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Government Running Costs

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 18th January 2000.

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Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester 9:15 pm, 18th January 2000

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I agree.

The Prime Minister has appointed a coterie in No. 10 to ensure that the strong centre can become meaningful. That is why 25 advisers sit in No. 10 Downing street, compared with the five or six that Margaret Thatcher had, and the eight that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) had.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of advisers throughout Whitehall. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central made a number of interesting points, which I shall address in turn. Although I disagree with it, his speech was one of the most perceptive and thoughtful to be made by a Labour Member tonight.

It is worth reminding the House of the facts. Margaret Thatcher began with seven advisers. When she left office, there were about 20 of them. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon inherited that number, and there were 38 when he left office. This Prime Minister began with 53 advisers. After nine months, there were 67, and now there are 77. The numbers are rising steadily, and the ratchet effect is inevitable.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office said that the Prime Minister's pledge of an initial cost envelope of £1.8 million would be adhered to. That is nonsense: by November 1997, the cost envelope had risen to £2.6 million, and it now stands at £4 million. That excludes some pension costs and all secretarial support and office costs. To comply with the Prime Minister's 1997 pledge, there will either have to be mass sackings, or all the advisers will have to take a pay cut. I do not know how the target of £1.8 million will be adhered to. Something pretty drastic would have to happen, but of course the Prime Minister is not going to ask for anything of the sort.

Advisers have a legitimate role. I strongly support the introduction of outside advice into Whitehall. However, it is not acceptable for the massive increase in the number of advisers to be accompanied by a reorientation towards highly party political work. Of course there was a party political aspect to being a special adviser when I was in Whitehall but, according to anecdotal accounts from people in the civil service with whom I used to work, that element has increased dramatically. Those accounts are also supported by evidence given to the Select Committee on Public Administration when it investigated the Government information service some time ago.

Incidentally, the Minister said that civil servants had not complained about that trend. In fact, they have complained a great deal, and some—especially those who have left the service—have been prepared to go public. I have no time to read all the evidence, but I urge the Minister to study the evidence from Mr. Steve Reardon. He said that advisers blurred management lines and proper demarcation lines … and served to put considerable strains on the relationships between private offices, ministers and the press secretary which had not previously existed. He added that the relationship with the special advisers was difficult. Numerous other former civil servants are prepared to attest to those difficulties.

The problem is that there is no clear demarcation line to limit party political work. That is why I wrote to Lord Neill with several recommendations. The first was that there should be a cap on the number of advisers. The second was that there should be a code of conduct creating that demarcation line. The third was that Permanent Secretaries should be given the power of, and responsibility for, enforcing contracts and the code of conduct. I am very pleased that Lord Neill appears to have accepted all three recommendations.

We could go down a different route for our civil service. The American system, for example, has hundreds of appointees. France has the Cabinet system, putting a few key people into private offices and turning them into Cabinets. That answers the question of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central; he asked how 70 people can take on thousands of civil servants. It is not the numbers that count—indeed, the hon. Gentleman said so elsewhere in his speech. What counts is whether those people are in key positions to enable them effectively to take over part of the work formerly undertaken by civil servants. We will be moving towards that once the special adviser numbers increase to the extent that they have small teams operating in private offices.

We must put a stop to the growth in advisers. We are seeing the creation of what amounts to a campaign team for the re-election of the Labour party, working in Whitehall and paid for by the taxpayer. That is wholly unacceptable.