I beg to move,
That this House
calls on the Government to introduce a Civil Service Bill in this parliamentary session.
It is a pleasure to make a guest appearance at the Dispatch Box, which I have encountered in the past. It is always an honour to represent one's party on the Front Bench, and I am grateful to my old friend the Leader of the Opposition for inviting me back to speak on this particular subject, about which I feel strongly, and which it is extremely suitable for the House to take on at the present time. I suppose that it could be said that my right hon. and learned Friend is hoping that I shall practise for the role of an elder statesman, because this is an elder-statesman-type subject, which addresses the problem of the British constitution—which is being interfered with, and not being interfered with very successfully—and the style of our public life and trust in its integrity, about which, as hon. Members of all parties realise, many among our electorate feel acutely.
The subject is suitable for me, as a former Minister and former Opposition spokesman, because I have seen an astonishing degree of support for the proposals in the Bill that we commend to the House. The Bill was proposed by an all-party Select Committee, the Public Administration Committee, on which there was only one dissenting voice. I hope that its Labour Chairman will catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker. I assume that it is supported by the Liberal Democrats; they have always supported the principle behind it. It is certainly supported by the Conservative party, and, with the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend the leader of the party, I will repeat our commitment to it. It is supported by leading civil servants and by successive chairmen of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
The appeal of the Bill seems to be overwhelming, with the great and the good of every political complexion supporting it. That is hardly surprising, given that its purpose is to entrench the core values of the civil service; to give clear powers and responsibilities to the Civil Service Commission; to defend the integrity and independence of the civil service; and to set limits on the number of special advisers, stipulate what they cannot do, and allow Parliament to have a say on it. Even the Government will say that they support the ideas in the Bill in principle. We are having this debate because they have been saying it for so long, doing so little about it, and acting in such contradiction of the principles in the Bill, that we all realise that they are speaking with forked tongue.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has so far failed to mention part 2 of the Bill, which is couched in identical terms to the ten-minute Bill that I introduced yesterday. He claims that his hon. Friends all support the Bill that he advocates, yet 21 of them voted against my Bill. Will he urge those who seem to have changed their minds between the original tabling of the Bill that he advocates and that of mine yesterday to change their minds again and to support my Bill on its Second Reading on
I was present in the House yesterday. I did not vote against the hon. Gentleman's Bill, nor did I vote in favour of it—he appeared to have more than adequate support—but I assure him that I was in favour of his being given leave to introduce it. He is obviously going to vote with the Opposition today given that, as he says, the terms of his Bill are replicated in the Bill that we are commending. I have to say, however, that his Bill represents the least important part of our Bill, which perhaps shows that although he has the courage of an independent Back Bencher, he has only a bit of it, as he fastened on the one point that, as most members of the Select Committee would agree, is not at the heart of the matter.
I have read statements made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who will open the debate for the Government. I know that the Government will say that they support the impartiality and integrity of the civil service and that they undertake to make some progress towards consultation and so on, but they have been saying that for more than seven years.
We are pressing the point because, despite their protestations, the Government have politicised the civil service as never before. Party political control over the formulation of policy is steadily developing, and party political control over the presentation of policy has become almost absolute.
It is no coincidence that we are considering the matter on the eve of the report by the Hutton inquiry. In no way will I attempt to prejudge the outcome: I am genuinely waiting to hear what Lord Justice Hutton has to say about the matter that he was asked to address—the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly. However, the evidence given to the Hutton inquiry throws such a light on the way in which decisions were reached and the relationship between the non-elected, non-accountable powerful figures whom the Prime Minister has brought into No. 10 and the civil servants who should have shared public responsibility for the matter that today is the day for the Government to be driven away from saying, "We will consult. We agree in principle." Action is required if we are to win back the public's confidence in our political and public service system.
Yes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has the right person, and it is a joy to see him back on the Front Bench.
Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman reverts to old Front-Bench habits and just for the sake of fairness and illumination, will he remind the House that the old Treasury and Civil Service Committee proposed a similar Bill in 1994 and that the Government of the day, in which he was a Minister, did nothing about it?
I quite agree. Before I become more partisan—I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will become partisan—I appeal to hon. Members such as him because important issues are involved. There are a large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who agree and who can take an interest in these matters over and above ordinary party politics. There are Labour members of the Public Administration Committee who have been pressing for a civil service Bill for a considerable time. There are Members on the Labour Benches who agree with me about the need for parliamentary reform and strengthened parliamentary control over the Executive. They are people who should take the matter seriously and add to the pressure on the Government. The issue matters to us all, whichever political party we represent. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that none of us can remember a time when public regard and respect for politics and public trust in the public service has been so low. The case for a civil service Bill has been building up since it was first put before the last election.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that before the last election, the Conservative Government had its own troubles, when the Opposition were pressing us on various matters and invented the word "sleaze" and when I was dogged by the problems caused by the sexual adventures of some of my colleagues and the financial adventures of one or two Back Benchers. We were accused of most things, but we were not accused of politicising the civil service, which is what has happened now. We respected convention when conflict entered our relations with our civil servants, and we did not use public money for party political propaganda. We had half as many special advisers as the current Government. None of our special advisers had authority over members of the civil service, and there was no question of anything interfering with the civil service's right to give impartial and frank advice. Frankly, I knew perfectly well that some of the best civil servants with whom I worked had never voted Conservative and would never vote Conservative, but I respected the professionalism with which they gave their advice, and the public respected their integrity when they were able to see the factual explanation and defence of Government policy to the public.
There are occasions on which Ministers are entitled to take a view on the dismissal of public servants. I was a Minister for 18 years, and during that time I asked for two of my civil servants to be replaced. I could only ask the permanent secretary to look into the difficulties: in the one case, it was because the man was burnt out; in the second case, it was because the man was deliberately ignoring Government policy. Those things occur. The very fact that the hon. Gentleman can only think of one example that got into the public domain and that I can remember only two such experiences, in neither of which was any case established that Ministers were behaving improperly or compromising the integrity of public servants, shows how far we have moved in the seven years since the Labour Government took over.
I should like to give some illustrations of what has happened since Labour took office and embraced a wholly different, rather Americanised approach to controlling the business of Government. The number of special advisers—political appointments accountable to Ministers—has more than doubled since we were in power. It is now more than 80, and more than 20 of those are based in No. 10, acting for the Prime Minister. Many of them combine their policy role with making public or private statements to the media on behalf of the Government. The best estimate on available evidence is that about 40 are often involved in covert briefing of the media on behalf of their Ministers.
That system was introduced on the back of the almost complete removal of the civil service press officers whom we had always used when we were in office. Within two years, all but two of the Government press officers had vanished from Whitehall. Civil servants had been replaced by people quite a number of whom had worked for the Daily Mirror and many of whom had political backgrounds, and much of the media briefing was taken over by the so-called special advisers—"spin doctors" as the press called them—who became the prime part of the Government's presentations to the public.
After more than a decade in office, was it not possible for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Government covertly to have encouraged the appointment of people whose opinions coincided more happily with theirs? Could that not have happened, and is it not preferable for the public fully to understand the role of special advisers, rather than having the more secret operations that seemed to take place when I was a civil servant?
I genuinely think that that was one of the problems when the Labour party came into office. It had been in opposition for 18 years, had been seduced by American methods of campaigning and was somewhat attracted by the American style of Government. Some of the new Ministers came into power believing that the civil service had somehow been politicised by their predecessors. There is always the danger that if one is in opposition for too long, one starts believing too much of one's own propaganda. However, I give the hon. Lady an assurance, confident that she will not be able to challenge me on the basis of any source in respect of my experience in the Government—I was there for the whole time—that we did not do that. We were not allowed to do that. The conventions, which we regarded as constitutional conventions, did not allow us to do it. Our permanent secretaries would have been outraged if we had suggested that they should do it; and the Cabinet Secretary would have insisted that we did not.
In respect of my former Department, Labour Ministers took over a civil service that was rather looking forward to a change of Government and the challenge to their professionalism of being able to deliver public-service Executive tasks to a new set of Ministers. Far too often, however, civil servants found that the new Ministers were deeply suspicious of the civil service and did not take their advice. They were surrounded by a lot of apparatchiks who had enjoyed themselves in opposition and now believed that they should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of government. It took six to 12 months for any kind of proper relationship to be established. If things had got better after the first six months, perhaps we would all be moving in the same direction, but I regret to say that, during the past seven years, instead of the Government's learning from experience, things have got worse.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that when Bernard Ingham gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee, he said that he did exercise those sort of powers when working under Mrs. Thatcher. The civil service Bill which the Select Committee has proposed, does, in fact, retain Executive powers for special advisers at No. 10. The evidence that we heard suggested that we should worry not about the politicisation of the civil service, but about the possibility that the politicisation of a civil service Bill would kill it.
Bernard Ingham was a civil servant. His only political activity before he took the job was as a Labour local government candidate. He took on the duty of advocating the policy of the Government of the day, which is the duty of all Government information officers. Bernard Ingham regarded himself as bound by the convention that he was not to engage in party political advocacy of the policy—though all too often it seemed to his opponents that he did.
Bernard Ingham's deputy was the late—and, in my opinion, great—press officer, Romola Christopherson. She was one of the most entertaining press officers I worked with during my controversial time at the Department of Health. Romola Christopherson had leftish views. She was—I hate to shock hon. Members—by no means a Blairite: she was undoubtedly old Labour, as I discovered when I got to know her well enough for her to reveal her true political opinions. The stories about the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Romola Christopherson when she was based in No. 10 were legion—indeed, I could not share them with the House in the time available for a half-day debate. I am digressing already.
I well knew Romola's left-wing views, but she worked with me to present professionally the case for health service reform, as she was charged with doing. She was still in post as a Government press officer when the Government changed, but she was one of those who fell in the Government's purge of press officers and she was replaced by a political appointee. The rules were that she would advocate professionally the policy laid down by her Ministers and the Government of the day; that she would not do so in a party political fashion or make party political points; and that she would have nothing to do with attacking the Labour alternative. All that has vanished and been destroyed by the activities of the special advisers.
I have just reminded myself that I have only half a day, so I want to make a little progress. I apologise to the Father of the House, who has just risen, but I do not want to give way for a short while.
I am trying to make Labour Members understand that it is their parliamentary duty to put some pressure on their Front Benchers to take some action on this matter. Let me help the House, including Labour Members, to judge the ministerial response that we shall hear from the Minister responsible for the civil service. He will ask why we are making such a fuss and say that the Government agree with the motion in principle and are about to consult on the matter. He will tell us that the Government will take into account the necessity to protect the integrity of the civil service. I shall not give the full record, but just touch on it.
The Labour party first committed itself to introducing new legislation on the civil service before 1997, when it set up a joint commission with the Liberal Democrat party. The commitment was to give
"legal force to the code which should be tightened up to underline the political neutrality of the civil service . . . to clarify lines of civil service and ministerial responsibility".
That was when the Labour party had joint commissions with the Liberal Democrats: alas, poor Paddy, we remember him well. I remember Lord Ashdown's remark to me that the trouble with dealing with the Prime Minister was that Tony always believed something when he said it. However, that was Labour's commitment before 1997.
When the Labour Government took office, they confirmed their commitment in their July 1998 response to a House of Lords report. By 2000, we had reports from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was chaired first by Lord Nolan and then by Lord Neill. Nothing had happened by that time, except the steady emergence of Mr. Campbell and Mr. Powell and the other special advisers in Whitehall.
In its sixth report, the Committee on Standards in Public Life wanted a timetable for the implementation of the Government's commitment to a new civil service Bill. The Committee wanted a target date to be set for the introduction of such a Bill. One would have thought that, to a target-obsessed Government, that should have been attractive.
The Government responded to that report in July 2000. They confirmed their commitment to proceeding along those lines. The same commitment will be repeated today.
By November 2001, Sir Richard Wilson, the then Cabinet Secretary, was getting impatient. He told the Select Committee on Public Administration, presumably with the authorisation of Ministers, that consultation on a civil service Bill would start in the new year—that is, in 2002. By the time of his valedictory speech to the public service in 2002, Sir Richard was still repeating that the Government were publicly committed to a public service Bill. Shortly thereafter, an issues paper was promised by the Government.
The same process has been repeated ever since. In 2001, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who will wind up today's debate, gave evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Committee by that time was into its third Chairman, Sir Nigel Wicks, who is just about to leave that post. The Minister assured the Committee that the Government remained committed to a civil service Bill. In its ninth Report published in April last year, the Committee recommended that an early process of public consultation on the contents of a draft Bill should begin, and that the Bill should receive pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.
Time and again, the Government have given in-principle commitments to such a Bill but have done nothing about it. I shall not give a full list of examples, but that is the background to the latest step by the Public Administration Committee, which the Opposition are simply commending and adopting. That all-party Committee, in its first report of this Session, published a draft civil service Bill. That draft has been approved by Sir Nigel Wicks and his Committee on Standards in Public Life, and it has been accepted by leading retired public servants outside the House. The Government have responded by saying that their own draft Bill will soon be going out to consultation.
In my opinion, the Minister for the Cabinet Office will say, when he responds to my remarks, that the Government will of course go out to consult.
The Minister says from a sedentary position that I am not going to give the speech, and indeed he may alter what he was about to say. However, he has been pretty consistent so far in saying that the principle of this matter was always right and that the Government were about to consent to it.
I must tell the House that I have reached the stage where I do not believe Ministers. The Government are not acting in good faith. There comes a point where endless hesitation becomes opposition, and when procrastination becomes positive deception. That is what happens when people keep saying that they are in favour of something but do nothing about it. It is plain that the Government want to kick the proposition that is a new civil service Bill into the long grass, and that no grass in the political world is too long for it.
However, such a Bill will inevitably have its day, and it is possible that some members of the Government support it. Some theories suggest that the Prime Minister is personally in favour but keeps getting talked out of it by his more unscrupulous cronies and more obdurate colleagues. Other theories have it that the Deputy Prime Minister is genuine when he waxes lyrical, in answer to questions, in favour of a new civil service Bill, but that it is the Prime Minister who wants his political entourage at No. 10 to retain control.
If we are to be told that there will be more consultation, we have been told the same thing for more than seven years. The time has come to move on. No doubt we will eventually get something for consultation, but when this Government consult, they do not legislate. The consultation will proceed, and it will amount to another long period of total indecision. That is why the Opposition motion is commendably precise and to the point, requiring the Government to introduce legislation in this Session of Parliament. That is what the Government are resisting.
