§ [Relevant documents: Eighth Report from the Public Administration Committee, Session 2001–02, HC 303, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 5756.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Woolas.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker
We have an interesting debate this afternoon on a report from the Public Administration Committee entitled "These Unfortunate Events".
§ Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
That was a kind, generous and warm welcome, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Happily, we are here to discuss the report that the Public Administration Committee produced last year entitled "'These Unfortunate Events': Lessons of Recent Events at the former DTLR", with which it would be convenient to take—I am learning Speaker speak—the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life entitled "Defining the Boundaries within the Executive: Ministers, Special Advisers and the permanent Civil Service", which was published only last month and deals with some of the same issues. As this is the first opportunity that the House has had to discuss that report, it is useful to take it as part of our frame of reference this afternoon.
We called our report "These Unfortunate Events", because we could not resist the way in which these tumultuous events were described, in classic civil service-speak in a statement agreed by a certain Martin Sixsmith and the DTLR on 7 May 2002, as:These unfortunate events, for which no blame is being apportioned".If we want quintessential civil service-speak, that is it. It means, "No one is responsible for anything. It was all terribly unfortunate." We wondered if we could do better than that by examining what had happened.
It may seem unusual, indeed unnecessary, to dissect events in a particular Department. We are not, as hon. Members know, a departmental Committee. However, it seemed to us that here was a series of events that raised general issues about the conduct of Government, and it was therefore worth giving some attention to and reporting to the House on. In particular, we wanted to draw lessons for Government from the events, rather than to dissect them. That is why our report's title also refers to "Lessons of Recent Events".
The events took place between September 2001 and May 2002, and their fallout was extraordinary. Briefly, they involved the loss of a special adviser, the eventual loss of a Secretary of State, the transfer of a permanent secretary, the disputed resignation of a director of 286WH communications, and the eventual abolition of the Department. That was a most extraordinary sequence of events to have given rise to such consequences.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
I remind the hon. Gentleman that two directors of communications ended up being removed, or moved, not one.
§ Tony Wright
Indeed. If we had a fuller list, that would be on it. An absolutely full list would probably have other entries, too.
§ Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)
Is it not also true that we gave the report its current title because the alternative civil service quote, although colourful, was unprintable? Ultimately, however, it was correct.
§ Tony Wright
Yes, we managed to delete all the asterisks from our report in the interests of parliamentary propriety, although we had some most interesting exchanges.
We are clearly talking about events of substantial moment, which had important consequences. It was important to consider those events in detail, and it is worth making two points about them. First, they involved a particular conjunction of circumstances. They related to the character of certain individuals at a certain moment in time, and that is often the case with events that cause difficulties. It so happened that there were no difficulties at all in other parts of the Department. Indeed, the other special adviser worked extremely constructively and positively with the civil service and with everyone else, and there were no problems on that front.
At the same time, however, a certain sequence of events often highlights wider issues. As we considered what had happened, it occurred to us that there were endemic problems with relationships, structures and boundaries, and that it was worth teasing them out and talking about them. I shall identify just some of those problems in my few introductory remarks. I do not want to go through the events themselves, simply to identify some of the leading lessons to which it is worth paying attention. The Committee gave them some attention, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life did so in turn.
The points that I shall raise are, in a sense, all demands for clarification. The first relates to the need to clarify the lines of accountability. There was a difficulty in the case of the special adviser because it was not possible to address the issue that arose. It was not clear exactly who was responsible for doing so or for enforcing accountability. The special adviser was widely believed to be behaving in ways in which special advisers should not behave, but the permanent secretary's attempt to take action ran up against the fact that special advisers are creatures of Ministers and therefore enjoy a degree of protection that other civil servants do not. That problem was irresolvable and was at the heart of all that happened. It caused people to do and say the things that we record in our report.
§ Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
Although there were procedures, is it not true that it was people's perceptions of those procedures that prevented them 287WH from taking the actions that they should have taken? The problem was not necessarily some of the procedures, but the assumptions that were made.
§ Tony Wright
That is true only in part, and I shall say more about the need for better procedures in a moment.
There is a problem of accountability. Special advisers are a species of civil servant—they are temporary civil servants—which means that, formally, they come under the civil service disciplinary procedures. The permanent secretary has the central role in that respect, but the problem was that the permanent secretary in this case was unable to deal with the special adviser in the way that he would have dealt with a normal civil servant. For as long as the person in question enjoyed ministerial protection, it was not possible to treat that civil servant in the way that another civil servant would have been treated. That is why it is crucial to get the lines of accountability right.
The accountability for special advisers rests directly with the appointing Minister. The Wicks committee said that quite clearly and we must say it again. There can be no derogation from that at all. Special advisers are the creatures of Ministers. They are brought into Government on that basis and they live or die with their Ministers. Although we have not gone into the business of apportioning blame, when Ms Moore, the special adviser in question, sent her notorious e-mail in the wake of 11 September saying that it would be a good time to bury bad news, there is no question but that she should have ceased to work in Government at that moment. Had a Minister let that thought cross their computer screen—unthinkable, I know—that Minister would have been dead in the water. It would be impossible politically for that Minister to survive, and so it should be. The person who is the creature of a Minister must live or die by the same standards. Had the matter been attended to at that point, many of the subsequent difficulties would not have arisen.
§ Kevin Brennan
This point goes to the heart of the matter. Might it not create a difficulty if the Government implemented the recommendation in our report that special advisers should be advertised for in the way that other civil servants are? Would special advisers then still be the creatures of Ministers in the way that my hon. Friend suggests and, therefore, ultimately hireable and fireable by Ministers?
§ Tony Wright
That is an interesting observation. I accept that doing what my hon. Friend describes would probably muddy the relationship somewhat. The Government rejected the recommendation to which he referred and the Wicks committee did not make it, so I accept that there would be difficulties if a post were not a straight ministerial appointment. However, as I understand the matter, that is precisely the procedure that has been adopted in Wales. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to make that point. No doubt he will tell us more about that. I was interested to see that in Wales the First Minister advertised for special advisers and the process took place openly. I suspect that there are ways of combining open advertisements and ministerial appointees, although I accept that there might be difficulties.
288WH The first lesson is the need for absolute clarity about the lines of accountability. Who is responsible for each actor in the situation? We discovered that there was even some confusion on that question with regard to the Prime Minister's role. The line of accountability must go from Minister through to Prime Minister, who is responsible for the system overall. Ministers are responsible for their appointees, but if a problem is not resolvable at that level, the Prime Minister must sort it out. It is therefore crucial that the line of accountability should be clear.
The second lesson to do with clarification is the need to clarify the role and position of special advisers more generally, not least in relation to media handling, which was at the heart of the case in question. I shall not go over the difficulties in relation to the different job descriptions of special advisers. Under the original Order in Council, special advisers are there only to advise Ministers. Under their code, special advisers have now been given responsibilities that include media work, so there are confusions that must be sorted out.
I am attracted to the recommendation, which was previously made by the Committee or me personally, that we should cease to treat special advisers as a special category of civil servants, squeezing them into a box in which they do not naturally sit. Although we all have good knockabout fun with the special adviser issue, they are an established part of the way in which the Government work. We can argue about how many there should be and the role of Parliament in approving them, but the fact is that they are an integral part of the Government and will be under any party. As the Wicks committee has now said, it is probably more sensible and mature to treat them as a distinct category with their own rules. That will mean that we know who they are, what they can do and, more importantly, what they cannot do. That would be a major advance.
§ Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
The hon. Gentleman has touched on a point that he rightly said is also referred to in the Wicks committee report. I do not want to pre-empt anything that he will say later, but does he still believe that we should have a civil service Act? If we were to have such an Act, does he agree with the Wicks committee that it should specify what special advisers cannot do?
§ Tony Wright
Yes. I shall come to that point in a moment. We should have such an Act, which should specify what special advisers cannot do. I thought that he was going to ask whether it should specify something else, but as he did not, I do not have to worry about that.
§ Mr. Foster
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I want to ask him one question. I accept his and the Wicks committee's proposals on special advisers, but does he agree that it is somewhat disappointing that neither his Committee nor the Wicks committee report has made clear proposals for the precise lines of accountability for a new category of Government servant, not least for issues of appointment and dismissal?
§ Tony Wright
I do not agree with that. There has been a serious attempt to define and set out clearly those lines of responsibility. We could argue in detail about the particular recommendations, but my general point 289WH concerns the need for the special advisers to have their own category with their own rules approved by Parliament. That will mean that we can see who they are, who is accountable for their behaviour and what happens when things go wrong. That is how we should approach the situation.
The Government have already been doing work on taking special advisers seriously, and I was pleased to see that they picked up on some of our work. They accept now that when special advisers start working in government, they learn how it works and its proprieties. I was struck that when the new Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, gave evidence, he said that special advisersjust turn up on the coat-tails of a minister and that is it, they either sink or swim.That is not a satisfactory way of introducing people into the Government, so I am delighted that the Government have done some induction work with special advisers. That is part of treating them as an established part of the Government.
§ Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)
There is a mechanism within the civil service for secondment from business into the civil service. It is a tried and trusted regime of indoctrinating people into the civil service for even just a short time. I do not believe that it has been used for special advisers.
§ Tony Wright
That is a good point. We have understood the need to ensure that people coming into the civil service on short-term contracts understand some of the bedrock principles of the civil service, but we have not taken it on board for special advisers. It was part of the difficulty of not quite knowing what this species of creature was. Now that we at least think we know what they are and have got some of the special adviser angst out of our system, we might work out in a rather more grown-up way exactly where they sit, what they do and how we induct them into the Government.
§ Brian White
Is not one of the other problems that Oppositions use special advisers to develop their policy? Short money should facilitate the use of special advisers so that after a change of Government their use is not the culture shock that it has been in the past.
§ Tony Wright
My hon. Friend invites me to go further than I naturally want to go. In our previous reports we explored different funding mechanisms, Short money and so on. We discussed whether both Government and shadow Cabinet advice should come from the same pot. That probably takes us slightly further than we need to go and I feel all kinds of bad habits coming on. I discovered last week, for example, that the Opposition had some £15 million in Short money since 1997. That is public subsidy on a vast scale. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend wanted me to go down this road. There is the argument that where public money is spent, we should demand delivery. The public may ask whether we should consider special measures here, or perhaps ask a neighbouring party or a beacon party to come in. Hon. Members can see where I am going. I will pull back at once.
Those are two kinds of clarifications that are based on the report. I have two more and then I am done. The third picks up a point that my hon. Friend raised with 290WH me and relates to the role of the civil service, commissioners and appeal mechanisms more generally. One of the oddities that struck me as I listened to the evidence in this case was that civil service commissioners are concerned with propriety issues in the public service, particularly on the appointments side, and yet were mere onlookers when a series of events convulsed the Department. They had no locus and no way of getting involved. That cannot be sensible. When people think that boundary lines are being lost and proprieties are being trampled upon there must be somewhere that they can go to get it investigated properly. That should not be the nuclear option. There should be someone who can keep a general eye on how the civil service is working.
There are other fundamental reasons for doing that, which go beyond the immediate events that we are talking about. They relate to whether the civil service should be a creature of the Executive or whether it should be rooted in Parliament. That is a fundamental constitutional point. I have views on that. For the moment we need to ensure that we have the kind of mechanisms in place that a statutory civil service commission would give us. That is one reason why we need to move rapidly to getting a civil service Bill. For a Committee that has endlessly recommended progress on that front, it is a source of distress that the Government have not yet felt able to live up to their promises and protestations. Such a Bill has been promised for at least five years, probably slightly longer. Cabinet Secretaries have come before us and said that it would be this month, next month, this autumn or next autumn, but that has not happened, and there comes a point at which the delay is simply no longer acceptable.
