Government Information

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 13th January 1999.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:35 pm, 13th January 1999

I beg to move, That this House deplores the extent to which politically-partisan presentation, spin-doctoring, unattributed briefing and the pursuit of personal rivalries between Ministers have become characteristics of the presentation of government information; believes that clearer guidelines need to be established in this field; affirms that the public interest is in having far greater access to the information used by Government in making decisions which affect people's lives; and calls upon the Government to introduce its draft Freedom of Information Bill as a matter of the highest priority to enable early consideration, to present such a Bill later this Session which can be carried over into the next Session of Parliament, and to ensure that the Bill fully reflects the proposals set out in the White Paper, Your Right To Know. This is the second of three debates introduced by Liberal Democrats today. This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) introduced the debate on the crisis in the health service. This debate will be followed by a debate about Britain's leadership position in Europe.

Christmas is supposed to be a season of good will, but not for this Government. After the holiday, Westminster was strewn with political corpses on the scale of a gangster movie or a performance of "Macbeth". The main victims came from the ranks of those who are or have been responsible for purveying Government information. The battle had largely been about their activities.

The regime of partisan press briefing and press management that was at the centre of those events came into being after a series of high-profile departures of more traditional civil service press officers. One of them created the "Tumbrel Club" to describe the departed civil service press officers. Senior press officers from the Treasury, Department of Social Security, Ministry of Defence, Scottish Office, the Overseas Development Agency and the Northern Ireland Office all went as the new Government devised a new type of press operation.

In a telling piece of evidence to the Public Administration Committee, Steve Reardon, one of the casualties, said: The ostensible reason for my being required to leave my post was the need for a change of style"— a phrase, he added, that I constructed at the behest of the Department to account for my going. Perhaps some changes were needed. Perhaps better central co-ordination was required. Perhaps a sharper round-the-clock operation was needed. The bulk of the civil service press staff remain in place under new leadership. Are the new people at the top not doing a good job? In some respects they are, but the problems have proved very serious indeed. I refer particularly to their enthusiasm for unattributed briefing and spinning. Their very anonymity is often a deception on the public. Statements are made that are not open to challenge. No one knows whether they have any authenticity or credibility.

An extremely effective letter appeared in The Independent on Tuesday. It referred—interestingly, from my point of view—to a claim that had appeared in The Independent that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Home Secretary are to join forces in an attempt to prevent Mr. Blair calling a referendum on electoral reform before the next election. The writer of the letter, Mr. Michael Kay, stated: I scoured the rest of the story for quotes from these three 'heavy-hitters'. Not a word. Andrew Grice quotes 'a source close to Mr. Brown'. Later in the story Colin Brown in Cape Town quotes 'one Blair aide'.Who are these invisible people who must not be named? Mr. Kay went on: These incognito sources are the very spin doctors so reviled in your editorials.…Reveal your sources. Some of your readers might find it intriguing to evaluate the quality of your material. Or is it none of our business? That is a fair and strong point, made by a member of the public in that correspondence.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

I read Mr. Kay's letter. I took it as a criticism of Mr. Grice, the Lobby system and the way that newspapers use it, not as a criticism of Government press officers.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman continues to listen, as he is doing, he will find that some of my criticisms spread over on to those who operate the system. It takes two to operate the system—those purveying the dubious information, and those who put it into the media.

A great deal of work is done by the Government press machine to convey to media—which are sometimes gullible and sometimes just not in a position to make a proper assessment—a false picture of events. That is especially true when things must be done in a rush. One of the worst examples that I have ever known in 25 years in this place was the press pack on the Scott report under the previous Government. Journalists had no time to read that seven-volume report. They relied initially, at least, on the Government summary, which dealt almost entirely with the charges that had not been proved, ignoring the ones that had. When Lord Justice Scott was asked about that when giving evidence to a Committee, he agreed that the picture presented by the Government summary was not an accurate summary of his report. It was systematically selective information to give a false picture. It was sanctioned by civil servants as well as by political advisers.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

Does my right hon. Friend agree, on reflection, that the way in which the Scott report was handled provided eloquent confirmation of the contents of the report itself?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Indeed. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his recognition as a Privy Councillor in the new year's honours. I agree with his point.

Successive Governments have used similar techniques in public spending announcements, with press releases for Departments whose spending has been cut pretending that they have great new riches to spend on good causes. I cannot remember a Budget-time press release in which a Department says that it will spend less in future, and that it is a very good thing that that will be so.

The spin doctors achieve the same thing in a different way. They do so by selectively trailing speeches that will promise new initiatives and new spending, when journalists have no access to the actual figures or to any advice on them. The spin doctors get away with repeated recycling of the same money. The Home Secretary did it on Tuesday and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment does it regularly. By trailing stories selectively, the process is bypassed by which major public announcements are supposed to be subject to questioning in the House. You have shown your strong disapproval of that practice, Madam Speaker. The practice is at least in part designed to avoid scrutiny by ensuring that an announcement is taken as news at face value. The favourable message is clearly established in the broadcast bulletins well before it can be undermined by any inconvenient facts.

I say to those involved in the Government press machine that it is a mistake to assume that Ministers will always get a less favourable story if they submit themselves to scrutiny in the House. Look for example, at the press coverage of the Foreign Secretary being questioned by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), on Monday. As one of the sketch writers described the Opposition Front-Bench attack, with enemies like these, who needs friends? It is not necessarily in the Government's interests to go about things in this way and undermine a process that is good at ensuring that announcements that are all hyperbole and not substantial are challenged effectively and questioned and that someone who has a sound case to put gets a fair hearing.

The Government press team prefer not to take the risk of letting Ministers win the argument. It would rather get the retaliation in first.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I wonder whether the agreement that was entered into by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was accurately reported in the press.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It was extremely inaccurately commented on very widely. A fair degree of publicity was given to the precise words that had been used in the correspondence between my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister. I refer those who are interested to the quotable words and not to any unattributed briefing from any source.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I was going to say much more about it. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will wait for a while. He may find that I cover something that he wants to say. If not, he can have another try later.

Anonymous briefing can be seriously damaging to Britain's national interest. The classic instance was when the now famous Mr. Charlie Whelan set out to convey that the Government's policy on entering the single currency was roughly the opposite of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said it was. The Chancellor had produced a measured interview for The Times, setting out the information that the Government would put the issue to the British people if and when they judged that the economic circumstances were right for them to do so, leaving open the option of a referendum before the next election.

From his office in the bar of the Red Lion, Mr. Whelan phoned journalists on his mobile phone to say that the Chancellor really meant to say that there would be no referendum this side of the next general election. I remember the incident well because I was phoned by the BBC's "The World Tonight" and asked to comment on the change in the Government's policy, which had come from a good source in government.

The story seemed so implausible to me that I rang our press office, which assured me that there was indeed such a source. One of our staff had been in the Red Lion, off duty, and could not avoid—[Interruption.] Our man in the Red Lion could not avoid hearing the call made by Mr. Whelan, who is never sotto voce. There is no soft pedal on his piano. The Chancellor's measured interview was effectively torn up. No one knew what was the real story, the Government's credibility was damaged and markets were left in confusion. That is not what I would call a good day's work.

Another frequent criticism is that Government spin doctors get their way by bullying and intimidating. Chris Buckland wrote of Charlie Whelan that he is suspected of punishing those who refuse to toe the line by freezing them out. He is even thought to have suggested that editors should sack senior political staff. However, it takes two to spin, according to Derek Draper—and he should know. The press do not have to play the game, even if, in Buckland's words, the fallout from his"— Whelan' s— briefings kept everyone in business for days or even weeks. The bullying is all bluster. Responding to it in the hope of being given a juicy story in the future is too high a price to pay. Perhaps the Government's recent problems have been greater because more journalists realise that. The spin doctor's bluff has been called.

It is remarkable—indeed, it is poetic justice—that the victims of the excessive use of spin doctor techniques include the Government themselves. The murky atmosphere of anonymous briefing may be seen as a means of assisting the Government, but it is also an environment in which unattributed personal attacks and character assassinations flourish. That did not start with the current Government: John Biffen was famously described as a "semi-detached" member of the Cabinet by what was then referred to as a Downing street source, which was of course Sir Bernard Ingham. Sir Bernard also called Francis Pym "Mona Lott".

There are, however, deep personal rivalries in the present Government, and such enhanced scope and status have been given to partisan press officers that they have caused the Government serious damage. It is not as if they were not warned that that would happen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) pointed out in an Adjournment debate last year, The issues that I shall raise may be batted away today …but the Government are on a sticky wicket and eventually they will find themselves out if they do not take action."—[Official Report, 24 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 1152] They have certainly found themselves out.

The Minister most associated with spin doctor techniques, the past master of the black arts, himself lost his senior Cabinet post because someone—we do not know who it was—maliciously leaked details of the private loan by which he had financed his rather grand choice of house. A Cabinet Minister of undoubted talent and dedication, who had an important contribution to make as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has been lost to the Government because of the culture that he, in his previous role, had helped to create.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

As the right hon. Gentleman is talking about unattributed briefings and the pursuit of personal rivalries, he may wish to cast his memory back. Many of us watched last year's Liberal Democrat conference with great interest, hearing a spate of statements emanating from unattributed briefings by, we are told, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—that may, of course, be incorrect—and others about the future prospects of the party leader, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). What does the right hon. Gentleman have to say about that?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I have never heard of my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey saying anything remotely unattributable.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) interrupted me as I was reaching a serious point about the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). The right hon. Gentleman did not resign because of any abuse of public office, or any failure of policy—matters for which Ministers should more often resign. In fact, he resigned as a consequence of the culture that he had helped to create, and that has deprived him of the opportunity to give service that some—perhaps even all—of his colleagues in the Government would have valued highly. The Prime Minister may be able to pull waving Danes into his dinghy, but if we are to judge from the reactions of some Labour Members, it will take him a lot longer to pull the right hon. Member for Hartlepool back on board.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

There are practical consequences to the departure of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). My right hon. Friend will know that the north-east of Scotland is highly dependent on the oil industry, which faces crisis as the world oil price appears to be staying low. As Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool was due to chair a task force this week to consider strategies to help the industry. The consequence of his having fallen into a trap is delay in dealing with real, practical problems.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That shows how real problems in the real world result from what seem to be games in the hothouse world of Westminster, and particularly of Whitehall press briefings.

One resignation was not the end of the story. Following the resignation of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool, the then Paymaster General—the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson)—also resigned, ostensibly on the same issue, although it somewhat strained credulity to try to imagine that other matters over a period had not contributed. Of course, the title of Paymaster General is something of an historical oddity, but it was spot on when the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was in opposition.

Then, one of the two most prominent political press officers in the Government's service found himself scanning the job advertisements. Incidentally, can the Minister for the Cabinet Office tell us whether that is all that he now does? Does he sit at his desk reading the job advertisements and sending out his curriculum vitae, or is he engaged in Government work? Unwanted civil servants used to be sent on "gardening leave". Has he not got a garden? Perhaps the former Paymaster General and the Britannia building society could help him. Again, I have a serious point. Will he be restricted in the private sector posts that he can take up because of the access to Government information that he has had? Is he continuing to have that sort of access? We are entitled to know that. Other senior Treasury civil servants would be restricted if they moved out to a private sector post.

Negative briefing about other Ministers and officials was not limited to the Chancellor's team. A Downing street spokesman was quoted referring to Mr. Whelan as "a little oik". I still find it extraordinary that so many Ministers and their advisers should be prepared to inflict damage on their own Government by denigrating other parts of that Government. They fire shots at each other, which make holes in the boat in which they are all sailing, and I do not know why that does not occur to them from time to time.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that his colleagues never talk about each other? Perhaps 1 can brief him privately after this debate about the occasion on which my wife and I were in Gandhi's listening to two partners of two of his colleagues discuss his future and that of a number of other Liberal Democrat Members. That behaviour is not unique to one party.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

At least no one is being paid out of public funds to do it.

In dealing with such matters, the lead must come from the top. No one could accuse the Government's chief press officer of failing to lead or to do a diligent, skilled and generally pretty effective job on behalf of the Government and, more particularly, the Prime Minister. He slaps down Ministers for being off message or for failing to clear their media appearances. I see no sign of leadership by example or by precept against negative briefing, yet we are talking about behaviour that is forbidden in the Government's model contract for special advisers, which is mentioned in the Government amendment. Section viii of schedule 1 states: Special advisers…must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, and avoid personal attacks". I am not aware of any disciplinary proceeding against any special adviser for breaking that rule. It is not even a case of "Three strikes and you're out", which may be one way to tackle it.

That leads me directly to the role of Alastair Campbell, the Government's chief press secretary.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

Much of what the right hon. Gentleman has said has been amusing and entertaining, although he is making a meal of it, but Alastair Campbell is not the Government's chief spokesman. He is the Prime Minister's official spokesman; the head of the Government Information and Communications Service is an entirely different person. The right hon. Gentleman should do his homework more carefully and get those details right.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I do not think that anyone anywhere in the system would deny the leadership role exercised by Alastair Campbell. No one who has been in receipt of any of his missives could imagine that he was behaving other than from a position of leadership as regards the entire Government press and information operation.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall develop this point before I give way. The position of the Prime Minister's chief spokesman has developed—with considerable controversy—under successive Governments. Under Mrs. Thatcher, Bernard Ingham's role moved a lot of boundaries and was the subject of much criticism at the time. Following the Mountfield report and a special Order in Council, that position has developed distinctive features under this Administration. Mr. Campbell is a special adviser, but, unlike any other, he has management responsibility for the civil service. He is neither a Cabinet Minister nor a member of the Cabinet secretariat, yet he attends Cabinet meetings. I can see the case for that. It is better that a senior press officer understands the full background to the decisions that he has to explain. However, if those privileges are given, they should be accompanied by tighter rules about what is acceptable in someone who does not have all the responsibilities, restrictions and disciplines to which established civil servants are subject.

Mr. Campbell is identified, although not by name, as the Prime Minister's official spokesman. I welcome that change too, because at least when that phrase is used we know who said something and what authority it carries, which we never knew when absurd phrases such as "Downing street says" or "sources close to the Secretary of State say" were used. What sources? How reliable are they? Who authorised them? We are not allowed to know, and so cannot evaluate what is reported. Journalists should be less willing to play this game, even if it costs them a story or two.

Now that the official spokesman's role is acknowledged, we may as well acknowledge the individual as well and end the farce of a senior public official being seen on television trying unsuccessfully to get out of the shot while some present or resigning Minister is interviewed. It is like the Punch and Judy man who forgets to keep his head down and appears in the frame between the puppets that he is supposed to be operating. When a political adviser takes on powers that have always been reserved to impartial civil servants, sits at Cabinet meetings and is identified as an official spokesman, he must also be charged with a duty, under the responsibility of the head of the home civil service, to maintain and inculcate principles of objectivity, fairness and loyalty, both to the Government as a whole and to the integrity of the public service as a whole.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows, and will forgive me for taking the liberty of reminding him, that Orders in Council created three special adviser posts, two of which are filled by Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. They set out clearly the terms, conditions and responsibilities of the posts. One of the many novelties introduced by the Government in the cause of modernisation, transparency and accountability was the model contract for special advisers, which sets out clearly their responsibilities. Does he accept that Alastair Campbell's contract, unlike that of any other special adviser, has been placed in the public domain?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I was aware of all those things. I referred to the Order in Council and pointed out that the model contract was in force when all these things happened. If the model contract is working, why did they happen? Why have all the Government's problems arisen? Someone must make more effort to ensure that the contract is abided by.