The position adopted by my right hon. and learned Friend has the advantage that he has always practised what he preaches. My hon. Friend Mr. Ruffley and I worked as political advisers for him, and he told us at our first interviews when we arrived that our duty was to offer political advice to Ministers, but that we must not issue instructions to career civil servants or make public political speeches. If we had forgotten that distinction, I doubt very much that our feet would have touched the ground on our way out.
I entirely agree. I am very grateful to both of my hon. Friends for their work as special advisers. We never had any trouble, because it would not have crossed the minds of my special advisers—any more than it would have crossed mine—that their role was to give instruction to Treasury officials, or to give alternative briefings on policy subjects to the media. That did not happen.
I might, if I do not exceed my time too much.
I have been, I think, statesmanlike throughout my remarks. I have set out the position in a dispassionate way. I have asserted no principle of civil service integrity and impartiality that any Minister would dare to contradict. I have not described constraints on the roles of special advisers that any of them would disavow in public. However, I want to touch on why this matter is becoming urgent. As I have said, the behaviour, practice and style of this Government, and the experience of people interested in the constitution of public affairs over the long period for which this debate has lasted, have made the case in favour of a new civil service Bill over and over again. There is now an urgent need for such legislation.
I have mentioned Mr. Alastair Campbell and Mr. Jonathan Powell. A mixture of pressure and despair finally caused Mr. Campbell to go and earn his living in some other way. Mr. Jonathan Powell is still there in No. 10 Downing street, with his executive authority over large parts of the civil service intact.
No doubt Lord Justice Hutton will next week set out the details of the role of those two gentlemen in certain events. So far as I can judge, the two of them over the past seven years have been more powerful than the vast majority of members of the Cabinet. They have had more executive authority over officials and, through those officials, over Government Departments than any other political appointees ever had previously. I suspect that they know far more about what goes on inside Government than two thirds of the members of the Cabinet.
The former Foreign Secretary, Mr. Cook, is in his seat, looking delphic, as he usually does. He might have had more power than Jonathan Powell and Alistair Campbell, but I suspect that he had some almighty battles with them and that they strongly prefer the present Foreign Secretary, who is more inclined to do what he is told. I would concede that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a more powerful political figure than Mr. Jonathan Powell because, when push comes to shove, he is more powerful than the Prime Minister in quite a lot of important matters. For the rest of them, however, I doubt it. Some might stand up for themselves, but the ability of the minor Secretaries of State down the table even to argue with Alastair Campbell in his pomp, or Jonathan Powell in his present capacity, is very limited. Let us look at the fate of our colleague, the present Secretary of State for Defence, who seems like a man at the end of the plank looking back at the cutlasses, wondering when he is going to be asked to jump. The real problem with his involvement in the issues surrounding Mr. Kelly, whatever Hutton comes up with, is that it is quite plain that the poor old Secretary of State for Defence was not really allowed to know what was going on. He was not crucially at the centre of events, hence his pathetic attempts to explain in his evidence what his personal role was.
No doubt the Secretary of State for Defence will at last have the final responsibility of carrying the can not just for the Prime Minister but for all those special advisers whose e-mails make such unpleasant reading and who attended those weekend meetings at Chequers that really decided everything. Lord Hutton has already complained, in a letter to my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley—anticipating one finding—that the key meetings that weekend were not minuted. My right hon. Friend was a Cabinet colleague of mine for many years, and we were not allowed to have meetings with no minutes. We could not even make a telephone call without civil servants on the other line making notes on what we were saying. They would say, "It's essential, Minister, that everybody should know what you are committing the Government to, and what is being decided." What was the reason for having meetings of Cabinet Ministers and political appointees with no minutes? We do not have to be conspiracy theorists to work out that they wanted no one to know what they were talking about. We never would have known that, had not a senior permanent secretary had the courage to do what his Secretary of State had not felt able to: go along to the Hutton inquiry and say that the decision to name Mr. Kelly was taken at an unminuted meeting chaired by the Prime Minister. I shall go no further into that, because there have been other records of it.
I think that the hon. Gentleman means Mr. Charles Powell, pronounced pole, who is the brother of Mr. Jonathan Powell, pronounced Powell—[Laughter.] Who says that every element of class war has gone from British politics? Mr. Charles Powell was a career civil servant, a diplomat. He was subject to the civil service code and civil service discipline. He was not a non-accountable, non-elected, politically appointed freelance like his brother Jonathan Powell who, as chief of staff, has enormous influence and was heavily involved in the affairs on which Lord Hutton is about to report.
I remind the House of the other great affair that accelerated the application of pressure for the Bill and, I am sure, helped to drive the Select Committee in the direction that it took. It is not so long since our experience with Mr. Byers—then Secretary of State for Transport—his special adviser Jo Moore and a press officer called Mr. Martin Sixsmith. The shambles that then occurred was well reported by committees of investigation, and I shall not bore the House with their reports. Jo Moore became notorious because she made a shatteringly tasteless remark on the opportunity to use the events of
My suspicion is that Miss Moore had quite excessive influence on that disastrous Secretary of State, who made so many errors, and that her relationships with half the Department for Transport were absolutely deplorable. It is quite obvious that there was a three-way breakdown in communications, which the relevant Select Committee report described. Not only were the then Secretary of State, Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith at odds with one another; everyone was leaking information against one another to the press. The odour from that experience, the style of that experience and the impression that it gave of new Labour's management of a Department were quite deplorable, and it is no wonder that the Phillis inquiry was set up. Mr. Phillis, who produced his final report just a day or two ago, said in his interim report that there had plainly been a three-way breakdown in communications. Yet again, that urgently underlines the need to codify and entrench the proper relationships between members of Departments, because we have had such disastrous experiences of things going wrong.
The people involved in that affair are not alone. The dismissal of Derry Irvine, the overnight abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor and the belief that it was acceptable to put in a former flatmate of the Prime Minister to take on that role, and to change the country's constitution without further ado by an overnight press release, were a tragic demonstration of how not to go about the process of government. All the officials and judges involved were so taken by surprise that the Ministers and their cronies who produced the idea did not even realise that the law obliged the new Lord Chancellor—even if he did not want to be called Lord Chancellor—to put on his robes and go along and sit in the House of Lords if the second Chamber of Parliament was to be able to sit. Those Ministers are still, presumably, taking the advice of the civil service on exactly what practical consequences follow from the sad, sad quarrel between the Prime Minister and his former pupil master that led to that momentous, historic move.
Hon. Members know perfectly well that matters have moved in a very undesirable direction in the past few years. We have heard enough of Ministers' protestations that they understand, that they agree in principle and that they are going to consult. We have an opportunity to legislate and have been invited to do so by one of our Select Committees. We should act on that and not allow the Government to deflect us, because there are those in the Government who are strongly against legislating. I advise hon. Members to read the speech of Lord MacDonald of Tradeston in a House of Lords debate in May 2002 to see the opinion of some of the tougher, more hard-nosed members of the Government. I have great respect for Lord MacDonald, who is more competent than most of his colleagues, and has been brought in to sort out quite a number of messes in his time. However, his background as a trade unionist, a business man and then a Member of the House of Lords has perhaps not made him as sensitive to democratic accountability as some of us think that we should be. [Laughter.] I see that Members on both sides know Lord MacDonald.
There was no dissembling in Lord MacDonald's case. He told the House of Lords:
"The Government believe that the existing framework of rules and safeguards works well".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 1 May 2002; Vol. 634, c. 726.]
The Government have also said:
"Special advisers need to be able, on behalf of their Minister, to convey instructions and commission work from the civil service."
I think that the MacDonald faction in the Government is prevailing at the moment. The Government's response to the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life shows that they do not accept the Bill that has been put forward. They accept a Bill in principle, but they do not want to legislate on key matters, particularly the role of special advisers.
The Government's response explains that they prefer the Order in Council system to legislation for regulating what special advisers can and cannot do. What is the difference in practice, the House may ask, between a code enforced by Order in Council and legislation of the straightforward and simple kind recommended by the Select Committee? There is one crucial difference: there is no parliamentary scrutiny of Orders in Council. However much we might wish to amend them, they are passed at the discretion of Ministers, whereas legislation would bring the matter to the House and give MPs of all parties a say. The Government also prepare codes of conduct, of which we have plenty—they keep revising them. The Government prefer codes of conduct to enshrining things in legislation? Why is that? Because MPs might otherwise exercise a view in the House.
The House—MPs of all parties—should indeed take a view and say that Governments, of any party, should accept the constraint of the rules that give the civil service the right to give impartial advice and separate civil servants from the party political process.
I am sorry not to give way to the hon. Lady—I have not been singling her out in that regard.
One reason for timely action is that if by chance, and rather to my surprise, the Prime Minister does not survive the next fortnight—although it is not for me to speculate whether he will—he will obviously be replaced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If there is any chance of that happening and we want to protect the integrity of the civil service, we had better act quickly. Do not get me wrong: the Chancellor is an honourable man but he is the political control freak to end all control freaks. Most of his former Cabinet colleagues say that it is bad enough working with him, but working for him will be impossible. He is the man who made the Red Books incomprehensible. He is the man who has altogether taken over the presentation of policy. His presentation of the public finances exceeds the ambitions of any creative accountant in obfuscating the true position and putting everything off balance sheet as much as possible.
When the Chancellor first reached the Treasury, his approach to things was probably the worst in the Government. He would scarcely talk to the departmental officials waiting to serve him. For about the first six months, policy was made in the Park lane hotel room of his then colleague, in the company of Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan. It was difficult enough for the Treasury to discover what the economic policy of the Government was—the Cabinet had no chance whatever, but at least they saw him each day while he was making it.
If the Chancellor ever got the supreme job, we should not entertain the idea that he would dream of relinquishing the present style of party political control to the absolute degree. He works harder than the Prime Minister. He has more knowledge of detail. No Minister in any part of Whitehall would be safe from his political apparatchiks seeking control, so we had better act first.
The Bill is straightforward. I do not see how anyone can argue against it in principle. It strengthens the civil service commissioners, gives civil servants who feel aggrieved a right of appeal and gives the civil service commission the power to investigate complaints. It entrenches the principle of selection on merit in the civil service and the duty of civil servants to give fearless and impartial advice.
The key thing about the Bill is that it will strengthen parliamentary oversight of the whole system, which is what the Government most dislike about the Select Committee's proposals—that Parliament would have a say in what special advisers can and cannot do, and that it would have a say in the protection of the impartiality of the civil service. I am glad to say that the Conservatives are committed to doing that, which is why I am honoured to speak for my party at the Dispatch Box. We shall not do as the Government did—commit ourselves to the measure in opposition and fail to carry it out for our first seven years in government.
We are prepared to subject ourselves to the constraints at this stage. I have the authority of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition to say that he would legislate to scrap the Order in Council system, that he would reduce the number of special advisers from its present level and that he would not seek to give special advisers executive authority over civil servants.
In our case, we are prepared to enact that promise now, because those constraints—proper constitutional behaviour and regard for the standards in public life that our people expect of all parties in government—are ones that we are prepared to vote for now. The only people blocking progress are the Government, who will try to procrastinate and will, I suspect, turn down the offer of every other element in the House that would enable them to endorse standards that they claim to defend but that they have actually done more to damage during their period of office so far than any Government of modern times.
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, in its response to the Ninth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to publish a draft Civil Service Bill for consultation;
acknowledges the contribution made to the discussion of these issues in recent days by the Public Administration Select Committee;
notes the failure of any previous Conservative Government to legislate for the Civil Service;
and welcomes this Government's commitment to reforming and modernising the Civil Service to ensure that it continues to deliver a first class service to the people of this country."
I am sure that both sides of the House will welcome the return of Mr. Clarke to the Dispatch Box for what he described as a guest appearance, after almost seven years when he could not be persuaded back into the shadow Cabinet of the past two leaders of the Conservative party—or, indeed, of its present leader. Instead, along with past leaders of the party— the former right hon. Member for Huntingdon and the right hon. Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—he has accepted a place on the newly established Conservative party advisory council. So if hon. Members want advice on how to lose their home, their job and an election, they now know to whom to turn.
On the basis of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's contribution to the debate today, I have the impression that he has been enjoying himself on the after-dinner circuit since his departure from government, so how fascinating to see that he was finally tempted back to the Dispatch Box to discuss the case for a civil service Bill. That is fascinating indeed, given that during his time as Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Minister of State for Health, Paymaster General, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Education and Science, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, not once did the Conservative party or the Government of whom he was a member legislate for a civil service Bill.
No. I will give way in due course.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe made some specific points about the report of the Select Committee on Public Administration, and made claims about the politicisation of the role of special advisers. He even upheld the Thatcher Administration as a model of Cabinet government. I shall endeavour to address each of those points during my remarks.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would seek consensus before making more partisan points, so I shall set the context for the debate before following his lead. The Opposition motion's demand for civil service legislation is made against the background that over two centuries we have seen three major reforms of the civil service: the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853; the Haldane report of 1918 and the Fulton report of 1968.
By any reckoning, each was a major milestone in the history of the civil service, but there has never before been a civil service Act. Indeed, as the present Cabinet Secretary stated last year,
"we have lived without one for 150 years".
The civil service Bill will, I believe, rank alongside those past reforms, so what is in the Bill matters much more than the simple fact of having a Bill.
Last September, when the Government published our response to the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we committed ourselves to publishing a draft civil service Bill for consultation once we had received the Public Administration Committee's proposals for legislation. Under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend Tony Wright, the Committee produced a draft Bill and published it on
The Public Administration Committee has wisely and consistently recognised the need to seek to build consensus around such a piece of landmark legislation. That is why its report of
The Government are of course mindful that both Houses will take a close interest in the draft Bill. It is an important constitutional matter and there will be full consultation with both Houses. However, detailed decisions about the form of that consultation have yet to be taken.
Obviously, one of the organisations to be consulted will be the First Division Association. Is the Minister aware that the association has complained constantly about the bullying and harassment of civil servants by the Government? Does he agree that the case of Ms Weleminsky is an example that should be looked at? What are his comments on that case?
There is a matter before the Standards and Privileges Committee. I shall be delighted to rehearse the views of the First Division Association in relation to special advisers. It will not make comfortable listening for the hon. Gentleman.
