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Government Running Costs

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:32 pm on 18th January 2000.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 9:32 pm, 18th January 2000

We have heard much interesting discourse this evening. Alas, the Chamber has not been very full, although the subjects under discussion are almost as important as those that attracted a larger audience earlier.

Our starting point was costs. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) spoke eloquently about the £1 billion a year more that is being spent on the apparatus of government. The Minister for the Cabinet Office sought to make light of that figure, saying that it took no account of inflation. One could almost hear Sir Humphrey telling her so. Alas, on accrued calculation, the increase between 1997–98 and 1999–2000 exceeds the rate of inflation by about £500 million. That is a significant real-terms increase.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) was keen to point out the contrast between that increase and what the Government spend in his constituency, where the costs of publicity have risen faster than the amounts spent on the ground. We turned next to special advisers and information officers, and my hon. Friend raised the role of Alastair Campbell and the notorious silencing of Lord Winston—now to be known as the silencing of the lamb.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who has made a notable contribution on the question of special advisers, identified a trend that we must admit occurred under previous Governments, but which has been accelerated by the present one. As he pointed out, we are heading remorselessly towards the establishment of campaign teams in Whitehall that serve to extend the principle of elective dictatorship. They give the Prime Minister ever-increasing control. Again, that is not a new phenomenon, but it has been accelerated under the Labour Government.

There has been an increase in the number of special advisers, an increase in political appointments to information positions and an increase in costs. Of course, there is a connection between them—one leads, in small part, to the other.

Other matters are deeper and far more significant. In a remarkable speech, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) said something that is of the greatest possible significance to the House. There were moments when, from his intonation, I thought that I was listening to his father, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Alas, there were not moments when, from the contents of his remarks, I thought that I was listening to the right hon. Gentleman on the subject of the protection of the House and its prerogative.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central told us that he celebrated the great virtuosity with which the Government have used the machinery of government to achieve their ends—that was the broad gist of his remarks. He is right—unqualifiably right. The Government have shown great virtuosity in using the machinery of government to achieve their own ends. The problem is what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) described. The end that the Government have in mind is not merely that of governing—no reason why they should not use the machine to achieve that—but much more: they are determined to use government as a means of remaining in government. That notorious annual report is the supreme example of that.

When the Minister for the Cabinet Office replied to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire, she made light of all that. She said that there were no real complaints from civil servants: no one thought that there had been any serious politicisation of the civil service— no, no, nothing of the kind. I draw her attention to the statement that, at principal and senior information officer level, discontent with the increasingly politicised atmosphere in which those officers have to work is running at a high rate. Who said that? Was it some Conservative spokesman? Was it somebody who had nothing to with the right hon. Lady? No, it was Mr. Andy Wood, the director of information during her tenure at the Northern Ireland Office. She knows whereof she speaks, because she has been one of its prime exponents.

According to the right hon. Lady's information officer, she has helped to ensure that the Government's brilliant performance—we have to grant them that—has been better than that of any previous Government at using the machinery of government to achieve their own ends. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central also pointed that out. The Government have attacked the Opposition. If possible, they have obliterated the Opposition through big tentery— the use and manipulation of the media—as never before and never so brilliantly. They have made an effort to use the fact of being in power to remain in power.

I emphasise that fact, because it is a remarkable attack not only on the Opposition and on the civil service, but on our constitution. Above all, our constitution depends on the fact that the people who gain power do not use it to remain in power. The cardinal feature of a democratic constitution is that those who find themselves the tenants of power cannot abuse that power to obliterate democracy thereafter.

The situation in this country is strange. We do not have a written constitution of the kind for which the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) calls. There is nothing to govern the activity of our Government or our politicians—nothing but the procedures of the House and our ability to interrogate and to hold to account. The sad truth is that, because under its procedures the House is run by the majority that is run by the Government, we cannot hold Governments to account unless they are governed by the procedure and the convention enshrined in the civil service.

Our civil service is not just a set of servants of the Government of the day. They are the servants of the Crown and the state in the profound sense that they are there to enshrine proper procedure and to protect the veracity of the information flowing from Government to the populace so that we in this place can hold Government to account and can argue the truth about facts and debate policies. If the Government use the civil service, politicise it, surround it with campaign teams, put in special advisers and make sure that it turns its attention to producing annual reports that are mere examples of self-congratulation, they will begin to undermine the constitutional foundations of our democracy.