The Order in Council was essential because, without it, no civil servant would have been required to accept instructions from Alastair Campbell. The process is entirely proper, procedurally correct and in place, but certain responsibilities assume a larger importance in that light. One could react in different ways to this situation, which has undoubtedly caused a fair bit of harm. More people could be sacked, to add to those who have already resigned, or we could try to find a way of ensuring that the system—not all of which we can object to or stem the tide of—observes proper boundaries and that things damaging to the public interest or the Government do not happen under it.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I have the model special adviser contract. Page 12 states: Special Advisers must not take public part in political controversy…must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, and avoid personal attacks". Does my right hon. Friend think that that applies to Mr. Alastair Campbell?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend has done much work on this and first brought the right hon. Member for Hartlepool to the House to answer questions on his responsibilities. He is merely giving a fuller quotation of the passage in the model contract, which I consider applies to all special advisers, that I quoted earlier. Someone has not been keeping the terms of that contract. We do not necessarily know who in the case of the leaking of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's loan details. Somewhere along the line, the rules are being broken. It is not relevant to insist that the Prime Minister's principal press spokesman observes the contract but that he takes the lead in ensuring that they are observed throughout the service in which he plays such a key role.

The implications of the duties need to be spelled out more clearly at various levels in the Government information services and among ministerial advisers and Ministers. The Public Administration Committee published a report on those issues last July. The Government's response has not yet been published, although I think that it has been sent to the Committee. There were two reports, one from the Government's side and one from the Opposition. In their rather more timid offering, even the Government's supporters on the Committee call for a clear code of rules. Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members produced minority conclusions that went further by calling for tapes of Lobby briefings to be kept for a year and for political appointees who do significant party political activities to be paid from party funds. They also called for the Modernisation Committee to consider your concerns, Madam Speaker, about the sharp growth in pre-briefing of Government announcements, which should be made first in Parliament. I am not sure that the Modernisation Committee is the right Committee to do that, but the matter certainly needs considering further.

What is the Government's response to the challenges to clean up their press act, especially now that they have seen that they, too, can be the victims of a practice that has got completely out of hand? The Government's amendment to our motion refers to the model contract for special advisers, dating from May 1977, which has been in existence throughout all these abuses, and which has clearly been flouted.

The amendment refers to the long accepted conventions of impartiality and propriety". Partiality and impropriety are acknowledged to have taken place. I suspect that the Minister for the Cabinet Office knows that something needs to be done, and he would do himself and the Government credit if he admitted it and told us precisely what he intends to do. If he does not intend doing anything, the Government will soon be in trouble again on these matters.

The information that the public actually want is rarely the kind of information that press officers are briefed to provide. It is information that they are denied by the operation of official secrecy and the absence of a freedom of information Act. Gulf war veterans want to know to what health risks they were subject and what tests are or are not being carried out on their exposure to depleted uranium, yet that information is fiercely guarded.

People wanted to know what the Government knew about bovine spongiform encephalopathy. That is coming out at this late stage only because there is an inquiry. They want to know what the Health and Safety Executive knows about the pollution being emitted by a factory. They want to know why the Medicines Control Agency will not license a drug that they think will help them. That is the kind of information that affects their lives or livelihoods, which is so often closely guarded by Government, and which they will not have unless we have a freedom of information Act. The Government promised us one, but where is it?

In a written answer on 21 July 1998, the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), said that the Government's aim was to publish the draft Bill by the end of September. Then he became a casualty, and let us not forget the negative briefing to which he was subjected.

Almost four months have passed since the Government's target date for publication. The draft Bill will be considered this Session, but a final Bill is unlikely to be introduced until the 1999–2000 Session, pushing the implementation of such legislation into the next millennium. That is hardly appropriate for legislation that the Government described in July 1998 as a priority issue.

When the right hon. Member for South Shields was removed from office, responsibility for the freedom of information Bill was transferred to the Home Office. Since then, progress on the draft Bill has slowed.

Liberal Democrats have always regarded the implementation of a freedom of information Act as a priority to provide a right of access to all but the most sensitive information. The Labour party has been committed to freedom of information for, I think, 25 years, and it was included in its 1977 election manifesto. The pre-election "Cook-Maclennan" talks also agreed that the public have a right to know what Government are doing in their name, and committed both parties to the cause.

Roy Hattersley said, before the 1922 election—I mean, the 1992 election. Roy Hattersley is very senior, but he carries his age better than that. He said before the 1992 election that a freedom of information Bill should begin on Labour's first day in Government before its errors in office reduced its enthusiasm for reform.

It is a sad fact that political parties' interest in freedom of information seems to wane as their ability to do something about it increases. The Government have an opportunity to prove that wrong. The Home Secretary claims that delay is caused by difficulty in drafting the legislation. But the former Chancellor of the Duchy has said that the draft Bill was 90 per cent. complete when he left office. Are the Government now saying that he left the most difficult bits until last?

It is now 13 months since the White Paper was published. That should have been ample time for the Government to translate a far-reaching and detailed White Paper into a draft Bill. After all, they have to prepare only a draft Bill. It is not the last word. It will go for scrutiny to the appropriate Committee of the House over several months, and amendments and corrections can still be made, so it does not matter if there are some mistakes in the Bill at this stage. Let us get the process going.

If the Bill is introduced this month, it could be examined by the Select Committee on Public Administration in the spring, and the final Bill could then be introduced in this Session and carried over to the next Session. I believe that the Government will use that procedure for the financial services and electronic commerce Bills. If they are really committed to freedom of information, they should take urgent action to ensure that the Bill is ready at the earliest opportunity.

The Home Secretary has publicly claimed to support greater openness in government and claims that he is demonstrating that. The biggest test will be in the extent to which his draft Bill meets the far-reaching proposals in the White Paper "Your Right to Know", which we welcomed and want to see enacted. Many advocates of freedom of information are concerned that the Bill may water down the strong proposals in the White Paper.

There are many supporters of greater openness both inside and outside Parliament. In the previous Session, 241 hon. Members, 195 of them Labour, signed an early-day motion expressing concern at the prospect of any delay in bringing the measure forward. It was one of the most popular early-day motions in that Session. The Government's Back Benchers are with us in saying, "Get on with it."

Let us have more of the information that the public really want through a freedom of information Act and less of the partisan spin doctoring, which started out as a means of massaging the message and has ended up with blood all over the carpet. Clearer rules about what people can and cannot do should be established and implemented. It is a job in which the enforcer presumably has a role to play. I hope that he will now tell us what he is going to do.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office) 4:06 pm, 13th January 1999

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: welcomes the Government's commitment to modernising Government; commends the professionalism of the Government Information and Communications Service (GICS) in carrying out the important task of effectively communicating and explaining policies, decisions and actions of the Government of the day; recognises that the Mountfield Report set out the future direction of the GICS and confirmed the long accepted conventions of impartiality and propriety; believes that the model contract for special advisers, which defined, for the first time in a public document, the roles and responsibilities of special advisers, should be welcomed; applauds the Government's intention to publish a draft Freedom of Information Bill as soon as possible; and welcomes the intention of the Select Committee on Public Administration to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill. Let me try to deal quickly with what I will describe as the first part of the entertaining, if rather long drawn-out, speech of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He began by talking about some of the changes that have taken place. I will not accept any criticism of a Government who have come in after 18 years of a previous Administration of an entirely different kind and made changes. When the previous Conservative Administration changed Prime Ministers, they changed personnel. That is in the nature of a change of Government. Of course, changes have been made and there will be more to come because the Government are about changing Britain. I cannot accept the idea that we should have continued exactly as before with the same personnel and the same approach as under the previous Administration.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made much of anonymous comments and quotes. As I have said, he spoke with considerable humour, and, by describing those comments as anonymous, he defined the nature of the problem. The fact that they are anonymous makes it difficult for anyone, however great the will, to do anything about them. When we read in the newspaper, "Friends of Mr. Ashdown", we all know that that means the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) or his office. We can all read the code. In fact, we read that quite frequently in the newspapers and hear it on the radio and television. The other claim—that the Liberal Democrats are as white as driven snow and that the Labour and Conservative parties are mired in this business of spinning or briefing either against parties or between parties—is something else that I cannot understand.

As has been pointed out, at the last Liberal Democrat conference, we were regaled with a number of candidates who were lining themselves up to replace the right hon. Member for Yeovil. Let us not pretend that this is a problem of only one or two parties and that, somehow, other political parties, important or large or small, are somehow immune to it or have been inoculated against its temptations.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked me what I intend to do about it. I am inclined to photocopy the Sermon on the Mount and place it on the walls of the offices of all my ministerial colleagues and their advisers, particularly that part which says: Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin".

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to guarantee this afternoon that no current serving member of the Cabinet has, since 1 May 1997, made a disobliging remark about a Cabinet colleague to a journalist at any time?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

Of course not. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that he is making a demand to which I could not possibly respond in the way that he suggests. I reflected recently on my role and responsibilities in a conversation with the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) who once performed a similar role, although it was as the Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Administration. He told me of some of his experiences. One Friday, he was alerted to the fact that there would be nine or 10 anti-Government stories in the Sunday newspapers. He got his team together and it went to work through Friday, Friday evening and Saturday. On Sunday, there were 27 anti-Government stories in the Sunday newspapers. So let us not pretend that our esteemed friends and colleagues who report on our proceedings in this Chamber and elsewhere are not themselves sometimes the unwitting victims of some of this stuff or simply fall to the temptation of writing it. Unfortunately, some of them seem to be addicted to it. The reality is that it will never completely go away.

I say to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and everyone else in the House that it is a bit much to focus a significant part of a speech on any person who does not have the opportunity to come here, join in the debate and speak up on his own behalf.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

No, not for the moment. I want to make this point.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) intervened in the speech of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed to say that, had it not been for the unfortunate resignation, as he put it, of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), some action may have been taken in respect of problems facing the oil industry. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not persuade his right hon. Friend to hold the debate on the oil industry rather than the subject that the Liberal party has chosen.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed even said that we knew what happened in the horrendous catastrophe of BSE only because the Government set up a judicial inquiry, as though it was an error for us to set it up. We set up the inquiry exactly because we wanted the facts to come out for the benefit and information of the public. I should have thought that that was one matter on which the right hon. Gentleman would be persuaded to give us some credit.

One can go back through the reports, debates and activities of the House for decades, nay, generations. It was Churchill, after all, who said that nothing should be allowed to interfere with the rancour and asperity of politics. That was a very long time ago. We know that there is rivalry not simply between parties but within parties. I say to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, to my colleagues and to the House that of course one wants to minimise the consequences of that. I have made it clear in recent interviews and broadcasts as part of my responsibilities that the Prime Minister wants the message to go out clearly that he expects his Ministers to work in a coherent team not only in the best interests of the Government but essentially and more importantly in the best interests of the country and its people as a whole.

Let me turn to some of the matters of more substance that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed raised. He talked about people who were in powerful positions properly exercising that power. I agree with him on that. That is essential. Anyone who has worked, or works, closely with any Prime Minister is in a position of considerable power. I worked with Lord Callaghan when he was Prime Minister as his Parliamentary Private Secretary. I saw a great deal of him and was involved in much of what he did. Cabinet Ministers used to stop me and consult me, ask me questions and ask my opinion. When I left that position and became a junior Minister, they used to pass me in the corridor as if I were invisible. Anyone who works closely with a Prime Minister is in a powerful position. I agree that it is essential that we have in place safeguards and that we ensure the proper exercise of that power.

It is exactly for the reasons that I have given that we were the first Government to publish the model contract for the employment of people such as Alastair Campbell. No Government had done that ever before. While I accept that some people may be critical of some of the terms and conditions of that contract, I am not aware that any Member of the House from any party has written to us suggesting any amendments to it. I assure the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that there is no evidence of any abuse of that proper exercise of power, nor did he produce any such evidence.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is it not also the case that what marked out the Labour Government was that they got rid of almost all the in-house information officers in each Department, because they wanted their message to be put across not in an official way, but by spin?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

That is not true; it is a wholly inaccurate statement. I assume that the hon. Gentleman could not have listened carefully to my opening remarks, because the first point that I made to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was that we were determined to make some changes; changes in policy, certainly, but also necessary changes in personnel, where they were appropriate. As I also emphasised, changes in personnel were made by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) when Baroness Thatcher left 10 Downing street; there is nothing wrong with that at all—although whether those changes were an improvement is another matter.

I must move on to some of the issues of greater substance raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I am pleased to have the opportunity to put on record the Government's appreciation of the important work done by the Government Information and Communications Service. When he discussed the service, the right hon. Gentleman largely confined his remarks to only two people in the whole of a large, extensive and effective service. The staff of that service play a key role, all day and every day, in carrying out the important task of effectively communicating and explaining the policies, decisions and actions of the Government of the day. They do so through the media and through paid publicity campaigns, conducted in an appropriate way, having regard to the need to be able to justify the costs to public funds. In my experience, they perform that task effectively, efficiently and impartially, providing a service as politically impartial civil servants, in line with the civil service code introduced by the previous Administration in January 1996.

Hon. Members will recall that the code was based on the draft proposed by the Treasury Committee. Surely, there can be no complaint between us about the important work of the Government Information and Communications Service.

Since the election, the Government have set a challenging pace in their programme of reform and improvement, and we shall continue to do so. The GICS press and publicity staff have put considerable energy and skill into supporting the Government's programme and, during the past year, they have done so while shouldering the burden of change. The changes are not yet complete, but I should like to take this opportunity to thank the staff for their professionalism and commitment.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman will note that I expressed my appreciation of the work done by the civil service part of the Government's press machine and, indeed, of some of the work done by the Government's more political special adviser press officers. However, he must be aware that, on the civil service side of the press machine, there has been considerable anxiety that the pace of change also involved pushing at what had been long understood to be fairly clear boundaries about what constitutes non-partisan behaviour and what is going too far in the direction of commitment to the Government, as opposed to the public administration system as a whole. It would be unreasonable if he did not recognise that there are anxieties that need to be allayed.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

Shortly after Labour came into office, the then head of the home civil service, Sir Robin Butler, commissioned a review into the GICS which was undertaken by a small group chaired by Sir Robin Mountfield, the permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office. It examined what needed to be done to ensure that the GICS was in a position to meet the demands of what is now a 24-hour media world.

The review was prompted by concerns not about the politicisation of the service, but about ensuring that the service had the skills and resources necessary to take it into the 21st century. I remind the House that the group was headed by Sir Robin Mountfield, the Cabinet Office permanent secretary, not by a politician. Its main recommendations were: to improve co-ordination with and from the centre through a new strategic communications unit; to improve co-ordination within departments so that Ministers, special advisers, press officers and policy civil servants all play their part in the coherent formulation and communication of policy; to bring the practice and procedures of the Government press offices up to the standards of the best, geared to quick response around the clock—sometimes I wish that it could be even quicker; to develop closer and better working relations between policy civil servants and press offices; and, finally and most importantly, to reaffirm that the service would remain politically impartial to sustain its trusted values.

One of the Government's earliest decisions, in July 1997, was to publish the latest version of the rules, the "Guidance on the Work of the Government Information Service". Thus, we again published the conclusions and recommendations. The result of the review was a continuing programme of action to ensure that the Mountfield recommendations are given the priority that they deserve. A progress report on them was placed in the Library of the House last summer and we hope to publish the next progress reports shortly. If any hon. Member wants to complain about the recommendations or their implementation, I invite him or her to talk to me in the Cabinet Office, or write to me, and I shall take the matter up. As I said about abuse of power, we have had no such complaints, suggestions or recommendations for change or improvement from any party in the House.

Our decision to have a strong centre with political drive to ensure a firm political focus to the work of this Administration was a pre-election commitment. We have increased the numbers of special advisers and there are now some 70 full and part-time special advisers employed across Whitehall, but I make no apology for that. Equally, it is important that we keep the number in perspective: it is extremely small compared with the number of permanent civil servants.

We have been open about the number of special advisers and the terms and conditions under which they are appointed. For the first time ever, we published a "Model Contract for Special Advisers", making clear their role and responsibilities.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

No, not at the moment.