I turn first to special advisers, a question which took up a considerable part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's contribution. He started by making claims with regard to numbers of civil servants. He said that they had doubled under this Government; he failed to mention that they had doubled under the previous, Conservative Government. It is perhaps more interesting to bear in mind the comments of the previous Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, now Lord Wilson of Dinton, in his evidence in July 1999 to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. He said:
"I do not think the senor civil service of 3,700 people is in danger of being swamped by 70 special advisers. That is not what is happening and I do not see it as creeping politicisation."
The hon. Gentleman, who is himself a former special adviser and so brings some expertise to our deliberations, is right in recognising that the noble Lord is in favour of a civil service Bill. He was in favour of a civil service Bill when he was Cabinet Secretary, so the suggestion that that is a revelation must be taken with a pinch of salt.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman moved on to talk about the role of special advisers in communication, the central charge being that it was somehow inappropriate and illegitimate for special advisers to speak to the media. I return to the words of Lord Wilson, again before the Neill Committee, on
"The fact is that not just under this Government but under previous Governments in my experience political advisers have spoken to and briefed the media. One of their jobs is to help brief the media in ways which permanent civil servants would regard as not appropriate, given their commitment to be politically impartial."
My hon. Friend anticipates my contribution to the debate. I shall be happy to look at the specifics of the Order in Council under which the special advisers under this Administration and those under the Conservative Administration operated in having discussions with civil servants.
However, the substance of the attack by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe was about the nature of the powers under which civil servants now operate, and in specific terms the role of special advisers in relation to those powers. Much was made of the role of Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell and the 1997 Order in Council allowing up to three special advisers in Downing Street to be appointed with executive powers.
Yet again I turn to Lord Wilson, whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman cited, apparently in defence of his own position. The noble Lord described the Order as
"putting those three posts back to where all special advisers were before 1991."
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman was confident enough to admit, it is important to look at the detail in these matters. The 1997 Order in Council simply removed the restriction confining advisers to giving advice to Ministers, which was not put in place until 1991. Not only was there a politically appointed chief of staff under the Conservatives between 1979 and 1985, but many Conservative special advisers who are now serving as Conservative Members operated under similar, if less clearly defined, arrangements when they were special advisers. In his long discussion of the role of the Powells and the "Poles" in British public life, the right hon. and learned Gentleman conveniently forgot to mention that point.
With the greatest respect, that is a misquotation. Before 1991 there was not a code of practice. It was introduced in 1991. That, I think, was the point that Richard Wilson was making in the quotation that the Minister gave us. He is not, I trust, asserting that before 1992 any politically appointed special adviser had executive authority over a civil servant. Not only would the then Cabinet Secretaries have been outraged, but no Minister ever suggested it.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for recognising that the rules were indeed changed at that point. It is for the Conservatives to justify the regime under which they—and indeed their special advisers—operated during that time.As I was saying, in his long discussion of the Powells and the "Poles" the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not address those particular facts.
The point about special advisers' powers has a contemporary relevance for the House, given the terms of the Bill. I was intrigued to examine the contents of the Conservatives' Civil Service Bill, which includes provisions, in clause 5(3), that up to two special advisers with executive powers may be appointed to the Prime Minister's Office.
The House will be interested to know that the Conservative party's previous spokesman on these matters, Mr. Collins, who, regrettably, has left the Chamber, gave evidence on this exact matter to the Committee on Standards in Public Life:
"There is the constitutional precedent which if you like has been set by the Order in Council that was granted in 1997, giving a special enhanced status to Jonathan Powell and to Alastair Campbell. And as you will have seen from the documentation that I submitted not only do we object to that, we actually are of the view that if we were to bring in civil service legislation it should prohibit that sort of activity."
I presume, therefore, on the basis of his own evidence, that the previous Conservative spokesman on this issue will shortly vote against the Bill of the current Conservative spokesman. Clearly, a week is a long time in Conservative policy making, as we discovered at Prime Minister's Questions on the issue of tuition fees.
As for the more substantive point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised about the role of apparatchiks in our public life, I am sorry that Mr. Redwood is not in the Chamber, because I know that this is a matter of long-standing concern to him. During the Conservative leadership contest of 1993 his campaign team, together with the First Division Association, condemned the way in which the special adviser to the person who was then Home Secretary, but is now the Leader of the Opposition, was working at the campaign headquarters of the then Prime Minister. When the special adviser to the now Leader of the Opposition was asked by a reporter why she was at the Major campaign HQ in the middle of the afternoon, she explained, "I have been getting in to the Home Office early and coming here in my lunch break." As the spokesman of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, Andrew Roberts, declared at the time:
"These rules were made quite clear, so there is no excuse for the Major campaign so flagrantly abusing them."
As the Government have introduced both the code of conduct for special advisers and the model contract for special advisers, we will take no lectures from the Opposition on special advisers' probity in public life. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to discuss the need for civil service legislation in terms of ministerial propriety, so be it. He was kind enough to ventilate some of the sexual peccadilloes of his colleagues when he was serving in office. Let him explain more substantive matters. Let him explain the case for legislation with reference to the ministerial resignations of his erstwhile colleagues the former Member for Tatton, forced to resign and then humiliatingly defeated as the embodiment of Tory sleaze. Let him comment on the conduct of the former Member for Beaconsfield, forced to resign over cash for questions, and the former Member for South Thanet, whose special adviser was in the Chamber this afternoon—a Member who resigned to fight his libel action with the trusty shield of fair play.
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to discuss the Bill in relation to probity in the direction of civil servants, which formed a central part of the charges he laid before the Government today, let him begin by explaining the conduct of the Conservative Deputy Prime Minister who, when based in the Cabinet Office only months before the 1997 election, of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke, attempted to order civil servants to work on party political tasks, obliging the then Cabinet Secretary to deliver an unprecedented rebuff.
Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain the wider need for the Scott inquiry, the Downey inquiry and the Nolan inquiry during his 18 years in office. Let him explain why he feels that it fell to the present Government uniquely in their time in office to introduce and publish the ministerial code for the first time, to introduce the model contract for special advisers and to publish the code of conduct for special advisers.
The Government in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman served for 18 years did irreparable damage to the public life of this country. His speech ignored that. He ignored the fact that he has a past to account for, and that the British people held him to account in 1997.
Leaving aside the right hon. and learned Gentleman's past, he alleged that important decision-making meetings are not being minuted. That charge was also ventilated in the Financial Times last week by the journalist Sue Cameron. In what circumstances are decision-making meetings not minuted by civil servants?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Clearly, there are circumstances in which Ministers meet without a civil servant present—for example, within the precincts of the House, where decisions could well be taken between Divisions, with major matters of policy being determined with colleague Ministers. In that sense there is no iron law that in no circumstances must a decision ever be taken by a Minister without a civil servant being present. However, with the greatest respect for what I understand are his 34 years on the Front Bench, it was rather risible for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to suggest that the period of the Conservative Administration was somehow a model of collegiate Cabinet government.
Now that we have introduced some of the facts, let us try to deal with the substance of the charges that the right hon. and learned Gentleman laid before the House. In essence, he was arguing that there has been a grotesque abuse of power by the Labour party since it came to power in 1997. His real grievance is the enduring grievance of the entire Conservative party, I would suggest, which is about not the abuse of power but the loss of power by the Conservative party. The speech we heard was not as much a scrutiny of power held as a lament for power lost.
Conservative Members seem to feel that a massive injustice was perpetrated against the Conservative party on
The real reason why the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with so distinguished a career behind him, chose to address the House today on the matter of the Civil Service Bill is that actually, I fear, he may not be able to defend the Conservative party position—on Europe, for example, or indeed on the health service. He made admirable speeches—
The Minister is showing his great adeptness at getting further and further away from the subject on which I was pressing him. May I bring him back to the Bill for a second in the course of his dissertation? Can he explain at this stage why the Government, who say that they are about to consult, reject the idea of legislation that would give the House any supervision over the code of conduct for—
It is not only 16 days; the Government have been promising action on this for seven years, and the response has already been given to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Government have already said that they reject the case for legislating on the role of special advisers and their code of conduct; they prefer Orders in Council. May we have an argument in defence of that—assuming that it remains the Government's policy? It was stated only a few weeks ago.
I fear that during his period away from the House, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not been able to keep up to date with the provisions and positions of the Government. As I told the House today, we are committed to introducing a draft civil service Bill. I myself, in my evidence before the Committee on Standards in Public Life, made it clear that we were looking for a succinct Bill that would place on a statutory footing not just the civil service code of conduct but the special advisers code of conduct—that addresses the specific point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made. None the less, he raises an important question—whether we are at this stage ready to legislate or whether, working on the explicit direction of the Public Administration Committee, we should recognise the need to build consensus on this matter. In that sense I make no apology whatever for introducing a draft Bill at this stage because I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides of the House would want the opportunity to contribute to the work that is under way on the Bill.
It was no surprise that Mr. Clarke would not take an intervention from me to ask him for a definition of a civil servant, because in the evidence to the Committee no one person could agree on a definition. Does the Minister have a definition of a civil servant on which there would be consensus across the political spectrum?
My hon. Friend is aware that this matter caused some interest in the Public Administration Committee. I suggest to him that the definition offered by a number of royal commissions in the past—
"a servant of the Crown, who does not hold political or judicial office, who is employed in a civil capacity and whose remuneration is paid wholly out of money voted by Parliament"— would be an interesting starting point not just for the Government but for the discussions that are taking place as part of the consultation.
However, in response to the substantive point made by my hon. Friend, it is important to recognise that on such matters of detail it is vital that there be a wide degree of consensus not just across the House but in the other place.
The Minister has forgotten a statement of policy that he has already cleared, I suspect, giving a detailed response on special advisers which he just slipped away from. May I refer him to the Government's response to page 10 of the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, published in September 2003? I suspect that he was the Minister who cleared this statement:
"The Government's position on legislation for the Civil Service is set out in its response to recommendation 6. It believes that any legislation would need to be short and succinct and that the issue of what special advisers can and cannot do is best dealt with in Codes of Conduct rather than on the face of a Bill."
That is the Government's policy position. The Minister will not even acknowledge that he is aware of it, let alone defend it—and he claims he is willing to go on and consult about the details.
I am only too happy to clarify that point. One can of course refer on the face of a Bill to a code of conduct, which then finds expression outside the main piece of legislation. Enabling legislation has a long tradition of being able to do exactly that. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is dancing on the head of a pin in an attempt to cover the fact that the present Government have moved significantly by introducing not only the model contract for special advisers but the code of conduct for special advisers—two matters that did not trouble him during his 18 years in office.
As I was saying before I gave way to my hon. Friend Brian White, the real matter of substance which explains the appearance of the right hon. and learned Gentleman today is the fact that the Conservatives feel a profound sense of grievance, and the reason why they are addressing themselves to such matters is not solely a concern for the fate of the civil service, but rather a concern for the fate of the Conservative party. In reality, this is part of a premeditated strategy by the Conservative party to encourage cynicism about politicians and public life in this country.
I will give way in a minute or two.
That is why Conservative supporters have recently received a communication from the leader of the Conservative party, stating:
"In a low turn out election (estimated at 35%) if we get all our supporters out to vote then we win the major share of the seats in each region."
This debate is just the latest move in a coldly cynical ploy by the Conservative party to grow cynicism, and it does the good reputation of the right hon. and learned Gentleman only harm that he should choose to play a leading role in the strategy being devised, no doubt, by Maurice Saatchi in Conservative central office.
The principles that underlie the Government's approach to civil service legislation are indeed long established. They are the importance of maintaining the impartiality and objectivity of the civil service; defence of the principle of appointment on merit on the basis of fair and open competition—the bedrock of our system of public administration for more than 150 years—and recognition that special advisers have a valuable role to play in our system of government. We will therefore introduce a draft civil service Bill in the course of this Parliament that reflects these principles.
Our civil service is world renowned. The Government uphold an absolute commitment to maintaining the political impartiality and integrity of the civil service. That has been our position since coming to office and it will remain our position in the years to come.
I shall return to the Minister's speech later. It was a very thin speech, but in contrast the very robust speech of Mr. Clarke was a most exciting occasion and we warmly welcome him back to the Front Bench. We look forward to his contributions from the Front Bench on Iraq, on Europe and on other issues with which we often find ourselves in agreement with him. His performance this afternoon entirely justified the comment that he is a veritable giant amongst pygmies. Let us have more giants and fewer pygmies on the Front Bench in future.
It is a great occasion when we can welcome yet more repenting sinners in the House. The Conservative Government never admitted the need for legislation clearly defining the role of civil servants, protecting their integrity from party political interference and delineating the clearly different role of political special advisers. It is great to have them on our side, even if it has taken them seven years to reach this position since the Labour party and Liberal Democrats came to that conclusion in spring 1997, as has been said, in the so-called Cook-Maclennan accord.
Of course, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe and his new leader have what I think in the Home Office would be called previous form in the whole issue of the integrity of the civil service. I refer to the note produced by Sir Robin Mountfield in April 2002, based on his experience in the Cabinet Office, which he headlined, "Politicisation and the Civil Service". He referred specifically to the vital issue of public appointments, which have not yet had sufficient attention in the debate this afternoon. I think we must all agree that it is critical for the integrity of our civil service that the public appointments process is full of the natural independence that we would require for those who take an important role in an independent civil service. Sir Robin said:
"The second, and only other, route was open to external competition, supervised directly by the Civil Service Commissioners. A Minister could then only accept the recommended candidate, or the first recommendation if more than one were judged acceptable. He could not (since the Commissioners' rules were changed following Ken Clarke's preference for Derek Lewis over other 'acceptable' candidates as head of the Prison Service) choose between 'acceptable' candidates: if he was unwilling to accept the first name, the only course would be to re-run the competition from scratch. These arrangements were re-stated explicitly, and they leave no room (as it was alleged some new Ministers wished to do) for them to parachute their own candidates in."
The point about that was precisely that the inadequacy of the arrangements before that incident led to that invidious situation. I must again suggest, therefore, that the problem is not new: it was there during the Conservative Government's regime and, by coincidence, it was the right hon. and learned Gentleman who found himself in that precise position.