Reading the evidence to the Wicks committee, I was struck by a nice piece of evidence, which I will share. Mr. Pat McFadden, who is one of the Prime Minister's advisers in No. 10.
§ Tony Wright
He is both a former adviser and a present adviser; we are both right. He gave evidence on the issue of a civil service Bill. Interestingly, he said:Issues have champions in government and this is an unwritten part of a political process. But if an issue has a champion in the Cabinet it is going to have a much higher chance of proceeding. In fact one of the things that is often not said about the Civil Service Act is that one of the reasons it has not happened is not because anyone is particularly against it, but because up until now it has lacked a champion.That is a shrewd political observation. Mr. McFadden went on to say:When the Queen's speech is written there are not many members of the Cabinet saying, 'Hang on, I think you should drop that Education Bill and we should have a Civil Service Act.'
That evidence gets close to one reason why we do not have such an Act. I do not think that that is because the Government particularly dislike the prospect of such an Act. No doubt they would like to have one already, but they are not sufficiently motivated. There is no champion to make it happen. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he will be that champion and try to get the process finally moving. I hope that he will announce a firm timetable.
291WH The Wicks committee, having heard such evidence, says that it isconcerned that the pressures of the day-to-day business of government are being allowed to take precedence over a measured look at the fundamental issues which we describe in this report.That is a serious danger. These underlying issues will never be top of the political agenda. When there is a crisis, a series of events such as those that we describe in the report, issues such as civil service legislation suddenly shoot up the political agenda for about a fortnight, and then they disappear again. Unless the Government have a sustained commitment to ensuring that such legislation is introduced, that will be the recurrent pattern. That is why I hope that the Minister can today announce something rather more definite.
My final area of clarification concerns Government communications. That area, the media handling area, was at the heart of the events that we are discussing. It was not accidental or unanticipated that that would be the area in which relationships would be most sorely tested and where some of the boundary lines would be most exposed. There is no question but that media handling has assumed an importance inside Government that it never previously needed to have.
Two approaches came together. One was the approach of an incoming Government who had been very professional in their media management in opposition, and wanted, quite properly, to bring those skills into government. They believed that the civil service machine was ill equipped to do the professional media job that they wanted done. As a result, the Government started, as in the case that we are discussing, to use their own people to do the jobs that they felt they could not rely on the professionals to do. They even sought to replace certain professionals with others whom they felt were better equipped to do those jobs. That approach met that which said that people were trampling over all the old proprieties, that it was extremely dangerous and that it would have to be watched and hauled in. One could see that battle being fought out in the civil war that took place in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
Unless we want endlessly to go over those events, it would be more sensible to take stock of the media needs of a modern Government. We should accept that the media environment is quite different now from what it was a generation ago. We should accept that we live in a 24-hours news environment. That voracious beast has to be fed every second of the day, and that requires skills that the communications people inside Government have not traditionally expected to call upon. Indeed, many of them are not communications experts. The Committee was right to recommend that the Government should put in hand a thoroughgoing review, by an outsider to give it credibility and expertise, of the Government Information and Communication Service.
The Committee was delighted that the Government felt able to accept that recommendation. Indeed, I go further in my praise. Recommendations are often accepted in a token way. Reviews are agreed to because they sound nice and cuddly; there is no problem because 292WH something is being done. In this case, I was pleased not only that the Government accepted the idea of a review, but that they wanted a serious external review.
The supporting work that went into preparing for that review was conspicuously serious. The Government appointed someone of note from outside, who has assembled an impressive team. I have met the chairman, Bob Phillis, who is seriously engaged in the matter; he will report in a few months. That is entirely to be welcomed. In so far as such a miserable sequence of events can have a happy outcome, that is certainly a happy one. I hope that it will put the communications side of government on a new footing. I suspect that we may need more communication specialists in government as a result. That will doubtless be met by headlines saying "Yet more spin doctors", but we shall have to brace ourselves for that if we are to do the job.
Those clarifications are the main lessons to be learned from the report. I end by quoting from the last paragraph of the report, which goes to the heart of the issue. It states:The issue of 'spin' has dogged the life of this Government. There is a terrible predictability about the fact that the events discussed here arose in the areas of news management, and involved a special adviser employed for this purpose. Yet this is part of a wider picture in which sections of the media engage in systematic spin and news management of their own. The result of this mutual spinning war is immensely damaging to public life and to trust in the political process. The remedy is a simple one. Governments should play it straight, and the media should play it fair.That is probably the greatest lesson of all.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
The House is grateful to the hon. Member for the presentation of his Committee's report. Uniquely, I shall not go to the other side of the Chamber for the next speaker. I call the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), who was not a member of the Committee when the report was produced, but is now.
§ Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)
I am flattered to be called to speak now; I expected to be called last. I am a new member of the Committee, but I have some thoughts on the subject, and I hope that my comments will be useful.
I have some early experience of the sort of tensions that arise from the appointment and use of special advisers. About 25 years ago, I was the party chair for my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) in his previous incarnation as the Member for Luton, West, a constituency that covered a similar area to my own. Each day, we met to discuss politics, as one does with one's friends. At that time, he worked as Parliamentary Private Secretary to that fine man, Tony Benn, who employed two special advisers, Francis Cripps and Frances Morell. Every morning, Tony Benn would have an hour or two with his special advisers and my hon. Friend to discuss the politics of the day and to focus his mind on the issues. Those were friends who were employed by the Secretary of State, Tony Benn, not the civil service.
The civil servants could not contain their dislike of the arrangement—to say that they were incandescent is perhaps an exaggeration, but they were very, very upset 293WH about it because they wanted to get to the Minister first in the morning to put his mind right according to their priorities, and I remember the daily battle that went on.
On one occasion, Tony Benn wrote his own White Paper on energy policy, which was unthinkable: civil servants draft White Papers and Ministers approve them. Tony Benn's White Paper came back from his civil servants completely changed, so he changed it back and it was bounced back to him, again completely changed. He called in the permanent secretary and asked him, "Why have you refused to accept my White Paper?", to which the reply was, "Well, Minister, we don't agree with you." Tony Benn said, "I am the Minister. I am responsible democratically to Parliament for the White Paper. It is my policy and I have helped by writing it for you." There were great tensions at that time and the matter went to the Cabinet and to the Prime Minister.
It is of fundamental importance for all politicians, especially at that level, but even for Back-Bench MPs, to have people around them whom they can trust, to bounce ideas off in the morning and to talk to about politics. They want to know that they are getting an honest answer from someone who is loyal to them as a person and as a politician.
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
I recall a radio interview with a permanent secretary, whose name I cannot remember, who said, "I used to go in and bat hard." When asked what happened if that did not work, he said, "I used to bat even harder." Does the hon. Gentleman think that perhaps Tony Benn had that batting image of his civil servants and was one of those people who would never have got anything through because of belligerence?
§ Mr. Hopkins
I have never met anyone in politics smoother, softer and more charming than Tony Benn. The problem is that the civil servants profoundly disagreed with him. Even then he was on the radical wing of the Labour Government and he did not have quite the support among his colleagues and the Prime Minister that he would have liked. He was not hard in an aggressive sense, but undoubtedly his was a mind to reckon with.
It is crucial that Ministers employ friends who are loyal to them and to whom they can speak before they are taken up by civil servants. I am sure that it is not true of my hon. Friend the Minister, but many Ministers are swallowed up by civil servants as soon as they take office. They have never had such an experience before; they happen to be in the right place and are a favourite of the Prime Minister. Suddenly, they have an office of state and must do extremely clever things on subjects about which they know little and they become prisoners of the civil service, although that is not true of Tony Benn and many other Ministers. However, it is important that a Minister should have independent political advice from people who are loyal to them and not to the party or to any other outside organisation. There is a difference between someone who is chosen and appointed by the Minister and someone who is appointed by another organisation, perhaps the party, whichever one is in power.
§ Mr. Collins
I rather agree with some of the hon. Gentleman's arguments. The logical consequence of his 294WH position is that he would agree with the Government's response, as I do, that although many of the Select Committee's recommendations are entirely sensible, the recommendation that special advisers should be appointed as a result of open competition and should not, as now, be the personal appointment of the Minister, is not one of its wiser recommendations.
§ Mr. Hopkins
I obviously speak for myself and I was not a member of the Select Committee. I overwhelmingly endorse the wise words of the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), but I believe that the Minister should have the final choice, even if there is open competition for the appointment. It should not be made by the Prime Minister, the party or any other organisation.
§ Mr. Foster
Might I pursue the line taken by the hon. Gentleman, with whom I entirely agree, as I agree with the Government's response. He suggests that, although the appointment will, rightly, be made by the Minister, he still accepts the notion of open competition. Would that not, as the Government's response points out, create a huge difficulty for an incoming Government in that they would be unable to bring with them those close friends to whom he referred?
§ Mr. Hopkins
I can see the problem. However, in open competition such friends would put their names down and it would probably be openly admitted that they would be likely to be selected by the Minister, but at least others would have a chance. Indeed, a Minister might bring some advisers into office with him whom he did not want, and he might want to choose someone more capable. Whatever the situation, the appointee should be loyal to the Minister, sackable by the Minister and separate from the civil service. That is fundamental. The person should not be controlled by the civil service, the Prime Minister or the party but should be under the total control of the Minister. Without that support, our Ministers would be weaker, less independent and less likely to put forward challenging ideas. That is what we need, and Government are weakened without such input.
§ Tony Wright
I feel responsible; perhaps I am the only one who has ever believed in this so I shall defend it. I have a nagging sense that where public money is spent, there should be some kind of accountability for it. As I have argued today, I understand the need for Ministers to be able to bring in whomever they want. If it is a high-grade policy adviser, that is fine. If it is a comfort blanket, that is fine; Ministers have different needs. However, such people are being paid for out of public money. If they were being paid for differently, the issue would not arise.
As it is public money, there must be a way of reconciling Ministers' very proper ambition to get the people with whom they feel comfortable and who meet their needs with some kind of basic test of merit, so that it can be demonstrated that the person can properly do the job. For example, were it to be suggested that a Ms Moore might be appointed as a special adviser with public funding, it would not be entirely improper to ask some questions about her understanding of 295WH relationships with civil servants. We must be sure that people cross basic boundary lines before public money goes in their direction.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
I used some discretion about the length of that intervention because of the status of the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Hopkins
I understand and broadly accept my hon. Friend's point. However, I draw a simple parallel. As Members of Parliament, we employ our own staff. My staff are loyal to me. I use them daily as my political sounding board. However, if they had to be vetted by the House, the civil service, some commission or even my party, I would not have the trust in them that I do now. They are my people and I know that when I bounce my ideas off them I will get a true answer. They are not loyal to or appointed by anyone else. I happen to have chosen two first-class staff and I hope that every other Member of Parliament will do the same. However, there could be a conflict of loyalties if there were pressure to ensure that such staff were publicly accountable because they were publicly paid. We are given an office cost allowance. The Minister might be given the same. It is important that things are transparent and open. I want government to be much more open and far less secretive.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Secretary of State for Energy, Tony Benn, they went to dinner at Oxford with a college warden. When he started talking about open government at the dinner table, the warden turned to Tony Benn and said, "Minister, do you realise that your PPS is mad," because the idea of open government was unthinkable. It is thinkable, and I want government to be much more open.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I hope that I have not spoken for too long.
§ Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)
The Public Administration Committee was one of the first Select Committees that I took part in when I first entered Parliament. It was a fascinating Committee, because it tied in with so many other things that Select Committees examined long before most of us, including the hon. Members for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) were members of it.
What has emerged is an amalgamation of other things that we have considered; namely, a civil service Bill, the ministerial code and the accountability of the Prime Minister. I agree with a civil service Bill, although I know that certain Government Members do not. A civil service Bill is vital, because we have reached the stage where the future accountability of a very sophisticated group of people who run many things in this country can be misconstrued, abused and misused.
Our report says that senior civil servants leaked information on behalf of or against Ministers, and against two special advisers, Ms Moore and Mr. Sixsmith. A civil service Bill would clarify the position. It is a great disappointment that we do not have one. 296WH The hon. Member for Cannock Chase has been diligent in trying to get such a Bill out of the Government, and I hope that the Minister will announce one today. Unless we have one, civil service propriety and its ability to operate will be left increasingly in doubt. Surely in the 21st century, when we have the sophistication, we must be able to produce a Bill that can cover the role of special advisers.
§ Brian White
The hon. Gentleman suggests that several things are changing in the real world and that they have an impact on the civil service. Surely, if a civil service Bill were to be introduced now, it would entrench the status quo and could not react to those changes in the real world.
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
The hon. Gentleman may say that, but I profoundly disagree. We are a sophisticated society. There are many ways of building in safeguards, but there are also many ways of updating things. A civil service Bill would add the safeguards that we need. There has been an explosion in the number of special advisers from, I believe, 37 to 81 or 82.
When the Select Committee took evidence, Sir Richard Wilson, the former head of the civil service, was asked:Do you see yourself then as a manager of these people?He replied:The Prime Minister has appointed a small number of unpaid advisers from outside who are on a panel and they are offering a day or two a week.We asked who was in charge of them, and Sir Richard said:This is something which has existed under all governments … They are not employees of the organisation and therefore I am not their manager.Surely we must bring the civil service under proper control. When the former head of the civil service says, "They are not my responsibility, but …", we are opening up a can of worms and the consequences will be extremely detrimental to us all.
§ Mr. Foster
The hon. Gentleman is the third hon. Member to say that it would be extremely helpful if the Minister told us at the end of the debate that he was going to announce a civil service Bill. Does he agree that it would save a great deal of our time if the Minister was to intervene now and tell us what the Government intend?
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
I rise slowly in hope, but the Minister stays seated and smiles.
The ministerial code is meant to be able to help or cajole Ministers to appear before Parliament or, in this case, Westminster Hall, or to stop them from doing so. That is the natural place for them to be. If a ministerial code and a civil service Bill were dovetailed, statements and announcements could be classified. We all know that announcements were made to the press before being made to House—both before and after the events that we are discussing. If I remember correctly, we had all the problems with paragraph 28, in which we tried and failed to bring those issues together.
The third aspect is the Prime Minister's accountability. Hearsay has it that, back in the mists of time, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and the 297WH Committee would pursue the Prime Minister in every Session. They wanted him to come before the Committee, but he never would. The only Prime Minister who ever came before the Committee was John Major. That is indicative of the stage that we have reached. The Prime Minister almost has to be forced to go before the Liaison Committee. That Committee is marvellous, but it is made up of all the heads, and one cannot get to the nitty-gritty. Despite having listened to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase pursue the Prime Minister on many issues, including the Moore-Sixsmith affair, we have been unable to get to the bones.
Power rests with the Prime Minister; he has responsibility. If the head of the civil service feels that he has no power to intervene in a situation, or if, as in the case before us, his own civil servants are leaking against their Departments and against individual Ministers, the buck stops with the Prime Minister. We can all say that he did not act quickly enough. We are all wise after events—that is human nature. However, the affair went on and on, and the pressure grew and grew. We may now have to consider making the Prime Minister more accountable to the Committee system. Alternatively, he may, as we do, have to produce an end-of-year report. It may have to be much more inclusive in terms of what was going on in the Government. It would not be a written report—I do not think that one was published last year—of where the Government have got to in their cycle.
That brings us back to the erosion of standards in the civil service, which is dealt with on page 22 of the report. It must be totally demoralising for civil servants in any part of the organisation to see the bickering of Ministers and special advisers all the way up to No.10, including people that they do not even know, such as Mike Granatt and Ed Balls. That erodes standards. confidence and morale. That is very clear with regard to permanent secretaries. They are trying to get the message across, but they cannot, because they are the servants of the Cabinet or whatever level of government they work in.
To take a slightly different issue, although the principle is the same, Nigel Crisp came before us to talk about the health service. Members of the Committee had heard about positively frightening things in Bristol. We did not realise that they were going on, and I do not think that people could bring out the issues that they wanted to. If we continue down that line, we shall erode the civil service ethos—another of the issues that we considered—until it is non-existent. If one undermines it at every level, the civil service will never work properly. The mistrust, misunderstandings and potential damage that can be done by Ministers trying to save their own necks can be incalculable. That is what happened in this case. It was a leak for all or a free leak—I do not know what one would call it. Perhaps the motto was "We leak together".
The other aspect that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase mentioned is Government communications. When we first received news of the breakdown of the Cabinet Office and No. 10, it was big. We have had a few similar events since then, and they have got bigger. Every time we get more information from No. 10, it seems to come out almost in waves. Communications from the Government—they are very good at communicating—are becoming farcical. Who does 298WH what to whom? The Committee discovered that the delivery unit had gone to the Treasury, but that the boss had not. He therefore has two offices. The report brings out such inconsistencies. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East shakes his head, but we are reaching the stage where communications are getting out of control, and we see that in the report.
§ Brian White
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the communications service has not yet reacted to the changes that are happening in the media world? That is the fundamental issue that must be addressed—not the points that he is making.
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
That is probably a fair comment, but the problem is that one has to start somewhere. If one has set oneself up to communicate effectively with the media and one fails, one has only oneself to blame. There is a great raft of people who sometimes are not accountable to those to whom they are meant to be accountable. That does not mean that the media have got it wrong and that we cannot communicate with the media. However, the stories coming out on the pagers are perhaps not the stories that we want to put forward.
I was just reading—I had forgotten this—about the wonderful moment when the Deputy Prime Minister was questioned by our Chairman on what he thought of the situation. One could see that he was dying to say, "She should be fired", or sacked, or something ghastly, although it was not his decision. That sums it up. It was a case of everyone passing the buck until it could go no further and the whole affair blew up and fell to bits. If we had proper training for special advisers and members of the civil service, as has been proposed by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, much of that would not happen.
If training can be used for people coming in on secondment, it can and should be used for special advisers. A point was ably made about Tony Benn when he was Secretary of State for Energy. The people involved were friends, but these are not; they are highly qualified people who do not have the use of the facilities because they are not trained to use them. Therefore, they follow what they know best, which in most cases is the party political machine, not the role and the ethos of the civil service. I believe that that is wrong.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that, as a Committee, we should pursue this excellent report. We all know that something similar will happen again. Such events need to be brought out and Committees of the House should be able to pursue them. If we cannot, there will not be a forum in this establishment in which to discuss these issues.
§ Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
I suspect that if these events had been submitted as a script for "Yes, Minister", it would have been rejected as too far fetched. I am no fan of Jo Moore and never was when she was in the Labour party, but she has unfairly become the scapegoat of the episode. It is too easy to ascribe blame to her. The report highlights her role in a fair way and removes some of the unfair reporting that surrounded the events. It needs to be put on the record that she was used as a scapegoat for some of the other people involved in the issues described in the report.
299WH The episode has revealed two interesting aspects. Comment has been made on the need for the civil service to catch up with some of the changes taking place in the real world. It has also revealed an agenda in which Jo Moore became a pawn. The Select Committee has produced a number of reports on the Government communication services in the past few years, and I applaud the Government for setting up the Phillis review.
I sometimes wonder why any Government press releases are picked up by the media, because they are so anodyne and boring. Because they are put in civil service-speak and are so neutral, journalists have to go to someone to find out the story behind the press release. The review should tackle that issue, which in this time of 24/7 media has to be considered. In trying to protect the neutrality of civil servants we create problems. The neutrality of the civil service and its going along at a certain pace may have been OK in the days before 24/7 media, but in today's climate there is a serious issue about how the organisation reacts and feeds the insatiable monster that is the current media.
The days when political campaigning was restricted to the three weeks before a general election are long gone. We have elections every year, and although the civil service may have rules preventing the Government from making major announcements during the three weeks before local, Scottish parliamentary or European elections, political parties have developed permanent campaigning, and the system has not yet adjusted to that. If we allow the Opposition to campaign but restrict the Government's use of the machinery to campaign, that would cause an unfair imbalance. Equally, allowing the governing party unfettered use of the machinery of Government would create another imbalance in the system. As a democracy, we need to work out the boundaries on the use of Government communications. There are real issues with 24-hour media and permanent campaigning by political parties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) described the tension between civil servants and special advisers. The advisers are frustrated by the speed of delivery and are looking at how to move the civil service forward, while the civil servants are trying to get the special advisers to slow down and examine the issues. That tension has not yet been fully thought through, and one problem is that special advisers are seen as temporary civil servants. The move to make special advisers, including Opposition advisers, a separate category and a recognised beast would be a useful step forward.
Another question is whether using a civil servant to give Government views is the right way forward. We have a problem in this country with public distrust of official information, particularly scientific information on issues such as BSE and foot and mouth. A serious question arises from that, which I hope that the Phillis review will consider: how can we give people information that they can trust? The breakdown of trust, which has happened over several years, must be addressed. Information must be honest, reliable and accurate if the public are to have confidence in it.
300WH What is the best way to try to achieve that? To give an example of how the situation has moved on, I doubt whether the information flow that we had in the Falklands war would have been appropriate for the war in Iraq. It is not right for neutral civil servants to put forward Government policy in a political environment, and there is a role for special advisers in that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said, the problem is that the system is not open enough. Improvements are being made but, because the public has no confidence in the machinery, we need to work out how to get the information into the public forum so that we can have a proper public debate. If special advisers were accountable, open and attributable, that would go a long way to improving the situation. Part of the problem is unattributable comments, and if statements were made openly, that would help.
It is important to pay tribute, as the Committee does in its report, to Mike Granatt and his work in trying to reorganize the Government Information and Communication Service. That concerns not only press releases, but the range of Government information services, including advertising and campaigns, for example about benefit take-up and, recently, SARS. All the different aspects are important. The role of Mike Granatt needs to be clarified, but his work should be praised.
We have spoken about the relationship between special advisers and civil servants. Where it works, it delivers results, and it works well in the majority of cases. It is often forgotten that the use of special advisers protects the neutrality of civil servants. It gives journalists and campaign groups the opportunity to get to real political issues, which does not happen by talking to civil servants. Having an open and transparent use for special advisers enhances our democracy.
However, our report shows that real problems arise when the relationship between special advisers and either the media or civil servants breaks down. The key problem is accountability. In this country there is a myth of ministerial accountability—we all trot it out—which says that the Minister is accountable for everything. However, that myth means that individual civil servants and special advisers are not directly accountable for their actions and can hide behind the Minister. As the civil service is modernised, it will be necessary to consider how individuals in the system are held accountable. I do not think that we have fully thought that through.
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
I know that the hon. Gentleman is used to this, but he is making a compelling argument—well, perhaps not—for a civil service Bill.
§ Brian White
I am coming to that.