The model contract was promulgated by the Prime Minister and placed in the Library of the House in May 1997. Distinguishing clearly the roles of special advisers and permanent civil servants ensures that there is no misunderstanding about their respective roles. I am aware of no genuine misunderstanding about that. I regularly meet civil servants not only from my Department, the Cabinet Office, but from other Departments; indeed, I regularly meet the civil service unions, as the House would expect of me. No one from the civil service has raised any complaints of that nature with me in the admittedly all-too-brief time in which I have held these responsibilities.

Equally, by acknowledging the role of special advisers in that way, we protect the political neutrality of the permanent civil service. I agree with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that it is essential that that is done. The only exception to the general rules regarding the advisory role of special advisers applies to the Prime Minister's chief of staff and press secretary—his official spokesman.

As the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said in an intervention, immediately after the election, the Civil Service Order in Council 1995 was amended to enable up to three posts in the Prime Minister's office to have additional powers, allowing it to have civil servants working for it. Once again, we were entirely open about our intentions. Of those three posts, only two have been taken up. We believe that, to be truly effective, those posts should not be filled by individuals who would be expected to perform a similar role for an Administration of a different political party.

The Prime Minister's chief of staff and the Prime Minister's press secretary—like all other civil servants—are accountable to Ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament. What they can and cannot do is set out clearly in their contracts. The Prime Minister's press secretary made public his contract following a request from the Select Committee on Public Administration.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed rightly focused on a freedom of information Act. I share his general objectives in the matter, as do the Government. The Government entirely agree that the public interest is best served by greater access to information. That has been demonstrated many times in what we have already done. I think of the judicial inquiry into BSE, the encouragement of advisory committees to appoint watchdogs and consumer representatives and to publish their agendas and minutes, and the interesting and important development in departmental web sites. I agree that much more can be done in that regard. None the less, all those developments have been going on, and continue to do so.

The Government's major programme of constitutional reform—another objective that we share with the Liberal Democrats—aims to involve people more closely in decisions that affect their lives. That is done through changing not just institutional structures, but the way in which our institutions work. That means greater openness, greater accountability and greater contact with individuals and organisations outside government and Whitehall.

I personally feel very strongly committed to such aims and objectives. A good example of what I am talking about is the discussion forum on modernising government, which the Cabinet Office and No. 10 Downing street have jointly launched on the internet today. People will be able to call up the site, give their views about what they would like, see some of our working documents and comment on them.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is right to say that the key component of the programme is a freedom of information Act. We believe that such an Act will lead to greater accountability, more involvement of the public in decision making, better decision making across the public sector and, ultimately, better government.

The Government published their proposals in December 1997 in a White Paper, "Your Right To Know". That was a major step towards fulfilling our manifesto commitment to legislate for freedom of information. I pay tribute to the work done on that by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark).

The Home Office took over responsibility for freedom of information legislation from the Cabinet Office when changes were made to the Government in the summer, in order to enable policy to be developed alongside other constitutional measures, such as human rights and data protection. That has also allowed my Department to concentrate on its new role of supporting the Prime Minister, and the Government as a whole, in driving forward strategic policy formulation and implementation. In addition, a great deal of my Department's work is aimed at producing the White Paper on modernising government and ensuring that that programme is taken forward across the Government.

Following those developments, the Home Office has devoted a great deal of effort to translating the White Paper's proposals into a draft Bill. I can say that with absolute authority because I am a member of the committee that is working to produce that Bill. We plan to publish a draft freedom of information Bill shortly. We then look forward to a thorough and informed debate. Following consultation, the Bill will be introduced as soon as the legislative programme allows. I accept the point by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that, realistically, given the timetable that we face, it is unlikely to be possible to steer the Bill through all stages this Session, even if it were possible to agree on it being carried over to the next Session.

The Select Committee on Public Administration has asked for three months to scrutinise the Bill. The Government want to meet that commitment on behalf of the House. We have also undertaken, quite properly, to provide a period of public consultation. It will be proper consultation, in which the views of respondents will be taken into account. We hope and believe that consultation and scrutiny will lead to a better Bill, resulting in the smoother passage of Bills in general.

The freedom of information Bill will be a highly complex piece of legislation, as I well know, and it is vital for the Act in which it will result to be effective and workable. I know that some people think that we have waited long enough, but surely it is worth taking just a little more time to do all that we can to ensure that we get the legislation right.

The Government have acknowledged the importance of the Government Information and Communications Service to the effective development and implementation of policy. We have reaffirmed the political integrity and impartiality of the service, and we are making progress towards a freedom of information Act that will form just one part of the wholesale modernisation of the government and constitution of this country.

For those reasons, I urge the House to reject the Liberal Democrat motion and support our amendment.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 4:31 pm, 13th January 1999

The official Opposition endorse the criticisms in the Liberal Democrat motion of the Labour party's treatment of the Government Information and Communications Service. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on his perceptive and important speech. Like him, I deplore the obsession with appearance as opposed to substance. I hope that progress can be made with freedom of information legislation, although I must add that I do not think such legislation will solve the problem that the right hon. Gentleman described at the beginning of his speech.

On the subject of freedom of information, I was concerned to receive today, from the Cabinet Office, a reply to a letter that I had written to the Minister on 1 December. Six weeks later, the letter states: He"— the Minister— had hoped to reply to your letter by now and is very sorry he is unable to do so as advice is being sought from the Freedom of Information unit. I hope that the Government's objective is to accelerate rather than delay the distribution of information to hon. Members.

The Liberal Democrats have identified an important issue, but if I were offered the first Opposition day debate of 1999, with the Government very much on the defensive—with the national health service facing a crisis, the retail trade trying to recover from a difficult Christmas, agriculture on its knees and the Chancellor sticking to a growth forecast that hardly anyone else believes—I am not sure that, given that promising list of targets, my prime suspect would be the Government Information and Communications Service. The Liberal Democrats' choice of subject tells us something about the dilemma that confronts them: they are having to decide, basically, whether they are with the Government or against them.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Perhaps I will pre-empt the right hon. Gentleman's intervention if I add that the motion is serious, and deserves a better response than the one that we have just heard.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman is very generous, but he may have missed the fact that we spent a considerable part of the morning engaging in a major and well-attended debate about the crisis in the health service, initiated by a Liberal Democrat.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

It is true that a debate lasting an hour and a half took place this morning on pay and conditions for NHS nurses, but that is not quite the same as a three-hour debate on an Opposition day.

There are many ways of describing both the worrying changes in the presentation of Government policy that have occurred since 1997, and the shift in the terms of trade between policy maker and policy presenter. One of the best ways of explaining the change is, perhaps, to refer to a chart that appeared in a Sunday newspaper 10 days ago. On one side of the chart—in favour of a proposition—were pictured seven Cabinet Ministers, with their individual views; on the other side—against the proposition—were seven other Cabinet Ministers, with their views. At the bottom of the page were six more, described as maintaining a discreet pager silence.

What was the important issue? Was it early entry into the euro, increasing the top rate of tax, giving nurses the full amount recommended by the pay review body, reforming the House of Lords? No; the issue was whether Mr. Charles Whelan, a junior Treasury official, should be sacked. That that should have become the currency of serious political debate is a direct consequence of the style of news management that we now have, and of the status given by the present Government to those who are believed to have particular presentational skills. The fact that Charlie Whelan's resignation overshadowed the launch of the first European single currency since the Romans tells us that we have a Government whose priorities are distorted—they are preoccupied with packaging as opposed to content.

It is not just Liberal Democrats and Conservatives who find that offensive. A growing number of Labour Members are reacting against the power that the Government have given to the spin doctors. Two of the bolder ones raised the matter on a point of order on Monday on the first day back after the Christmas recess.

We have become so accustomed to the partisan briefings of the Chancellor's former press secretary that it is necessary to be reminded of the ground rules—the official guidance on the work of the Government Information and Communications Service, which was circulated by the Cabinet Office in July 1997. Paragraph 2 tells us that the activities of the service should be objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical. It goes on to say that they should not be, or be liable to misrepresentation as being, Party political. The guidance goes on to say that the resources of the Government information service may not be used to support publicity for Party political purposes", and that personalisation of issues or personal image-making should be avoided".

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

The right hon. Gentleman was just complaining about the devotion of pages of the national newspapers to matters of trivia, yet here he is devoting the opening part of his speech to the same trivia. It is obvious, as the Prime Minister and I, and others, have made clear, that the Government would much prefer such stuff not to be in the national newspapers, but the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we are in charge of their editorial policy as well, is he?

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The right hon. Gentleman misses the point. We have a new Administration who are obsessed with presentation. They have changed the terms of trade and attach almost as much importance to those with presentational skills as to those who have the ability to formulate policy. They are paying the price for that because the press are diverting attention to those who carry the message and not focusing on the substance. Frankly, the Government have no one else to blame for the problems over the past three weeks but themselves.

I have referred to the new rules that were brought in by the Government. As I looked through the mountain of press cuttings that have been kindly supplied by the Library, I was struck by the number of commentators—not politicians—who believe that, to put it kindly, the rules have been stretched to breaking point and that injury is being done both to our tradition of a professional and impartial civil service and to the concept of not using taxpayers' funds for party political purposes.

To understand what has happened, first one must look at the key position of Alastair Campbell. It is no secret that he was closely associated with the presentation of Labour's policy in opposition. He is personally deeply committed to the Prime Minister and to the Labour party. He is now technically a special adviser—a ministerial appointment—and not a civil servant. His importance is due to the fact that, both in opposition and in government, the Prime Minister places a premium on presentation. That is why, in last weekend's edition of The Sunday Times, the former director of information at the Department of Health said: his power over the commanding heights of Government makes Alastair effectively deputy prime minister. Sorry, Mr. Prescott. That person held that post until January 1.

Not only can Mr. Campbell now get involved in party political controversy, but, by an amendment to the Civil Service Order in Council 1995, he was given executive power and instructs civil servants. However, the civil servants are, of course, bound by the guidance from which I have quoted. A political animal giving leadership to a non-political service inevitably gives rise to tension.

As we have heard, within months, seven chief press officers left their post—I think that it has now risen to 10—causing much concern in the civil service and to the then head of the civil service, Sir Robin Butler. Although the Mountfield report has promised to maintain a politically impartial Government information service, the key role given to Alastair Campbell and the introduction of special advisers into the new strategic communications unit that co-ordinates presentation of Government policy has inevitably led to further accusations of the politicisation of the information service and to tension within Whitehall. However, that is not the only tension in the system.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I will make the point and then I will give way.

To understand the fuller picture and the other tensions that culminated in Charlie Whelan's resignation, one needs to know a little about today's Labour party. Perhaps the easiest and shortest way of doing that is by referring to the African tribal system and to the Tutsi and the Hutu. There may be some important philosophical differences dividing those two tribes, but all we really need to know is that they do not like each other.

Similarly, there are tribes within the Government. However, the divisions within new Labour have less to do with policy and more to do with past betrayals, failed power struggles, opportunistic alliances and disappointed personal ambitions. In other words, as we were reminded over the weekend, they do not like each other.

To counterbalance the key role that Alastair Campbell had at No. 10 Downing street, Charlie Whelan was brought in by the Chancellor at No. 11. Therefore, far from having a unified service giving a coherent Government message, the introduction of politically committed press officers accentuated and widened the fault-line running down the middle of the Government.

The new press officers are often more concerned with the standing of their Ministers in the popularity stakes than in the presentation of their Department's policy. As The Daily Telegraph rather unkindly said, on 6 January, of Charlie Whelan: I doubt if he knows the difference between M1, M2 and the M25. The future of those press officers depends on patronage from their Minister and the success of that Minister's political future. That relationship creates a crucial distinction between the role of those officers and the previous practice of the civil service, and explains part of the reasons for the difficulties in which the Government found themselves over the Christmas recess.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister (Cabinet Office)

The right hon. Gentleman has made that allegation more than once, but has not produced a single shred of evidence to substantiate it. He has read the allegation in a newspaper and is simply repeating it in the House. He cannot substantiate it.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I shall make the point by referring to Romola Christopherson's remarks in The Sunday Times[Interruption.] I hope that Labour Members will not denigrate a civil servant who has served the Labour party well for the past 18 months. She said: But in the Treasury, Mr. Whelan was spinning out of control. Knocking chunks off departments and Ministers, working Mr. Brown up and others over, he raised hackles and pints. Indeed, the more one reads about Mr. Whelan, the odder it seems that he was ever allowed in the Treasury in the first place.

The tensions that I have mentioned have, in recent weeks, led to much distress for the Government, over which I shed few tears. However, there have been some worrying developments, both for civil servants and for news management. I think that the House needs to be concerned with those developments.

Jill Rutter, a former head of the Treasury press office, made the point well at a meeting of the Social Market Foundation. She said: Once the news is out—in a speech or an official release—it is a free good. But unreleased information is a valuable commodity. The genius of the government's news managers is to recognise and exploit that fact and use it to create a long-term dependence relationship. She went on to warn that we could be turning the Government information service into a powerful machine to secure the permanent advantages of incumbency.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

While my right hon. Friend is dealing with that important point, will he recall that the current Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in his earlier capacity as Minister for School Standards, shamefully sought to bully a career information officer, Mr. Jonathan Haslam, into putting more political spin into a press release on education? When Mr. Haslam refused to comply with the instruction, the right hon. Gentleman reported him to the permanent secretary. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Haslam left the public service. Is that not a shameful state of affairs?

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend refers to the incident in which the official, who left his post shortly after the incident occurred, was said to have insisted that it was a party political matter with which civil servants should not have become involved. It is a good example of some of the changes that have occurred.

I should say, as an aside, that the Labour party's disciplined and centralised approach to policy announcements is in marked contrast to the Liberal Democrats's approach. The Liberal Democrats' more devolved and relaxed style permits a more flexible approach to policy, readily adaptable to an urban or a rural environment. If I may say so, I prefer the third way that has been adopted by the Conservative party.

Jill Rutter's warning, which I have quoted, should concern all hon. Members. The use of the ownership of a valuable commodity to secure favourable coverage in the press—and, conversely, withholding information, which is the raw material of a journalist, from those who are less co-operative—is a dangerous development. That concern was shared by the Select Committee on Public Administration. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) on that Select Committee. Although a number of amendments put forward by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were voted down by the Labour majority, many of the recommendations that were carried were aimed at clarifying the distinction between effective presentation of Government policy and party political advocacy.

Another worrying development was the production last July of the Government's annual report. All references to bad news were airbrushed out and it contained a number of political aspirations better located in an election manifesto.

We have also seen a tendency to recycle information. We all approve of the proposition that 65 per cent. of new houses should be built on recycled land, but we now have a policy that 65 per cent. of all press notices should be recycled news. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced that £55 million was to be spent on teaching more maths. The press release was headlined, "Times tables key in £55 million numeracy drive". The money turned out to be a close relation of the £60 million announced for the same purpose back on 8 July under the heading, "£60 million boost makes maths count". Sadly, £5 million had been lost on the journey.

The Government amendment shows no recognition of the important issues raised in the debate and by serious political commentators on the civil service. The Minister's speech also lacked any recognition of those points. The more that one reads about the Government, the more that one asks how collective government can work with such a poisonous cocktail of warring personalities jockeying for position under the Prime Minister. The Government's reaction to the crisis has been a counter-offensive featuring speeches. The Chancellor's keynote speech on Monday was described by The Guardian yesterday as "humourless, repetitive and earnest" and its message as nothing if not familiar in its content and its now unchallengeable banality. Hon. Members on both sides want a more positive response. In the words of The Scotsman on 5 January: It is time for Mr. Blair to put this wretched period behind him and replace the fetish for style with some radical substance. That is a difficult challenge for a Government whose programme, lacking a theme or any philosophical continuity, is merely a rag-bag of items derived from focus groups.

What is happening is bad not just for the Government, but for the House of Commons and for democracy. Despite regular warnings from Madam Speaker, many Government announcements are so comprehensively trailed that telling Parliament is an afterthought. Journalists get more information earlier than Parliament does. Proper scrutiny is becoming more difficult. That adds to the sidelining of Parliament, something that concerns hon. Members on both sides.