Indeed, that episode was referred to time and again in the evidence to the Select Committee. For example, on
"There was one exception made by the Civil Service Commission which was the famous case of Derek Lewis's appointment, which was not—I hasten to add—a political appointment. It was Kenneth Clarke's perception that an individual who came several down the ranking was the person he felt was the right person for the job. When Michael Howard succeeded him within no more than six months, he took an instant dislike to this individual, felt that he did not have the skills he needed in the Prison Service and it ended in an almighty disaster for the Government of the day."
The appointments issue is critical to the legislation that we are now considering and to the integrity of the civil service. There were more references to that episode and the inadequate situation that arose at that period, during the Conservative Government's administration of this country, at the seminar hosted by Tony Wright and his Committee in October.
It is certainly not for me, because I have no ministerial experience, to say whether there was ever a golden age. I doubt it. I suspect that, gradually over the years, this process has inevitably made the position of the civil service more and more difficult. The integrity and independence of the civil service are things to which every Member of Parliament should pay particular attention. However, it is also important to recognise that that slow evolution has been the subject of concern in the civil service as well as among parliamentarians. I refer particularly to the comments of those who have had the honour—if it is an honour—and certainly the very onerous duty of heading the professional civil service. For example, in evidence to the Wicks committee, which has already been referred to, the then Sir Richard Wilson said:
"I had not realised until recently that the qualification"— that special advisers may only advise—
"was only added in 1991 . . . throughout the 1980s, special advisers had no limits on what they could do in law . . . What the recent Order in Council actually does is just to remove the restriction on advice—in relation to the three so-called executive posts—that were introduced in 1991, and put those three posts back to where all special advisers were before 1991 . . . we have been improvising over a period of years."
The tone of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's contribution this afternoon is an acceptance that improvisation is not enough. The situation in which we find ourselves today, seven years into a new Government, proves the value of the much more sensible approach that was agreed between the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties in 1997—in the light of the experience of the Conservative Government, not in that of the period since this Government came to power. We should therefore consider the Select Committee's proposals on their merits, based on the experience not just since May 1997, but from the period going right back through the 1990s and 1980s to which that very important evidence refers.
I turn now to the Wicks committee report. A very good case is made throughout the Wicks committee's ninth report for clear delineation and clear designation of the differing roles of career civil servants and political advisers. We need not just watch those wonderful "Yes Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" programmes to recognise that the differing role, the delineation between those roles and the extent to which Ministers rely on different advice from those two sources are of extreme importance.
I particularly want to draw attention to the advice that has been given through the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the Wicks committee—as well as the Select Committee, on the need to get some simple definition on paper, so I come to the code of practice. It is true that a number of people have suggested that the code of practice, under Order in Council, is sufficient to deal with the problem. Frankly, I do not think that that stands up to examination. It does not stand up to examination by those who have considered the issue from an independent point of view—whether in giving evidence to the Wicks committee, the Wicks committee itself or our own Select Committee. It is clear from the advice that we are given on all sides that those at the very highest level of the civil service are themselves now persuaded of the need to do what is proposed.
Again, I turn to the evidence given by the then Sir Richard Wilson. At paragraph 7.28 of the Wicks committee report, he said:
"Rather than engage in abstruse discussions about what special advisers can do, we should say clearly and firmly what they cannot do and, beyond that, leave each Cabinet Minister to determine how they want to deploy them."
We need to have something written down in black and white, in statute, agreed by Parliament. Similarly, in evidence to the Wicks committee, Sir Andrew Turnbull—it would be fair to say that he has been converted to this view—said:
"I do not know that it would make a huge difference. I think it is seeking the reassurance that the long-standing kind of values and structure cannot be changed by stealth. In the actual day-to-day practice, I do not think there would be a great deal changed . . . But"— this is critical—
"an Act would underpin" the civil service code. He continued:
"it would give assurance that, over 10 to 20 years, you will not suddenly wake up and find you have a world that you did not like and you do not quite know how you got there."
Once of the pieces of evidence given to the Public Administration Committee from the civil service unions was that such a civil service Bill should apply to the whole civil service. Most of the talk today has been about the senior civil service, and the hon. Gentleman is continuing that. Does he think that a civil service Bill should apply to the whole civil service? If so, would he address that in the point that he is making?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I notice that he was in a minority of one on a number of important issues in the Select Committee, and it is an important part of the role of any Member that, if he dissents from his colleagues in a Select Committee or any other Committee, he can express his views. However, the draft Bill that the Select Committee has produced is a very good start; it makes that definition quite clear, and I am happy to abide by that advice. I hope that, in a minute, the Chairman of the Select Committee will be able to address the kind of logic and rationale behind its recommendations.
Of course the Select Committee is not the only part of this building that has been addressing the issue. My noble Friend Lord Lester has introduced his civil service Bill—the Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill—and I understand that the intention is to consider it on Second Reading in the other place on
"place under the authority of Parliament executive powers exercised by Ministers of the Crown by virtue of the royal prerogative; to make provision relating to the appointment and conduct of, and general duties relating to, civil servants and special advisers; to establish a procedure for the making of certain public appointments; and for connected purposes."
I see no reason why the draft Bill that is effectively before this House and the Bill that my noble Friend hopes will receive a Second Reading in the other place in March should not be considered together before a special joint Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny as quickly as possible. We could then really make progress—never mind all this business about holding yet more consultation. The Government are always consulting, but they use that as a very neat way to delay decisions. If they really wanted to make progress, they could do so now. I see no reason, after waiting seven years for the commitment in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to become a reality, why we should wait for yet more consultation beyond that which has already taken place.
"My impression is that they believe we are doing something that is rather sensible and they have been very receptive to our plans."
If that is the impression that the hon. Gentleman received from the Government, he clearly was not given it by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, because his speech gave us the impression that parliamentary discussion of what should take place is the last thing in which he wants to be involved. He wants a long conversation—out in a field, no doubt—as far away from Parliament as possible. He wants to take the matter away from all the other controversy here. However, if we, as parliamentarians, do not have the opportunity to discuss the issue, given that a cross-party Select Committee has decided that it is time to move ahead, what is happening, for goodness' sake?
I referred earlier to the extremely useful seminar on
"The Government does not believe that the contribution of Special Advisers should be treated as a numerical issue. Rather than setting a limit the right response is to be transparent about numbers and about roles and responsibilities."
"The cost of the Government's spin operation has increased five-fold since Labour came to power . . . The communications budget in Whitehall has jumped from £575,000 in 1997 when Tony Blair entered Downing Street to £2.4 million this year."
A further fact in the article makes a significant contribution to our discussion:
"At least half of this year's budget of £2,458,000 will be spent on 'emergency communications', the Cabinet Office minister, Douglas Alexander, said."
What sort of emergencies do the Government anticipate in the current year to require such an increase?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the findings of the Phillis report, which says that disbanding the Government's information and communication services should be a priority?
We will all have to examine that report carefully—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe has already referred to it. It obliquely suggests that there should be more transparency in government, but it does not show that the Government are accountable to Parliament. They are not accountable to a group of journalists—whether or not briefings are online, on-screen or attributable—because they are answerable to us.
I do not wish to prejudge the Hutton inquiry's conclusion, but it is self-evident from the evidence given to the inquiry that our mechanisms in Parliament to question what goes on in the subterranean intricacies of government and to find out what has been said by civil servants to special advisers and by special advisers to Ministers—and all around that net—are weak and inadequate. It took only a few days after the release of several of the e-mail communications that Lord Hutton was able to extract from the labyrinth of Whitehall to demonstrate that we parliamentarians, through all our various agencies to question Ministers—written and oral parliamentary questions, Select Committees and all the rest—are not doing our job properly.
The Bill must be all about the Government's accountability to Parliament. The blurred distinctions that have undermined the reputation of political impartiality in the civil service and the independent integrity of individual civil servants are serious. The Minister used the expression "Crown servant", but that is an anachronism. In a parliamentary democracy, we should refer to such people as servants of the Crown in Parliament. We have said for hundreds of years that the constitution of the United Kingdom is based on the concept of the Crown in Parliament, so it is crucial that the matter be brought back into the parliamentary arena.
We do not want more conversations and consultations. The Select Committee has produced a draft Bill as the basis for a discussion, so we should get on with that. There must be statutory protection for civil servants now. There must be statutory delineation of the differing roles to which the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe referred. The Minister's inadequate response did not give me cause for encouragement that the Government will make progress on the issue, and if we hear from the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, I hope that he will give us hard evidence of his optimism that the Government will move forward. We need a draft Bill so that Parliament can get on with the job.
I am delighted that the House has this opportunity to discuss the draft civil service Bill that was recently produced by the Public Administration Committee, which I have the privilege to Chair. It is the first time, certainly in the modern era, that a House of Commons Committee has produced its own Bill, and the first time that an Opposition have used such a Bill as the basis of an Opposition day debate. I shall assume that they are doing so in the spirit of constructive support and not simply because it offers a convenient opportunity to embarrass the Government. Mr. Clarke gave a virtuoso performance. Every time that he speaks, he must notice a surge of pleasure and relief among Labour Members because his party was congenitally unable to elect him as its leader. My assumption about that is still just about intact.
The draft Bill was produced on a cross-party basis after a long process of consultation. It is not a partisan measure, and deserves not to be treated in a partisan manner, but I accept that that is a particular challenge for the House—the Groucho Marx song, "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It", probably provides the most concise summary of how we usually conduct oppositional politics in the House. On this occasion, I hope that both sides of the House will want to try to construct a consensus on the proposal. The subject is not, and should not be, party political, because it is essentially a matter of public interest.
It is appropriate that we are discussing the proposal now because it is almost exactly 150 years since the great Victorian reformers, Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan, produced their historic report on civil service reform, which was designed to sweep away patronage and install a meritocratic public service in its place. The report is a model of racy radicalism, and their description of the character of the unreformed civil service is still worth recalling. They say:
"Admission into the Civil Service is indeed eagerly sought after, but it is for the unambitious, and the indolent or incapable, that it is chiefly desired. Those whose abilities do not warrant an expectation that they will succeed in the open professions, where they must encounter the competition of their contemporaries, and those whom indolence of temperament, or physical infirmities unfit for active exertions, are placed in the Civil Service, where they may obtain an honourable livelihood with little labour, and with no risk; where their success depends upon their simply avoiding any flagrant misconduct, and attending with moderate regularity to routine duties; and in which they are secured against the ordinary consequences of old age, or failing health, by an arrangement which provides them with the means of supporting themselves after they have become incapacitated."
The institution that the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms created has served this country well. The civil service enshrines a tradition of public service that has been a model of its kind. It embodies principles that we take for granted, but should not. Just this week we had the report of the independent review—again, recommended by the Public Administration Committee—set up to consider the Government Information and Communication Services. It is revealing that in its search for the solid ground on which to build, amid a collapse of trust in Governments, politicians and the media, the review group turned to the tradition of an impartial civil service. Indeed, it said:
"The tradition of Civil Service impartiality is a key bulwark on which to rebuild trust, and steps need to be taken to preserve and reinforce it".
The proposal for a civil service Bill also builds on that tradition. It is unfinished business from Northcote-Trevelyan, made more urgent by the many recent changes to the civil service and the machinery of government. Let me answer the charge that the proposed Bill would prevent such changes or that those of us who support it have somehow fallen victim to the mandarin's embrace. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing in what is proposed that prevents change, development and evolution in the civil service, and of a radical kind. That is already happening and it will continue. This is not a civil service protection Bill. Propriety and performance both matter. They were central to Northcote-Trevelyan and they should be central to our discussions on the civil service now.
Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the central charges against the civil service is that it has been policy led rather than results led, and that the delivery part of the civil service has lagged behind?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The demands of delivery have posed a challenge for the civil service in modern times. Governments are right to want to make the machine's delivery ever better. My argument is that that imperative for better delivery—what I call performance—is not in any sense in conflict with propriety considerations. Both are important and we should be able to secure both. I would argue that the facts of change make it even more imperative to define the framework of principle within which it takes place, and to do so through Parliament. That is the heart of what is proposed in the Bill.
It is time for the civil service to cease to be the creature of law that is made by the prerogative and to become the creature of law that is made by Parliament. That constitutional proposition is at the centre of the proposal for civil service legislation. A Government who will be remembered for their constitutional reforms need not be hesitant in embracing this one. The civil service has a duty to serve the duly elected Government of the day, but it is not the property of that Government; it should belong to Parliament on behalf of the people, which is what the Bill proposes.
The Bill's approach to particular issues flows from that underlying proposition: a civil service commission should have extended powers of oversight of key principles and practices, and should be set up by Parliament and report to it; codes for civil servants and special advisers should be presented to Parliament and approved by it; the number of special advisers that a Government want should also be approved by Parliament; and the key boundary lines within the Government should be identified and properly patrolled. Having done that, it should be possible to have far more sensible discussion about some matters than has been the case recently.
Having established a framework, we can discuss what should be contained within it. For example, let us have no more silly attacks on special advisers, who in the Daily Mail lexicon of political abuse have come to rank somewhere between asylum seekers and paedophiles. Let us have no Dutch auction to determine precisely how many there should be. They are not new. Indeed, the other day I came across a reference to special advisers in Barbara Castle's diaries for the 1970s, when she was having one of her constant battles with officials in her Department. She wrote:
"I thanked God for the allies I have got in the ministerial team, and for the special advisers."
From all the evidence received by my Committee and the Wicks committee, it is clear that special advisers are thought to contribute to good government.
There is a serious debate to be had about the extent of political appointees in government in this country. We sit at one end of the international spectrum on that. The other day I was introduced to the Australian Cabinet secretary, who turned out to be a political appointee. In Canada, which the Committee visited recently, it turned out that the people we call permanent secretaries, whom they call deputy ministers, are also political appointments. A mature democracy should be able to have a grown-up discussion about the proper relationship between the elected Government and the permanent Government, without the cry of politicisation always going up to prevent that debate from taking place. The proposed Bill expresses no view on those matters, except to say that Parliament must be involved in the consideration of them.
I said that what is proposed is unfinished business from the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853. Let me remind the House of the concluding paragraph of that report in which they say:
"It remains for us to express our conviction that if any change of the importance of those which we have recommended is to be carried into effect, it can only be successfully done through the medium of an Act of Parliament. The existing system is supported by long usage and powerful interests; and were any Government to introduce material alterations into it, in consequence of their own convictions, without taking the precaution to give those alterations the force of law, it is almost certain that they would be imperceptibly, or perhaps avowedly, abandoned by their successors, if they were not even allowed to fall into disuse by the very Government which had originated them."