One thing that came out of the report was the case of a civil servant who quite properly reported her concerns. When she did so the media jumped on the story and said that someone had sent her off to Europe to keep her quiet. However, the facts of the matter were that she had been trying to get that job for a number of months and that it had come through. According to the current rules, that civil servant had done the right thing in reporting her concerns and leaving the matter with her superiors to deal with, so it was totally wrong for there 301WH to be such misunderstanding and for the media to slate her as they did. That civil servant acted properly and came out of the episode with a lot of credit.
However, that case highlighted the real problem. When that civil servant made her complaint she had the option of either ending up with a permanent secretary or going to the civil service commission, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said, was the nuclear option, given the evidence. What looks reasonable on paper does not work in reality. We need a number of processes to deal with the intermediary concerns. I hope that the Minister will address that when he replies.
We have already talked about the fundamental problem that special advisers are pretend civil servants. The case for making them separate categories has been well made. However, what happens if an official and a Minister fall out? The Minister cannot tell the official what to do because the official is employed in the civil service, so their line of accountability is to the permanent secretary and the head of the civil service. The Minister must go to the Secretary of State or to the Prime Minister. The two sides interact only at Prime Minister level. The fact that the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service is one of the problems with our constitution, although I say that with due respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, who does a good job in the Cabinet Office. Given that the Prime Minister is that point of interaction, there should be processes below that, which deal with some of the key issues.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) talked about the growing number of special advisers in No. 10. That key point relates to questions about how strong a centre we want, whether the civil service or special advisers should be at the centre, and what the interaction between the two should be. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase has said, we ought to be grown up enough to have a proper debate about special advisers and to ensure that their role in No. 10 is treated properly. Previous Governments have had policy units, but there are issues to do with how such units operate and what their role is. Part of the problem is that their role is not transparent enough at the moment. Making it so would solve a lot of the problems.
However, Departments have departmental agendas and political agendas. It is important to recognise that although those agendas overlap they are distinct. One agenda goes on irrespective of who the Minister is, while the other is dependent on the political party and the individual whims of Ministers. One only has to see the Secretary of State for a Department change to see that Department's priorities change. We need to recognise, as anyone who has tried to put forward a private Member's Bill will know, that Departments have their own agendas. My problem with the Government is not that they are doing too much reform but that they are not doing enough to address the key issues—trying to tackle vested interests and the blockages in the system.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to recognise that a range of issues needs to be dealt with in relation to the civil service. We are still running a civil service that is based—as the Committee heard in evidence taken this morning—on the East India Company, with one or two tweaks. We should ask ourselves why the civil service is still so hierarchical, why civil servants who are incompetent are allowed to stay in their posts, and why 302WH some of the more innovative management techniques used in the private sector are not applied to the civil service. My fundamental objection to a civil service Act is that it would enshrine the current code in law, and therefore make it harder to introduce the sort of reforms that are needed if we want to see the introduction of innovative schemes in the delivery of public services.
We need a public debate and cross-party consensus on the way forward. If we do not have that debate, and put forward a civil service Act based on the status quo, we will create conditions that will cause more of the problems and tensions that exist at present. I am not opposed to a civil service Act or to a debate about the nature of the civil service, but I am opposed to codifying the civil service and ministerial codes as they are at the moment.
We should be examining cross-departmental working and how the civil service codes work in relation to that and to the devolved Assemblies. Our report also shows that a number of key issues related to Government communications have not been thought through. Such issues need to be addressed before a civil service Bill is introduced.
It may suit the Opposition at the moment to support the codification of the current situation into a civil service Act, but if they were in government again, I suspect that they would be the first to squeal at the restrictions that that would impose.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is important to have a strong centre, and that the way that the civil service operates must be changed. The Departments would then be freed from the silo mentality that they have at the moment, and there would be cross-departmental operations. One of the interesting things that emerged from the report was the way in which the cross-departmental operations worked when the DTLR, No. 10 and the Cabinet Office tried to resolve the issues over the weekend. Some areas worked well and some did not. A lesson must be learned from that interaction if we want a civil service that creates public entrepreneurs and risk-takers.
To be fair to Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull, they recognised that changes were needed, and have taken steps to ensure that they take place. However, I believe that those changes are not occurring rapidly enough, and that the issue of the total separation of policy and implementation is not being addressed quickly enough. The changes are bringing people in at too low a level. In five or 10 years' time the changes will bear fruit, but they are not doing so now.
The real issue—the highlight of the report—is how the civil service manages change, how it deals with a media world that has changed beyond all recognition, and with a situation in which campaigning takes place on single issues rather than along political party lines. In particular, the way in which special advisers deal with single-issue campaigns has not been thought through.
This incident is a wake-up call for us. It highlights serious issues, some of which were addressed by my hon. Friend in his introduction. The report says that there is a lot of work to be done, and that consensus needs to be built on the development of the civil service, the system of special advisers, and the structure of the civil service and its relationship with Parliament, all of which are important. There are lessons for the GICS.
303WH The key point that I hope the Phillis review will address is how we restore trust in information and allow debate between politicians. This may have been a storm in a teacup but it has highlighted the opaque way in which we deliver services in this country. It has highlighted the need for clarity in understanding the different roles of civil servants, special advisers and the relationship between the centre and the Departments. Most of all it has highlighted the inadequacies of the system in dealing with the media. The "Modernising Government" White Paper was a beacon of hope and a road map showing us the way forward. We have done some of the things in that White Paper, but we need to renew our efforts. That fundamental reform at the heart of Government is exactly what is needed, rather than tinkering as we did yesterday.
§ Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)
When the Select Committee on Public Administration was considering the royal prerogative this morning, I said that we did not have an unwritten constitution, but rather one that is written in invisible ink. It only emerges when the heat of the flame is administered to the paper and we begin to see some of the things that exist in our constitution that we would not otherwise see. Perhaps that comment is equally appropriate here in considering our report and what these unfortunate events have revealed about the role of special advisers.
Being a member of the Public Administration Committee can sometimes feel like attending a seminar organised by St. Thomas Aquinas as we discuss how many special advisers can fit on the head of a pin. But that sort of stuff matters. Ultimately, it is about how effectively the Government deliver and not only get their message across, but introduce policies for the benefit of the people. Although it may sometimes seem academic, public administration is of fundamental importance.
I should confess that I once was a special adviser, albeit not in Westminster, but in Cardiff. It was under unusual circumstances. There was a sudden regime change early in 2000 when the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, the current Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life my Right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South & Penarth (Mr. Michael), fell from his post. Rhodri Morgan, my predecessor as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West and a distinguished former Chairman of the Committee, took over as First Minister.
I stumbled upon a room that had previously been occupied by the special advisers to the former First Minister. It seemed to me no different from the sort of experience that people would have had during the Russian revolution, or perhaps in Baghdad when they stumbled upon the offices of the outgoing regime. The special advisers had to leave in such a hurry that they did not even have time to log off their computers. The room was strewn with bits of papers, perhaps in a desperate search for important papers that should not be left behind, even though the regime change took place within the same party. What happened demonstrates the precarious nature of the job of a special adviser. We should remember that these unusual creatures live a pretty precarious existence, entirely dependent on the 304WH political fortunes of their masters. It is a high-pressured role to perform. We should perhaps be more forgiving when we consider their role.
The chair of our Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), referred to that situation in Wales and the decision that was taken by the current First Minister to advertise for special advisers in a way that has been recommended in this report. That was done after I left for my brief period as a special adviser. I never intended to be one, but I filled in for a few months while new special advisers were advertised for and found. Those special advisers were appointed in that way.
I say to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that those appointed included Liberal Democrat special advisers. They were advertised for because, until the fine victory last week by the Labour party in the Welsh Assembly elections, there was a coalition Administration in Cardiff. The Liberal Democrats participated in the process and agreed that special advisers should be appointed by open competition.
§ Mr. Foster
I remind the hon. Gentleman that, on 23 October 2001, he berated me about the number of Liberal Democrat special advisers in the Welsh Assembly.
§ Kevin Brennan
Obviously, a Liberal Democrat never forgets. I did not berate the hon. Gentleman. I just reminded him that there were such creatures as Liberal Democrat special advisers and perhaps fired a shot across his bows in case he was going to pontificate about Labour special advisers and their activities.
As I said, special advisers were advertised for. It was an interesting initiative. Despite supporting the report in full, I remain agnostic about advertising for special advisers for a couple of reasons. The point has been well made that it is important that special advisers, as Ministers' closest advisers, have good and very close relationships with them. Sometimes we have to be realistic and not too precious about these things. Someone may well have won the post in open competition, but it is not really possible for them to be a special adviser for a Minister if they do not get on personally.
§ Brian White
There are categories of special adviser—I am thinking of the drugs tsar, for example—for which not having such a close relationship would work. One problem is that we lump a number of different groups under the term "special adviser".
§ Kevin Brennan
My hon. Friend is right. These creatures evolved out of the special list advisers and became special advisers. Technical expertise was needed in government originally and, as it was not available in the civil service, it was drafted in by this unusual method. These people have become political chiefs of staff almost and spin doctors in the 1980s, 1990s and now the 21st century. That is why the Wicks report and our report are so welcome. We attempt to make sense of that typical British evolution. It simply happened; there was no conscious decision to create this role in government.
We should review the issue of open competition and how special advisers are appointed, but I understand the Government's reluctance to accept that principle at 305WH Westminster. I can also see the difficulty in calling for accountability to the Minister in the hiring and firing of special advisers, which was one of the problems that we encountered in producing the report.
If hon. Members cast their minds back, they will remember the then Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions saying that his special adviser had been disciplined by the permanent secretary in the Department and that it would have been inappropriate for him to interfere in the management of staff. At the same time, the permanent secretary made it clear to us in the Committee that he felt ultimately that his hands were tied in dealing with the special adviser unless the Minister took on the responsibility of dealing with that. The fog surrounding the firing and disciplining of special advisers cannot go on. If we are saying that they can and will be fired by Ministers, it is difficult to say that Ministers should not hire them in the first place. We need to consider that point further and keep the issue under review.
The Select Committee report and the Wicks report found that there should be much greater clarity in the management of special advisers and their role in respect of civil servants. It is a myth that special advisers could have no role in managing or directing civil servants; that is utterly impractical because the special adviser is the equivalent of the embedded journalist in the Iraq war. They are in the system but not part of it. It is impossible for special advisers to do their job unless they can interact effectively in management terms with civil servants. Special advisers must have the closest access to their Minister and civil servants must be able to go to the special advisers knowing that the advisers know the Minister's mind and, without having to bother him, can give the civil servants a direction that they are confident the Minister would support. What is needed is a practical and pragmatic relationship between civil servants and special advisers that is based on the firm principles of probity, common sense and trust. That is what broke down in the case that we are considering.
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
Is there not a danger that one could politicise the civil service if one got the role of special advisers and the relationship with the civil service wrong?
§ Kevin Brennan
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) made the point very well earlier that the opposite is true. There is political activity at the heart of government and it would be wrong if it were carried out by civil servants. If a political issue comes across the desk of civil servants or if they encounter a problem of that kind, they can pass it to a special adviser. That is the point. Civil servants should be able to carry out their functions and protect themselves and the neutrality of the civil service. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is important to be realistic about how modern government works. It is necessary for political activity to be carried out and the civil service should be protected from having to do that.
I describe what happened to me when I was a special adviser as being thrown in at the deep end and being told to swim. I had to remind civil servants that the Minister, in this case the First Minister, did not depend on the patronage of the Prime Minister but on the snake pit of 306WH the Welsh Assembly for his position. Therefore, the cosy circle that the civil servants put around him to protect him would probably bring him down if he were not allowed out a bit more. The special adviser has an important role to play in getting the Minister out and about and protecting him from the cosy, but sometimes deadly, embrace of his civil servants.