Photo of Fraser Kemp Fraser Kemp Labour, Houghton and Washington East

The right hon. Gentleman seeks objectivity from Prime Minister's press secretaries. Does he believe that the comments of Sir Bernard Ingham, a previous Prime Minister's press secretary who referred to John Biffen as "semi-detached" and Francis Pym as "Mona Lott", were conducive to good Cabinet government?

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Sir Bernard Ingham is well able to defend himself. He was a civil servant and rigidly defined his role as never crossing the boundary between the civil service and party politics. Alastair Campbell is not a civil servant; he is a special adviser. That is the key difference.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am not giving way. I have given way once. I have given way lots of times.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. You all have to give way to me. It is clear that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is not giving way.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

A number of hon. Members want to speak and I have given way several times.

Alastair Campbell is a special adviser. Despite many warnings from Madam Speaker, the Government have adopted a dismissive approach to the rights of Parliament. In the words of The Times: This Government has played fast and loose with the principle of Parliamentary scrutiny and thus the right of the people's elected representatives to check the powerful, in an effort to shape the media agenda. The chickens are coming home to roost. I can do no better than end with a perceptive quotation made by Matthew Parris six months ago: This world and these men"— he was referring to the spin doctors— will be the downfall of Mr. Blair. These are not the fire-fighters, they are the fire and they will burn him.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Labour, South Shields 4:49 pm, 13th January 1999

I very much welcome this debate, and I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have chosen this issue for discussion this afternoon. I only regret that we have not touched on the big questions that are posed by information not only to our democracy, but to our commerce and industry. I regret that the Liberal Democrats have emphasised the minutiae and left the big picture. I would like to develop some of the big ideas as well.

It seemed to me that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the official Opposition spokesman, built his speech on fanciful notions and false presumptions, and I will pick up on some of those points as I go along.

It is clear to me that information is power. Perhaps it is because I am old Labour, but I can recollect all the trade union banners of old which showed that the point that education and information are power was recognised by those pioneers. It is as true today as it was then. Information poses a challenge to us as members of the legislature in terms of how we access power. I shall return to this matter in discussing the White Paper on the right to know and the freedom of information Bill. Information is critical to the struggle that goes on under all Administrations between the legislature and the Executive, and that is right and healthy.

The other aspect of the debate is the relationship between the Government and the citizen. With many more outlets to dispense and disseminate information, it is critical that the citizen have access to information. I would argue, and the Government recognise, that information is a critical part of the democratic process. It should not be a bolt-on aspect, but an intrinsic part of the democratic process. The Labour party recognised that in opposition, and we tried to put it in practice from day one in government. It is ironic that information technology allows an increasing amount of information to be disseminated, and it is through IT that we need to tackle the matter.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the special Order in Council concerning Alastair Campbell, and the role of the Government at that time. We took the decision for the very reason that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire outlined when he cited Sir Bernard Ingham as an independent career civil servant. He was a career civil servant, but nobody could challenge his instinctive feel for what the then Prime Minister was thinking. He pulled no punches. I do not grumble about that—that is the job of a good press officer to the Prime Minister.

With that in mind, we felt it important that, to ensure the political integrity and neutrality of the career civil servant, we should have the Order in Council, and that we should make this special exception for Alastair Campbell—as the Prime Minister's press officer—to be a civil servant as a special adviser. He is a civil servant, but he is not a career civil servant. We felt that that was the best and most transparent approach.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Does not the right hon. Gentleman grasp that there is a fundamental difference between the two cases? Sir Bernard Ingham never transgressed into party politics. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] It is important that Labour Members read the evidence. He was a former Labour supporter—a Labour candidate, as it happens.

The fundamental difference is that Alastair Campbell attends Labour party conferences. Sir Bernard Ingham never attended Conservative party conferences. The Prime Minister himself said that his press secretary does a good job of attacking the Conservative party. The attribution of such remarks to Sir Bernard Ingham would be absurd. There is thus a fundamental difference between the two cases.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Labour, South Shields

There is indeed a fundamental difference. It is that we in government made it quite clear where Alastair Campbell stood and where he came from. There is no misunderstanding. To try to spin the argument that Sir Bernard Ingham did not transgress into party politics is futile and laughable.

We felt that it was right to abandon the charade, which is what we did. Even then, we took the matter forward. We set up the Mountfield committee. May I say as an aside how delighted I was to see Robin Mountfield get the KCB in the new year's honours? It was well deserved. The committee produced proposals to ensure the political integrity of the Government Information and Communications Service. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, made clear, that report is available in the Library of the House. The monitoring report is also available in the Library and I urge hon. Members to look at them both.

We are at a stage in our history when the concept of representative democracy is being debated and challenged, and must be changed. The way that we use information is a critical aspect of that. I would argue that the freedom of information legislation is crucial.

I empathise with a great deal of the motion moved by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on freedom of information. I acknowledge, and am grateful for, the support that I received from those on the Liberal Benches in our campaign for that.

There is agreement across the House on the matter. I was disappointed that it was not in the Queen's Speech, but I was reassured this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Minister telling us that good progress was being made on the draft Bill. Even if he were present—I understand why he is not—he could not give a commitment that it would be in next year's Queen's Speech, but from what he said, it would be amazing and the House would be astounded if that Bill did not appear then. That is extremely encouraging.

Let us be bold when we introduce the Bill. Something struck me over the Christmas recess as I watched the television reports about the release of Government records under the 30-year rule. We heard Lord Callaghan discussing the Race Relations Act 1968. He said that one of the mistakes that he made when that legislation was enacted was to listen too attentively to soundings and views from the Police Federation about excluding the police.

I do not want to do anything, and the Government should not do anything, that inhibits the catching of criminals and the pursuing of prosecutions. Nobody wants that. However, we must not repeat the mistake with freedom of information that we made with the Race Relations Act.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, under freedom of information legislation, the security services should be subject to the test of substantial harm, rather than being excluded entirely?

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Labour, South Shields

I should prefer to wait and see the draft Bill. We have rehearsed all the arguments in the past.

We do not have to wait for a freedom of information Act before we make more information freely available. That was a message that I kept hammering home to my former Cabinet colleagues, and I was encouraged by their response. Under this Government, much more information has been made available to citizens and to Members of Parliament. We have seen the Government moving slowly into the IT age. We have seen also increasing use being made of the internet by government and by Members. That must be good. A good example of use of the internet and disseminating Government information arose from the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the Yemen issue on Monday. An Opposition Member said that travel agents and people travelling abroad often use the internet to obtain the latest Foreign Office advice on whether it is safe to go abroad. That is a good use of Government information.

There is, however, a down side. I offer this message to civil servants: it is critical that Government websites be kept up to date. I was appalled at times by the Cabinet website when I was in charge of it. As a result, we appointed a webmaster to ensure that the websites were up to date; otherwise, everything depended on a civil servant having a quiet Friday afternoon, when it might be raining, to update a website. That is not good enough.

As soon as White Papers are published, we have seen the Government putting the information on the internet. That is the right way forward. I was amused when we were wrestling with the problem of the millennium bug, way back 15 months ago. I had written to all Government Departments asking about their plans. I had decided that I would publish those detailed plans as we received them and make them available on the internet. I called in a number of journalists to brief them. They were suspicious, as always. In effect, they said, "Well, you are just telling us this, you are just telling us that."

I said, "I will give you the whole lot." I gave them 1,200 pages each on which were set out the plans. They wrote nothing about the millennium bug. Certainly there was no criticism. There is a message and a moral in that. We have a culture of secrecy and, because of that culture, people become far too suspicious. They have a bit of information and therefore, as Jill Rutter says, they feel that there are nine tenths or eight ninths of it still under the water, and they want to get hold of it. If we are co-operative in releasing information, we shall be able to communicate much better with the citizens of this country.

An important example of providing information is trying to find new ways of extending democracy. I think especially of the people's panel, which I considered to be an underrated experiment in government. There would be a legitimate complaint against us if we did not publish all the information that the panel produces. If we failed to do so, the information would remain the preserve of the Government, and that would not be healthy. That is why we took the decision to publish all the information produced by the people's panel.

I shall bring my remarks to an end by expressing a few thoughts about the White Paper and making a few points about background information. There is much raw material or information held by government and other public bodies that is kept secret unnecessarily. It is incumbent on Governments to produce that raw information. It may sometimes be produced after the decision has been made but it is still useful. I was pleased that, a few weeks after we produced the White Paper, we produced also, for the first time, all the background information and raw data upon which the White Paper had been constructed. There should be much more of that sort of activity.

To the Government's credit, there was a move to have a national statistical service. That was a step in the right direction, which removed from the political arena the debate, discussions and slanging matches that went on in the past.

I wonder whether the Government could be a little more proactive in the release of Government statistics. Often, statistics get treated, and they are 12 months out of date. It would be helpful to our country, our industry, our commerce and our democracy if statistics were available in raw fashion much sooner. While the Government's statisticians are still working on the data, independent and business statisticians could also be using them to the advantage of the country.

We are moving not only into a new millennium, but into a new age. We are moving from the age of the industrial society towards a new information society. That gives all sorts of opportunities for more information to be made available to citizens. It will allow us to rebuild the relationship with our citizens. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, debating the Queen's Speech in November, said that Britain had a unique opportunity to take advantage of the English language, the foremost spoken language in the world.

We shall go through many upheavals as we move into a new society, and access to information is critical. Just to show how on-message I am, let me once again quote the Prime Minister who, in arguing for a freedom of information Bill, said: It will signal a new relationship between government and people: a relationship which sees the public as legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country and sees election to serve the public as being given on trust.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

I served on the Select Committee that considered freedom of information before the proposals were produced. We travelled around the world, to Canada and Sweden, which have had freedom of information for many years. Everywhere we went, the proposals were given accolades as being far reaching and advanced. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Bill will come out in the form it would have taken when he was in charge of it, or will it be watered down?

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Labour, South Shields

I hope that the Bill will not be watered down. I have already urged my right hon. and hon. Friends to be bold. I accept the sentiment behind what my hon. Friend has said in one sense: the information age offers a great many challenges, but it offers many opportunities too. I believe that, if we do the right thing, we can move from being one of the most secretive societies in the western world to being one of the most open. If we do, we shall re-engage with our citizens and we shall help commerce and industry. I passionately believe that we shall also start to rebuild trust in our democratic process.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester 5:08 pm, 13th January 1999

I shall concentrate on only one aspect of this wide-ranging debate. Labour's changes, although they appear to be incremental, are in fact fundamentally altering the relationship between the civil service and politicians. That process has been occurring for a long time, but has accelerated during the past 18 months. I can illustrate that point with figures for the large number of outside advisers appointed to Whitehall. More than 60 were appointed immediately after the election, and now the number is more than 80. There are about 20 at 10 Downing street at a cost of more than £1 million a year.

A suitable figure for comparison is the number of advisers appointed under Margaret Thatcher's Government on the last occasion on which there was a change of Administration. That Government appointed seven advisers, compared with 60 in 1998. There is always a ratchet effect: the Government began with 60 and are up to 80 after just 18 months; the previous Government's number rose from seven to 35 over 18 years.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Perhaps it would serve the hon. Gentleman's purpose if he got his facts right. It is not 80, but 70, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office stated earlier.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I will check that figure, but, when I added them up, I got well above 70. If the hon. Gentleman is correct, 60 to 70 is an increase of 10, which is a sharp increase in 18 months—between 15 and 17 per cent.

The doubling since the election represents a fundamental shift in the way in which Whitehall operates. If those advisers are in key positions close to Ministers, it means that the way in which decisions are taken, and the scope for officials to get advice to Ministers, has been altered. The balance of power in Whitehall Departments has altered, and that should not be underestimated.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office made a chilling comparison between the numbers of civil servants and of advisers, as though there should be some sort of rough balance between them, or the numbers could be considered comparable. The key figure is how many people a Minister has in his close entourage. Are we developing a French-style cabinet system?

The Labour Government have also altered the way in which we are governed by introducing Orders in Council to enable them to appoint outsiders to key posts hitherto held by civil servants. The Prime Minister's principal private secretary, Jonathan Powell, is one, although he travels under the title of chief of staff. Alastair Campbell, the chief press secretary, is another.

I do not object in principle to the introduction of all those outsiders into Whitehall—it may be a good thing and perhaps Whitehall needs them—but 1 object to the impression being given that nothing has changed and that we are carrying on just as before. That is complete nonsense, because something fundamental is happening.

With the Government's emphasis on media handling ahead of policy, it is hardly surprising that the Government Information and Communications Service is one of the areas in which those effects have been felt most. In several cases, Labour advisers were brought in explicitly to do press jobs, which were previously carried out by line civil servants; Alastair Campbell is an example. In other cases, that happens unofficially; Charlie Whelan is a case in point and, of course, Jill Rutter had to leave because she apparently felt that her position in the Treasury was untenable—she has gone to the private sector. In other cases, the selection procedure for replacing press officers seems too often to throw up Labour sympathisers who were working in the media beforehand.

Little public attention has been brought to bear on the way in which Whitehall is changing because it is not a matter in which the public are particularly interested. They have focused on the froth and the battles between senior Labour Ministers, which led to the resignation of one Minister, who is leaving the Chamber as I speak.

Because of the changes in the GCIS, which people I knew who worked there discussed with me, I decided to raise the issue in the Select Committee on Public Administration, on which I served. In autumn 1997, I asked whether we could launch an inquiry into the information service and subsequently, in the following spring, wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee. I was delighted when the Committee went ahead with that inquiry. It unearthed several things that just will not do.

First, it must be wrong for anyone whose salary is paid by the taxpayer to engage explicitly in party political activities. Alastair Campbell is paid more than £90,000 a year—perhaps the Minister will give me the exact figure—from the Exchequer. He should not be spending his time attacking the Conservative party, but that is exactly what the Prime Minister brazenly said at the Dispatch Box that he is doing and that it is his job to do.

When I asked the Cabinet Secretary when he came before the Select Committee if he agreed that that was wrong, he wriggled a little. Amusingly, when I pressed him a little more, he took up the customary, but painful, position that most senior officials take on such occasions and sat on the fence. In his evidence, he ended up distinguishing between attacking the Opposition, which was almost okay, and attacking them with bricks and bottles, which he felt was not.

Alastair Campbell's contract clearly states that he should not take part in national political activity. Schedule 1, part 2 of his contract says: Special advisers must not take part in national political activities nor must they engage in national political controversy. However, Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, was unable to tell the Select Committee whether what the Prime Minister described as attacking the Conservative party constituted party political activity. I should have thought that it was pretty clear. In their evidence, both he and Alastair Campbell suggested that acting as a spokesman at the Labour party conference did not constitute party political activity or being a spokesman for the Labour party. That is merely Sir Humphrey double-speak.

I readily acknowledge that there has been some awkwardness about some of the activities that special advisers have been asked to undertake, under both Conservative and Labour Administrations, because they are funded by the taxpayer but are involved in activities that may be close to the line. However, Labour's decision to politicise Whitehall and to use taxpayers' funds for party political purposes on a large scale takes us down a road that will change the style of our government. It will take us away from a politically neutral civil service, towards an American system of government.

A second issue is that of enforceability of contracts. Special advisers who worked under the previous Government were sometimes at the edges of what might be considered acceptable, but in my experience that was all the subject of a typically British compromise and there were negotiations over many of the issues. As far as I know, the issue of whether any adviser came close to breaching his contract never arose. No adviser ever got to the point at which his permanent secretary felt the need to speak to him. Plainly, Labour's special advisers are engaging in national party political activity on a pretty big scale. Many people know that—everyone in the Press Gallery, for example—and they know that, in doing so, they are clearly in breach of their contracts.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman asks why, under the previous Government, there was no threat of a special adviser being removed because of breach of contract. Is that not because, under that Government, no one knew the terms of reference for such advisers? It is only since we established a model contract for them that everyone has understood their role.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Is the Minister suggesting that Labour thought that special advisers were appointed exclusively to do party political work paid for by the taxpayer and that the incoming Government were shocked to discover when they brought in their own advisers that there was some limit to what they could do? Of course he is not. The Labour party knew very well that special advisers should not engage in party political activity. If they had been doing so, permanent secretaries would have done something about it.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I should like to make some progress before giving way, although I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is also a member of the Public Administration Committee.