Finally, they say:
"A few clauses would accomplish all that is proposed in this paper, and it is our firm belief that a candid statement of the grounds of the measure would insure its success and popularity in the country, and would remove many misconceptions which are now prejudicial to the public service."
Those few clauses that were argued for 150 years ago are what we now propose—to anchor the civil service in Parliament. An impressive coalition has been assembled around that proposition which now needs to be acted on: the civil service commissioners, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the civil service unions, at least one Committee of this House, distinguished former senior civil servants and an array of informed commentators. Indeed, the Government should be added to the list as they have indicated their support in principle and have undertaken to produce their own draft Bill. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that that will happen "in this Session" after seeing the Bill produced by the Committee.
Did the hon. Gentleman notice that in the Minister's peroration, he changed that statement to "in this Parliament"? We shall certainly be pressing him further on that.
I did notice that. I thought that that reference was a slip of the tongue. I am sure my hon. Friend will take the earliest opportunity to revert to his original form of words.
I am more than happy to clarify what I said. I have always understood that this Session of Parliament is within the bounds of this Parliament. In that sense, I can assure my hon. Friend that the commitment I gave at the Dispatch Box stands and that the draft Bill will be produced within this parliamentary Session.
I am delighted by what the Minister has said, and I am glad that the Bill that we have produced has kick-started the process.
The Government have the opportunity to be the first to enshrine key governing principles in legislation. That will have huge symbolic and practical importance, and it will make a major contribution to strengthening the public trust in our political system that we all recognise is so important.
This issue is a huge challenge for Parliament and, indeed, for all the political parties. Those who have supported the proposed Bill have done so on the basis that it could be an agreed measure, free from the normal party dog-fight, and I hope that that is the spirit in which the Opposition support it today and in which the Government will respond. In fact, it is a condition of the measure's success.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the terms in which he is speaking in support of his Bill. I put on record the fact that my colleagues and I support his aim of making the process non-partisan, which is why we did not table an amendment, but signed the motion tabled by Conservative spokespeople.
I am grateful for that. The signs so far are not unpromising, so I hope that we can proceed on that basis.
As this is an Opposition motion, let me take the Opposition back to when they were in government. I do so not to make a partisan point but to remind the House how important it is to proceed on an agreed basis if we are serious about introducing the measure.
In its fifth report of the 1993–94 Session, the then Treasury and Civil Service Committee produced an important report on the civil service. It recommended, among other things, that there should be a civil service Act, for much the same reasons as are being advanced here. The Government at the time were not persuaded; indeed, they gave evidence to the Committee opposing the proposition. They said that such an Act would be "incredibly difficult to draft". However, in a debate in the House on
"The Government would consider the introduction of a Bill only if we were satisfied that the proposed legislation would sustain the existing constitutional position, retain the flexibility of existing arrangements for regulating the terms and conditions of civil servants, and preserve the current position of civil servants under general employment law."
He went on:
"I would also want to be satisfied that such legislation would be supported in all parts of the House."—[Hansard, 23 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 550.]
When, just a few weeks later, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster gave evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, he said, on the same issue:
"I would not want to start the process without a clear indication from all sectors of the House that in fact we would not see the Civil Service become a party political football in terms of the amendments being proposed and put forward."
That was sensible then, and it is sensible now.
That is how we secured the civil service code; it is how we can now secure a civil service Bill. We now have a draft Bill that was not incredibly difficult to produce, although it took some care, and commands wide support. I invite the Government and the Opposition to work together to complete this piece of unfinished constitutional business.
I largely, but of course not entirely, agree with the speech of Tony Wright. We worked hard together for a while on the Public Administration Committee. If he looks back he will admit that he was not, initially, firmly in favour of a civil service Act; at least he was not as firmly committed to it as I was in those early days.
As I recall, I used to ask in Committee whether we could have an inquiry into special advisers and suggest that a civil service Act was the only way to deal with the issue, and I was invariably given the brush-off. However, I do not want to create an atmosphere of tension between us because we largely agree on this matter.
I want, none the less, to take issue with a point that the hon. Gentleman made at the end of his speech. This is important because I do not think that he has fully grasped why a civil service Act almost certainly was not required before 1997 and almost certainly is required now. That is because there has been a fundamental shift in the way that the country is being governed, and the relationship between Ministers and civil servants is different from the one that I understood to exist when I was a special adviser in the 1980s.
That shift can be illustrated in many ways. There has been reference to the doubling of the number of special advisers since 1997. The number has more than quadrupled since my time as an adviser, having risen from 15 or 16 to nearer 80. There has also been a sharp expansion in the role of special advisers. They used to engage largely, but not entirely, in policy work, and now many of them are engaged in spin. They also perform many roles that one would have hoped were performed primarily by Ministers. As my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke said, many of them are much more powerful than Ministers. They not only write speeches, but deliver them on their own account; they put articles in the newspapers; and they travel abroad and represent Britain in many meetings where, formerly, Ministers would have been doing that job.
Most important of all is the fact that there has been a takeover of No. 10, right at the heart of Government, by special advisers, and that is backed by Orders in Council. There has been a lot of dispute today about how big that shift has been, but to realise that, we have only to cast our minds back to a few years ago, when the Prime Minister felt able to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that Alastair Campbell did a very good job of attacking the Conservative party. It would have been inconceivable for a Conservative Prime Minister to make such a remark about any of his advisers.
Then there is Jonathan Powell. We had a little explanation of the subtleties of pronouncing his name. He is the gatekeeper to the Prime Minister, and we are told in the newspapers that, before 1997, he was running the blind trusts for the Labour party. There is some conflict between those two roles: deciding who has access to the Prime Minister and, at the same time, working out how the party can be funded.
The whole No. 10 package amounts to a presidential style of government, something that is quite alien, not in wartime but in peacetime, to the way in which Britain is governed. The introduction of that presidential style of government has had many effects, one of which has been to strain the trust between civil servants and Ministers, which is essential for the Government to function effectively.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase will not like this, but I shall refer briefly to the evidence that I gave to the Neill Committee four or five years ago advocating a civil service Act and arguing for a stronger code of conduct for advisers. Many of my recommendations were subsequently implemented, but the Act remains outstanding. When I made those proposals, the Government's response, in the House and in briefings, was, "This is all just good party political knockabout. Nothing much has changed in the way that the country is run. Everything is pretty much as it used to be." The Minister implied much the same today, but that position is very difficult to sustain after the Jo Moore episode, after what we have already heard as a result of the public hearings of the Hutton inquiry, and after the inquiry that Nigel Wicks conducted.
If Members care to look at the Phillis report, they will see a most interesting passage. I do not know whether I need to read it; it depends on whether I am challenged. However, his comments on page 7 amount to saying that there has been a serious breach of trust at the heart of government and that the cause is the communications strategy introduced by the Labour Administration on coming to power in 1997. That is a fundamental and important charge for the Phillis inquiry to have made. It reinforces the point that something is fundamentally different in the way that we are now governed.
The Minister's defence of what I fear will result in Government inaction was pretty thin. He fell back on the refuge that it is important to build consensus, but there is pretty much a consensus on the issue already. We do not need to go around more and more circuits seeking consensus. That very much reminds me of the line on the House of Lords that the Government have been peddling for the past few years.
A much better argument from the Minister—I have heard it, off the record, from a number of his colleagues—might have been, "Well, the truth is we did have quite a serious problem in 1997. We didn't realise it and perhaps we were a bit too enthusiastic, but it has all settled down now. After all, Charlie Whelan went pretty quickly, Alastair Campbell has now gone and we have toned down the spinning. We've got a code for advisers and a new modus vivendi with the civil service." There is some truth in that. In a typically British way, there has been some absorption of the fundamental shifts in the way in which we are governed and in how civil servants are expected to relate to Ministers. However, that does not make the case for not having a civil service Act. Things have gone too far; we need to rebuild trust.
One often hears the argument that it is important not to underestimate the long-term impact of a civil service Act on our political culture. The best way to illustrate that is to consider recent scandals and to ask oneself what would have been different if we had had a civil service Act. I shall cite a few examples.
Let us take the Jo Moore episode. She bullied and browbeat civil servants over a long period. The episode was not some isolated rush of blood to her head but a sustained attack. What would have been the effect of a civil service Act? It is highly likely that some civil servants would have complained to the civil service commissioners. As a result, there would have been an investigation—although the matter would probably not have got that far.
The real effect of a civil service Act might have been that we still had Richard Mottram—an absolutely first-class civil servant whose career was smashed to pieces as he was caught between a rock and a hard place over the Jo Moore episode. Perhaps Richard Mottram could have gone to the Cabinet Secretary anyway. He did not, and the reason why he did not was explained in another context by Kevin Tebbit: for a permanent secretary to do so is the nuclear option; it is just too big a step. I see Brian White nodding in agreement. The introduction of some fallback position that civil service commissioners might provide would add to the protection that civil servants could enjoy. The conclusion I draw is that events would have been quite different if we had had a civil service Act.
Let us take the Hutton inquiry—we do not yet have the report—and consider it on the basis of evidence already in the public domain. Virtually all the evidence given to Hutton is in the public domain; virtually nothing was in camera, so we can form our own judgments on that basis. If we had had a civil service Act, how would the civil service have reacted to demands from Alastair Campbell for the production of material for his dossiers? In particular, what would the civil service have said about the role that it played in putting together the second February dossier? As the House will recall, that was the one that led civil servants to complain that it was being asked to become a propaganda arm of Government. As we know from evidence given to Hutton, the second dossier was not cleared by the intelligence community, and it was not checked by anybody in a position to do that job. Alastair Campbell has since apologised to the Foreign Affairs Committee about the way in which it was produced.
I am listening to the excellent argument deployed by my hon. Friend. I support everything that he has said, as I did the overwhelming majority of the comments made by Tony Wright, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that we will restore the integrity of the civil service only if we restore the integrity of the House of Commons, which should have more authority and more time to decide what it wants to do rather than what the Government want to do?
I absolutely agree. I have in front of me some interesting notes that were produced for the Liaison Committee which relate to that issue. If I have time, I might get on to that, but I do not want to detain the House now.
Would the history of Hutton have been exactly the same had there been a civil service Act? My best guess is that those who were forced to assist Alastair Campbell in the production of the second dossier would have complained. They would have said, "Thank you very much, we don't want to get engaged in this", and there would never have been that second dossier—certainly not in the form that it was produced. A by-product of that might have been that Alastair Campbell, who we are told complains bitterly that the children go off to school and he has nothing to do but wait for a phone to ring, would still be in post. I shall let pass whether we would have been better or worse off as a result.
What about the Kelly affair? Would that have been exactly the same had we had a civil service Act? The key question here is what Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary, would have done. Would he have accepted that the outing in the press of one of his staff could have been organised by a committee in No. 10, chaired by the Prime Minister? I do not think that he would have done so. He would have worried that civil service commissioners might have investigated the lack of care for a member of staff. Kevin Tebbit has a duty of care to ensure that staff are treated properly. Clearly, he was not looking after them; he was delegating the responsibility to do so. I strongly suspect that he would have complained. What is more, I am absolutely sure that the Prime Minister and Alastair Campbell would have trodden much more cautiously in the Kelly affair had there been a civil service Act.
I conclude from those episodes that history would have been quite different, and that a civil service Act would have already performed a sensible function. It would have had a non-negligible effect. That is why I said that it would in the long run have a profound effect on our culture.
I return to a point related to that raised by my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton: what about the relationship between the civil service and Parliament? Over the past few years, there have been a good number of cases of Select Committees trying to call civil servants before them but finding that their way to such cross-examination was blocked. Some of Lord Hutton's work could have been performed more appropriately by a Select Committee. Of course, Lord Hutton had the power to call anybody, whereas Select Committees have found themselves constantly obstructed. Indeed, there had to be lengthy negotiations in order to obtain even a limited hearing with David Kelly.
I am closely following the hon. Gentleman's argument and support him in it, but does he agree that it was not only the calling of witnesses, in which the Select Committee did have a reasonable success rate, but getting information in the form of e-mails and other written material out of Whitehall that was the real success of the Hutton exercise?
Rather than detain the House, I shall simply commend to the hon. Gentleman the Liaison Committee document, "Scrutiny of Government: Select Committees after Hutton. Note by the Clerks." It is well worth taking a look at. I hope that I have not inadvertently obtained something that is not yet in the public domain—I cannot remember quite how it came my way. The document is replete with interesting points, including one that has a direct bearing on the subject raised by the hon. Gentleman.
It is fair to say that if we had a civil service Act, Members of Parliament would feel that the civil service was ultimately accountable to them, and I think that in the long run the relationship between this place and the civil service would change fundamentally. Ultimately, therefore, the question is far deeper than merely whether the rather quaintly titled Osmotherly rules would be swept aside; it ranges into what we as a Parliament should do. I have never believed that Parliament should be able ultimately to block what the Government want. But I have always believed that Parliament's job is to force the Government to explain their actions. I have always believed that the Select Committee process is crucial. Our Parliament is, in that respect, much weaker than most other democratic assemblies in the world.
We have had a first-rate civil service, loyal and dedicated, for a long time. We still have one. We have a long tradition of political independence, which we should not lightly imperil. If a Government want to introduce another form of relationship with the civil service, they should be permitted to do so. If they want a presidential-style of government, a cabinet system, or whatever, they should be allowed to have it. The Government have been elected and they should be allowed to get on with the job, and if we do not like what they do, we can kick them out at the end of their term. However, here we have a Government who have changed the style of government and that relationship, but who are in denial about the change. While they are in denial, it is essential that we press the case for a civil service Act to protect that independence. We must oppose the backdoor efforts of the past seven years to create a presidential style of government. That is why the whole House should now support the introduction of a civil service Act.
Bearing in mind my earlier intervention, I rise with a degree of reticence to speak about part 2 of the draft Bill. However, as no one else has done so, it is important to say something about it. Mr. Clarke said that it was the least important part of the draft Bill, but later stated that the civil service should be founded on selection on merit. If part 2 is of no importance, first, why have its provisions been incorporated into the Bill that was presented to Parliament a couple of weeks ago? Secondly, why and how should we achieve selection on merit when there are so many anomalies in the nationality rules, which prevent so many from joining the civil service?
