HL Deb 17 September 2003 vol 652 cc906-10

3.8 p.m.

Lord McNally

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will announce the name of the senior civil servant who will take responsibility for the non-political aspects of government information and communications strategy following the departure of Mr Alastair Campbell.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, on 3rd September the Prime Minister published the interim report of the independent Government Communications Review Group. The report makes recommendations about the organisation of government communications at the centre.

The House will be pleased to hear that the Government accept the group's recommendations in full. These include the appointment of a new permanent secretary, government communications, based in the Cabinet Office, and the appointment of a permanent civil servant as the Prime Minister's senior official spokesman who will he the deputy to the new permanent secretary.

There will be an open competition for the post of permanent secretary, government communications. The intention is to get this process under way shortly.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Lord President agree that it is very important that senior civil servants have the confidence to say, "No, Prime Minister", as well as, "Yes, Prime Minister"? For that, it is equally important that selection is on merit and on the basis of political neutrality. I take it that his remarks give us those assurances. Would the new post also be strengthened by a Civil Service Act, which would guarantee that senior civil servants had the capacity to give unbiased advice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the points made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, are extremely important and well founded. It is important that senior civil servants should maintain their independence, and perceived and actual objectivity. The permanent secretary will be a permanent civil servant. She or he will be selected by an open competition supervised by a panel chaired by the first Civil Service Commissioner. I hope that that reassures, not only the noble Lord, but your Lordships generally.

On the question of the Civil Service Act, I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and my noble friend Lord Sheldon have adverted to this on a number of occasions. I hope that what I am about to say finds favour with your Lordships. The Government commit themselves to publishing a draft Bill for consultation on a Civil Service Act once the Public Administration Select Committee's proposals for a Civil Service Act have been published.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree that this would be a particularly good time for the Government to demonstrate their credentials for openness and transparency in their dealings with civil servants? Why does he think that the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life would describe the Government's response to his committee's recent report as a, seriously missed opportunity to enhance public trust in the processes of government"?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, with great respect, I dissent from that conclusion. The Government will have an independent ethics adviser. I repeat the point about our commitment to a draft Bill for consultation for a Civil Service Act, once the Select Committee's proposals have been published. We are proposing a new section to the code of conduct for special advisers, and we are further agreeing that, in future, the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner will be made following consultation with the leaders of the main Opposition parties. Anyone who had a spark of objectivity or, indeed, generosity would accept that those are significant steps forward.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, all of that sounds marvellous, but why is the Prime Minister still insisting on using Orders in Council to give political appointees the power to direct civil servants?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord said, "All of that sounds marvellous"; I am sure that it sounded equally marvellous when he was a distinguished member of the late Cabinet. Openness in public life is, in itself, a virtue. It also contributes to the accountability of government.

All the steps that I have put forward ought to meet with the unanimous approval of the House. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has pressed us on this for a long time, as has my noble friend Lord Sheldon, and we are now delivering. Just occasionally, a spirit of calm objectivity in receiving the proposals might be welcome, if surprising.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it is all very well to have a spirit of great cordiality, trust and love, but will the Minister please answer the question?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I welcome the cordiality: I do not think that I invited love—the noble Baroness seems to be making an inadvertent gesture, and I am sure that the television cameras will have focused on it. If they have not, I recommend that they do and that it be replayed on many appropriate prominent occasions.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sheldon is absent on parliamentary business in Frankfurt, but I am sure that, if he were here, he would be as delighted as I am with the replies that my noble and learned friend gave. For the first time, I am able to compliment my noble and learned friend completely, and I do not see how anybody could disagree with what the Government propose. Even the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, must accept that it was a thoroughly objective statement, as my noble friend Lord Sheldon would agree.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, normally, I am terrified when my noble friend Lord Barnett offers to be helpful. On this occasion, I believe him to be 100 per cent correct.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that the measures herald the end of the culture of spin and the return of the Government to a pristine, lily-white condition?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, all the governments in my memory have sought to present their achievements—or lack of them, in some cases—in the most favourable light. There is nothing new about that, as the longest-serving Minister in the Welsh Office in living memory can well remember.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord help me with a point of detail? In the new arrangements. what will be done with the Strategic Communications Unit? Who will end up running it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the SCU will continue to work, and the special advisers there will work to Mr David Hill.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and I pursued the matter because we thought that the previous arrangement was flawed. We accept what the noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council has said today as a recognition that the previous arrangements were flawed.

There is, however, still some clearing-up to do. In a Written Answer to be published today to my Question about whether Mr Alastair Campbell's views on the BBC's coverage of the Iraq war was government policy, the noble and learned Lord said: the BBC was responsible for some of the best journalism during the conflict in Iraq. However, as is well documented, the Government were critical of some aspects of their coverage". That is a long way from what Alastair Campbell said on Channel 4, which was that the BBC had an anti-war agenda. Can l take it that the Written Answer is a withdrawal of that accusation by the Government?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

No, my Lords. I repeat: the BBC was responsible, in the view of the Government, for some of the best journalism during the conflict in Iraq. We ought not to forget, when there are criticisms of journalists—print, television or sound—that journalists discharge an extremely important public duty and public service, often at serious damage to their own life, as we know.

On the other hand, as is well documented, the Government were critical of some aspects of the BBC's coverage, as, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, used to be critical, on occasion, of some aspects of the BBC's coverage when his party was in power. I hope that we never have a situation in this country in which there is a perfect identity of interest between government and the free press.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, did I hear the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House say that nobody with a spark of objectivity could disagree with the Government's approach? The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life disagrees with the Government's approach. Is the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House saying that Sir Nigel Wicks does not have a spark of objectivity? If so, what is the point of his committee?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I did not say that. Plainly, the art of selective quotation is not limited to former members of the Bar. I said that generosity and objectivity would, I respectfully suggested, require your Lordships to welcome the proposals. I repeat that. and I am grateful for the generous support of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. He has pressed the Government and, frequently, he has been met with answers that he thought were rather less than focused. The measures to which I have adverted today are a reasoned, proportionate response to the points made by my noble friends Lord Sheldon and Lord Barnett and the noble Lord, Lord McNally.

Lord Wilson of Dinton

My Lords, I welcome the Government's continued commitment to a Bill on the Civil Service, but I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord agrees that, if a competition is held to fill a post on the basis of merit, the role of the Minister is either to accept the person who wins the competition or to run the competition again.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am personally grateful to have that question from the noble Lord. When I was a baby Minister at the Home Office, he was my first permanent secretary. His teaching, instructions and stratagems have guided me since.

It will be chaired by the First Civil Service Commissioner; that is as it should be. The process will start in the autumn. The noble Lord is right: when the recommendation is made, the appointment wall he made by the Prime Minister, with the agreement of the relevant Minister, on the recommendation of the head of the Home Civil Service. Those are significant advances on what we have, and we should welcome them in a spirit of objectivity and generosity, as the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, said.

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