Who will enforce those contracts? When I asked the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, who was responsible for enforcing a contract that had clearly been breached, he could not offer me any comfort and nor could his predecessor, Sir Robin Butler, to whom I had put the same question. It seems that it is the job of the permanent secretary in a Department to spot a breach, but he has no power to enforce the contract. Although the special adviser's contract is with the departmental head, the permanent secretary cannot do anything about it. He cannot sack an adviser, because he did not appoint him or her; the adviser is appointed by his Secretary of State. We are in the crazy position—something has to be done about this—where special advisers can do no more than breach their contracts, but the permanent secretary can merely have a word about it with his Minister and, perhaps, the Cabinet Secretary and there the matter has to end.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

If I remember correctly, the permanent secretary's evidence to the Committee was that he had no problem with Alastair Campbell and that he had not breached the rules. I think that the hon. Gentleman was there when that was said.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I was certainly there. It is unimaginable that the Cabinet Secretary would have said that there had been a clear breach of rules but that we should not worry because he was not going to do anything about it. An elementary knowledge of these things—the hon. Gentleman heard me say this earlier—shows that the first place that a Cabinet Secretary will put himself when he is under pressure is on the fence. If one that looks at his evidence, one sees that that is exactly where he was sitting.

Several straightforward things can and should be done to stop this attack—whether it is intended or unintended is irrelevant—on Whitehall impartiality, and put matters back on a sustainable basis. First, people such as Alastair Campbell who are expected to do overtly party political work should be paid from party political funds. Their salaries should not be paid by taxpayers. It is not acceptable to expect taxpayers to fund Alastair Campbell's attacks on the Conservative party. That is an unacceptable abuse of Government money. Likewise, the strategic communications unit should probably be paid for from party funds.

Secondly, I do not believe that there should be any further changes to the civil service Orders in Council to give special advisers the authority to manage other civil servants. That is the key aspect of the changes. All civil servants, without exception, should be appointed in the normal way on the basis of fair and open competition. Thirdly, permanent secretaries should be made explicitly responsible for enforcement of special advisers' compliance with their contracts.

Those are sensible suggestions, three of which were tabled as amendments to the Select Committee report, to which, in the end, I had to write a minority report. I regret that, and the fact that a partisan element crept into the Committee's work. I strongly support the work of Select Committees in principle. I do not believe that my suggestions, which constituted three of the four amendments that I tabled, are over the top, or that they are partisan. They would help to preserve the impartiality of the civil service and reassure taxpayers that their money is not misappropriated for party political use.

We are at the first stage of a trip towards the Americanisation of politics, with excessive attention to media handling, big increases in the number of special advisers and a presidential style emanating in so many ways from No. 10. If the House wants to do something about it, we must press the Government to put in place some of the sensible proposals that I have outlined.

Photo of Mr Rhodri Morgan Mr Rhodri Morgan Labour, Cardiff West 5:23 pm, 13th January 1999

In a way, I am grateful to the Liberals for raising these issues, but the material that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) produced in support of his case was pretty thin. It is not unfair to say that, on the Richter scale of saturated fireworks, it was less a damp squib than a soggy sparkler. He constantly referred to newspaper articles written over the past 12 months, which does not in itself mean that he has a case. If the case were to stand up, it should have dealt with subversion of the orthodoxies of how we run government by excessive use of spin doctoring, excessive concentration on presentation and so forth.

The same criticism applies to the speech of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). Hiding behind the skirts of Romola Christopherson does him no credit. Her article in The Sunday Times was excellently written. There is no questioning her status as the recently retired doyenne of her profession as a career information civil servant in the Government Information and Communications Service. She showed the undoubted tensions in the service between the old ways of doing things and the new ways brought in by Labour, but the article did not amount to a devastating attack on what Labour are doing; I found it enjoyable reading. It did not describe Alastair Campbell as new Labour's version of Joseph Goebbels or say that we were about to embark on a slippery slope that would lead to the total subversion of normal democratic government. It was simply that she had one way of doing things, which she did brilliantly throughout her career, and that Alastair Campbell does things entirely differently, and is doing them brilliantly in his way.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I wonder whether that is a fair summary of what Romola Christopherson said. She actually said: So the government sidelines parliament and is heavily into focus groups, road shows, citizens' juries, people's panels…Such forms of popular involvement can complement representative democracy but should surely not replace it. That is a more substantive attack than the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Photo of Mr Rhodri Morgan Mr Rhodri Morgan Labour, Cardiff West

If Romola Christopherson had said that the Government had subverted representative democracy, the right hon. Gentleman would have a case, although he would still be hiding behind her skirts. She also said: So far, so not at all bad". He should be more balanced in his quotes from Romola Christopherson. I assure him that he will find the quote at the end of the article.

We should concentrate on freedom of information, a subject that the Liberals attempted to weave into the issue of the Government Information and Communications Service. We are at the waiting game stage. We have not seen the draft Bill, but we did a leak, if it was one, in The Times yesterday. Under the headline "Straw to weaken code on freedom", there is a reference to what the Government's approach will be. If it is true, I must express my concern about it.

Will the substantial harm test disappear and be replaced by an across-the-board harm test? "Substantial" is a word with a considerable history in civil service memos—a wonderful British civil service word. In this context, it has a much more important meaning. There is a huge difference between denying information to the public on the basis of its release doing any harm and being able to deny its release only on the basis that it will do substantial harm to the state and its interests as listed in the White Paper. If "substantial" disappears from the draft Bill, it is likely to constitute a substantial watering down of the principles in the White Paper published by the Government, with the Prime Minister's name in the forward. That White Paper was a result of the excellent work of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Clark), who was then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancashire, with powerful support from the Lord Chancellor.

The replacement of the substantial harm test with the much easier harm test would be serious, although I understand that the Government will try to compensate for it in other aspects of the methodology of the Bill. It would enable the Government to deny information on a wider scale. The article in The Times yesterday alleged that the Government were considering codes, which would be different for each matter, on national security; law enforcement; personal privacy; commercial confidentiality; the safety of the individual, the public and the environment; information supplied in confidence; and official advice to Ministers. There were to be eight or nine categories, each with a separate code.

The problem with that is that, when the Government came into power in May 1997, they decided not to go for a freedom of information Act in their first 18 months. I think that I am right in saying that one reason for doing that was that they did not want merely to transfer into statute the non-statutory code on access to official information introduced by the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major).

It is no criticism of the right hon. Gentleman, but I think that it is fair to say that that non-statutory code has been a failure. It has simply not engaged the general public's attention. They simply do not apply for information, because it is only a non-statutory code. Moreover, on the rare occasions when members of the public do ask for information, Departments do not take their requests seriously.

The proof of that is in a press notice issued by the ombudsman, who enforces the code, because he can construe refusal to supply information as maladministration. On 10 December 1998, in his official press release on the latest annual report, he said: Too often, departments quote exemptions in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information…rather than follow the spirit of the Code and give as much information as they are able. In the four years of the existence of the non-statutory code on access to Government information, Whitehall is just as secretive as it was before. Its culture has not been changed. Nor has the culture of the citizenry been changed to expect, as happens in Sweden and Canada, to be able to obtain information from the Government unless national security or a similar interest is at stake.

In order to change the culture of Whitehall and the expectations of the citizenry, Labour said that it would introduce an Act of Parliament to enshrine freedom of information in law rather than in a non-statutory code. We sought to change the culture and the expectations on both sides, empowering the citizenry, which was all very laudable.

Labour then said that it would not merely transfer into statute the non-statutory code, but that it wanted to go much further. The problem is that, after two years of going around the houses and responsibility having been transferred to the Home Office, it appears that, if the leak is accurate, we will have a Bill that is almost identical to the one that we would have had had we legislated in June 1997, simply by putting the non-statutory code on access to Government information on a statutory basis. If that is the case, we might as well have done it in year one anyway.

If what is presupposed in the leak in The Times yesterday happens, we will have gone around in a circle. I hope that I am wrong, but, if I am right, and if the Bill emerges in a couple of weeks' time in the form predicted in The Times yesterday, based on pretty careful information supplied from some Department or other, or some spin doctor, there will be a great battle over the word "substantial" and whether it can be reinserted in the Bill.

There is a great story about the word "substantial" in south Wales. We in Wales are notorious for giving people nicknames. A manager of a tinplate works in Llanelli who came from England and had been to public school in Oxford was warned that he would probably be given a nickname, so he called in the work force and said, "Look, chaps, I am new to the area and I know that you have a great reputation for giving people nicknames. I am English and you are Welsh, so you will probably give me a nickname. I don't object to that, but I don't want one of those Mickey Mouse names. I want you to call me something substantial." From then on, he was known as Dai Substantial.

I hope that, when the Bill is published, we will not have a battle royal over the word "substantial". We want a freedom of information Bill based on the White Paper published by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, not on the non-statutory code bequeathed to us by the Conservative Government.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 5:34 pm, 13th January 1999

It is a pleasure to participate, I hope briefly, in this afternoon's debate, especially in view of the pertinent points made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I also listened with great interest to what the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) said about freedom of information, and to the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark).

I reserve my position on freedom of information until I see what the Government publish. There is undoubtedly a need for greater access to information in Britain. Having practised at the Bar, and having frequently encountered problems in obtaining the necessary information for Government work, and on the whole question of public interest immunity, I have not the slightest doubt that successive Governments have been getting themselves into a complete twist on the issue and, as a result, have been holding back on completely innocuous information as part of a knee-jerk reaction of secrecy which we would do well to break down during the coming years. I shall therefore look at the legislation with considerable interest as and when it comes forward.

The question which interested me particularly this afternoon was the way in which the Government have been manipulating or handling information on a daily basis since they took office. I would be the first to accept that all Governments throughout history have manipulated information for their own benefit. It is not something that started in May 1997. Previous Governments, including Conservative Governments, have put the best gloss on factual material in their possession and on their presentation of matters. That is one of the things that politics is all about.

We cannot get away from the fact that there has been a qualitative and quantitative shift since the Government took office in the way in which such information has been handled. That is a feature of the way in which government has been conducted in Britain and it differentiates us from many other democracies, quite apart from those countries which do not enjoy democratic government.

Over the years, the civil service's reputation for impartiality, and the way in which the Government information service has operated, has tended to mean that people have at least felt that they could rely on the factual material being presented to them, and on the fact that there was a clear separation between party political spin and Government activity.

It may well be that that was simply one of the handicaps of Government, rather like the handicap of a prosecutor in court when he has to abide by rules which are more difficult and severe than those of his opponents in terms of ensuring that he does not mislead, and of the way in which material is handled. It is that which the Government have set out to circumvent.

Having spent part of Christmas reading Mr. Philip Gould's autobiography of his long years advising the Labour Government—a revealing and remarkable work—I dare say that, if a political party starts out on the principle that most of the things in which it believes do not appear to be shared by the electorate, and then sets out on a difficult 10-year process of adapting its beliefs to those of the people whom it is trying to convince, it is hardly surprising that, as a result of that process, it ends up with an extremely slick public presentation machine which, in terms of securing electoral advantage, has proved itself to be superb.

The question is whether one is then entitled to translate that into the way in which one operates in government. It is that issue which the Minister must address carefully. There is overwhelming evidence that the Government have simply taken on all the spin doctoring techniques that they had in opposition, which may well have been legitimate there, and treated them as a perfectly legitimate field of operation once in office.

I happen to believe that that is not right. It is all very well to be told that previous Prime Ministers may have had press officers who acted in the same way, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) pointed out, the sheer number of political advisers, and the way in which we have seen them operate during past months, suggests two principal things—first, that the Government are willing to break down the notion of collective responsibility when it comes to the way in which individual advisers set off their political champions, one against the other, and secondly, that, in the area of manipulation, the idea of objective truth reliant solely upon factual information has been jettisoned. That matters to me as an Opposition Member because I do not much like what I see, but it goes beyond merely the Opposition having a grouse about the way in which the Government have decided to conduct their information service.

For example, shortly before Christmas, the Government set out on a foreign policy initiative involving the use of force against Iraq. It enjoyed cross-party support—I certainly supported it. The Government information service produced a number of documents. When people wrote to me expressing disquiet about, for example, whether the targeting of military bases in Iraq was producing results, I sent to them copies of the product produced by the Government information service. I was quite happy to rely on that as being factually objective and true in so far as the intelligence information that backed it up might be. Therefore, I was intrigued to note the number of people who replied to me expressing disbelief at the material that I received on the grounds that they had ceased to believe in the objectivity of the department producing it. That may have been linked, in part, to the fact that the President of the United States was experiencing domestic difficulties, which it is suggested may have led him to distort information and provide reasons for distracting people from his problems. However, I believe that one of the reasons is that Government information, as a source of material on which people can make decisions, has been discredited. The discrediting comes entirely from the way in which the Government's advisers have been operating.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester that it is objectionable for the taxpayer to be paying for people who are simply party political advisers and who are there solely to put a gloss on events to the best advantage of their political masters. Perhaps it will cause problems for political parties, particularly for my own, if we have to continue to dig deep into pockets when the money is not always available.

It is high time we started looking afresh at the way in which the service works. The blurring of the distinction between Government information and political spin is the source of a great many problems and, if it continues unchecked, it will become a real source for evil and for the discrediting of democratic government.

Photo of Anthony D Wright Anthony D Wright Labour, Great Yarmouth 5:43 pm, 13th January 1999

We have travelled a long way in the past 50 years. I have in my hand an extract from a little book about Clement Attlee called "The Man From Limehouse". It purports to describe the first Cabinet meeting of the 1945 Labour Government. It says: At the first meeting of his new Cabinet Attlee said: 'Gentlemen, there are three things against which I must warn you, three things I will not countenance. I want you to heed them carefully.' Then the new Prime Minister recited the three things: '(1) I don't want you ever to be caught talking in the Lobby of the House of Commons. It only leads to making undesirable friends and connections; (2) no loitering or wining and dining in West End restaurants…and finally…(3) Don't ever let me catch ANY of you talking to Lord Beaverbrook.' We have travelled a good way from that to Charlie Whelan. That tells us a good deal about what has happened to political life over that time.

I will not detain the House with another extract, but Attlee was approached about holding press conferences on the model of the American President. He wrote a sharp note back to the person who suggested that saying that it was a substitute for Parliament and that that was what Ministers should do. I am sure that Madam Speaker would like that sort of response.

All Governments want to manage the news. All Governments want journalists, the newspapers and the broadcast media to write and say nice and applauding things about them. I take that to be a truth of politics across all parties. Some will do it more effectively than others. I suspect that one of the reasons for the bile coming from Conservative Members is that it is now being done rather effectively. The professionalism that the Labour party developed in opposition has been transferred to Government and we are having a more co-ordinated approach to Government information than we have ever seen before in this country. In fact, we are seeing the most concerted approach to putting co-ordination at the centre of government than ever before.

Given that one of the main criticisms of Governments in Britain over the years has been that they are too fragmented and departmentalised, it is not ignoble to try to make them more coherent and effective. The reorganisation, and presentation, of Government are of a piece. The fact that we are doing that in a new and more effective way is part of the reason why people want to comment on it now.

We can look at the evidence. I have to quote the redoubtable Romola Christopherson, partly because I like saying her name, who was an extraordinarily effective press person at the Department of Health. In the much-cited article, she contrasts the ineffectiveness of things before with the effectiveness of things now. She says: The Conservative Government had a rather ramshackle co-ordination machine called Cab-E-Net, which never really got effective lift off and the electronic diary was cluttered with minor ministerial flower-arranging engagements. It is not surprising that, if one takes office in a can-do spirit with the intention of bringing in more co-ordination than before, and if one finds that the information machine is antiquated and in need of reform, one will want to sort it out.