The Bill advocated by Mr. Heald is based on the Select Committee's draft Bill, part 2 of which is based on the ten-minute Bill that I introduced last year and reintroduced yesterday, with the leave of the House. As I mentioned earlier, 21 Conservative Members voted against my Bill yesterday at the instigation of Mr. Forth. They included, rather bizarrely, Mr. Liddell-Grainger, who voted for the Select Committee report, voted against the provisions of part 2 yesterday, and presumably will vote in favour of the Opposition motion today. It remains to be seen how he will vote when the issue next arises, on
In his reply to my intervention, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said that if I was of that mind, I should vote with the Opposition today. The obvious answer to that is that I do not need to. Because an actual Bill, not a draft—my ten-minute Bill—is already before the House, I can happily vote against the Tories' motion today, and vote for the proposal that will come before the House on
Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to pledge that on
Perhaps I can make a pact with the hon. Gentleman. If he can persuade his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst to adopt a Trappist vow in relation to my Bill, I shall consider his request in relation to the other Bills listed in that Friday's business. I am not minded to talk out those two Bills, but I make no promise in respect of future Bills. In fact, bearing in mind what the right hon. Gentleman did yesterday, perhaps I should start speaking against ten-minute Bills of no merit proposed by Opposition Members, so that we do not have to waste time on Fridays debating them. Rather than trying to talk them out on a Friday, I could simply go for the kill right at the beginning of the process when a ten-minute Bill is proposed on the Floor of the House. If the right hon. Gentleman has adopted that tactic, perhaps I should do the same.
Perhaps it would, and perhaps it would also allow time on Fridays for consideration of more meritorious Bills.
Let me take this opportunity to answer some of the points raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst in yesterday's debate. He betrayed his antipathy towards any form of multiculturalism, even though my Bill is not about multiculturalism, or immigration, or anything else of that nature. It is simply about correcting anomalies, which I outlined yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman is not in his place today, which is a pity—no doubt as an assiduous reader of Hansard he will read my remarks tomorrow—but yesterday he said that he welcomed people coming from overseas if they have skills and a contribution to make. Despite saying that, he seemed prepared to deny the public services the right to employ such people, in effect denying the British public the services of people who have skills and a contribution to make. It seems to me that if people who have something to offer come here from overseas, we should not put any barriers in the way of their making a contribution to our society in every way they can, which may well involve working in the civil service.
I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman consider the position of skilled migrant workers who are here for a short period, or for several years, and who would like both to gain experience of the UK's systems —despite all the criticism that we have heard today, our civil service is among the best in the world—and to use the lessons thus learned to help to improve their own country's civil service on their return home. I mentioned yesterday the communities in my constituency of asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan who have been granted refugee status, many of whom are highly skilled professionals. They have not taken British nationality because they want to be able to return to their own country when it is safe for them to do so: they are proud of their heritage and see their ultimate role as one of helping to rebuild their country. What could be less helpful to them than to deny them the right to work in our civil service, because by doing so, they could gain experience and knowledge of how civil servants should operate, so that when they return to their own country, they could help the reconstruction efforts?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me on a serious point. Is it not important for him to mention that his proposals would still allow us to specify certain positions that are not open to foreign nationals, if that could be justified?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. Under existing arrangements, there are limited procedures to enable foreign nationals to be recruited to the civil service. If I recall correctly, just over 40 certificates have been issued. However, that does not answer the hon. Gentleman's question. The civil service has to show either that no British national has the relevant skills or that the foreign national has exceptional skills to justify the issue of such a certificate. In fact, three quarters of those certificates are issued by the Ministry of Defence, not the civil service.
That brings me to the question of recruitment to the civil service. Under existing rules, 9 per cent. of Londoners—350,000 people—are excluded entirely from the civil service. In the United Kingdom as whole, 850,000 people are excluded. Nevertheless, the state still has to provide services to those people. The civil service should reflect the society that it serves. The very fact that it cannot recruit those people results in greater costs to the civil service. What about language skills? In my constituency, nearly 200 different languages are spoken. If civil servants were recruited from those backgrounds they would be able to communicate with people in my constituency in their own language, thus making savings on expensive language services. Such people are also aware of those communities' cultural ties and needs, and can respond more effectively when dealing with individuals from such backgrounds.
If the boot is on the other foot and people have worked as civil servants in their own country, they may be able to use their experience to make a contribution to the development of our own civil service. That is important in relation to state security. For example, we may want to recruit people from overseas to Customs and Excise but we cannot do so. How can we tackle drug or people smuggling effectively if we cannot recruit people from the nations where those offences originate to infiltrate gangs, expose them and help to arrest the individuals responsible for serious crimes? We cannot combat drug or people smuggling effectively because we cannot recruit the people whom we need to Customs and Excise so that they can tackle those activities.
Similarly, if we genuinely want to promote trade, why cannot we recruit people to the Department of Trade and Industry from an overseas background? Again, they have a great deal to offer the civil service and could help to develop our sales pitch to overseas nations. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst had a fetish about the question of nationality, and talked about the transition from work permit status to indefinite leave to remain.
I certainly accept the point that you are making, Madam Deputy Speaker, but part 2 of the Bill proposed by the Opposition deals entirely with those issues. I am trying to respond to some of the points that were made yesterday but which I did not deal with in the speech that I made then.
If someone is given British nationality, that is no guarantee of their commitment to this country and our security. That commitment can best be shown by a willingness to work in our public services. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was concerned about the natural suspicion of foreign nationals that, he felt, was rampant throughout the country.
Very well, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I could put it this way. It has been suggested that there is a suspicion of foreign nationals throughout the country. I challenge that, but even if it were the case, it is a reflection of the un-national, irrational xenophobia often displayed by Opposition Members. Some of the people about whom we are concerned, such as Mr. Abu Hamza, are British nationals and could join the civil service. By the same token, the widow of a British victim of
There is discrimination against Commonwealth and Irish citizens under existing arrangements, as they are excluded from applying for 25 per cent. of civil service posts. In fact, only 10 per cent. of posts need to be restricted on grounds of nationality for security reasons, but the definition of public service effectively excludes such people from 25 per cent. of those posts. There are severe illogicalities and anomalies in the system. For example, the wife of a British citizen who is a Chinese, Russian or Japanese national is forbidden from joining the civil service, but the Chinese, Russian or Japanese wife of a French citizen living in the United Kingdom is permitted to join the civil service. Surely, it is not right that the spouse of a foreigner can join the civil service but the spouse of a Briton cannot. As an illustration, I recently received an e-mail from Mr. Martin—
No, not Tony Martin.
Mr. Martin says:
"My interest involves my wife Nurcan Martin. She is Turkish, with a 2.1 honours degree in the administrative activities of government, but being married to a UK national may not work for the civil service. As I understand it, if her husband were from any of the other EEC countries she would be eligible for employment in the UK civil service. I consider this totally unacceptable."
Mr. Martin goes on to say:
"I dread to think of the number of talented, experienced, educated and highly qualified members of the UK population whose skills have been denied to the offices of government."
He later told me on the telephone that his wife had applied for a job with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency—we should encourage people from overseas to apply for such jobs because they can communicate effectively with individuals in other countries operating ships and aircraft—but was excluded from it on nationality grounds. That is cutting off our nose to spite our face.
I have tried to show that existing rules cause great distress, not just to people from overseas who would like to work for our civil service but to UK citizens who are their spouses. More importantly, they undermine the ethos of our civil service, which should, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said, be open to appointment on merit with the exception of the 10 per cent. of jobs that have to be reserved to UK nationals for operational reasons. At the same time, those rules do not reflect the society that we serve. Part 2 of the Opposition's Bill is important, so I hope that they will support my ten-minute Bill when it receives its Second Reading. [Interruption.]
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the conversation that I was just having with my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie. I also apologise to Mr. Dismore for not being present for all of his speech. He had the courtesy to write to me to say that he was going to mention me in his speech. Unfortunately, however, I had to attend a sitting of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, as a report is being signed off at the moment.
I pay tribute to Tony Wright, who steered his Committee through an interesting, frustrating and at times downright difficult process. Having taken evidence from witnesses and undertaken many other tasks, we succeeded in publishing a draft Bill. Brian White was the single dissenting voice, but his minority report made interesting reading in its own right, because he raised many of the things that the Government will have to face when they introduce their Bill in this Session.
When I first came to the House, I did not have a view on whether or not there should be a civil service Bill. The Minister may not like this, but I changed my mind after a Select Committee visit to Bristol. We took evidence from hospital staff, teachers and many others in preparation for a report on the ethos of the civil service. We discovered an endemic culture of bullying and targets, and found that an all-pervading top-down ethos was being pumped into the people who were least able to defend themselves. I changed my mind about the need for legislation after meeting people at a certain level who found it almost impossible to get their voice heard. They did not believe that they could go to the top—they did not think that they would be listened to by the Minister or other Government members and they did not believe that the civil service was in a position to do something about their problems. That may not be what they were trying to convey, but I got the intense impression that it is what they were thinking.
As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said, it is vital that the process by which the Bill is brought before the House and becomes law is bipartisan. When I first heard about the debate, I was fairly vociferous in expressing my views to my hon. Friend Mr. Heald, who said that it would take place in the spirit of teasing out of the Government when the draft Bill was to be produced. The Government have now committed themselves to that, for which I must thank them.
What is the definition of a civil servant? As my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke said, a civil servant should be a person who is paid for by the Crown—in other words, by the Government. I agree. Our report states:
"The definition of a civil servant, to whom the Act applies, is of fundamental importance in determining the scope and relevance of a Civil Service Act."
It seems incredible to me that in this day and age we cannot arrive at a definition—it is not beyond the wit of man to do that. One can say that it should cover level 1, 2, 3 or 4 civil servants, or the whole lot. I believe that all civil servants need the right to protection from the Government or anyone else, and that only this place can give it. To me, the fundamental definition of a civil servant is someone who is paid out of the public purse.
I want, if I may, to go slightly further. When we took witness statements, it became obvious that almost everybody saw the need for legislation of some kind. That is endemic in the Jo Moore–Sixsmith affair that started all this. When I came to this place, I had no experience of special advisers—I had not been one, I had never met one, and I did not know what they did. All I knew was that Tony Benn had two of them, because he said so in his diaries some years ago. According to those diaries, they did exactly what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe said—that is, they advised the Minister, and nothing more. They did not, for example, give executive orders. An enormous shift has taken place since then.
The Committee referred to the Library document, "Whither the Civil Service?", as part of our 2002 investigation into the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions affair. It states:
"The employment of politically-appointed special advisers has always contained the potential to cause problems. Where special advisers can appeal above the heads of the permanent secretary of the Secretary of State, they are enjoying privileges that are not available to other civil servants. Rightly or wrongly", this
"can be a damaging perception".
I entirely agree with that. We discussed the Sixsmith-Jo Moore affair at enormous length, but we could not call them when they were employed by the Government. We could have done so afterwards, but things had moved on.
The role of special advisers has to be reviewed. As they are political, they must come under the control of this place. A special adviser is there to advise, not to administer—if that is required, another Minister should be appointed. The DTLR report—I would commend it to the Minister—examines where the Government and the civil service went wrong. Perhaps it would have made a difference if the permanent secretary had stood up and been a bit more vociferous, or if the Secretary of State had been a little more in tune with what was going on, or if we had pushed the matter a bit further in place. But without legislation, we could not find out what was going on until it was too late. I do not wish harm to any special adviser, but to say that one is going to bury bad news on the day of a catastrophe is not the way to do business in anybody's eyes, as I am sure the Minister would agree.
I remember Ministers—not this Minister—saying to the Committee, "This was in our manifesto in 1997 and has been in it before—I'm sorry it has taken so long." I would have thought the Government's own civil service would say that legislation is vital. Certainly, when the noble Lords Wilson, Butler and Armstrong came before the Committee there was no doubt that they thought that there had to be some form of protection. They were incredibly capable men—the most impressive witnesses we have had, with the possible exception of Sir Andrew Turnbull—as heads of the civil service. I did not agree with everything that they said, but I fundamentally accepted that they knew better than we did, given their longevity of service. It was interesting to talk to Lord Wilson in a private capacity when I happened to bump into him. He was very keen to get the Bill launched, either in the Lords or here. He felt that unless something happened soon, the frustration of many people, including civil servants, would boil over. That is why today's announcement by the Government is so vital.
The witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee were of incredibly high quality. When the Government consult on the Bill, I urge them to talk, in an open and frank manner, to those people, because we—another colleague, Kevin Brennan, has just come in—gained a phenomenal depth of understanding in a very short time. I do not believe that hon. Members will seriously contest the Bill, although it will be tinkered with through amendments and suggestions, but that does not mean that we should not consult on it beforehand. I suspect that the Minister may find that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and his Committee may look at the matter again—we may even move our own amendments.
I wonder how such a Bill will be affected by the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which comes into force in 2005. Will it mean that Select Committees are able to call for people whom we cannot call at the moment?
Having started from a point where I did not see the need for a Bill, I am now firmly wedded to it. We need it as a matter of urgent priority. Having listened to hon. Members, it is clear to me that it has the backing of the House. If the Minister wants to try to avoid some of the more ridiculous things that have happened in the past, and will happen in future—an article by Mr. Peter Riddell in The Times gave a clear account of that—one way of doing that is through openness and an Act that will give civil servants the protection that they require from this place, so that they at least know to whom they can turn when all else fails.
One of my reasons for producing a minority report has been confirmed by the tenor of the debate. I did not believe that it was possible to achieve consensus on such an important subject in the current climate, and the debate has confirmed my worst fears. Four years ago, I suspect that we could have reached agreement—perhaps even mine—but I am not sure that we can do so in a post-Hutton climate. I am not surprised that Mr. Clarke would not take an intervention from me. I would have asked him to define "civil servant", which is the question that I asked my hon. Friend the Minister. Mr. Liddell-Grainger has just admitted that the Committee could not agree a consistent and acceptable definition of "civil servant" for the Bill and that we fell back on what everybody accepts was a fudge by referring the matter to the Royal Commission.
A civil service Bill is often proposed to protect the impartiality of the civil service. We have heard comments about special advisers and references have been made to the Phillis report, which followed the Public Administration Committee's report on the Jo Moore–Martin Sixsmith affair. It would be a mistake to use the Phillis report to justify the civil service Bill. Statute will be important at some point, but we must achieve consensus first. The present draft Bill does not take into account some of the problems with the detail.