I welcome the Government's undertaking on the GICS. The Chairman of the Select Committee is right about the 24-hour media beast and the need for the Government to fill that vacuum. We know what sort of reporting there will be if they do not do so. One of my favourite cartoons, which appeared in the New Yorker—it often has fine political cartoons—shows someone kneeling at the gates of heaven and pleading with St. Peter to let him in, saying, "Those weren't lies, it was just spin." Clearly, there is a line to be drawn between the presentation of Government policy and misleading the public, and it is important that special advisers remain within the boundaries. Nevertheless, there is a role in providing information and the GICS has perhaps not adapted—who has?—to the rapidly growing media outlets and the 24-hour global news media coverage.
One other matter that was not mentioned in our report, but which still concerns me, was central to the episode; that is the use and role of modern technology, particularly the e-mail, in government. In the old days, one could easily follow the dictum of Joseph Kennedy, which was never to write anything down that one would not want to see on the front page of the New York Times. Today, as a result of e-mail, gossip, chat and even bad jokes and office tittle-tattle have become historical documents. Such things now pass between civil servants and special advisers by e-mail in a way that, for previous generations, would be the equivalent of a whisper in the corridor. It is now part of the record, as we see so clearly from the tasteless joke that led to this affair.
The question is how e-mails should be treated, as they are official submissions and part of the historical record. It is an interesting question for historians, but it goes to the heart of the management of the civil service. I have yet to see the guidelines that must have been developed since we wrote our report. They might prevent the odd tasteless remark or bad joke, which most of us make from time to time, turning into a constitutional crisis.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
I was thinking of calling the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), but she has had to leave the Chamber. I call Mr. Don Foster.
§ 4.1 pm
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
I begin by congratulating the Chairman and members of the Committee on an excellent and thought-provoking report. I am delighted that the debate has not yet looked back as to who said what, where, when and to whom in the time described by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), when the tasteless e-mail joke was sent by Jo Moore.
I fear that it was worse than that. Looking back at the record, I note that I described the events of the time as "unbelievable". I said:While the rest of the world looked on in horror at what was happening in America, I find it staggering that someone was able to think along these lines. No wonder people are disillusioned with politics.307WH The wording of a motion debated in the House at the time led me to say that her actions were stupid, horrible and wrong. The important thing is that, even when those events were occurring and I and many others were asked to comment on them, I said to the media that the main issue was not that specific case but thatthe whole culture of spin has been taken to new heights by this Labour Government",and that it had brought politicians and the political process into disrepute and added to voter apathy.
Although I do not agree with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) when he said that Jo Moore was used as a scapegoat, I accept the underlying principle that the issue is far greater than suggested by that incident.
§ Brian White
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Jo Moore was disciplined through the civil service disciplinary code?
§ Mr. Foster
I will come in a moment to the way in which the situation was handled, especially in relation to the disciplinary procedures that led to the opening up of those arrangements. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the Deputy Prime Minister said on a number of occasions that there could be no investigation unless a formal complaint had been made, particularly in relation to the sideways move of Mr. Alun Evans. Although I agree that a procedure was followed—it is referred to in part in the report and the Committee's recommendations—the evidence of how it was handled has led many to question procedures and the lines of accountability for people such as Jo Moore and other special advisers.
However, the incident raised wider issues, as I said at the time. I was delighted that the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), ended his remarks by referring to the last paragraph of its report, paragraph 74, which refers to the development of spin by both the Government and the media and the problems that that has created.
Many recommendations have been made, not only by the Select Committee but in the more recent Wicks committee report. It would be inappropriate to go through all those recommendations, but I should like to comment on some important ones that have been mentioned today. I am delighted with most of the recommendations and with the fact that, in some areas, the Government have responded positively to them, especially in recognising the need for a new, in-depth independent investigation into the role of GICS.
However, I have a continuing problem to which neither report provides a satisfactory solution. It concerns the communication roles of, respectively, the impartial, independent civil servants and a number of special advisers. It came to a head, in relation to the former DTLR, with project Ariel, which was developed by the Government—behind the scenes, it would appear—to deal with the problems of Railtrack and its future. It became increasingly clear that the work was undertaken and the media relations handled by Jo Moore and the other special adviser in the Department. Jo Moore was setting up all the interviews with the 308WH media in respect of the project and she was the main point of contact for them. We witnessed the bypassing of the normal media-handling communications services of the civil service. Nothing that I have seen in the recommendations has made it clear when it is appropriate for special advisers to be mainly in charge of the media and when GICS should be in charge. There is a need for greater clarity in that area.
Another of the recommendations, on which we have touched and which the Select Committee covered, concerns the appointment of special advisers. Let me make it clear to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West that I have no problem with his having been a special adviser. I accept the conclusion of the Wicks committee report that special advisers have an important role to play in government. It was right of the Chairman of the Committee to point out that, in a different guise, the Conservative party has special advisers, paid for out of Government funds. So too—not as many, as there is not so much money to spend on them—do the Liberal Democrats. I hope that we make effective use of our special advisers. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may draw conclusions about the effective or other use of those employed by the Conservatives; that debate is for another day.
The Wicks committee report makes it very clear that there is all-party agreement about the benefits of the use of special advisers in government. It quotes my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), among others, as endorsing the need for special advisers, so I hope that there is no debate about their importance or the valuable role that they can play. However, as I implied in an intervention, I believe that the Committee's recommendation about their appointment is wrong. I accept that there needs to be a degree of public accountability for the advisers, as public money is being used, but advisers should be brought in by Ministers to provide a range of different services that Ministers themselves should be able to define within a clearly defined framework that excludes certain activities.
The question of numbers and funding of special advisers was touched on by the Wicks report but not in the Committee report. I am slightly disappointed that the Wicks committee report concludes that a report should be published each year to say only how many special advisers there are, whom they were appointed by, how much money is being spent and what the percentage increase in the cost of the special advisers should be. If the argument is going to run that they are comparable to the advisory support that the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and others have got—for which there is a cap on funding availability—we should examine imposing a funding cap, within which the Government and ministerial teams may make decisions on how best to use it for their personal advantage.
§ Kevin Brennan
To take the hon. Gentleman back to his earlier point, does he welcome the Government's response? In it, they say that the review of GICS should examinethe roles played by other civil servants and special advisers who have a responsibility for communications. This should clarify the 309WH boundaries between the work that is appropriate to special advisers and work that is not appropriate to them".Does that not cover his point?
§ Mr. Foster
I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking me back. The great advantage of some of the other aspects of the Committee and Wicks committee reports is that, in making recommendations, they give a clear indication of the direction in which the situation is expected to go. My point was not that the Government would not look at that, but that it would have been helpful had the Committee and the Wicks committee both given some thought to the question. There is still a vacuum, so I hope that there will be wide-ranging consultation by the body now set up, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and in the Government's response.
§ Kevin Brennan
As a Committee member, I would accept that criticism, but will the hon. Gentleman give us the wisdom of his views on how that would work?
§ Mr. Foster
No, largely because it is an issue to which I have not given a great deal of thought. It is also probably beyond my pay grade to do so, but it must be addressed.
To finish my second point, we need greater clarity about the funding envelope from which special advisers are paid. As I hinted earlier, we also still need improved clarity, which is now promised, about who is directly responsible for appointment and firing.
§ Mr. Collins
I strongly agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's contribution. However, he is being slightly unfair to the Wicks committee. If he looks at paragraphs 7.48 and 7.49, he will see that the committee is not saying that it does not have a view about whether there should be a limit, but that it is for Parliament to specify one. It is in favour of a limit and has heard no compelling evidence in favour of a further increase in the number of special advisers.
§ Mr. Foster
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record.
Bearing in mind that others want to speak, I want to raise two final points. Several hon. Gentlemen have touched on one of them, but the other one—the recommendation on freedom of information—has hardly been touched on at all. The Select Committee's recommendation is very clear. The Government's response to it, however, was rather churlish. It implied that the Select Committee did not know what it was talking about, that it was clearly unaware that the Government were taking seriously the issue of freedom of information and that it was unaware that instructions had been issued to all Departments to ensure that they got their act together and recognised that the legislation would not be fully implemented for another couple of years or so. The response also implied that all the Departments had already gone about ensuring that all their staff knew how to handle freedom of information requests. If that were true, and given that the prime means of contact with Departments is now through their websites, presumably one could go to each Department's website to find out whether there was a 310WH clear section on freedom of information and on how it would handle freedom of information requests from members of the public and others.
I, too, have appointed some excellent, highly qualified staff whose qualifications and skills I would be proud to put under public scrutiny. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) did not mention—but it is important to place on record—that we must make it clear what salaries we pay our members of staff, because it is public money, and that we must make their contracts of employment clear. My wonderful staff and I spent some time trawling through the departmental websites to check whether the Government's comfortable, cosy confidence that all is well with each of their Departments was justified.
In summary, we concluded that the Home Office website was poor; very little information was available. The Lord Chancellor's Department website had limited information available, as had the Treasury's. I congratulate the Department of Health on its website, where information was available. No information was available on the website of the Department of Trade and Industry. Some information was available on the website of the Department for Education and Skills; it was somewhat limited, but it was there. The same was true of the website for the Ministry of Defence. The Department for Transport website contained no information; we could find no information about the topic anywhere.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister clearly played a key role in all this, but, sadly, its website contained limited information. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website was not too bad. So far as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport website was concerned, however, I could not find a sausage; information was simply not there. There was a little information on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, and on the website of the Department of Work and Pensions. In many cases, however, even when some information was admittedly available on Departments' websites, we had enormous difficulty trying to find it. I therefore find the Government's response to that recommendation especially disappointing.
I want to make it absolutely clear that the Liberal Democrats fundamentally support the Select Committee's recommendation. As the Chairman said, it has made that recommendation for many years, as have the Liberal Democrats. It is important to place on record that, sadly, the Government are holding it up. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase referred in passing to a commitment that had been made, I believe he said five or more years ago, as a result of the joint work done by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party in the run-up to the 1997 general election—the so-called Cook-Maclennan agreement.
On page 69 of the Wicks report, the Select Committee is quoted as saying:Both parties agree that there should be a Civil Service Act to give legal force to the Code which should be tightened up to underline the political neutrality of the Civil Service. It should also be reviewed in relation to other published authorities to clarify lines of Civil Service and ministerial accountability and responsibility.The hon. Member for Luton, North said that it would be wrong to have a civil service Bill because it would merely codify what is currently done. I do not accept 311WH that argument. The purpose of drafting a Bill and taking it through the parliamentary procedure is that it provides an opportunity to consider how we can do things better and the range of changes that are undoubtedly needed.
§ Mr. Hopkins
Will it be a problem that the people drafting the Bill will be civil servants? Will there not need to be an external input?
§ Mr. Foster
The hon. Gentleman told us a story earlier about how Tony Benn did not seem, as he put it, to be very good at knocking things away with his bat and persuading civil servants on what to do. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has greater confidence that his colleagues who are now in the Government will not simply do the bidding of the civil service. Judging by some of the legislation that has come before us over the past few months, one suspects that it was drawn up not by the civil servants I know but by Ministers at senior level having their way against the wishes of the civil service. I suspect that it will be possible, as there will be a fair degree of all-party support, to make serious progress on the matter.
§ Tony Wright
The report produced by our two parties to which the hon. Gentleman referred also contained a commitment to a democratic second Chamber. I omitted to say earlier that the Select Committee on Public Administration is drafting a civil service Bill; in fact, we almost have one. I say that partly to laud our achievements and in the hope that the Minister will not say that, because we are doing that, there is a further reason for not announcing a timetable.