Photo of George Young George Young Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

In the interests of balance, will the hon. Gentleman read out what Romola Christopherson said about Charlie Whelan so that we can see how that chimes in with his argument about the new system being better than the old?

Photo of Anthony D Wright Anthony D Wright Labour, Great Yarmouth

In the interest of a different sort of balance—the Romola Christopherson article is very long, but we can swap quotations if that is what the right hon. Gentleman wants—I can provide another from a different source. It is from an article that appeared in the New Statesman in June last year. It is written by Ivor Gaber who is a former BBC journalist, a former producer for BBC radio and who has worked at Channel 4 and is now professor of broadcast journalism at Goldsmiths' college in the university of London. The article is based on his experience as a broadcaster working at Westminster and it goes on to be critical about news management under the present Government. A prelude to that part of the article states: Prior to May 1997 I found that, with occasional exceptions, Whitehall press officers were incompetent, ignorant, lazy and frequently downright rude. Almost invariably, they lacked journalistic or public relations backgrounds and seemed to see their jobs as largely to protect their Ministers from the unwelcome intrusions of the media rather than to act as intermediaries. So, on the evidence from entirely reputable sources, there is no doubt that there was a problem with the way in which the Government information service worked. There is nothing improper in seeking to modernise it as part of the general attempt to modernise the Government and to bring about more co-ordination. Indeed, as was said during the debate after the Mountfield report, that view was supported within the civil service and was not just a view that came in with politicians from outside.

If that is true, it is also true that the process carries dangers with it. The professionalisation of news management has been the trend since that Attlee quote of 50 years ago. It is happening for all the reasons that have been mentioned, some technological, some political and many others. The more we have that professionalisation, the more we will have to balance that all the time against those mechanisms which ensure that information is accessible and that accountability is effective.

One cannot do anything about politicians wanting to control the news. All that we can do is make sure that we put in place other mechanisms to ensure that it is balanced so that the integrity of the democratic process is maintained. Without developing any of the arguments, I will simply say that that is why it is important to maintain a robust Parliament. Parliament is an important ingredient in enforcing accountability. It is crucial that relationships of dependency do not develop between Departments, spinners and journalists. If we allow that to happen, we break the free flow of information and begin to destroy what should be a free press and media.

It is important to protect civil servants so that they are never asked to do things that they believe are politically improper. It is crucial that we have robust media who do not become the slaves of spin but who assert their integrity in all the ways that they should. There are worrying signs on that front. The media want to do easier things. It is much easier to follow stories about alleged personal rivalries between Cabinet Ministers than to explore policy on pensions, transport or the euro. Journalists on the whole do not understand those things, but they do understand personal rivalries.

We are in a political environment in which, in a sense, there is nothing much happening. The Government have a huge majority. The Opposition are non-existent. We have a Government who are closer, as we have just heard, to the opinions of people than a Government have ever been in living memory. There is not much moving politically so all that journalists can do is seek out the trivia and tittle-tattle. That is what they are doing.

When the media start to do things such as stopping "News at Ten" or stopping broadcasting proceedings in Parliament, the democratic process is eroded and the information flows between politicians and the citizenry is undermined. So the media have a responsibility, too. Many balancing or rebalancing forces have to be put in place. One that has not been mentioned but is pivotal to all this is the Cabinet. The Cabinet is supposed to be the key co-ordinating mechanism in our system.

Cabinets go through particular life cycles. No sooner does someone announce the death of Cabinet government than it is revived. I suspect that we are on the eve of one of its periodic revivals. That is a good thing. Unless we have effective Cabinet government, we shall not have effective co-ordination at the centre and we shall not in turn be able to enforce the collective accountability that the House and people outside want to see.

Democracy requires debate and argument. It does not require spin. Spin has been elevated because we are frightened of debate and argument. I do not say that in any narrow sense. The political environment is moving towards one in which the media are interested, not in the exchange of views on issues, but in identifying alleged splits between colleagues. That in turn makes the news. Parties in turn know that they will be punished if those splits are perceived to exist. So parties want as far as they can to close down open argument and debate and a substitution necessarily takes place. The spin people emerge as the substitutes. I am afraid that that devalues the process and eventually the spin people tie themselves up in their own intricate spinneries.

Parliament and the media have to reclaim the ability to engage in proper, grown-up political debate across parties and within parties on issues that matter. That is the most effective thing that we can do to banish the spin merchants to the very edges of politics where they belong.

I am the chair on the Labour side of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Many hon. Members who have taken part in the debate today have talked about that campaign and have been involved in the argument for a long time. I will not discuss it at length except to say that, when the dust settles, when we have had our arguments about whether the draft Bill is different from the White Paper, when the Select Committee has had a chance to examine it and when there has been outside debate on it—we shall have arguments along the way no doubt—the end of the story will be that this Parliament has introduced a freedom of information Act. That is something that has eluded all previous Parliaments since the war. I suspect that, when people come to write the record of what happened to information in this Parliament, the fact that this Parliament introduced such a Bill will count as the truly significant act.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 5:56 pm, 13th January 1999

I hope very much that we shall have a freedom of information Act in this Parliament and, more to the point, one with teeth. I fear that, if the Home Secretary has his way—if we are to believe leaks in the newspapers—we will have a watered-down Act. I agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). I shall deal with the forthcoming Bill in a few moments.

There is an element of déjá vu about this speech. I remember coming here on Friday 24 April last year, when there was a packed Press Gallery and an empty House, to make a number of points about the Prime Minister's press office. I could save hon. Members a lot of time by simply asking them to read the speech that I made then. The points that I made then were an attempt to be helpful and they are as valid today as they were on that occasion.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) that the spin department of the Labour party was effective before the last election. It was exceedingly effective in getting its message across and it has been effective for most of the Government's time in office so far. That presents its own problem. A Government must recognise that it is not appropriate to put their foot flat on the floor of their Jaguar, or any other car that they might happen to have, and drive at maximum speed. They have to let up. They cannot pull all the levers of government as far as they will go and simply say, "Those levers are there for us to pull and we can do what we want." The Government must exercise some self-restraint but they have not done so in their time in office so far.

I hope that I am not being too unparliamentary if I say that we had a supercilious speech from the Minister for the Cabinet Office. He was dismissive of the serious points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and, indeed, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). The Government have to ask themselves what was the cause of the carnage that occurred over the Christmas period. There is no point in blaming another party, the media or external forces, whether it be the Americans or someone else. They have to ask themselves what was their part in that. They put in train a chain of events that led inexorably to that crisis. I do not suppose that they will admit that today in the Chamber. They will not say, "We got it wrong," but I hope that, behind the scenes, they are doing some work to change the reasons for that chain of events. It is not in the country's interest, let alone the Government's interest, for those events to be repeated.

The Labour party's spin department overreached itself and it began to believe that it was omnipotent, that it had close contact with Rupert Murdoch, and that, if its staff ate in the right restaurants, met the right people, talked down the right telephones and did this or that deal, it would all be all right. One should never trust the press. That was a foolish mistake for master spinners to make. My conclusion about spinners is that they are good at getting rid of the opposition, but that, when it comes to batting oneself, they are perhaps best kept well down the batting order because they cannot be relied upon to deliver the goods. Will the spin machine be controlled? I very much hope so.

One problem highlighted by hon. Members from all parties is the blurring of the edge between the party machine and the Government machine. I do not pretend that that is anything new; as the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) said, that has been the practice of all Governments throughout the ages—almost since time began in this House. This Government are rather better at it, but the practice is becoming more prominent.

There is a difference between Government and party interests. Bernard Ingham stepped over the line, and no one could reasonably defend his actions as independent, just as no one could defend those of Alastair Campbell. On a number of occasions, I have become very worried about that line being walked over. At Question Time on April fools' day, the Prime Minister defended Mr. Campbell, saying: There is one reason why the Opposition attack the press spokesman: he does an effective job of attacking the Conservative party."—[Official Report, 1 April 1998; Vol. 309, c. 1252.] I am all in favour of attacking the Conservative party, but it is not the job of a civil servant—whether a special adviser or otherwise—to do that. There was no satisfactory explanation of why that statement was made, whether the Prime Minister thinks it was a mistake or whether the Government still endorse it. Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us directly whether the Government believe that it is the job of Alastair Campbell or Jonathan Powell to attack the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or anyone else in a partisan way? Or are they neutral civil servants? What is the position in terms of their responsibility for attacking other parties?

As I pointed out when I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, the model contract—I of course give the Government credit for placing it in the Library—says that special advisers—that includes Mr. Campbell—must not take part in public controversy. I think that he has failed that test. They "must…observe discretion"—he has certainly failed that test—and "express comment with moderation". If one talks to the Lobby journalists, who have Mr. Campbell breathing over their shoulders to tell them what should or should not be in their articles, they would say that he has failed that test.

Special advisers must also "avoid personal attacks". The former Secretary of State for Social Security could demonstrate that that particular test has been failed. According to that contract they should not speak publicly for their Minister or their Department.

In answer to the Parliamentary Secretary, I do not have a problem with the contents of the model contract, which is absolutely fine. I have a problem with the way in which it is being applied in particular cases—that is what needs to be examined, not the content of the contract. The contract is merely words on paper, which mean nothing unless they are enforced.

There are other examples of the blurring of the line between Government and party. As the Parliamentary Secretary comes from Liverpool, it is appropriate to draw his attention to an invitation issued by the Liverpool Labour party. It states: Visit the House of Commons—Buffet Lunch and Wine. Travel by Luxury Coach, Thursday 14 January. Prize Draw—12 Winners given tour of 10 Downing Street. Cost £40, all proceeds to the Liverpool Labour Forum. Rather ironically, it continues: Fresh Start for Liverpool". That does not seem to be a fresh start for Liverpool in terms of Labour party organisation.

Having written to the Prime Minister this morning, I was phoned by the Liverpool Echo and told that the event had been mysteriously postponed, or possibly cancelled. I am not sure which, but I was pleased to hear that. I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would dissociate himself from that invitation from Liverpool Labour party; confirm that 10 Downing street is a public building and will not be used for fund-raising events; and ensure that there will be no repetition of such an invitation. He must give that assurance, because this is a serious matter, and I hope that he will respond seriously.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. Given that Liberal Democrat Members generally want more codified activity in politics, more written constitutions and so on, does he agree that the Vice-President of the United States has been the subject of legal inquiry for apparent fund-raising, using the White House as his base—a much lesser allegation than the one made by my hon. Friend?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Prime Minister and his colleagues are very close to the American President and perhaps they can learn a lesson from that case.

Part of the answer to such problems is a proper freedom of information Bill—it would eradicate some of the problems that have arisen from the Government during their first 19 months in power. My views—and those expressed by others—are not unique to Members of this House; they are also the views, in some respects, of Madam Speaker. In a television interview last year, from which I quote directly and very carefully, to make sure that it is absolutely correct, she said: There are far too many of what I would term apparatchiks who have been accustomed, when a party was in opposition, to want to get the maximum publicity. Now in government, they have to be harnessed a little more. That is exactly the point that I made to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase: the Government cannot expect to pull all their levers as far they will go on every occasion. It would be wrong to do so.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Labour, Harrow West

The hon. Gentleman referred to codified behaviour in response to an earlier intervention. He will be aware of the scurrilous journal The Grassroots Campaigner, which, I understand, is a piece of Liberal Democrat propaganda. A recent issue included an article by the former Liberal Democrat leader in my constituency. He attacked public servants employed by my local council—he and other Liberal Democrats had helped to appoint them—for allegedly giving dodgy advice. If the hon. Gentleman wants codified behaviour, should not he demand an apology to be made to those public servants for that disgraceful attack on their neutrality?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I cannot possibly respond to that question in detail, as I have not seen the journal. The Grassroots Campaigner is an internal Liberal Democrat document. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to look into the matter, I shall be happy to do so. However, he refers to a document that no one has seen and expects me to agree, or otherwise, with him. That is a ludicrous position to adopt.

I refer to the report of the working group on the Government information service, published under the auspices of the Cabinet Office in November 1997. I refer to paragraph 57 on page 18, headed "Standards Submissions lay-out", which is advice to neutral civil servants about how to go about their work. It advises on how any 'bad news' aspect can be damped down. If it is the function of civil servants to damp down bad news about the Government, they might be very busy in the months ahead.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Not for the first time, I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman. Does he know of any organisation, even one as idiosyncratic as the Liberal Democrat party, that would put out bad news as a matter of course?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am happy to say that we do not have to put out bad news—there is no bad news about us—and neither should the Government put out bad news. This is not about putting out bad news, but about responding to the bad news that has occurred. If the Labour party wants to use press officers to respond to bad news, it must do so, but it should not use civil servants, who are paid by the state, to damp down its bad news. That is not their function, but the Parliamentary Secretary appears to miss that crucial difference.

As I pointed out, part of the answer to these problems is to have proper information. The Parliamentary Secretary will know that the Government's official position, set out by the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)—although that position might have changed since he was sacked for no apparent reason—is: Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest".—[Official Report, 16 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 78.] That is a standard reply to questions.

I could occupy a great deal of the House's time by listing questions that have been asked, but have gone unanswered by Ministers. I shall not bother hon. Members with a huge range of them, but shall refer to one from yesterday. I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what matters were discussed at the meetings held between Ministers and Monsanto on 29 June and 15 July 1998. He replied: These were private meetings at which matters relevant to both MAFF and Monsanto were discussed."—[Official Report, 11 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 119.] That is an illuminating answer: was that Minister really as open as possible with Parliament? Did the answer provide information that Parliament should have? I suggest that it did not. Is "relevant to Monsanto" really a piece of information that I could not have gathered when I tabled my question? No doubt, I thought that they were discussing matters that were not relevant to both parties.

Since when is a meeting between a Government Department and a company involved with agriculture and the environment—in turn, that affects a range of issues—a private meeting? Why cannot we know what went on at that meeting? Hon. Members are here to represent their constituents, so the answer given by the Minister of Agriculture is disgraceful. More to the point, it is completely out of line with the Government's guidance.

I am all in favour of the freedom of information Bill, but it is not yet here. It has been promised, but we have been promised all sorts of things. On 15 July 1997, the Parliamentary Secretary wrote to me explaining why the Government's original commitment to publish a White Paper on freedom of information before the summer recess in 1997 was no longer envisaged. He said that it would not be practical and went on to say that the Secretary of State for the Home Department does not therefore now expect to publish the White Paper before the House rises". It took a considerably longer time before the White Paper arrived.

When the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) was questioned on this issue on 8 May 1997, shortly after the Government were elected, he said: I must disappoint you and say that freedom of information has not been dropped and it will feature in the Queen's Speech. The problem was that he did not say which Queen's Speech. He simply implied that it would be dealt with early on.

On 8 July 1998, the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: I intend to publish the draft Bill"— we still do not have it— for pre-legislative discussion before the end of September."—[Official Report, 8 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 1055.] That did not happen either. Again, it was put off.

On 13 July 1998, I asked the Prime Minister whether the Bill would be in the Queen's Speech. He replied: We will continue to put the Government's priorities forward in the next session."—[Official Report, 21 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 452.] He did not say yes or no, which was hardly surprising. We now have an elusive reply from the Home Secretary, dated 26 October, which talks of a programme of work early in the new year.

I will believe the Bill when it appears because promise after promise has been broken. I think that it will appear; the question is: what will it contain? That was the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West. Will it be a serious Bill, containing a test of substantial harm? Will it apply that test to the security services, or will we repeat the mistake made by the former Prime Minister, James Callaghan, and exclude sections of the community from the Bill's remit? Will the Bill be watered down so that it does nothing, or will it be a serious piece of legislation?

