HL Deb 07 July 2003 vol 651 cc4-7

2.46 p.m.

Lord Sheldon asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the role of the Civil Service in advising them on their recent decisions on constitutional changes.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Civil Service played a full part in advising the Government on the recent announcement of proposals for constitutional change, consistent with the requirements set out in the ministerial code and the Civil Service code.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, has my noble and learned friend seen the evidence given by three former Permanent Secretaries to the Cabinet to the ably chaired Public Administration Committee in another place that they would have expected to give advice on major machinery of government matters? With regard to the recent changes, can he say whether the advice given by leading civil servants was inadequate, particularly with regard to the amount of time required to carry out their investigation? Was the advice mistaken, and was inadequate attention paid to that advice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, no, in my experience the advice of senior civil servants has never been inadequate. I say that without any sense of overt or covert irony. It is for civil servants to give advice, as set out in the ministerial and Civil Service codes. Ministers are obliged to pay careful attention to that advice but, at the end of the day, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said in the title of his book, Ministers decide.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, in the light of that question, the House will be aware that there is great concern in the House, particularly over the way in which the change in the role of the Lord Chancellor was handled. Can the noble and learned Lord tell us whether the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Secretary to the Cabinet were consulted? Does he recognise that, at this time when apologies are very fashionable, this House perhaps deserves some apology?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness was not here on the occasions when I expressed regret and apology. I am not sure that we can endlessly revisit the question of apology. On the first available occasion I said that I regretted the discourtesy, if your Lordships felt disapproving, and I apologised for it. I do not think that I can apologise more than once. I am sure that is good for the soul, but it does not seem to work for me.

It is wrong and invidious to specify any individual civil servant who might have given advice. Ministers had regard to the ministerial code and they came to a judgment. Some of your Lordships believe that the judgment was wrong, and that is your Lordships' prerogative.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, I believe that the noble and learned Lord said on two occasions that civil servants were consulted about the announcements. Were they consulted before the decisions were taken?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yes.

Lord Morris of Aberavon

My Lords, was advice tendered that it needed legislation to deal with the office of the Lord Chancellor and that it would take at least a year for that to take place?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was not privy to any particular advice about legislation or a legislative timetable, but there is no doubt that it was well appreciated that some degree of legislative change would be required—not least because, as my noble and learned friend points out by necessary implication, some of the Lord Chancellor's functions are statutory and could therefore only be changed either by Order in Council or by statute.

Lord Brittan of Spennithorne

My Lords, one might come to the simple conclusion that, whoever is consulted or not consulted, when major changes in policy are mixed up with the personalities involved in a reshuffle, a government will end with egg on their face.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord has experience of that particular scenario, but I would not want to intrude unnecessarily into private grief. The fact is that I have yet to hear any dissent from the policy announcements; namely, an independent supreme court and an independent judicial appointments commission. Those are the policy aspects. I accept that it is good summer sport to complain about presentation, but I urge your Lordships to go to the substance and not stay flicking about the surface

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, when something goes wrong so badly as requires the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House to apologise, does he think it is worth looking at the decision-making process which led up to the announcement? Am I alone in having slightly lost the plot in terms of what the nature of the relationship is between civil servants, Ministers, special advisers, special special advisers and all the many bodies in the Cabinet Office—the Prime Minister's Reform Strategy Group, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit etcetera? I think that the Prime Minister recently said that he understood that it was possible to have too many targets. Does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House think that it is also possible to have too many cooks in No. 10?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, said that he had lost the plot. I hope that is not true; otherwise, it would mean that Saatchi was not working.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that not even his skills in presentation—and we all know how considerable they are—are likely to allay in anything except the very long term the deep unease that this episode has caused?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I hope that it is not simply presentation but I recognise that there is deep unease about it. That, I am sure, will pass. What we need to focus on I respectfully suggest, consonant with what this House normally tries to do, is to see what the policy changes are and whether we approve of them or not. I gently repeat to your Lordships that I have heard no one suggest that we should not have an independent supreme court or that we should not have an independent judicial appointments commission. Those are extremely important constitutional changes and they constitute a devolution of power from an executive where they probably ought not to have been.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is an office holder of this House, will any legislation affecting his position and role be started in this House?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot possibly say that. Indeed, it would be presumptuous of me to try to pre-empt the conclusions of the Select Committee which was set up only a few days ago. We ought to pay careful attention to any such recommendations that it may bring forward.