The other issue, which has been articulated by some Conservative Members, is the increased politicisation of the civil service. In taking evidence for the draft Bill and for other reports, the Public Administration Committee and the Wicks committee both concluded that special advisers are good and that they prevent the politicisation of the civil service.
I was amused that the key point raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe was abolition of the Order in Council, because the Bill retains the Order in Council for two or three people.
We would have liked to go much further on some of the issues, but we accept that the Committee produced its draft Bill as a basis on which to form a consensus on what we can do now. We are supporting the Bill in the hope that we can garner support from both sides of the House in order to put legislation that does good things on the statute book.
And I thought the Opposition were supporting the Bill to try to embarrass the Government—how silly of me.
When we took evidence, the civil service unions discussed applying the Bill not only to a few senior civil servants, but to the whole civil service. One of the draft Bill's failings is that it concentrates on top civil servants. The civil service has changed over the past 20 years, with privatisation and outsourcing. Two people can do exactly the same job—for example, one of them works in the Inland Revenue and the other works for EDS—but one of them is a civil servant and the other is not.
Last Thursday, a case was referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. The person referred to was a board member of a non-departmental public body. In the short debate, she was referred to as a civil servant. People who work for the board are civil servants, but what about non-executive board members? Until one month ago, 500 people who worked happily in the Department of Trade and Industry were called civil servants. Today, they do exactly the same jobs but are no longer civil servants because they work for Ofcom. One minute people are civil servants and the next minute they are not, and it may be that the reverse can happen.
In the Bill, the responsibilities and interests of an immigration official are regarded as somehow exactly the same as those of a permanent secretary. Again, those issues have not been thought through. The draft Bill assumes that all civil servants have somehow got common interests. To widen the point, plenty of other public service employees, whether they work in the NHS or in other non-departmental or next step agencies, are not classified as civil servants. If we cannot reach a definition of "civil servant" or of core values, it will be a real problem. If we were to widen the scope to public sector workers—there is a strong case for doing so—my argument would not hold up.
The Government's position has always been that they would introduce their Bill after the Committee had produced its draft Bill. One of the advantages of the Committee's work is that it has brought forward the Government's response.
The principal claim made—we heard it again today from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe—was that a new Act would somehow respect the impartiality of the civil service, but nobody ever defines impartiality. We also talk about independence. I do not know anybody who is independent, but I know people who have a point of view different from mine. What is impartiality? I remember John Hoskyns complaining in the early 1980s that it appeared that civil servants existed to maintain the balance between extreme policies from left and right, and that officials were given the right to define and defend what they saw as the centre ground. He did not think that that was right then, and I do not think it is right now.
Civil servants are not meant to be impartial: they are meant to be partial and serve the Government of the day, irrespective of which party formed the Government and their own political views. It is nonsense to have a debate about impartiality instead of a mature debate about the role of civil servants.
A civil servant could not have put it better. My hon. Friend earlier referred to the permanent Government and the elected Government, and that is a real issue. Last year I introduced a private Member's Bill on sustainable energy. It made progress through the House, with some difficulty, and the support of the relevant Minister was critical. Halfway through its progress, there was a reshuffle. The advice of the civil servants was not that the negotiations should continue from the point where the previous Minister left and the new one came in, but that they should go right back to the original advice that the civil servants gave to the Minister at the beginning of the process—and that was to oppose the Bill. Luckily the new Minister understood his brief and my Bill became an Act, but a civil service Bill would entrench the differences between the elected Government and the permanent Government. Such issues can and must be resolved before we legislate.
The Phillis review made recommendations on ministerial input into the appointment of civil servants. The accusation is that Ministers threaten the impartiality of the civil service by the way in which they appoint their staff. The Phillis review recommended the retention of the status quo. That means that for an external appointment a panel recommends a single candidate to the Minister, who has a veto but no choice, and for an internal appointment Ministers are given a choice between two or three candidates. Is it really suggested that when faced with a choice of candidates, a Minister would suddenly lose all sense, disregard considerations of efficiency and appoint someone who was unfit for the position? Someone earlier mentioned the Leader of the Opposition, and his example destroys that whole argument. It is important to achieve a balance on this issue, and some of the claims that are made do not hold water when one looks at the facts.
The civil service has changed over the years. We now have devolved Assemblies and much more interaction internationally, because of globalisation. In addition to those complexities, jobs are moved in and out of the civil service, as I have already mentioned, and the advice given to many civil servants is to gain more experience in the private sector. The draft Bill fundamentally tackles none of those issues. Any measure that the Government present on the subject needs to deal with them.
Let me deal with the commissioners. The Bill that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the Public Administration Committee support aims to put civil service commissioners' powers on a statutory footing. I am worried about the way in which the powers are defined. In her evidence to the Public Administration Committee, Baroness Pashar, the First Civil Service Commissioner, declared that the
"Act should set out the core values of the Civil Service and the role of the Civil Service Commision to act as custodian of those core values".
I have no problem with that, but she also argued that legislation
"should not necessarily prescribe how the Commission should undertake its functions."
The commissioners were worried that the core values of the service were vulnerable to change
"at the whim of any Government without prior Parliamentary debate and scrutiny".
However, the First Civil Service Commissioner believed that there should be no parliamentary debate until she took action. Her view was that parliamentary debate and inquiry should take place after the review of the civil service commissioners' annual report. Baroness Pashar said that
"how we do it is something that is left to the Commissioners, and we can then be questioned about it which gives the flexibility."
We cannot have it both ways. Do we genuinely want to shift scrutiny from Parliament to a non- elected commission, without prior parliamentary consideration?
My fundamental objection was to the commissioners' statement that they would happily intervene to sort out a minor personality clash in a ministerial office when in no circumstances would they get involved when the clerical staff in the Department for Work and Pensions were routinely sacked after 51 weeks to get round employment law. The commissioners referred only to people at the top end and did not care about the majority of civil servants and public sector workers. That is a fundamental flaw in the way in which the commission acts. If we intend to sort out the whole civil service, I hope that Government will consider the commissioners' powers.
Let me consider the codes of conduct. Existing codes and their merits have not been properly analysed for effectiveness or recognition by civil servants. The civil service commissioners' annual report and the ninth report of the Wicks committee acknowledge that awareness of the civil service code is low and that much needs to be done to promote it as a "living document". If the problem is recognition, it will remain whether the code stays as it is or becomes a statutory beast.
Much has been said about special advisers so I shall not speak about them in detail. Every committee that has examined the matter recommended that special advisers should remain and emphasised the need for their existence to advise Ministers. However, there is a danger in having a statutory code for special advisers because it will give them rights in employment law. They currently do not have them because they are mere appendages to their Ministers. If people believe that there is a problem with special advisers, giving them more rights is not the best way in which to progress.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dismore covered part 2 of the Bill in his excellent speech. Other hon. Members have drawn attention to the Phillis review on recruitment and training. Phillis made several findings, especially that it is
"vital that the permanent secretary encourages movement between the public and private sectors to facilitate wider skill development."
Too often, the fear of politicisation, not genuine politicisation, causes the problem. I therefore hope that the Government will take on board the sensible Phillis recommendations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, who chairs the Public Administration Committee, referred to the Committee's visit to Canada where substantial reforms are taking place. They are far more relevant than the narrow, limited Bill that we are considering. They are geared to giving more powers to the Canadian House of Commons and ensuring that Parliament has effective control over the civil service and Ministers. My hon. Friends on the Front Bench will probably not wish to know that Canada has a new system for classifying a three-line Whip. It is used merely for votes of confidence and a limited number of matters that are fundamentally important to the Government.
The way in which civil servants relate to Parliament in Canada is being reformed. Canada is a Westminster-style Parliament, from which we can learn several lessons. The key lessons are transparency and operating much more openly in a way that delivers the public services that people want.
If we are serious about improving the civil service, we should follow the route that I outlined. To do that, we need a mature debate. That brings me back to my reasons for believing that there is a problem. I do not believe that the current media climate allows for a serious and mature debate about the subject. I hope that I am wrong, but I believe that I am right. The Bill does not take account of the current political climate. Any new measure that is introduced will either be so anodyne that it is worthless or used simply for political bunfighting.
I have little time, so I shall be brief. I apologise for my absence at the beginning of the debate—I was detained elsewhere. However, I heard much of the speech of Mr. Clarke and I was here in time for the splendid speech, with which I concurred entirely, of my hon. Friend Tony Wright, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee.
I strongly support the Committee's conclusions and its recommendations for a civil service Bill. I am a fairly new member and when I first joined, I did not realise that it was a serious issue. As the debates went on and we interviewed more and more people, it become obvious that it was important for our constitution. I have been a student of constitutional matters and politics all my life—indeed, I have also been a teacher of that subject—and I believe that a civil service Bill is fundamental to the future of our democracy.
The rot set in when Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister and wanted people to be "one of us". She—wittingly or unwittingly—politicised our constitution. When she was opposed to matters, she made fundamental reforms, weakening the trade unions, local government and so on because she wanted her way. We have a strong, centralised and secretive system of government and it is important to have strong countervailing forces. I mean that in the sense not of being oppositionist but of being a sounding board and providing a different view from time to time. The independent, professional civil service is important to our constitution in that respect.
We interviewed many people, including Sir Andrew Turnbull and Sir Nigel Wicks. I agreed entirely with Sir Nigel Wicks but was uncomfortable with some of Sir Andrew Turnbull's comments. The latter appeared to be the Government's representative in the civil service rather than the civil servants' representative to the Government. It is important to retain the independence of the civil service.
When I speak to my political colleagues, even at Back-Bench level, I like people to tell me the truth and say what is right and what is wrong. I do not want people who just do what I say because they are employed by me. I have 2.2 staff, who are my personal political advisers, and they tell me what they believe. I ask them to check everything I write or say to find out whether I am talking nonsense. It is important that the civil service has a similar role.
I asked Sir Nigel whether it was right for civil servants sometimes to tell a Minister, "I am sorry, but you have that wrong." If the top layer of the civil service becomes politicised to the extent that the job of those civil servants no longer serves as a force to question Ministers, but to carry out those Ministers' will and, indeed, that of Downing street, and if those Ministers are insulated from any countervailing views, then government becomes very unhealthy. In the end, Governments can make mistakes and there is a danger of ending up with not only undemocratic, but bad government.
The pluralist nature of British society is of fundamental importance. I spent much of my life working in the trade union movement, and I saw it greatly weakened during my time. That was a retrograde step, because trade unions not only fulfil a democratic role in representing millions of ordinary workers and offering a legitimate collective view, but are necessary for our constitution and help to ensure that questioning and countervailing argument is brought forward from time to time. The same is true of local government, which I believe to be an essential part of our constitution. If we weaken it and make it the lickspittle and lackey of central Government, it will not be healthy for our democracy.
Independent and strong political parties that finance themselves are also important. I am unhappy with the idea of the state financing them because he who pays the piper calls the tune. I want my party to be told what to do not just by the Government, but by the membership, collectively and individually. That should apply to other parties, too. When we have elections, we hear alternative views from which people can choose. If parties are state financed, one could see them gradually coalescing into the centre, and we could lose the political choice that is so vital for our democracy.
As I said, our country has a strong central Government and a relatively weak—too weak, I believe—Parliament. I am a member of several Scandinavian all-party groups and the Scandinavians often tell us that our constitution is different from theirs: they have a strong Parliament and a weak Government; we have a strong Government and weak Parliament. I believe that our Parliament should be stronger in relation to the Executive, irrespective of what party controls the Government. It would be healthier to have a stronger Parliament than we currently have and I hope that the civil service Bill will act as another essential component of our pluralistic democracy. Civil servants should have the independence and opportunity to tell Ministers that certain policies are right or wrong.
I end with a few brief comments on political advisers. Some 25 years ago I was friendly with the private office of Tony Benn. I knew the political advisers well; one of them was his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my lifelong and good friend, my hon. Friend Mr. Sedgemore. Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell were two other advisers. The system worked well because they acted as personal advisers to Tony Benn when he was Secretary of State for Energy. They did not act as an insulating layer between the civil servant and the Secretary of State: they spoke in his left ear and the civil servants spoke in his right one. They had different views, which was healthy. In the end the civil servants would say that they disagreed with the political advisers, but Tony Benn did not have political advisers speaking in both ears. I am sure that Tony Benn, a politician with whom I find much agreement, would say that it is healthy to have a strong independent civil service, even if it is made up of the awkward squad of Sir Humphreys. That is not necessarily a bad thing.
I look forward to the Government introducing strong legislation, which will establish the civil service as a strong independent professional force. It should continue in the traditions of Northcote-Trevelyan, and make our democracy and our Government much healthier for the long-term future.
We have had an excellent debate. A range of views has been expressed, but the overwhelming sense of the debate has been support for the work of the Public Administration Committee and the Bill that it has produced.
Tony Wright, the Chairman of the Select Committee, started by asking for a discussion of the issues on as much of a non-party political basis as possible. Both sides of the House would agree that that is what we have had. The Opposition motion offers none of the abuse and criticism of the Government that such motions often contain. It merely calls on the Government to introduce "a Civil Service Bill". I even remained hopeful after reading the Government amendment, which said that they would introduce a draft Bill and which, in turn, contains very little abuse.
My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke—[Hon. Members: "Where is he?"] he will be back—opened the debate in his inimitable style. What a treat it was to see him back on the Front Bench. [Hon. Members: "Not for long."] He was described by Mr. Tyler as a giant. I entirely agree, but it was a bit discourteous of the hon. Gentleman to say that the rest of us were pygmies. The more substantial Front-Bench Members would not go along with that.
The speech by the Minister for the Cabinet Office was good in parts, and he finally admitted that the draft Bill would be published in this Session rather than in this Parliament, but there was something of the feel of the firm slap of consultation about it. I remembered that he was the Minister who introduced the notion of the big conversation: my hope was that the conversation would not be very long.
The Minister said that the Government have been in possession of the draft Bill for only 16 days, but that was slightly disingenuous. The Government have promised to maintain the civil service's political impartiality, and to introduce reform to ensure it, since the Labour party agreement with the Liberal Democrat party in 1996. The Labour manifestos of 1997 and 2001 contained that pledge, which was also in the document "Ambitions for Britain?", on which all present Labour Members were elected.