The Government need to be a little humble and modest, and accept that things are not perfect. They must take steps to rectify matters. If the Minister responds by saying that everything is fine in the kitchen, it will not be good enough.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 6:13 pm, 13th January 1999

As usual, the Liberal Democrats are presenting trivia to the House and avoiding the substantive issues that affect the nation and interest all our constituents. Half an excuse may be that they are not the official Opposition. The official Opposition are going through a schism with which Labour Members are familiar—we have had our problems in the past—and that is causing them to be such an ineffective Opposition that the media have nothing to get their teeth into except the trivia on to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has latched. His entire speech relied on a couple of media sources, and he failed to get to grips with the major issues affecting the governance of this country and the modernisation process that must go ahead.

Conservative Members argued against any change in the process of government. They should reflect on that and understand that that is one reason why the country got in such a mess and why they lost control of their troops.

I shall not dwell on special advisers contracts. I was shocked and surprised that one Liberal Democrat found that the contract for special advisers had been placed in the Library, just as we said it would be. That contract contains matters that needed to be codified.

I make no criticism of the individual concerned. I have a great deal of time for the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) because of his talents as a cricketer, but I remember him contesting the West Bromwich, East seat in the 1992 general election, and then spending the period between 1993 and 1997 in the role of special adviser to the former Foreign Secretary, who was previously Secretary of State for Defence. His style was subtle and low key, and the House knew that he was a special adviser, but to say that his was not a party political role is ludicrous. Many Labour Members knew him at that time. I make no criticism of that—the job undertaken by the special advisers appointed by Cabinet and other Ministers was professional.

Soon after the election, Sir Robin Mountfield, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, produced a report on the future direction of the Government Information and Communications Service. Hon. Members engaged in this debate should look carefully at the important recommendations in his report. Modernisation is about changing how we as public servants conduct our business in the best interests of the citizens whom we seek to represent. Government is an extremely complex process and I have no doubt that the GICS continues to provide a politically impartial service to the Government.

When Labour were in opposition, the Conservatives regularly argued that we had no business skills and could not run a small or medium company, let alone a major corporation or Great Britain plc. They seem to have missed a substantive point: that every single major successful company in this country has radically shaken up its management and organisational structure in the past 10 to 15 years. That has been the hallmark of the successes that we have seen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, a substantive argument can be made for moving away from the stovepipe mentality that exists within the structures surrounding public service. Most major companies have gone through that process and, if we are to succeed in getting the best value for money out of the enormously complicated resources needed for the delivery of service to our citizens, that is what we must do.

We should start by looking through the right end of the telescope—from the point of view of the citizen who wants to receive the service—rather than looking at things in accordance with the structures that happen to be there simply because they have been there from the year dot. In a recent speech, the Parliamentary Secretary pointed out that, when constituents come to see us in our surgeries, they do not care whether we are counsellors, citizens advice bureaux, Members of Parliament or Ministers of the Crown. They come to us because they have a problem, and they want that problem to be solved. We should address the structures of government in the process of change, which we must surely undergo, on that premise.

Modernisation has been the hallmark of this Government's activities. We have created a devolved process, starting with Scotland and continuing with Wales, and incorporated the European convention on human rights. A White Paper on modernising the processes of government is promised, and is forecast to have four major themes: strategic policy making; joined-up delivery; dealing with benefits that accrue from the information age; and achieving best value for public services. Those are important, strategic issues with which we need to get on. Their delivery is already under way through the creation, for example, of the social exclusion unit, which seeks to bring together cross-departmental activities.

There are contradictions in the positions adopted by Liberal Democrat Members on freedom of information. The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) does not understand that there are obviously issues of commercial confidentiality involved. I saw the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) shake his head at his remarks. Another Liberal Democrat Member argued that everything should be in the public domain, despite the fact that, clearly, some matters must remain confidential. They criticise the fact that private financial arrangements have entered the public domain, yet, given their literal definition of freedom of information, they should expect such matters to be in the public domain in the first place. There seems to be a double standard in their approach.

Freedom of information is an important strand of modern democracy. It is a highly complex subject, and the House would be making a very bad mistake if it rushed into creating legislation that clearly did not work. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) argued for improved freedom of information. I recognise that there are different views throughout the House on the issue. The Home Secretary has pledged that a Bill will be published. Giving the Home Office responsibility for freedom of information, alongside issues such as human rights and data protection—and eventually, I believe, privacy—was the correct structural move.

I hope that we shall be able to depoliticise all modernisation issues and engender some general support for the fact that they concern the improvement of the delivery of services to all citizens whom we represent, about whose needs the House and the Government should think first. That is what this Government are all about.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South 6:23 pm, 13th January 1999

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. When I first heard that the Opposition were intending to debate Government information, I was delighted. I thought that it would be an important and opportune moment to discuss practical issues, and some of the key elements of the Government's commitment to constitutional reform and the modernisation and greater openness of government.

Throughout this debate, however, I have been terribly disappointed to hear more from the Opposition about tittle-tattle on media issues and unsubstantiated allegations regarding breaches of the code for special advisers than about what I consider to be the substance of the debate: the importance of Government information and the way in which we use it to empower our citizens. It is very sad that we have spent so much time debating Mr. Alastair Campbell who, unfortunately, is unable to defend himself in the Chamber.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South

Due to lack of time, I shall not, if my hon. Friend will excuse me.

We have spent more time debating Alastair Campbell than we have the important steps that the Government are committed to taking to increase access to information. Reference has, of course, been made to the forthcoming freedom of information Act. We should be welcoming the Government's commitment to wide and extensive consultation on the terms of the Act and the introduction, for the first time, of the opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny of a major piece of legislation, which will fundamentally and radically affect the lives of every citizen. Instead, the Opposition have querulously attempted to impugn the Government's lack of progress. Should anybody need to be reminded, full consultation and slower legislative progress are better than passing an Act in haste and repenting at leisure. The ghost of the Child Support Agency should be hovering on all our shoulders in that respect.

We should address the fact that the Government are to introduce for the first time—sooner rather than later, we are assured—a radical step forward in our citizens' right to information. We must consider what that means for our constituents. Such access to information is important to human rights and otherwise. If we are truly to empower our citizens, we must also think about how such information can be accessed and used by them. I have believed in that passionately since my days as a council leader, when I and my colleagues saw that access to, and use of, public information was part of a solution to improving the processes of government and of democracy. Everyone in the House should be concerned about that, given the low turnout in most elections, especially local ones.

To achieve the ambition of truly empowering citizens by giving them information, several issues must be addressed. I am sorry that the Opposition have not mentioned some of them. A right to access to information is important because it allows the provision of better information on services, and improves democratic dialogue and citizen participation. The feeling of having greater information and, therefore, more success in connecting with the decision-making process could demonstrate that there is more to democracy than a periodic vote. If people are given full information, they can properly judge whether Governments are delivering on their promises. That is why this Government consider that access to information is so important.

We must address two important substantive issues on access to information. First, there is a practical problem. It is not good enough for the Government simply to provide information, radical though that step will be. In order truly to empower people, we must ensure that citizens receive the full breadth of information. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board concern about whether mechanisms are in place to ensure not just that the Government are able to provide such information, but that agencies at arm's length can provide full and timely proactive information. We must identify and co-ordinate the necessary data across agencies so that the Government can be proactive in their delivery and citizens properly informed. We need one simple computerised access point, using live operational data, accessible to local and central Government, so that action can be taken at the appropriate level. I am simply asking whether we have that yet.

Secondly, Government information should be accessible to all. We must ensure that our citizens do not merely have the information, but can develop the necessary skills to use it, to recognise and evaluate it and to articulate what is needed. It is incumbent on the Government not just to provide information, but to ensure that we have a responsibility to our citizens to enable them to have the skills that are required for the useful and appropriate employment of the information. Not enough attention has been paid to that so far, and I hope that Ministers will consider it now.

I am grateful to Opposition Members for giving us an opportunity to raise the issues that we have discussed; but I am sorry that what they gave us was a rather sad political punch-up on the basis of spurious tittle-tattle, rather than a serious debate on Government information.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Liberal Democrat, North Devon 6:31 pm, 13th January 1999

I am grateful for the chance to say a little in summing up a debate which, in my view, far from being sad, has been interesting and lively. We have been given an interesting insight into the way in which the Government believe that they are handling important issues.

If, as the hon. Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran) suggested, all that we have seen over the past few weeks has been tittle-tattle and trivia, I wonder why two Ministers have felt it necessary to resign, and why one of the Government's chief communications experts has stepped down. I cannot but reflect on what was said by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) when he was criticised by the Minister for the Cabinet Office for having dared to quote various remarks about rivalry—remarks that the Minister suggested were unsubstantiated. Surely, that is precisely because such remarks are given to the newspapers and other media on an unattributable basis. If more people put their remarks on the record—as Romola Christopherson did in a very intelligent article to which a number of hon. Members have referred—we could engage in far more open and informed debate on Government information, freedom of information and many other matters that have been touched on today.

Mr. Charlie Whelan is to resign. I wonder whether I am alone in mourning his passing, if only because, if one had the good fortune to time a visit to the Red Lion for a swift pint to coincide with one of his many visits, one was often able to hear a rather more candid and open explanation of Government policy than can sometimes be heard from Ministers at the Dispatch Box. Mr. Whelan is, however, the author of his own undoing in many respects. In his farewell remarks—if such they were—he said that he felt he had to go because he had become the story; but, as I think will be recognised, Mr. Whelan's style of going about his business rather suggested that he was courting recognition and attention.

Another casualty of this affair was one of the authors of what some have called the black arts. Perhaps it would have removed some of the mystique of what those people do if they had been willing to put much more of what they did on the record. It would be a welcome change if Mr. Alastair Campbell conducted his briefings on camera, as is done in the United States and many other parts of the world. That would get rid of some of the so-called tittle-tattle, and would smoke out and substantiate items that we read in the newspapers, which some have sought this afternoon to dismiss as mere rivalries.

Both the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office have made points about the new arrangements. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) stressed that change was needed, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) pointed out that some of the changes that have been made have been to the good—that some new practices are an improvement on the old ones. Both Ministers, however, tried to give the impression that, because there is now a code, because there have been Orders in Council and because a contract has been published, everything is all right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) said, if all is now hunky-dory because the information has been published and is out in the open, what was the cause of the Christmas carnage? The arrangements may look marvellous in theory, but they are plainly not working in practice.

As the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) pointed out, there is no mechanism for policing all the new arrangements. The permanent secretaries cannot remove those whom they consider to be in breach of the contracts, because they did not appoint them in the first place. That contradiction lies at the heart of the new arrangements. It is not that they are all bad; it is not that there is no role for people who do some of the things that are done. The drawing up of these documents, however, has not produced the clarity and transparency that we expect.

Some of the rivalries are not as trivial as one or two speakers have suggested. We shall be given a chance to read the biography of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry shortly, but we have already learnt from the pen of the same author that some of the rivalries between No. 10 and No. 11 date back to the occasion when they vied for the leadership. One surmises that all sorts of undertakings must have been given to the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, which caused Mr. Charlie Whelan to observe on one occasion that, in his view, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the chief executive of the Government and the Prime Minister merely the chairman. I think that some of Mr. Whelan's antics thereafter can be judged in that light.

In truth, the fact that so many members of the Government have had their own private spin doctors waiting to score points over other members of the Government means that there was an accident waiting to happen—and it happened to blow up over Christmas. It should be realised that, underlying the failings of the information system, are deeper political problems that cannot be papered over.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said that nothing could be done about the news management systems, and that what we needed was more accessibility and accountability. The solution, he said, was better parliamentary debate and a return to Cabinet government. I hope that he is right about Cabinet government; perhaps Cabinet meetings, in the new spirit of comradeship, will last longer than the present 20 minutes or so. He is wrong, however, to suggest that nothing can be done about the communications methods that are being used.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out, one of the techniques used by spin doctors is the withholding of factual information until the media have written the story. It is an old technique. They make sure that they have the headlines that they want, and only in the days that follow do the journalists get their eyes on the facts and realise that they have written a bogus tale. Not many are big enough to acknowledge in their columns that they have been sold a pup, and to revise what they have written in the light of the facts that have subsequently emerged.

We must pay heed to what Madam Speaker has said on several occasions. Hers was one of the quotations from newspapers that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston criticised my right hon. Friend for referring to; I am sure that no one would regard her remarks as trivial. We need to have facts here, on the Floor of the House, so that proper interrogation is possible at the time. We do not want the facts to be buried in thick tomes and looked at afterwards.

The right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) was right to say that the real matter of substance for the future was the introduction of freedom of information legislation. I was somewhat mystified by the comment of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who suggested that we were not paying tribute to the Government for instituting an inquiry on BSE. Nothing could be further from the truth: we readily pay tribute to the Government for having had the good sense to launch that inquiry. The point that we were trying to make was that, if a proper freedom of information culture already existed, it would not have been necessary to hold such a public inquiry.

I will go further. If, in the course of the whole long, sorry BSE saga, there had been more information in the public domain, it can reasonably be said that some of the more dreadful elements of the disaster would never have happened. The Minister for the Cabinet Office stated that he entirely agreed that the public's best interests would be served by maximising access to information, and that there was a need for greater openness, accountability and involvement with the public. I hope that, when he brings the draft Bill forward shortly, as he says, that will be a yardstick against which the Government's proposals can be favourably measured.

We will have to look closely at some important details. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) rightly focused on one of them: the test of harm to the public interest from disclosing information and whether that will have to amount to substantial harm, or simply be an all-encompassing, rather woolly definition of "harm", which could reach just about every nook and cranny that anyone wanted it to. Therefore, the concept of substantial harm is valuable, as indeed would be the laying down of some specific grounds on which any branch of Government could claim that harm was accruing. Specific grounds will be welcome, but we must not at all costs lose the substantial part of the test.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said that, during his professional career, he had seen much inconsequential information withheld simply because of a knee-jerk instinct for secrecy. It is true to say that that has bedevilled the way in which public administration has operated for too long. We must be ambitious in what we do in response to that.

The hon. Member for Luton, South fairly tried to give the Government some credit for the fact that we shall shortly have the innovation of pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill. No one from the Opposition Benches, or probably from anywhere else, would criticise that, but we have had to wait a long time for pre-legislative scrutiny even to begin.

One optimistic Labour Member said that the draft Bill would appear within the next couple of weeks. Let us hope that that is true, and that the claim will be substantiated and the aspiration met, because we have waited too long for the freedom of information legislation to come out. Nagging at the back of many minds, the nasty fear remains that we could end up with the option that was available on 2 May 1997—to put on to a legislative footing the codified arrangements that the previous Government had tried and, indeed, failed to make any sense of.

If, after two years, we have nothing or little more than that, there is no doubt that there will be loud condemnation from the left, right and centre. If it amounts to little more than that, it will absolutely fail the test that was put by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who offered the prospect that history might come to judge the legislation as one of the defining actions in the whole of the Parliament. If that is what we are waiting for—legislation of such an epic nature that it will be the defining achievement of the Government during the Parliament—let us hope that it will prove to have been worth the wait. If it is a damp squib along the lines that have been referred to, there will be much frustration, annoyance and condemnation.

It has been a traumatic few weeks for the Government. They have brought much of the damage on themselves simply through their obsession with presentation. The way in which they have chosen to go about conducting the presentation of their policies and business has, in effect, brewed up trouble for them; they were the authors of their downfall. I hope that they will now be able to see that, for all their efforts to put the new arrangements on to a visible and open footing, they have simply failed.

Chiding remarks have been made about a former head of the Department of Health press office, but when someone such as that comes out and makes those observations, she or he should be taken notice of. She is an expert witness who has seen the whole operation from the inside. She has served Governments of both colours with some distinction and has been noted as an expert in the sector.

Under the current news management regime, there is a danger that the reputation that our civil service and the Government information service—the point was made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield—have gained over the years for impartiality is at risk of being undermined by what is going on.

