been issued as a positive contribution to the debate about the future of the Civil Service. The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee also continues to take an active role in contributing to the debate and Members of this House continue to take an active interest in these issues. Their views will help to inform the way forward.

Sir Richard Wilson set out his thoughts in a speech in March, as referred to by a number of noble Lords, and today Sir Andrew Turnbull, his successor, has set out his views. We have heard from the First Civil Service Commissioner, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. The noble Baroness and the other commissioners are playing a major role in influencing the debate and the Government are grateful to them for that. I should not overlook the role of the Civil Service trade unions. They are also participating in this wide-ranging debate.

An important discussion is already under way. As we move towards the next stages, we want to consider all the views carefully. In the meantime, the existence of a clear published framework for Civil Service activity in the form of a Civil Service code, the Civil Service management code and other key guidance documents, set out clearly for Parliament and the public the framework inside which the Civil Service works.

The Government believe that the existing framework of rules and safeguards works well and continues to be rigorously applied. As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, some central, important issues were addressed in the report of the Select Committee of this House. I emphasise that in January 1998 the House of Lords Select Committee on Public Service, chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley, concluded: The evidence we have received has shown that the current Civil Service has coped in the highest traditions of the Civil Service with the change of Government which occurred in May 1997. We have also received much evidence testifying to the continuing high standards of efficiency, integrity, impartiality and intellectual rigour which characterise the Civil Service. We pay tribute to the Civil Service for maintaining these qualities so well". I believe that they are being maintained well today.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life visited issues relating to the Civil Service in both its first and sixth reports and I commend those reports to the House. That committee is currently considering the issue of legislation for the Civil Service as part of its inquiry, "Defining the Boundaries within the Executive: Ministers, special advisers and the permanent Civil Service". The committee asks: How could a Civil Service Act help define the boundaries between Ministers, special advisers and permanent civil servants? Therefore, we are in the middle of an interesting and constructive debate. The Government will take the committee's conclusions and recommendations into account in determining the way forward.

Noble Lords would not expect me to be able to give a detailed timetable of moves towards deciding a timetable for legislation. I stress that there is no crisis. Sir Andrew Turnbull is right. We have managed pretty well for 150 years and I have no doubt that we shall continue to manage well in the absence of a crisis.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. In his eloquent overview of the discussion taking place, so far he has omitted to mention when the Government will publish the discussion paper or issues paper to which they have repeatedly committed themselves and which we were told was imminent. That would focus the discussion. Although I take on board his constitutional strictures that he will not tell us the date of the publication of a Bill, presumably he can tell the House when the issues paper is to be published.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, today's debate will help to formulate government thinking on this important issue, as will other debates and inquiries that are taking place. As is self-evident today, we are in the process of handing over from one Cabinet Secretary to another. The context in which Sir Andrew has placed this debate is surely the sensible historical context. There is no crisis. It is clear from the contributions that have been made today how deep, complex and important are the issues. Therefore, I counsel noble Lords to follow me in my argument that we can debate these issues in a number of forms to our mutual advantage and we can come up with recommendations through those discussions that will help to take the whole matter forward. I assure the House that the comments made today will be carefully considered when approaching the next stage of the process.

I turn to the question of the special advisers. We would not put my noble friend Lord Puttnam in that category, though his advice has always been special given the depth of his commercial experience. I am sure we were all moved by the deeply-felt tribute that he paid to Civil Service integrity. The noble Lord, Lord Wright, commented on the professionalism of his former civil servants, though I take it that any legislation that might emerge would affect only the Home Civil Service and would not cover that area. But if that was special pleading, it was of a very elegant and persuasive nature.

I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that we must stop demonising the special advisers. My noble friend Lord Lipsey is right in talking about a very "febrile" atmosphere recently. When I look behind me and see the worldly face of my noble friend Lord Donoughue, I realise it is a debate and demonisation extending over 30 years. My noble friend handled it very well back in his professional capacity and put it in the right context for us today.

Civil Service advisers clearly cause concern that this is leading to a politicisation of the Civil Service. From my ministerial experience in three jobs, that has not been my impression. Much more influential in this debate has been the impression given by noble Lords with far greater experience of the Civil Service who appear to give some support to the view that special advisers are not new. That was recognised in the Wicks committee's Issues and Questions paper. They have always been a source of controversy. I noted wryly the other day that Sir John Nott, in his ministerial recollections, was saying that there had been terrible problems with a certain special adviser—Bernard Ingham—and with his boss who seemed to be obsessed with "spin". I had a powerful sense of déjä vu on reading that.

What noble Lords have said today echoes in large part the sixth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which said, We believe that special advisers have a valuable role to play, precisely because they are free to act and advise in a way that a politically impartial civil servant cannot". We have heard concern expressed about the number of special advisers there are. When in opposition we made no secret of the fact that we would have a strong centre to provide political focus and drive to the work of this Administration. That is what we have tried to do since 1997. But, again for perspective, let us remember the arithmetic. We are talking about 81 special advisers inside a Senior Civil Service of 3,500. We are firmly committed to maintaining a nonpolitical role for the Civil Service.

