First, I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her well in her new post. As a priority, will she look at the number of special advisers, which has grown dramatically under the Government, particularly in the Prime Minister's office? Under the previous Conservative Government there were eight in that office; now there are 21. Does she agree that it is inappropriate for those special advisers to take over the role formerly filled by politically neutral civil servants? Does she not think that their number and powers should be reduced? Have not a cadre of Labour placemen and spin doctors been appointed—funded by the taxpayer—so that they can spin the Labour mantra up to and including the next general election?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I have obviously looked carefully at that issue, because this is not the first time that he has raised it. No. 10 has never hidden the number of advisers it has or the amount of money that they get paid. We made it very clear, in opposition through to taking office, that we wanted advisers in No. 10, together with Ministers, to drive policy forward. We have never denied that we wanted a central force to help to push things through. My special advisers—in Northern Ireland and in the Cabinet Office—work hand in hand with the civil service. They have different functions and different jobs, but it is useful when they work together.
I also welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post. I should perhaps declare an interest, as I am a former special adviser. Does she agree that it is about time that the Opposition recognised that, under the previous Government, special advisers worked with Ministers to help them to achieve their objectives and that the same is true of the advisers working under the current Administration? The only difference is that the current advisers are rather more effective than their predecessors.
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. I agree that our advisers are more effective and I find the two who work with me very useful. They do not spin, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, but do what they did for us in opposition—work on the political aspects of policy, which is not the job of many of the civil servants.
I, too, welcome the Minister to her new post and I hope that it will prove to be as absorbing, though perhaps not as dangerous, as her previous one.
In answer to the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), the Minister suggested that there has been no change in the role of special advisers. Will she look again at the terms of appointment? They deliberately excluded an important criterion after May 1997. She will know that up to that date special advisers were told to avoid
activities likely to give rise to criticism that
are being employed at public expense for purely party political purposes".
That was removed from the new letters of appointment. Will she reinstate that requirement?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I am sure that my present job will be as absorbing as my previous one; it may even be as dangerous, in some ways, as I try to work across Departments and get Ministers to co-operate. I shall certainly look at the guidelines again but, having read carefully through the code and considered what special advisers have done, I do not necessarily see any contradictions or detect any fears about the missing words, although there may be some in his mind.
There is no doubt that many of us are kept in touch when we go home to our constituencies, and kept in touch by our constituency offices. There is also no doubt that the more people we talk to and mix with who are of different political persuasions, or from different backgrounds, the better: that can only be of use.
Let me take this opportunity to welcome not only the Minister for the Cabinet Office but the entire Cabinet Office ministerial team. I think that the entire team has changed since we last met for Cabinet Office questions. No doubt the right hon. Lady's experience at the Northern Ireland Office will help her to reconcile the warring factions in the Cabinet.
This first question is important. It is important for the right hon. Lady to show how she can root out the culture of cronyism that has found its way into Government. In particular, will she enlighten us about paragraph 48 of the ministerial code of conduct, which provides that there should be only two special advisers per Cabinet Minister? In how many Departments is that limit being breached? Will she also tell us why it is now necessary for special advisers to travel abroad with their Ministers? I am talking about 360 trips abroad, which have cost more than £500,000 in the last year.
Accusations of cronyism should be viewed in the light of what happened when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government. I merely say that people in glass houses should not throw enormousgreat boulders.
I believe that a couple of Departments have more than two advisers. The rules permit that if it is okayed by the Prime Minister, and that has happened. I understand that the Cabinet Minister involved and the relevant permanent secretary must decide whether special advisers travel abroad. If the hon. Gentleman can give examples of cases in which that has not been agreed, I should like to know about them.