"We have made it absolutely clear that the Government's position is that we will produce a civil service Bill, which will become a civil service Act. We are in agreement with the then conclusions of the Public Administration Committee on these matters . . . I think that we are the first Government to make it clear that there should be a civil service Act. We will carry out that promise . . . We will consult before the Bill is introduced. That is our intention; let us make no mistake. The Government are committed to bringing in a new civil service Act—with all in agreement on the matter, we hope."—[Hansard, 22 May 2002; Vol. 386, c. 280.]
Almost everyone here agrees that there should be new civil service legislation, but what have the Government been doing for the past two years? It is not good enough for the Minister to say that the Government have had the draft proposals for only 16 days. Surely he and his officials should have been working on their proposals for a draft Bill. We are not talking about a huge number of clauses. The draft Bill produced by the Public Administration Committee is not long. At the very least, the Minister should be able to give us a firm timetable for the introduction of a Bill by the Government, which can be enshrined in law in this Session.
For the sake of clarity, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last sentence of the Committee's report asked the Government to produce their draft Bill in this Session of Parliament. The Government have now given that commitment, so I do not understand why, if we are proceeding on the basis of good faith, the hon. Gentleman would want to divide the House on this matter.
We can remember that the Government have given similar pledges for seven years. That is a very long time for a promise to remain unfulfilled, even for this Government. The Opposition want the Government to produce, in this Session, not just a draft Bill, but the final version of a Bill. We want to make progress and to bring in a new law. That is probably one of the few differences between us and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase.
Why is a new law necessary? The Committee of which the hon. Member for Cannock Chase is Chairman said that it was necessary in order to enshrine the position of civil servants in law. The hon. Gentleman has also said:
"There are key relationships at the centre of Government between Ministers, civil servants and now special advisers and we think it is important to get those boundary lines properly identified and get the codes that govern them written down in statute and approved by Parliament."
That is exactly what the draft Bill would do. The proposals would enshrine in statute the concept of the civil service and its commission, the need for the codes and a civil servant's right to make a complaint to the commission on appeal.
In a moment, but I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a question that he can answer when he intervenes. He said that he believed that other matters needed attention and that slight changes were needed here and there in the draft Bill, but does he agree that we could have a Second Reading debate on that draft? We could agree its principle, and sort those other matters out in Standing Committee.
I should be very happy to see a draft Bill go through Committee. The hon. Gentleman said that a civil servant could appeal to a commissioner, but exactly who could do so?
I shall not go into huge detail, but the hon. Gentleman will see that the Bill makes that provision and defines those who could make such an application. Clause 1 defines the civil service, clause 2 defines the civil service commission and clause 6 contains the right to appeal. He can see all that fully set out in the Bill.
To continue with the theme of why the Bill is needed, it is needed—as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase rightly said—because of the requirement to set the boundaries correctly, and also because of the developing background in recent years during which we have seen the inexorable rise of the cadre of special advisers. My hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie referred to the big increase in their numbers, pointing out that when he was a special adviser there were 15 but there are now more than 80. We should not ignore the fact that spending on special advisers has increased threefold, or how special advisers are now being used, for example, to brief the press, and leading special advisers or political appointees have been put in control of the Government information service.
The Public Administration Committee looked at special advisers in one of its previous reports, and an interesting finding was the massive increase in Short money going to Opposition parties. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what the increase in the number of special advisers to his party has been during the period of this Government?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning Short money, but I have never heard anyone in the Labour party say that they would like it to be reduced, because they realise that they will need it when they are in opposition in 18 months' time.
Some serious allegations have been made, including in the evidence of the First Division Association to the Public Administration Committee on the Jo Moore affair. The FDA's general secretary, Jonathan Baume, described her behaviour as a
"classic textbook case of bullying", and went on to say:
"She had no grasp of political impartiality in the Civil Service, or if she had she ignored it."
Brian White was right to say that a civil servant has to be partial in that he has to support the Government in its endeavours. However, it is very helpful, and a great strength of our civil service—Mr. Hopkins made this point—that it is independent and will tell Ministers what is wrong with their proposals and why, and who disagrees with them and why. We want to keep a civil service that has that element of independence and impartiality. Our country is lucky to have such a civil service, and it would be very easy for us to lose it.
The proposed Bill would clarify the boundaries between Ministers, special advisers and civil servants, which we need for the future. We could address that need just by examining recent events that have struck a chord with the media, but it is also worth looking at the other issues developing in the background. Jonathan Baume said in his evidence to the Committee:
"The Civil Service is going through probably greater change now than at any time in its history in terms of the time frame . . . you see both structures changing and also the way that civil servants develop their careers".
He said that "great movement" is
"being encouraged in and out of post", pointing out that current Cabinet Office figures show that 17 per cent. of senior civil service posts are held by people who have come from outside the civil service, but that that figure is expected to climb to 30 per cent. during the next 10 years. He then made the point that it was therefore
"critical that we have a common understanding of the core values of the Civil Service and that those values are reinforced through legislation".
We are talking about not just the recent events that have hit the headlines such as the Jo Moore affair, important though they are, but the whole trend by which the civil service is changing. Some of those changes are no doubt for the better.
The case of David Kelly was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester. He pointed out that if Dr. Kelly had been able to use a statutory appeal procedure circumstances might have been different. The case of Judy Weleminsky has also been mentioned. I shall not go into detail about that as it is a matter of privilege, but a serious allegation has been made against the Lord Chancellor.
Concerns are being expressed not only by politicians and the FDA; Sir Nigel Wicks, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has reflected widely voiced concerns about what has been going on at Downing street. The hon. Member for North Cornwall quoted Sir Nigel extensively and the Phillis report has been referred to by many hon. Members.
Many years ago, the Government made promises that they have repeated over time but, so far, nothing has happened. This debate is about trading words for delivery. It is about putting the Act in place; let us have some action. It is about helping the Labour party to stick to its manifesto commitments. Both sides of the House agree that we want the Bill—and we want it now.
It is a pleasure to reply to this interesting and well-informed debate, which was opened by the return from the after-dinner speaking circuit of Mr. Clarke, who gave us an entertaining and informed speech.
Before I deal with the specific points made by hon. Members, I reiterate that the Government accept in principle the case for legislation. As the House has heard this afternoon, we are committed to bringing forward a draft Bill for consultation in this parliamentary Session.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the ninth report of the Wicks Committee records that Sir Richard Wilson told the Public Administration Committee, in November 2001, that consultation on a civil service Act would start in the new year—that is, in 2002? Two months later, on
Because, with due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I hope that he will recognise that a statement from a Minister at the Dispatch Box carries the weight of the Government. The comments to which he referred were the views—proper views—of the civil service. The Government welcomed the work of the Public Administration Committee both when we were informed that it was starting and on several occasions since the report was published. It is mischievous of the hon. Gentleman to question our intentions, although I understand the points that he made and will come back to some of them later.
I record the Government's thanks for the extremely constructive contributions that we have received from several quarters, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life, under Sir Nigel Wicks, and the Public Administration Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend Tony Wright. I emphasise that we welcomed that work while it was taking place and on the production of the reports. I am grateful to all Members who took part in the debate today for their input, which will inform our deliberations on the draft Bill.
It would be one way forward, although it is interesting that, in calling for a Division on the motion, the hon. Gentleman is rejecting what he has called for in the House on several occasions: the further expansion of pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills. Incidentally, that innovation was introduced and developed by the Government. As he says, that may be one way forward, but if today's debate proves anything it is that there are further points for deliberation and some criticisms, especially the points made by my hon. Friend Brian White, which show that there would be virtue in subjecting a Government-produced draft Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny. That process could develop some of the points that have been made and I should have thought that Mr. Heald would welcome such a commitment.
The House will note that 16 days since the report was published we are accused of shilly-shallying. After 18 years—indeed, 150 years, as the Chairman of the Committee informed us—of debate on this, I do not think that shilly-shallying is an accusation that sticks. "Rug" and "pulled from under" is perhaps a better description in regard to the statement of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office.
I turn to some of the points made in the debate, because I have a duty to respond to them. Perhaps I should try to put in context what I believe the debate and the Opposition motion—at times it was difficult to believe that it was an Opposition motion—are really all about.
The former shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office gave evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life in July 2002. Members of the Wicks Committee asked him to put his remarks in context, and he said, referring to the allegation of further politicisation of the civil service:
"I accept entirely that the problems, if there are problems, did not start in 1997. We are talking about a continuation of trends, although I would argue a quite substantial acceleration of them. Secondly, it is important to put this in the context of the civil service, which I think overall remains working extremely well, internationally admired, and has many strengths on which to build."
I concur with those remarks.
What the Opposition are doing is political mischief making. When Labour is in power, the Conservative Opposition always accuse us of somehow attacking the impartiality of the civil service and politicising it.For example, there have been accusations about the chief of staff at Downing street; Jonathan Powell has been referred to as somehow being a politicisation of No. 10. Jonathan Powell is widely admired throughout the civil service and throughout the diplomatic service, from where he was recruited as an official for the Government in Washington. He is hardly a party political appointment. If hon. Members could have heard some of the reaction to his appointment from certain quarters of the Labour party, they would hardly have said that it was a matter of politicisation.
This is Conservative mischief. In his 45-minute speech—which we all admired; we all admire the style and commitment with which he puts his case—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said one thing that was particularly wise: that the danger of being so long in opposition is that the Opposition come to believe their own propaganda. That is true and I think that that is what is happening. There have been two or three allegations of politicisation. Yet the statements from Cabinet Secretaries, the Wicks Committee and the First Division Association have shown that they do not accept that there has been undue politicisation. In fact, they do not accept that there has been any politicisation.
The First Division Association and others have welcomed the existence of special advisers, not because they are fearful of them, but because they recognise, as does anybody who has worked at the interface between the civil service and Government, that they are a desirable protector of the very independence of the civil service about which the Opposition spokesman feigns concern.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that when we reached the point at which Alastair Campbell was chairing meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee, to supervise the drafting of what would be presented to the public as the best intelligence available on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, his sole thought was to defend the independence of the civil service? Is that as far as his thinking has gone so far?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an interesting point. In his opening remarks he alleged that there had been meetings of officials, advisers and Ministers that had not been minuted. Well, what an improvement that was on the situation under a previous Conservative Government, whereby the then Prime Minister did not even bother to have a meeting, let alone take a minute of it. Information about the fact that Alastair Campbell allegedly chaired a meeting—information was made available on that—has come about because the Government, in setting up the Hutton inquiry, have been open in coming forward with such information. It is this Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It is this Government who are proposing to put the codes of conduct on the legislative book. It is this Government who have ensured that ministerial codes of conduct are in force. In my view, these accusations are no more than political mischief-making.
The Minister unwittingly may have made a slightly disingenuous point a moment ago because he levelled an accusation at Mrs. Thatcher, as she then was. The difference between Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Campbell is that Mrs. Thatcher was accountable to the House, whereas Mr. Campbell is not and never has been.
It was Mrs. Thatcher who, in 1979, appointed her press secretary as chief of staff. The accusation was made at the time by the then Opposition—[Interruption.] Mr. Wolfson was the chief of staff and press secretary, and the accusation was made at the time, by the then Opposition, that that was politicisation. I would suggest to the House that this is good fun, rough-and-tumble politics, but that the accusation has no substance.
No, I really must make progress because I have not responded to a number of hon. Members. There is very little time left.
Mr. Tyler quoted figures on the Government communications budget. I want to put the facts on the record. He pointed out that there had been an increase in the budget, and there has—a substantial increase in the budget on emergency communications. I want to clarify that that extra resource is not for political work or policy work, but relates to incidents such as flooding, natural disasters or terrorism, and the information on that is publicly available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, made a typically well-informed speech, and reminded the House of why trust in an objective civil service is so necessary. I put it to the House that an objective and impartial civil service is desired by all Governments, especially the present Government, because it is necessary in order to implement and deliver the policies on which we deliberate.
Mr. Tyrie, who has changed places, said that he agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that we should not be partisan on this matter, that we should not be party political and that we should proceed by consensus. He then spent 10 minutes launching the most political attack on the Government that the House has heard for some time. I think that I have answered his points about Jonathan Powell. However, I did want to draw to the attention of the House the full quote from the Phillis review of Government communications—or rather, the quote to which the hon. Gentleman did not refer:
"We believe special advisers to be an integral part of modern government, and their political affiliation is both welcomed by Ministers and an important buttress to the impartiality of the Civil Service"— the words of the Phillis review, not of Ministers. That is an important point to put on record. I am sorry that there is not time to respond to all the points—
And I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you are more than capable of making that point, and I thank you for that.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dismore, whom we should congratulate on the reintroduction of his ten-minute Bill, made a very important point of substance in his contribution to the debate, repeating some of the points that were made in yesterday's debate. He highlighted the inconsistencies in respect of who can and cannot be employed by the civil service. That is welcome. Those arguments are a further example of why the House should accept the Government amendment in calling for a draft Bill to be given pre-legislative scrutiny, rather than accepting a politically motivated Opposition motion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East who, as the House will know, issued a minority report on the Select Committee proceedings, should also be congratulated on making cogent arguments. The issues that he has raised further back up the way forward that was outlined today by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hopkins reminded us, if the House needed reminding, that it was the previous Conservative Government who introduced the notion of "one of us", who saw the most blatant politicisation of political and civic institutions in this country and who turned power away from independent, objective analysis to Ministers and their special advisers to implement their policies quite ruthlessly.
The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire made a typically polite speech. It was well informed but misguided. The Government place the highest importance on maintaining a strong, politically impartial civil service that is fit for purpose and equipped to deliver. Indeed, as I have said, that is in our interest, as well as the country's. That objective underpins the Government's approach to the future of the civil service. It is essential that the civil service has the right skills and expertise to do the job, and we are taking steps to promote and reform it.
It is this Government who have given power away, who have devolved power and who have created independence in the Bank of England, the Competition Commission and elsewhere. That work goes hand in hand with maintaining and reinforcing the civil service values of integrity, impartiality and appointment on merit—all of which are integral to the Government's approach—and that will continue to be reflected in the months and years ahead.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House welcomes the Government's commitment, in its response to the Ninth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to publish a draft Civil Service Bill for consultation; acknowledges the contribution made to the discussion of these issues in recent days by the Public Administration Select Committee; notes the failure of any previous Conservative Government to legislate for the Civil Service; and welcomes this Government's commitment to reforming and modernising the Civil Service to ensure that it continues to deliver a first class service to the people of this country.