§ Mr. Foster
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman placed those comments on the record. Were we to start going through the list of agreements made in the Cook-Maclennan deal, we could add a number of others that have not yet been delivered by the Government. He is right that it is another issue with which his Committee is dealing, and I wish him good luck in getting the Committee to agree with the line that he takes and that I share.
A number of hon. Members have spoken about why a civil service Act is important. Not only will it codify existing practice, but it will give us an opportunity to look afresh at many of the issues, including the role and position in government of special advisers. When the Minister responds, I, like many others, desperately hope that he will announce at last when that is going to happen. If he does, he will be running counter to some of the signals that we have received over the past 12 months from others in the Government.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase referred to the quote from Pat McFadden who is now back at No. 10 Downing Street. He has been in and out, but is undoubtedly welcomed back by some. The Wicks report also refers to the debate that took place in another place; in particular the contribution of my noble friend Lord Whatsit of Cheltenham—I have forgotten his name—Lord Holme. I apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The trouble is one often knows these people by their first name: I know him as Richard. Trying to remember his official title is difficult.
312WH The contribution of Lord Holme of Cheltenham to that debate was interesting. He said:Last November"—that means 2001, because the debate took place in May last year—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".—[Official Report, House of Lords jy1 May 2002; Vol. 634, c. 691–92.]
We are still waiting. Today might be a golden day in the history of such matters, when at long last we have a Minister with the confidence of his convictions and his party's promises to announce to us the starting date for consultations and the introduction of a much-needed Bill.
§ Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
I should explain that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who usually shadows the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, has been in the Chamber speaking on the Fire Services Bill today, which is why he is not here and I am instead.
From my point of view this is a welcome return to such matters. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has been uncharacteristically generous to the Minister in saying that today's debate is his first chance to put his views, because there was a chance at Cabinet Office questions some months ago to question the Minister on precisely such matters. I got the sense that the Minister is not exactly out of kilter with the rest of the Administration in his reluctance to rush into legislation.
My other point by way of introduction is that, in common with the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) I, too, should declare an interest. Like Back Benchers and Front Benchers in all parts of the House, I have been a special adviser, although that was longer ago than when the hon. Gentleman was—in my case it was about a dozen years ago. I therefore endorse the comments that have been made on the value of having special advisers, although it of course matters how exactly they conduct themselves.
I should like to commend the Committee and its Chair not only on the fact that it produced the report but on the fact that it was remarkably topical document when it was published. The Committee took evidence during February and March last year. It then produced a document in July, which was, I think, less than two months after the affair reached it denouement with the departure of the former Secretary of State and the break-up of the former Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It is therefore a matter of some regret that it has taken the best part of a year for us to have this debate. However, again, that is not the responsibility of the Select Committee. It took the Government some seven months to produce a three-page reply to the Committee's recommendations, although I doubt that it genuinely took the Government 313WH that long. It was then a further three months between the appearance of that response and this debate. I therefore hope that the Minister will explain why the Government took so long to produce a response, particularly as that response, as some hon. Members said, was in one or two respects a little lacking.
Despite those points of difference, however, it is generally agreed in all parts of the House that special advisers have value not simply because they provide personal support to Ministers and an alternative, committed perspective that can offset the necessarily neutral political advice from civil servants, but precisely because they permit the bulk of civil servants to be wholly politically independent. Without special advisers it would be enormously difficult to maintain neutrality, particularly for the ranks of the senior civil service.
I remember some years ago reading Mrs. Barbara Castle's diaries of her experiences as a Cabinet Minister in the 1960s, which was before the later Wilson Government introduced special advisers. She revealed in those diaries that on a number of occasions her key private office officials had undertaken tasks that these days one would usually expect special advisers to do. Those tasks included, I believe, on one occasion drafting a speech for her to deliver to a party audience. The situation is healthier now, in that no career civil servant would usually ever be expected to do something such as that, as special advisers would take those tasks away from them.
§ Mr. Foster
I recommend that the hon. Gentleman continue his historical research by looking back at the role of the present Foreign Secretary in such a post.
§ Mr. Collins
The hon. Gentleman is right. Some of us take encouragement from the fact that senior Cabinet Ministers may at one stage have been special advisers.
The other point that it is important to stress is that an appropriate balance is not one in which we rule out having any political appointees. That is a point of cross-party agreement. The hon. Gentleman is of that view, and I imagine that the Minister is, as it is included in the Government's response. We all take the view, despite the powerful and persuasive case put by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), that broadly speaking special advisers, certainly those who are being brought in in a party political role, should be appointed personally by the Minister and not necessarily by a prolonged process of open appointment or competition.
If we rule out saying that we should never have special advisers, there is an equal and opposite danger which is to say that because we are now operating in a new and different political environment the restraints that were put in place in the past are fuddy-duddy, traditionalist and irrelevant. A number of comments worried me. First, it is said that we have an unprecedented number of media outlets. Indeed, it is said so often it has almost become a cliché. It is also implied that the 24/7 culture and the 24-hour news media erupted out of nowhere and has completely changed the qualitative nature of the relationship between Government and media. Neither of those propositions is true.
Al Gore, the former American Vice-President and presidential candidate caused amusement unintentionally during the 2000 presidential election 314WH campaign when he was reported to have claimed that he had invented the internet. I sometimes get the impression that the present Administration believe that they invented 24-hour news channels, the internet and inquisitive journalists and that none of those existed before 2 May 1997. Sky News has been with us since 1989. BBC News 24 started well before 1997. The internet was certainly much smaller prior to 1997 but it certainly existed.
Then as now, the vast majority of our fellow citizens got the bulk of their news from the regular national newspapers and the main news bulletins on BBC1 and what is now ITV1 The only significant difference between now and then is that both the circulation of most newspapers and the ratings for most television news programmes have fallen. We have to be a little careful before we believe that there has been such a huge and permanent change in the relationship between journalists and politicians that all the constraints that would once have applied to what the GICS could be expected to do should cease.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) pointed out that a change has taken place, although perhaps over 20 or 30 years rather than over six years. He said that elections were once fairly clear events in that they lasted for the three or weeks before polling day, but we are now much closer to permanent campaigning, certainly in the year or so before a general election. I agree with him on that but I draw an opposite conclusion. He said that because of the nature of permanent campaigning it would be wrong to put excessive restrictions on what the party in government should do. The party in government, whichever it is, should be entitled to campaign vigorously and put out all their material through their party headquarters in the usual way. I would argue that precisely because we are now in a period of much more intensive and long-term campaigning, it becomes more rather than less important to have clear rules about what is permissible for the party in government to expect the career, long-term, independent and impartial civil service to do. That is an argument for a civil service Bill, not against it.
That brings me to the final element that concerned me and here I agree with the hon. Member for Bath. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East said that it was in the nature of legislation to freeze the status quo in place. I suppose that is true, but in part that is an argument against any form of legislation at all. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his conversion to the largely Conservative cause of less government and fewer Bills. All credit to the present Administration when they have said in the past that they were in favour of the principle of a civil service Bill. Other parties have said that too. I would hope that it would generally be accepted as a long-term and permanent principle—to the extent that anything in political life is permanent—that civil service impartiality should be written into statute. I hope that none of us would regard it as likely or desirable that such impartiality should be modernised out of existence, whether now or in 10 or even 30 years' time.
A case can be made for writing some basic, clear, non-partisan, consensual and agreed principles into legislation. As I shall say when making an offer to the Minister, it will not need to be a long piece of legislation. I do not envisage it requiring a huge number of clauses 315WH and schedules, nor will it take a huge amount of the parliamentary draftsman's time—indeed, it may not need any of his time, because the hon. Gentleman will be producing a draft himself.
I stress that the events referred to in the report are significant not only in themselves. I agree with the hon. Member for Bath, who said that although the matters were serious, they raised other long-term and more important issues. I cannot help pointing out, in parentheses, that the Liberal Democrats did not vote with the Conservatives for the removal of Jo Moore in October 2001, although they subsequently came to that view.
It is important to stress that that series of events was not wholly untypical. Regrettably, there is concern about spin and the role and powers of special advisers, and the decline of public trust in statements—perhaps of all politicians, but notably of those in the present Administration, given the events of the double and triple counting of education and health spending and the manipulation of the hospital waiting list figures. I cheerfully wrote out a long list of other examples, but I shall not detain the House by reading them out. It was probably more entertaining for me to write them out than it would be for some hon. Members in the Chamber to have to listen to them.
The incident was not an isolated one. It pointed to concerns with wider applications, and they require wider solutions. In that respect, I am intrigued by the question of whether special advisers should have the power to issue instructions to civil servants. Without going into detail about the allegations relating to what Jo Moore did or did not do, it is certainly true—it is a matter of common agreement—that by the end of the saga, the allegations relating to her conduct had broadened far beyond the e-mails that she may or may not have sent on 11 September 2001. It became a much broader dispute about the extent to which political appointees should be able to put pressure on civil servants to get them to do things with which they are uncomfortable.
It is important that we have a clear understanding about what is permissible. I disagree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, West that it was always a myth that special advisers do not have the power to issue instructions to civil servants. When I was a special adviser, only one civil servant was answerable to me—a secretary, and to avoid doubt I make it clear that she was a typing secretary not a permanent secretary. There was no question of my being in a position to compel, instruct or even require a civil servant to do anything.
The hon. Gentleman went on to explain some of the things that he thought were proper for a special adviser to do, such as providing civil servants with a sounding board and an indication of the Minister's thinking. I agree with that; it is legitimate, and it one of the things that I used to do. The things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are all about providing a liaison between the party and the Minister. That is entirely legitimate, but none of them require the issuance of instructions to officials. That is where I part company with the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Hopkins
Is not the problem the difference between a formal relationship and an informal one? In 316WH the latter, an adviser might use threats and intimidation against civil servants in a manner that would cut across any formal understanding of their role?
§ Mr. Collins
I naturally understand that different personalities are involved, irrespective of party politics and of whichever party happens to have formed the Administration. We would all agree, I am sure, that it would be a matter for condemnation if, using the hon. Gentleman's words, a special adviser, a career civil servant or even a Minister used intimidation or employed threats.
I come down on this matter with the Wicks committee, which has specifically recommended—we have touched on it today—that it should be clearly stated that, with the exception of two officials at No. 10, special advisers should have no executive role. The committee was correct in that judgment. That should apply irrespective of which political party is in power. To clarify an earlier point, I certainly accept that the position that we set out in opposition is the one by which we should expect to be bound when we return to office. It would be ludicrous to take any other stance.
§ Kevin Brennan
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman and I disagree too much. When we took evidence on this matter, it became clear from civil servants and, on one occasion, from a permanent secretary that they accepted that there were occasions on which, for the practical efficiency of the service, a special adviser could give an instruction to a civil servant if the instruction had clearly originated from the Minister.
§ Mr. Collins
Naturally, I agree. If the special adviser acts merely as a messenger, of course that is appropriate. In the same way, one might expect that a more junior official, such as, technically speaking, a principal private secretary, could issue an instruction to a permanent secretary because they were acting as a messenger for the Minister. That is an entirely legitimate role.
The Wicks committee states:Special advisers should not … have powers to authorise the spending of government money … have any role in the line management of civil servants … have charge of or any direction over the work of GICS members … have any other executive powers.That is the Wicks committee's conclusion, with which I would be most comfortable. It would take us broadly back to what was generally understood to be the position of special advisers under Governments of both main parties from the 1970s until 1997.