The right hon. Member for South Shields remarked that we have the opportunity, through introducing legislation, to make ourselves one of the most open societies in the western world, instead of one of the most secretive. I hope that that is the ambition of the Government. That is the measure by which we must judge the legislation, when they finally get to bring it out into the open and let us have a look at it.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 6:45 pm, 13th January 1999

I am pleased to wind up the debate for the Government and to seek the House's agreement to the amendment. Obviously, like all Opposition Members, I am seized by the importance of the issue, given that there are now four members of the official Opposition in the Chamber and only half the Liberal Democrat party has attended one of its precious Opposition days.

I was particularly taken by the fact that, although the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) opened the debate and the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) closed it, in between, only one Liberal Democrat Member wanted to engage in what the Liberal Democrats see as a momentous issue—their allegation that there has been some corruption of the Government information service. The implication was clear.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), for Luton, South (Ms Moran), and for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for their constructive, if at times slightly critical, contributions. As a Government, we recognise that we can have friends who are critical as long as it is constructive criticism. That is not necessarily what we have heard today.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to put on record, as indeed did the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Government's appreciation of the important work that is performed by the Government Information and Communications Service. It performs its work diligently, effectively and in a way that enables members of all parties to have confidence in its ability to serve Administrations of whatever political party. That is a key issue when we consider the roles of special advisers. We have to have a halfway house between the two roles if we are to maintain confidence in continuity in government. I have no experience whatever of members of the GICS showing anything other than that studied neutrality and commitment to the public service that we extol our civil service for. Rightly, it is held in high regard for that throughout the world.

All Governments have a duty to explain their policies to the public. The criticism that we have received for the emphasis that we place on presentation is misplaced, if for no other reason than that we have made a virtue of presentation. That may upset a few Opposition Members, but we have made no secret of our presentation of Government policies being integral in terms not only of the presentation itself, but of the development of policy.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Labour, Harrow West

My hon. Friend talks, rightly, about the need for accurate presentation of policy. May I give him a contrasting example of poor-quality presentation? Is he aware that the leader of the Liberal Democrats in my borough was forced recently to apologise publicly for a Liberal Democrat "Focus" leaflet that alleged that a vast sum of public money had been wasted by new Labour councillors on office equipment and showers? Having apologised in public for that leaflet, he then attempted in the press to disown responsibility for the leaflet.

Will my hon. Friend, in his usual gentle style, chide the Liberal Democrats in my constituency and, indeed, on the Opposition Benches for their complete failure to ensure that the information that they put out bears some passing resemblance to the truth?

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the Liberal Democrats do not require chiding from me; I am sure that they will be chided by their own party for being caught with their metaphorical trousers down. One of the virtues of presentation is that, on occasion, we have to rebrand things, often where the product is not moving—where it is not being bought by its potential customers. Perhaps we should rebrand the Liberal Democrats as Heinz, because of the 57 varieties of truth in which they indulge.

I should like to deal with some of the specific points that have been made in the debate. I shall pick, first, on the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who made a comment about bypassing Parliament. Paragraph 27 of the ministerial code makes it absolutely clear that When Parliament is in session, Ministers will want to bear in mind the desire of Parliament that the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament. We take that commitment seriously. I am not saying that there are not occasions on which, inadvertently, hints and words are dropped. However, the firm intention—and, as far as I am aware, the firm commitment—of all Ministers is to subscribe to the code.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I would have if the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber for most of the debate. I will not give way to him.

If anyone has a complaint about a Minister not applying the code, he or she can raise it with the Speaker.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) asked about the objectivity of special advisers. He will know full well that paragraph 14(c) of the model contract for special advisers exempts special advisers from the requirements for impartiality and objectivity. Special advisers are not expected to work for a different Administration. The point is that special advisers can put a political slant on matters, as one should not expect civil servants to do. That is the point of the distinct designation of special advisers. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is fully aware of the point.

I was taken aback by the Liberal Democrats' apparent verbal dyslexia in talking about "carnage over Christmas". I would understand it if they had talked about the "carnival over Christmas" for the press and the other media, and for those who got themselves into a terrible fix. However, it was certainly not carnage—[Interruption.] Two Ministers did resign. However, there was a marked difference between that and events in the previous Government, when evidence of wrongdoing was plain, but Ministers hung on by their fingernails until their fingers bled.

Responsibility is taken seriously in this Government. When someone feels that they are detracting from the impact that the Government are making or want to make, they expeditiously resign. That is what happened over Christmas. I do not call that carnage, unless carnage can be self-inflicted.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

The Minister will recall that, on taking up his current post, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that his objective was to reduce the amount of backbiting, counter-briefing and briefing against colleagues. In the light of the events of the past month, has not the right hon. Gentleman failed abjectly to achieve his objective?

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The short answer is no. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Public Administration Select Committee and should be au fait with events in the Cabinet Office—how it was reconfigured and how roles were redefined. I am full of praise for the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has dealt with the one or two little hiccups that we have had in recent months. Along the way, he has been able, with his usual aplomb, to swat aside Opposition Members and journalists. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that point.

I should deal with the point made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who talked about a terrible series of calamities that befell the Government. He used terminology that was indicative of the problem with much of so-called "spin". He directly quoted Chris Buckland; he referred to his opinion of Whelan and to his having said of him, "he is suspected of". I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, when they bother to turn out for our debates, there is a great variety of commentators and reporters in the Press Gallery. Some of them are extremely well-informed, whereas others would have done credit to Jonathan Swift's Grub street. Nevertheless, we do not take as gospel everything that is said or imputed by every newspaper, or in every radio broadcast and television news-spot.

We should deal rather more with the substantive issues. The problem is that people have been more concerned with the froth and bubble than with the substance of the issues.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

Is the Minister suggesting that it was a "carnival" for two of his very senior colleagues to be driven from the Government, and that it was all got up by the press?

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am not suggesting anything of the sort. I was suggesting that there was a carnival for the press—a feeding frenzy—which was not unusual. I am sure that the frenzy will continue until the press finds fresh targets. The hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and for North Devon repeatedly mentioned "carnage". My definition of the word is entirely different from theirs.

I should like to take issue with some of the points made by some of those who did speak in the debate. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), for example, misconstrued—as some type of crude and opportunistic populism—the Government's wish to represent people's real interests by ascertaining what they think. I reject the misconstruction. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) correctly pointed out that our initiatives such as, for example, the people's panel—in which we try to discover what people really think about the Government's policies—are, if anything, undervalued.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned Jonathan Haslam. When Mr. Haslam was questioned on the matter, he wrote a disclaimer—which I had, but seem to have lost. He said that some of the comments attributed to him had nothing to do with him. I have found the missing letter. To provide some perspective on the allegations of the politicisation and purge of press officers at the GICS, I shall quote from Jonathan Haslam's letter to the Committee Clerk. He said: There has been a great deal of misinformed comment about my reasons for leaving the civil service, most recently in an article by Mr. Andy Wood in The Sunday Times. It might be helpful for the Committee to know the facts. It might be inconvenient for Opposition Members if the facts turn out to be rather different from those that have been suggested. Mr. Haslam continued: I left the civil service entirely at my own wish, to seek new challenges and rewards in the private sector. I did so against a background of working closely with David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment … and operated on friendly terms with them and my civil service colleagues. I am perfectly content for these facts to be spelt out publicly again should any suggestions to the contrary emerge during the course of the Committee's inquiry. If a Government information officer feels that he or she has a problem with the Prime Minister's official spokesman, he or she can go to his or her deputy, who is a member of the Government information service, to the head of profession in the information service or to the civil service commissioners so that any wrongs can be righted. The GICS is certainly not afflicted by a climate of fear or oppression, which is why those at the GICS were so enthusiastic and productive in consultations on the Mountfield report, which deals with their own future.

As there is not much time left in this debate, I shall say only that the other half of the Liberal Democrats' motion dealt with the freedom of information Bill. The Government have made a firm manifesto commitment to introduce such a Bill, and I pay tribute to work done on the Bill in the Government's early days by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. He will be the first to recognise the complexities involved, on arriving in government, in framing a freedom of information Bill that meets all the needs. It is an immense project. We have set out to achieve that. My right hon. Friend produced an important White Paper. There will be three months' pre-legislative scrutiny. A draft Bill will provide an opportunity for further representations to be made because we want to get it right.

I ask the House to accept the Government amendment and reject the motion.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 42, Noes 331.

Division No. 32][7 pm.
Allan, RichardJones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyKeetch, Paul
Baker, NormanKennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Berth, Rt Hon A JKirkwood, Archy
Bell, Martin (Tatton)Livsey, Richard
Brake, TomMaclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Brand, Dr PeterMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Breed, ColinMorgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Oaten, Mark
Burnett, JohnÖpik, Lembit
Burstow, PaulRendel, David
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Chidgey, DavidSanders, Adrian
Cotter, BrianSmith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Ewing, Mrs MargaretTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
George, Andrew (St Ives)Tonge, Dr Jenny
Gorrie, DonaldTyler, Paul
Hancock, MikeWebb, Steve
Harris, Dr EvanWillis, Phil
Harvey, Nick
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)Tellers for the Ayes:
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)Mr. Andrew Stunell and
Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)Mr. Edward Davey.
Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainger, NickBermingham, Gerald
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Berry, Roger
Allen, GrahamBest, Harold
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)Betts, Clive
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Blackman, Liz
Armstrong, Ms HilaryBlair, Rt Hon Tony
Ashton, JoeBlears, Ms Hazel
Atherton, Ms CandyBlizzard, Bob
Austin, JohnBlunkett, Rt Hon David
Banks, TonyBoateng, Paul
Barron, KevinBorrow, David
Battle, JohnBradley, Keith (Withington)
Bayley, HughBradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Beard, NigelBradshaw, Ben
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs MargaretBrinton, Mrs Helen
Benn, Rt Hon TonyBrown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Bennett, Andrew FBrown, Russell (Dumfries)
Benton, JoeBuck, Ms Karen
Burden, RichardFoster, Michael J (Worcester)
Burgon, ColinFyfe, Maria
Butler, Mrs ChristineGalloway, George
Byers, Rt Hon StephenGardiner, Barry
Caborn, RichardGerrard, Neil
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Gibson, Dr Ian
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Godman, Dr Norman A
Campbell—Savours, DaleGodsiff, Roger
Canavan, DennisGoggins, Paul
Cann, JamieGordon, Mrs Eileen
Caplin, IvorGriffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Caton, MartinGriffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Chaytor, DavidGrocott, Bruce
Chisholm, MalcolmGunnell, John
Church, Ms JudithHall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Clapham, MichaelHall, Patrick (Bedford)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Clark, Dr Lynda(Edinburgh Pentlands)Hanson, David
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Healey, John
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Hepburn, Stephen
Clwyd, AnnHeppell, John
Coaker, VernonHesford, Stephen
Coffey, Ms AnnHewitt, Ms Patricia
Cohen, HarryHill, Keith
Coleman, IainHinchliffe, David
Colman, TonyHodge, Ms Margaret
Connarty, MichaelHoey, Kate
Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston)Home Robertson, John
Cooper, YvetteHoon, Geoffrey
Corbett, RobinHope, Phil
Corbyn, JeremyHowarth, George (Knowsley N)
Corston, Ms JeanHowells, Dr Kim
Cousins, JimHoyle, Lindsay
Crausby, DavidHughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cunliffe, LawrenceHumble, Mrs Joan
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Hurst, Alan
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs ClaireHutton, John
Dalyell, TamIddon, Dr Brian
Darling, Rt Hon AlistairIllsley, Eric
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)Ingram, Adam
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Jamieson, David
Dawson, HiltonJenkins, Brian
Dean, Mrs JanetJohnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Denham, JohnJohnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dewar, Rt Hon DonaldJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Dismore, AndrewJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dobbin, JimJones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Donohoe, Brian HJones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Doran, FrankJones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dowd, JimJones, Marlyn (Clwyd S)
Drew, DavidKeeble, Ms Sally
Drown, Ms JuliaKeen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)Kelly, Ms Ruth
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Kemp, Fraser
Edwards, HuwKhabra, Piara S
Efford, CliveKidney, David
Ellman, Mrs LouiseKilfoyle, Peter
Ennis, JeffKing, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Etherington, BillKing, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Fatchett, DerekKingham, Ms Tess
Field, Rt Hon FrankKumar, Dr Ashok
Fisher, MarkLadyman, Dr Stephen
Fitzpatrick, JimLawrence, Ms Jackie
Flint, CarolineLaxton, Bob
Flynn, PaulLepper, David
Follett, BarbaraLeslie, Christopher
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Levitt, TomO'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)Olner, Bill
Linton, MartinO'Neill, Martin
Livingstone, KenOrgan, Mrs Diana
Lock, DavidPalmer, Dr Nick
McAllion, JohnPearson, Ian
McAvoy, ThomasPendry, Tom
McCabe, StevePickthall, Colin
McCafferty, Ms ChrisPike, Peter L
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)Plaskitt, James
McDonagh, SiobhainPollard, Kerry
Macdonald, CalumPond, Chris
McDonnell, JohnPope, Greg
McGuire, Mrs AnnePowell, Sir Raymond
McIsaac, ShonaPrentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Mackinlay, AndrewPrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
McNulty, TonyPrimarolo, Dawn
MacShane, DenisProsser, Gwyn
Mactaggart, FionaPurchase, Ken
McWilliam, JohnQuin, Ms Joyce
Mallaber, JudyQuinn, Lawrie
Mandelson, Rt Hon PeterRammell, Bill
Marek, Dr JohnRapson, Syd
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Raynsford, Nick
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Marshall-Andrews, RobertRobinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Martlew, EricRoche, Mrs Barbara
Meacher, Rt Hon MichaelRooker, Jeff
Meale, AlanRooney, Terry
Merron, GillianRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Michael, AlunRowlands, Ted
Milburn, AlanRoy, Frank
Miller, AndrewRuane, Chris
Mitchell, AustinRussell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Moffatt, LauraRyan, Ms Joan
Moonie, Dr LewisSavidge, Malcolm
Moran, Ms MargaretSawford, Phil
Morgan. Ms Julie (Cardiff N)Sedgemore, Brian
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)Shaw, Jonathan
Morley, ElliotSheerman, Barry
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)Shipley, Ms Debra
Mountford, KaliSingh, Marsha
Mudie, GeorgeSkinner, Dennis
Mullin, ChrisSmith, Angela (Basildon)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Naysmith, Dr Doug
Norris, DanSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Smith, John (Glamorgan)Trickett, Jon
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Snape, PeterTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Soley, CliveTurner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Southworth, Ms HelenTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Squire, Ms RachelVis, Dr Rudi
Starkey, Dr PhyllisWalley, Ms Joan
Steinberg, GerryWareing, Robert N
Stevenson, GeorgeWatts, David
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)White, Brian
Stinchcombe, PaulWhitehead, Dr Alan
Stoate, Dr HowardWicks, Malcolm
Strang, Rt Hon Dr GavinWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Straw, Rt Hon JackWills, Michael
Stringer, GrahamWinnick, David
Stuart, Ms GiselaWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Sutcliffe, GerryWise, Audrey
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)Wood, Mike
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)Woolas, Phil
Taylor, David (NW Leics)Worthington, Tony
Temple-Morris, PeterWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Tipping, PaddyTellers for the Noes:
Todd, MarkMr. David Clelland and
Touhig, DonJane Kennedy.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,That this House welcomes the Government's commitment to modernising Government; commends the professionalism of the Government Information and Communications Service (GICS) in carrying out the important task of effectively communicating and explaining policies, decisions and actions of the Government of the day; recognises that the Mountfield Report set out the future direction of the GICS and confirmed the long accepted conventions of impartiality and propriety; believes that the model contract for special advisers, which defined, for the first time in a public document, the roles and responsibilities of special advisers, should be welcomed; applauds the Government's intention to publish a draft Freedom of Information Bill as soon as possible; and welcomes the intention of the Select Committee on Public Administration to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill.