HL Deb 02 June 2003 vol 648 cc1039-41
Lord Sheldon

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Following the publication of the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life Defining the Boundaries within the Executive: Ministers, Special Advisers and the permanent Civil Service, whether they intend to introduce legislation to cover the Civil Service and special advisers.

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

My Lords, the Government greatly appreciate the work carried out by Sir Nigel Wicks and the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its report Defining the Boundaries within the Executive published in April. As I made clear in my Answer to a related Question on 29th April, the Government are giving careful consideration to the committee's report and will respond in due course.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can he say when we will get a Civil Service Act? Are we going to get it in this Session or even in the next? Is he aware that some special advisers have been bringing pressure to bear on civil servants which has limited their impartiality? That impartiality lies at the root of the Civil Service operation, as emphasised by the Fulton committee on the Civil Service and repeated many times since. Does my noble friend accept the recommendation of the Wicks committee that it is not right for special advisers to be temporary civil servants? They need to be defined as a category of government servant distinct from the Civil Service.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, we await the imminent release of the issues and questions document from the Public Administration Select Committee which has been promised. We also await the review being conducted by Robert Phillis and his group, which is a radical and free-standing review into the organisation of the Government's information services. We are also committed to replying to Sir Nigel Wicks, whose report arrived less than two months ago. So there are a number of inquiries and reviews still in progress. The Government look forward to their decisions being informed by them.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the Minister recall the debate in the House on this subject, initiated by me, in which there was general agreement that legislation was needed to define the status and functions of special advisers'? The report repeats that point.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords. I do not resile from any commitment to Civil Service legislation. However, I am responsible for the Better Regulation Task Force, an independent body which constantly insists that departments should look for alternatives to legislation, such as codes or guidance. Many of the suggestions put forward by noble Lords and others might be dealt with through other forms of legislation, including codes of conduct for special advisers or ceilings on the number of special advisers which could be dealt with through amendments to Orders in Council.

Baroness Goudie

My Lords, has my noble friend read the report of the interview given by Sir Andrew Turnbull in the Financial Times on 14th May in which he said that the Civil Service is now achieving better results than in 1997? Does he agree with Sir Andrew that Whitehall can push ahead with improvements only if it creates an effective working partnership with other parts of the public and private sectors?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, in my two years at the Cabinet Office I have certainly been very impressed by the commitment to reform of, first, Sir Richard Wilson, and now Sir Andrew Turnbull. There is no doubt that the Civil Service is engaged in a thorough process of reform. I am not suggesting that that process started in 1997—it has been in train for many years now—but it is designed to uphold the impartiality, integrity and honesty to which my noble friend alluded in his opening Question.

Lord Neill of Bladen

My Lords, the Minister referred to Sir Nigel Wicks, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I was his predecessor. We made a recommendation in 2000 that there should be a Civil Service Act, to which the Government replied: The Government remains committed to the introduction of Civil Service legislation … No Government is, however, able to commit itself firmly to a detailed timetable in respect of the future legislative programme".

That was in July 2000. How long will this commitment not be fulfilled?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, those with the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, will not be surprised by the ministerial answer that we cannot anticipate what might appear in a forthcoming legislative programme. Nor will he be surprised to hear that governments have changing priorities which press down on every Session of Parliament. If changes can be taken forward outside of primary legislation, I recommend, as a matter of good practice, that the Government should adopt that approach, informed of course by the reviews and reports that we have in hand.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it will come as no surprise to many of us that the Government are developing new priorities so far as concerns a Civil Service Act? As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, pointed out, the Government's pledge is more than six years old and has been contained in several reports already, including the report of the committee of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn, into the public service, on which I served in 1997. In these dying days of his role as Minister, is the noble Lord content to rest on committee inquiry after committee inquiry, or will he not say now that it would be better to have a draft Civil Service Bill, which could be published and debated, on which he could join us from the radical Back Benches, as soon as possible, to campaign for its implementation?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I certainly hope that this is the last time I have to reply to questions on the future of the Civil Service. However, we have a very active Public Administration Select Committee, under the very able chairmanship of Tony Wright, which has promised to give us guidance on this issue. I understand it will be publishing a report within the next day or two although I cannot anticipate the contents. In response to an earlier request by the Select Committee we set up the review under Bob Phillis which we hope will be reporting in the autumn on reform of the Government's information services and on the role of special advisers in relation to that.

We have put a great deal of work in train. Given the longevity of this great debate on the nature of the British Civil Service, I ask the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to wait a little longer. From the Back Benches, I shall be very happy perhaps to nod approvingly at what he says.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, the Minister's opening words that the Government were considering the report and would in due course reply are hardly original. They make us all feel very comfortable with the exceedingly familiar. However, would it not be possible to describe such inertia in slightly different words?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I found it easier in my previous profession as a journalist to be more ambitious with language than one is allowed to be as a Minister. My original Answer was not meant to be entirely soporific. I wanted to point out that we were considering a report which had been 18 months in the making and which we received less than two months ago. To repeat what I said: we shall give it very serious consideration. It is a very full piece of work and will sit alongside the other work being carried out by Bob Phillis and by the Public Administration Select Committee.

Back to