The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, asks for greater clarity in the respective roles of special advisers and civil servants. That is one of the issues we can put on the agenda for this extensive debate today. But we have been open about the numbers, the costs of special advisers and their duties and responsibilities. It was this Government who published for the first time ever a Model Contract for Special Advisers and a code of conduct for them. The contract and the code of conduct are explicit and public about the role of special advisers, a transparency that was not available under previous administrations. I make no party political point here. It was acknowledged in the third report of the Public Administration Select Committee which stated, For the first time ever a specific code for special advisers has been drawn up; it now applies to all Whitehall advisers … The Committee welcomes the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers as a clear statement of the role of advisers and a helpful strengthening of the protection provided to the neutrality of civil servants". If the noble Baroness or other noble Lords believe that there are contradictions that have been overlooked, let us address them in the coming debate.

We have heard remarkably few anxieties expressed today in relation to the politicisation of the permanent Civil Service, no doubt again a testimony to the experience of the many noble Lords who have contributed. But the appointment of special advisers recognises that there is inevitably a political dimension to a Minister's work. By clearly distinguishing political advice and support from that provided by the official machine, we are ensuring that the key principles of an impartial Civil Service are upheld. Sir Richard Wilson recently, in evidence to the Neill committee, said that he did not think that a Senior Civil Service of 3,500 people was in danger of being swamped by special advisers. That is not what is happening. He did not see a "creeping politicisation".

Clearly, special advisers have an important role to play and it must be complementary to the work of the permanent Civil Service. I am delighted to see that Jonathan 13aume of the First Division Association, again in evidence to Neill, echoed that by saying that his members say that, a good Special Adviser is well worth having in any department. It is also fair to say that this government has used its Special Advisers in a much more up-front way. A good Special Adviser", as many noble Lords have said, is an asset in a department, both to the Minister and the Civil Service". The noble Lord, Lord Holme, was concerned about whistle-blowing and appeals mechanisms. Well established processes are already in place. Grievance procedures are set out in the Civil Service code. They provide for an independent line of appeal to the independent Civil Service commissioners. In addition, the code of conduct for special advisers provides a mechanism for civil servants to complain to the head of the Home Civil Service or to the First Civil Service Commissioner about the activities of a special adviser. The Public Interest Disclosure Act, which the Government introduced, also applies to civil servants, including special advisers.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, asked about the training of Ministers in many of these obscure mechanisms. I have no doubt that that could be improved. But we have an effective centre for management and policy studies which, he will be pleased to hear, I attend regularly—as do many of my colleagues—for tutorials in the art of better government.

The question of the two appointments was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. He has asked me previously and I confirm again that two civil servants have been appointed under the Civil Service Order with executive powers: Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. The noble Lord asked whether the number would remain at two. As another noble Lord said, the order put in place an ability for three to be appointed. So far as I am aware, there are no plans to appoint a third and the number will therefore remain at two. I trust the noble Lord will accept that we have no ardent plans for the politicisation of the Civil Service in that direction.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. In the code of conduct for special advisers which he mentioned, there is a very important statement that they should not be responsible for the line management of permanent civil servants, including their recruitment and matters covered by their contract of employment. So that was already in the code.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I believe that section 3.3 of the code gives the three posts in question executive powers over civil servants. That is a difference between Powell and Campbell at present and the other special advisers.

Conscious of the time, let me just say that there are other ways to bring in outsiders to try and enhance the Civil Service. They can be hired as permanent civil servants under the 12-month rule. There is a debate on how that process might be improved. Let that, too, be on our agenda.

A question was asked about the politicisation of the Civil Service through the involvement of Alastair Campbell with the COI. The chief executive of the COI remains fully accountable to Cabinet Office Ministers for the work of the COI. COI Ministers are accountable to Parliament. Individual departments remain responsible for individual advertising and publicity campaigns following a recommendation of the quinquennial review of the COI. The chief executive now has an additional role as a government chief adviser on market and communications and information campaigns. She reports to the director of communications at No. 10.

On the question of money, in real terms the spend on the COI—which in my experience is almost wholly benign—is about equal to what it was in the mid-1980s.

To conclude, the Government welcome the comments made today as a comprehensive, thoughtful and positive contribution to the debate about the future of the Civil Service. In particular, we welcome cross-party support for the key principles underpinning the role of the Civil Service and for our modernisation and reform programme. A wide-ranging debate is under way in a number of areas to which we have made an important contribution today.

We shall reflect on the contributions made by noble Lords and take them into account in the next stage of the process.

5.21 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, for his reply. As I gave him notice of my question about the Central Office of Information and the dramatic increase in expenditure before the last election, perhaps he will write to me with whatever explanation the Government can find for that level of expenditure—not over time but in that immediate pre-election period.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. As the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Saatchi, have said, it has been an extraordinarily rich debate because of the experience and perspectives of so many noble Lords. I am extremely grateful to all those who took part. I kept a rough score, just to help the Minister. Of those who expressed a view, it was roughly three to one in favour of a Civil Service Act. But of course that is not the point. The point is that the Government promised a Civil Service Act in their manifesto.

I was slightly disappointed that the Minister could not even tell us when the Government's issue paper that is to precede the Act will be published. If I may say so, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, his little passage dealing with that matter was worthy of Sir Humphrey. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.