HL Deb 06 October 2003 vol 653 cc13-5

3.18 p.m.

Lord Sheldon

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they propose to reinforce the impartiality of the Civil Service.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government's response to the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, published on 11th September, sets out a range of proposals that will both uphold the impartiality of the Civil Service and strengthen its capacity to deliver. Those include a commitment to publish a draft Civil Service Bill for consultation.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but will he comment on the Wicks committee's concern about certain special advisers who hold meetings with civil servants to discuss the advice that they intend to put to Ministers? That points to the risk that Ministers will not receive objective, independent and impartial advice from the Civil Service. Does my noble friend have misgivings about Ministers having the selection decision in the recruitment of civil servants which, as the Wicks committee says, can lead to the politicisation of the Civil Service? Will the Civil Service Bill deal with those issues, and when will it be published?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord touched on a number of points which I shall try to deal with in turn. In our view it is perfectly proper for special advisers to meet with officials to discuss advice being prepared for Ministers. The amendment to the code of conduct makes that absolutely clear. It states: Special advisers must ensure, that while they may comment on advice being prepared for Ministers by officials, they do not suppress or supplant that advice". We do not think that Wicks is justified in making the comment to which the noble Lord referred as the Government state clearly that they plan to consult the commissioners on whether distinctions over appointments and employment continue to be justified. We are at a stage of consultation, not implementation. It is important to take careful account of what the Civil Service commissioners have to say. The views of your Lordships' House will also be taken into account. As to the publication of a Civil Service Bill, we are committed to listening and there will be a period of consultation. It is expected that that will take some time. The committee in another place will give the matter careful consideration. We await the publication of the draft Bill. It is right that we take time to consult on a measure that is so critical in terms of guaranteeing impartiality and that we take our time in preparing and considering a draft Bill for consultation.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the noble Lord recall the previous debate in this House on the Civil Service initiated by me in which it was pointed out that a Civil Service Bill is now needed to define the role and status of special advisers, in number about 80, few of whom would claim to be impartial?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have obviously taken careful account of what has been said about special advisers. The Wicks report was important in that regard. Of course we shall take those matters into account and I have no doubt that when we consult on the contents of a draft Bill that is one of the issues which will be covered. It is right that we provide consultation so that a wide range of views can be heard.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is it not a fact that successive administrations have lost public confidence in their handling of the Civil Service through the insistence on civil servants towing a party line and demanding that civil servants be "one of us"? As regards the plethora of advice and recommendations from various committees, rather than the Government making decisions would it not be better to ask a Royal Commission to bring together the various pieces of advice so that we can establish a Civil Service for the 21st century that retains the best traditions of impartiality and merit that have been the hallmark of the Civil Service for more than 130 years?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government respect the impartiality and integrity of advice given to them by civil servants. It is worth putting on record that we have taken measures to ensure that the advice given either by special advisers or by civil servants is proper and transparent in the way in which it is set out. It is also worth saying that this Government were the first to introduce a model contract covering employment terms and a code of conduct for special advisers. Our record is strong on transparency and clarity in this area. We are doing all that we possibly can to ensure that the integrity and impartiality with which our Civil Service is rightly credited—it has great merit in that regard—are respected in future.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, did it help the impartiality of the Civil Service when No. 10 Downing Street wrote to the head of the intelligence committee asking him to investigate the phone records of civil servants in the Cabinet Office?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord tries to make a clever point which is wide of the Question we are discussing. The Question is about the role of special advisers.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, speaking as a member of the Wicks committee, is the noble Lord aware that a matter of particular concern was the Government's response to our original report in which the Government said that special advisers should have power to pass on Ministers' instructions to civil servants? Are there not already well established routes for passing on Ministers' instructions through civil servants, and if special advisers were given that power, would that not come very close to giving them power to give orders to civil servants?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we do not see the matter that way. It is clear that special advisers have an important role to fulfil in conveying the views of Ministers and in giving a steer. One would expect that to be the case. However, I think that falls far short of what the noble Lord suggested; namely, that that somehow acts as an instruction or an executive instruction. It helps the political process and the process of ensuring that the advice is available in the right place at the right time if special advisers can ensure that civil servants understand the politics of any given situation. Looking back at my experience, it seems to me entirely sensible—civil servants welcomed that fact—for special advisers to help civil servants understand the politics of a tricky and sometimes awkward situation in which they might find themselves.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, in order to set this in context, will the noble Lord say how many special advisers there are now compared with when the Government came to power?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have a figure in my head but I am not exactly sure. I would rather write to the noble Lord to give him a precise answer.