Let me talk about some of the ways forward; I want to return to the civil service Bill in a moment. It is important to have some understanding about limiting the numbers and the powers of special advisers in No. 10. I hope that the Minister will touch on that. Again, the Wicks committee makes clear recommendations, but I shall not repeat them; I am sure that the Minister is familiar with them. I hope that he accepts that the case has been made for the Government to accept a cap on the number of special advisers, and clearly delimited and specific restrictions on what they can and cannot do. I was delighted that the Chairman of the Select Committee confirmed that, like the Wicks committee, 317WH he favoured any legislation specifying what special advisers could not do. That would be a notable step forward.
My next point comes out of the Select Committee report and what happened at the DTLR. It is equally important to have a clear chain of accountability for special advisers, and that Ministers accept responsibility for special advisers, because they are personal appointees. In turn, the conduct of Ministers, particularly any allegations that they have acted improperly or out with the requirements on conflict of interest, should not be opined on by permanent secretaries—who are put in a very difficult situation if they are asked to do so—but presided over by someone of independent standing. That is a recommendation of the Wicks committee.
I hope that it will be accepted that there should be, as the Select Committee has recommended on several occasions, statutory establishment of the ministerial code and the code of conduct of special advisers.
§ Tony Wright
I confess that I have never been entirely persuaded by the idea of a numerical cap, for one reason only. On any comparative assessment, this country is right at one end of the spectrum for the number of political appointees in Government. There is no way of knowing whether we are at the right point on that spectrum; we are now lining up to praise special advisers and their role, but if it turned out that they were adding substantial value to the system one could argue that we should have more of them. What would be the point, therefore, in arguing for a cap on a species of animal that does rather good things in the system? Surely, the key objective is to ensure that Parliament approves the arrangements for special advisers and their funding, not to set an arbitrary cap on them.
§ Mr. Collins
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He is right to say that the United Kingdom is at one end of the spectrum: the United States is at the opposite end, as a huge number of political appointees change every time the President changes. The great advantage of the UK system is that one day the electorate can vote to throw out a Government, lock, stock and Michael Portillo, and the next day a wholly different Administration, shaped by entirely different values can take office, hit the ground running and announce the independence of the Bank of England four or five days after coming to power. It was made possible largely by unselected special advisers but also by the permanent civil service; there was no prolonged delay in the transfer of power. The immediacy in the British system is possible only because the vast bulk of the government machine is permanent and impartial and is expected to be in a position to serve irrespective of the result of the election.
I am not arguing that that necessarily applies when the limit is 80 or does not apply when it is 100, but there is a point in the French or American system at which a huge number of decisions have to be referred to, cleared and taken by political appointees, and it is no longer possible for an electorate to take a decision on a 318WH Thursday and for a new Government to take office with full powers the next day. That is the strength of the British system and I would be very reluctant to lose it.
§ Tony Wright
If a cap is to be set, it must be set at a particular level. At what level would the hon. Gentleman set it?
§ Mr. Collins
My party believes that the present level is excessive. We have committed ourselves on several occasions, saying that we would be in favour of reducing the present level by about 25 per cent. It would not take the figure back to where it was in 1997 but it would be a substantial reduction.
In terms of a statutory limit, I could live with the present number. A Conservative Administration would probably want to be below that limit but I would be perfectly happy for Parliament to provide for a limit roughly the same as it is now. However, I agree with the Wicks committee and I should be interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that there is no clear case for a further increase above the doubling of the numbers since 1997.
§ Tony Wright
I do not agree with the Wicks committee for the reasons that I gave just now. Cannot the hon. Gentleman see the difficulty that he is in? He cannot say at one moment that special advisers are a good thing, and at the next that there should therefore be reduced by a quarter, as that is not logical.
§ Mr. Collins
It is perfectly possible to say it; one can take the view, as my party does, that Members of Parliament are largely a good thing but that it would be even better if there were fewer of them and they were of higher quality. That view could be applied across many parts of the public and private sectors.
I conclude by addressing the concerns about the civil service Bill and I would like three assurances from the Minister. First, as we have referred to the matter at length but have not formally debated the Wicks committee's ninth report, will the Minister undertake that the Government will reply shortly and that there will be a separate debate on he matter before the summer recess? Secondly, will the Minister respond to the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee about the draft being prepared by that Committee and the timetable for any parliamentary legislation? It is no secret; we are sophisticated enough politicians to know that the chances are if the measure is not in the Queen's Speech this year it is unlikely to get in next year, which is a pre-election period. I do not expect the Minister to make a commitment now on what will be in the Queen's Speech, but I hope that he will take away from this debate a clear sense of a strong cross-party willingness to see legislation proceed. I hope that he will say that the Government are committed to legislating in this Parliament. He can also take from me the commitment, which I suspect applies to the Liberal Democrats although I cannot—and would not want to—speak for them, that given that the legislation will be broadly non-contentious, the official Opposition would not expect artificially to prolong debate on it.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase mentioned the fact that it is difficult to find a champion within Government for the legislation, but the Minister would 319WH find that the Opposition would give a much fairer wind to it than to several other Government proposals for legislation. I hope that he will factor that into internal discussions on the desirability of introducing such legislation.
§ Kevin Brennan
To clarify that, has the hon. Gentleman given an undertaking that the Opposition would not oppose a programme motion on a civil service Bill?
§ Mr. Collins
The hon. Gentleman knows well that the official Opposition have serious concerns about the way in which the Government have departed from all parliamentary practice and precedence by routinely guillotining legislation of all sorts at all times. Therefore, he would not expect me to give such an assurance, and I will not give it.
However, I point him to the recent experience, in which the hon. Member for Bath and I both took part, of the consideration of the Railways and Transport Safety Bill. It was generally non-contentious, and both Opposition parties acted in a way that even Government Ministers acknowledged was broadly supportive and positive, helping the passage of that Bill through both Houses of Parliament. We will of course have to examine the detail of a civil service Bill, but if it is broadly in line with what we have discussed today, what is in the Wicks committee report and what has been repeatedly announced by Government, we will give it a fair wind and do our best to get it on to the statute book more rapidly than most other Government legislation. That is as far as the hon. Gentleman would expect me to go, and he will accept that it is generous by most standards.
The final assurance that I want to hear from the Minister is that he accepts the specific recommendation of the Wicks committee that special advisers should have no executive role outside No 10.
§ The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander)
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the issues arising from the Public Administration Committee report. I must first pay tribute to the quality of debate that we have enjoyed this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) suggested that the Committee's deliberations sometimes appeared as if they were a seminar of Thomas Aquinas standards. On the basis of the speeches at least so far this afternoon, I believe that the contributions would have graced any such seminar. I also pay tribute to the Committee's work under the estimable chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). It has made a constructive contribution in recent months on all the issues, and I look forward to maintaining a lively dialogue.
Hon. Members have raised many points. I anticipated that I might have been on my feet slightly earlier, but given the time available to me, I hope that hon. Members will have a degree of forbearance as I try to answer the wide range of points that have been put. I will try to reflect the order of points made by my hon. Friend 320WH the Member for Cannock Chase to give some structure to the responses, but I begin by stating how much I enjoyed the historical perspective that was brought by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). However, in tribute to Tony Benn, about whom he spoke with such warmth, I shall try to focus my remarks on policy rather than personality.
Members on both sides of the House have raised points about the Public Administration Committee's report into a series of events that occurred in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. In framing its report, the Committee did not go into the details of the specific case, and I commend it for its approach. To quote its words:We have not sought to carry out a detailed dissection of all the events at DTLR, nor to apportion blame to individuals. Our aim instead has been to review the events in the round and identify the most important lessons for the Civil Service and for Government.I intend to adopt a similar approach in my remarks this afternoon. The events at the former DTLR have been the subject of much discussion in this House and elsewhere. The challenge now is to move on, learning lessons, as many have said, from those events rather than seeking to reopen the debate at this late stage.
The report of the Committee, "These Unfortunate Events", which was published in July 2002, examined a number of the communications issues that arose at the former DTLR. The Government welcomed the report of the Committee, as its members will be aware. There is much common ground between them and the Government on the issues that the report addressed. It made a number of specific recommendations for further improvements to current practice. At their heart was the need for a radical external review of Government communications, which we accepted. That and the other recommendations were dealt with in the Government's response, which was furnished in February 2003. I shall update the House on the progress that has been made since then.
First, let me address the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) when he challenged me directly on the timing of the Government's response, given the importance of the report. I hope that I can offer him some assurance that it was simply a matter of logistics: I was determined to ensure, given the centrality of the recommendation that we have an external, radical review, that we had the appropriate personnel in place by the time that we offered the Government's full response. Getting people of the calibre that we have secured for the GICS to undertake that review takes more than a matter of weeks, and it was necessary to ensure that we had the correct personnel. I hope that hon. Members will agree that we were right in taking time, given the generous tributes that have been paid to members of the review who are now undertaking that work.
I turn next to the matter that was put to me by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Cannock Chase—accountability in relation to special advisers. The Government have been clear about the responsibility for disciplining special advisers. In our response to the Select Committee's report, we made it clear that the ultimate responsibility for disciplining a special adviser rests with the appointing Minister. The permanent secretary can also provide advice to the Minister on any 321WH disciplinary action. Where the permanent secretary is unhappy with the Minister's decision, he can raise the matter with the Cabinet Secretary, who can in turn raise it with the Prime Minister. It has been said that general responsibility rests with the Prime Minister, together with the relevant Minister. In that regard, I should point out that it is open to the Prime Minister to terminate a special adviser's employment by withdrawing his consent to the appointment concerned.
Let me next turn to the broader subject of the role of special advisers in Government, which has taken up much of this afternoon's debate. The Committee recommended that special adviser posts should be publicly advertised, and the Minister given the final choice between suitably qualified candidates. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West reminded us, that is the position of the six special advisers working for the Welsh Executive in Cardiff. It also recommended that advisers should be kept up to date through a programme of continuing training.
I shall deal with those specific issues shortly. Before that, it is worth setting out the context for them. Special advisers, as we have heard in this debate, are not new. They have been part of our system of government since the early 1970s. In preparing for today's debate, I had the opportunity to read the speech given at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference by Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, in which he described the role of special advisers at the time of their initiation. It would be illustrative and helpful for the House if I were to remind it of some of the points that he made. He described the role asA 'sieve' examining papers as they go to Ministers, drawing attention to party political implications or electoral considerations; a 'deviller', chasing up Ministerial wishes and checking facts and research; carrying out long-term planning, preparing 'think-pieces' for the Minister to stimulate long-term policy thinking across the Department; contributing to policy planning within the Department; liaison with the Party",which, as we have heard this afternoon, Harold Wilson saw as important to prevent the party and Government from growing away from each other,handling contacts with outside interest groups to ease the burden on the Minister",and, of course, speech writing and research, about which we have heard.
That role of the special adviser, as enunciated by Harold Wilson in the 1970s, is closely reflected in today's code of conduct. There have been changes and innovations since the 1970s; this Government were the first to introduced a model contract and code of conduct for special advisers, a measure that the Public Administration Committee "wholeheartedly welcomed". It praised the Government's "commendable recent progress" in developing proper transparent arrangements for the employment of special advisers. I should like to place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase for his work and the work of the Committee as a whole in helping us to draw up that code.
§ Mr. Foster
Does the Minister not consider it instructive, in relation to the debate about the need for a civil service Bill, that when the Government 322WH introduced the new code of practice for special advisers, they expanded their role without any notion of consultation, even with the House?
