Neill Committee (Ministers and Special Advisers)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:53 pm on 3rd July 2000.

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Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office 7:53 pm, 3rd July 2000

I am sorry but I missed my hon. Friend's point. Conservative Members were complaining that I am not giving way often enough. I have given way many times to Opposition Members, and only twice to my hon. Friends.

A number of charges have been made about Ministers and special advisers. I do not intend to reply to them in detail or to get drawn into discussion of individual cases. However, I will say that the ministerial code is working and is effective. We welcome Lord Neill's conclusion that there is no need for an independent ethics commission to investigate alleged ministerial abuse. That speaks volumes.

The party that gave us the A team—Archer, Aitken and Ashcroft—can speak only from weakness. If there is a crisis of confidence, the previous Conservative Government have much to answer for. What is more, I have not mentioned the H Word—Hamilton.

Much has been made about the growth in the number and influence of special advisers. I suspect that some Conservative Members are coming to believe the magic and mystery that is alleged to surround some of these postholders. It is inconceivable that 78 special advisers can corrupt and politicise the senior civil service of 3,700, or a civil service of 466,500 permanent staff. We remain committed to an independent and impartial civil service.

It seems that no one has denied—it has been a theme of the debate—the need and role of special advisers. The Opposition Benches are littered with a handful of distinguished former occupants of the post, and we have heard from some of them. Perhaps we should note what the Neill committee says on the matter. It acknowledged the valuable role of special advisers, but no judgment was passed on the numbers considered appropriate.

Nevertheless, the Opposition complain about the numbers and costs of special advisers. Special advisers existed under Conservative Administrations, and guidelines then were far from clear. It was this Government who were responsible for publishing the model contract for special advisers. The contract is explicit and public about their role. That is a transparency that did not exist under the previous Administration. We have also been open—it has been quoted back to us—about the number of advisers and their costs.

For healthy debate, politicians need support and assistance. I was delighted at the decision to increase financial aid to the Opposition parties. There was a 270 per cent. increase to £3 million in Short money for the Conservative Opposition alone. That sum has risen to £3.4 million in the current year. The Leader of the Opposition also receives an additional £500,000. Whether value for money is being achieved remains a moot point. The carping that we are hearing tonight needs to be set in the context of the public support that the Opposition parties have received.

Select Committees deserve support, too. Recent changes in our procedures have provided more time to debate Select Committee reports. There is a continuing debate on the need for the appropriate level of support for Select Committees.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been mentioned. I remind the House that the twelfth report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges cleared my right hon. Friend of complaints against him. It concluded that he should register his tenancy only because in the current climate it would be better if he were to do so.