§ Mr. Alexander
I will be happy to address the point about civil service legislation, to which I sense hon. Members on both sides of the House look forward, and the hon. Gentleman's point about the powers of particular advisers. On the issue of special adviser numbers, which was also raised, the rapier-like questioning—indeed, the forensic dissection—of the Opposition's case on the issue of a cap on the number of special advisers was almost as entertaining as it was illustrative. Several hon. Members have referred to the number of special advisers. As of 1 May, 78 special advisers were in post, which compares to a senior civil service of about 3,500 staff.
The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Wilson of Dinton, described the position in evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life:I do not think the senior civil service of 3,500 people is in danger of being swamped by 70 Special Advisers. That is not what is happening and I do n to see it as creeping politicization".Lord Wilson gave a characteristically astute assessment.
This debate has demonstrated that the idea of an arbitrary cap, as described by the Opposition, who cannot say at exactly what level it should be set, requires more thought about the right balance to be struck between the important contribution, in the universal view of the House, of special advisers in Government, and the continuing vital role of the permanent civil service.
§ Mr. Collins
The Minister seems to be giving a categorical and final Government answer to at least one recommendation of the Wicks committee. Do I take it that he rejects the finding of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that there should be a limit, albeit the members of the Committee felt that it was for Parliament, not them, to specify what it should be?
§ Mr. Alexander
Tempting though it would be to outline even the Government's preliminary thinking on a serious report that has been 18 months in preparation, it would be discourteous of me, not least to the Chairman of the Committee, to set out our definitive position. However, I reserve my right, as evidenced in the debate, to point out inconsistencies in the Opposition's approach. Notwithstanding the fact that there were clear echoes of the hon. Gentleman's own contribution in evidence to the Wicks committee in his contribution this afternoon, perhaps there is cause for further thought by the Opposition on this issue. That is evidenced by the debate that we have just heard.
I hesitate to say the name of the constituency of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), but I will do the best that I can manage with a Scottish accent. On his point about advisers with executive power, special advisers are restricted to an advisory role. Only two special advisers in the office of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have executive powers. The Government have made it clear that we have no plans to make further appointments of special advisers with executive powers.
It is important to be clear about the position of the Opposition. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale stated it would be "ludicrous" for the 323WH Opposition to advance one position now and then change position when the Conservatives were in government. However, we must bear in mind the personal nature of his contribution and the credibility that he drew for his comments from his wide experience in government and from his service as a special adviser previously.
Again, it is important to remind the House of exactly what Richard Wilson explained in evidence to the Wicks committee on the limits or delimits of special advisers' power. He explained that, during the 1980s—the period when I understand the hon. Gentleman served as a special adviser—there were no restrictions on what special advisers could do in law. New powers have been introduced. The 1997 Order in Council concerning the three special adviser posts in No. 10 with executive power—from recollection, I think that it was section 3.3—removes the restriction confining advisers solely to advising Ministers, which was introduced in 1991. Richard Wilson said that the 1997 orderput those three posts back to where all special advisers were before 1991.I appreciate that the role that he had in advising his typing secretary was different from the role that is presently being discharged in Downing street. Nevertheless, it is important to place on the record the legal position of special advisers in the 1980s and 1990s prior to 1997.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West declared himself to be agnostic on the issue of advertising special adviser posts. The Committee recommended that they should be publicly advertised, an issue that was also raised in the Committee's fourth report on special advisers. There is unity across the House on the point that special advisers should be outside the rules of fair and open competition as they are. by nature, personal appointments made by the Minister at his or her request to meet particular needs. For those positions, Ministers seek a combination of political and personal commitment, relative experience and personal trust and confidence. My hon. Friend illustrated graphically the speed and suddenness of what he described as regime change in the Welsh Executive that took place when he was appointed a special adviser.
On a change of Government, incoming Ministers will want to bring with them advisers with whom they worked closely in the final days of opposition. To require special adviser posts to be advertised would deprive an incoming Government of special support at what is agreed across the House can be a crucial time.
Because of the combination of qualities required for the job, the Civil Service Order in Council and the Civil Service Commissioner's recruitment rules recognise that it is necessary to exempt such posts from the normal civil service rules. The Government continue to believe that that is the right approach. For the reasons that I have outlined, we rejected that recommendation.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of special adviser training by quoting the evidence given by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, about special advisers who arrive in Government fresh on the coat tails of Ministers. The Committee's report welcomes our efforts to develop induction training for new special advisers. 324WH We have such a programmed in place, aimed at developing the new advisers' understanding of the systems within which they are obliged to work. It began in November last year, and covers the roles and responsibilities of Ministers, special advisers and permanent civil servants, taking account of the ministerial, civil service and special adviser codes. It continues to develop and will, increasingly, be part of the process of enhancing special advisers' development and good working relations across Government.
§ Mr. Alexander
It takes less than several weeks because we are keen to ensure that special advisers who are appointed are rapidly in a position to contribute. However, we have made a start. The induction programme is in place and I understand that the response from special advisers has been that it begins to address the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West when he graphically described some special advisers feeling that they had been thrown in at the deep end.
I turn to the point that has been raised most frequently today—civil service legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase again raised the point that the Committee on Standards in Public Life recently made recommendations in that area. We shall respond to them in due course, taking account of the comments made in today's debate. Under his distinguished chairmanship, the Select Committee on Public Administration is also considering the issue. I listened carefully to his contribution late in the debate, and I understand that his Committee plans to issue a paper in the near future. While I await that paper with great interest, I am sure that he will appreciate that, after 18 months of work by the Wicks committee, it would be discourteous to respond to its recommendations today, despite the invitation to do so from hon. Members of all parties. We are considering the report and will respond in due course.
It will come as little surprise to—in the generous description of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale—sophisticated politicians that I cannot and would not prejudge the content of the Queen's Speech. However, I can assure him that I have listened with real interest to his points about the Opposition's position on that important matter.
§ Mr. Foster
I suspect that I speak for many when I express great disappointment at what the Minister has said. Can he explain why the excuse is now that the Government have to wait to consider their response to the Wicks committee? The Wicks committee merely says that the Government previously committed to do something and urges the Government to do it. I cannot see what the response is other than to say, "We will ignore what you and the majority of hon. Members want." Why cannot there be a clear response today? Will they do it or not?
§ Mr. Alexander
This matter has been well ventilated. Tempting though it might be to try to cherry-pick individual recommendations that have been made by the Wicks committee, it would be inappropriate and 325WH discourteous to members of that committee for me to decide which recommendations to address. After 18 months of work, it is only fair that serious men and women undertaking serious work are given a serious response from Government. In that sense, I take on board the point that the hon. Gentleman has made about the work that the Government need to do, but I can assure him that that work is under way. My interest in the work of the Public Administration Committee is absolutely sincere. Frankly, there is danger of illogicality for some hon. Members to suggest that this is a hugely important matter, but that when important bodies are deliberating on it, it is somehow inappropriate to take their views into account.
§ Tony Wright
I do not want to be overly unhelpful, but it is not as though this is the first time that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has expressed a view on a civil service Bill or that the Government have told that Committee that there would be one. It is not the first time that our Committee has recommended it and been told that we would have one. Endless commitments have been given in relation to every kind of report on this. It is a little disingenuous to say that another report is needed which the Government will consider and will then come back to us. We have gone past that stage now. We know that the Government are committed to doing it. They have told every Committee that. When are we going to have it?
§ Mr. Alexander
Forgive me if I have misunderstood the work that is presently being undertaken by the Public Administration Committee, but I thought that it was not just another report but a draft Bill that was being prepared. That seems to offer potentially significant shafts of light into this subject. I am sincere in saying that a great deal of important work has been done in ventilating this issue in the Committee. I look forward with earnest interest to its forthcoming draft Bill. It is important to recognise the importance and significance of a committee such as the Wicks committee. It comprises men and women from across British public life who have given time, commitment, energy and intellect to taking forward this work. The Government should treat them with the respect that they deserve. On that basis, we will ensure that we offer a full and conclusive response to the committee, but at the appropriate stage after due consideration of the recommendations.
It is a commonplace among politicians that it is not unreasonable for a Minister at the Dispatch Box or speaking in this Chamber not to seek to prejudge the Queen's Speech. There are always significant constraints upon the legislative agenda of any Government. Even a Government as committed to ensuring reform and delivery as this Government must necessarily confront the reality of that. In that sense, while it may be disappointing, as some hon. Members have put it, I hardly think that it is surprising that I have given a commitment both to look with interest at the forthcoming draft Bill from the Public Administration Committee and to give serious consideration to the recommendations of the Standards on Public Life Committee.
Perhaps if I move on the Phillis review we can find more common ground among hon. Members. The committee recommended that a radical, external review 326WH of Government communications should be established. It further recommended that the review should examine not only the effectiveness of GICS but the roles played by other civil servants and special advisers who have a responsibility for communications. That should clarify the boundaries between the work that is appropriate to special advisers and work that is not. That is another matter that has been raised this afternoon.
The Government accepted the recommendation and set up a review in February this year under the chairmanship of Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group plc. It would be worth while to quote the terms of reference of the review, not least given the charitable and generous remarks that have been made about the Government's response to the recommendation. The review states:In the light of the Eighth report of the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, to conduct a radical review of government communications. This will include the examination of different models for organising and managing the government's communication effort, the effectiveness of the current model based on the Government Information and Communication Service, and the roles played by other civil servants including those special advisers who have a responsibility for communications.The review has a broad-based membership, drawing expertise from across Government, print and broadcast media. I was keen to ensure that the majority of members were external. Of the 13 review members, only three work in the Government machine at present. The others are from the fields of print and broadcast journalism and corporate communications. As I stated, it is independent from the Government.
I understand that the review is well on with its work of gathering information and taking evidence. Written submissions of evidence, including the one from the Public Administration Committee, are accessible on the review's website. I cannot report on the review group's thinking, because other than urging the chairman to conduct a thorough and radical review, I have allowed it to develop its own deliberations. However, I understand that it is expected to complete its work towards the end of September, with a view to submitting a report to me in October. I await its findings with great interest.
§ Mr. Collins
Will the Minister assure the House that he will not implement the recommendations of the report of October 2003 before he implements the repeated Labour commitment, made since 1996, to introduce a civil service Bill?
§ Mr. Alexander
I obviously cannot prejudge the Government's response to the Phillis review. I merely point out that considering the seriousness with which the hon. Gentleman has spoken about the Phillis review this afternoon, I find it surprising that the Opposition have not bothered to contribute to it by submitting evidence. However, even at this late stage after the deadline has passed, if the Opposition were keen to ensure that their views were heard, I would extend an offer, in the spirit with which the hon. Gentleman spoke to me, to ensure that their views are brought to the attention of Mr. Phillis and the review team.
This is perhaps an appropriate point for me to conclude. We have done a great deal to make our system of government more transparent and accountable, as 327WH has been requested by hon. Members this afternoon. We introduced for the first time a code of conduct for special advisers and a model contract, which together provide a transparency that did not exist under previous Administrations. We have been clear and upfront about the numbers of special advisers and their cost—I have repeated the figures today—and we have introduced training for new special advisers to develop understanding of government and their role in it. As the Committee recommended, we have initiated an independent, radical review of government communications.
328WH Ours is a strong record. It is based on our absolute commitment to maintain the political impartiality and integrity of the civil service and to carry out Government business according to the highest standards of ethical conduct. That has been our position since coming to office, and it will remain our position in the years to come.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
The House thanks the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I think that I can say from the Chair that we have had a very good debate.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Five o'clock.