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Because I was elected on
From the first experience, I concluded that the civil service has, in fact, always been highly political—but not party political. That is one of the two themes that I wish to develop. From the latter experience, I can throw some light on the questions asked by my exuberant hon. Friend Mr. Walker about where special advisers come from, and, indeed, where they go—or at least, what happened in the closing years of the Thatcher Administration. We are discussing the perpetual problem of the balance between professional expertise and mandated political leadership. Many years ago, long before "Yes Minister" made the notion of Ministers having to be house-trained by their civil servants almost a byword of popular humour, I remember reading an essay by the late Tony Crosland, in which he spelt out why Minister, were often ineffective in government, or at least, why their policies differed so little from those of their predecessors. He explained that even the most intelligent Minister, on taking up a new position, could probably expect to take a year to 18 months before gaining command of their brief. Within another year or 18 months, they might be moved on to another job.
The problem that Ministers faced, of not having sufficient expertise, has in large measure been addressed by the appointment of special advisers, and I am going to sing their praises in a moment or two. First, however, I want to refer to the period in which I delved into the archives for the period 1942 to 1947, during which Government Departments were trying to work out what the British empire—as it still just about was at that stage—would have to defend itself against when the second world war was over.
Huge arguments erupted between the Foreign Office, which believed that the Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1941 onwards—the treaty was signed in 1942—should be the cornerstone of our post-war foreign policy, and the chiefs of staff and their advisers, who believed that the Soviet Union would probably be the greatest potential military threat facing this country. What struck me at the time was that an argument was raging, effectively, between two Departments of civil servants, and how little the Ministers, let alone the Prime Minister, were involved in the process.
The debate was highly political, but it was not party political. It therefore occurred to me that perhaps the real power in the land lay more with the professional civil servant and the professional expert, rather than with the political leader. I do not think anyone under any Government would dispute that a good civil servant is one with strong opinions about the political issues of the day, who will argue those opinions on their merits, provided that they do not allow themselves unduly to be swayed by party political considerations.
The reverse of that coin is that if a Minister comes into office without a high degree of preliminary expertise, he or she will be somewhat adrift, because at the point at which the Minister wishes to take party political considerations into account, the civil servant, if he or she is doing the job properly, will rightly turn round to the Minister and say, "I really can't advise you on that, Minister. I am not party political and this is a party political matter."
When I was working in the Conservative research department, I used to see a career progression, almost. We would have our individual desk officers, as we still do today, shadowing each Department of state. The young people working at those desks would develop considerable expertise. When they had done that for a few years, and because we were in government, they would be able to apply for, and more often than not get, jobs as special advisers. As I said in an earlier intervention, it was felt quite adequate to have two special advisers in most Departments, one sitting more or less at the right hand of the Secretary of State, and the other being available to the middle-ranking and junior Ministers.
I thought that that was a thoroughly good thing, because it meant that the Minister had someone to whom he or she could turn for advice when party political matters were relevant, and it was a way in which the political party to which the Minister belonged could have a direct channel to the Minister, without being bogged down or prevented from reaching the Minister by the serried ranks of party politically neutral civil servants in between. I thought that that was a good system, and I believe to this day that it is a good system, but we do not require many people to fulfil that role.
On the contrary, the fact that there was just one special adviser for each Cabinet Minister and one more for the rest was a very good thing, because it meant that there was no dithering about who to consult, there was a direct channel of communication, and the Minister had someone on whom to rely to consider the political implications—someone whose time was not taken up with numerous other duties such as an elected politician inevitably must perform, and someone who was party political and also an expert in the field. Such special advisers went on, in many cases, to become Conservative MPs, including the present Leader of the Opposition—and a jolly good thing too.
But there is a different sort of special adviser out there today. That sort of special adviser is not a confidant for a Minister, not a channel of communication for the party, and certainly not someone doing blue-skies thinking—or perhaps red-dawn thinking for the present Government. It is someone whose job it is to go out there and distort the news, or at least massage the news, for the benefit of relationships with reporters. When my hon. Friend Greg Clark winds up, I will be interested to hear how he reacts to this suggestion: that when a Conservative Government next come to power, party political appointees should only be special advisers and no longer be press officers. They would do precisely what their name implies: give special advice, not spin.
This has been a debate of light and shade. Dr. Wright captured some of the crucial aspects of the debate. On the one hand, we are debating the future of the civil service—the successor to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of 150-plus years ago. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, at the same time it falls to the Opposition to expose, and hold the Government to account for, some of the excesses that we see in the current arrangement. It is not entirely surprising that the speeches today have covered the different aspects of that.
It is also not surprising, in a week when Ministers have been called on to the airwaves to give the best possible gloss on the Government's difficulties—our side have had to do that in the past—that the question of presentation and spin has been applied to the administration of the Government and those charged with carrying that out. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the Minister for the Cabinet Office has come back; he has done great service over the weekend, doing his "Comical Ali" bit and presenting the best possible gloss on the Government's experiences. Incidentally, I noticed that the Cabinet Office website changed mysteriously on
Today's debate has been about three things: spin, waste and incompetence. That is a serious matter. [Interruption.] Ministers may laugh, but the noble Lord Butler's report for the "Better Government" initiative pointed to precisely those criticisms and suggested that they should be addressed seriously. We would not expect such words as "spin", "waste" and "incompetence" to be associated with the British civil service, yet this Government have brought the service to such a situation that those words are the subject of debate.
I was a special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry; I declare that interest. As my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis said, in those days there was only one; now there are three special advisers at the successor Department, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Contrary to what the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, John Major limited the number of special advisers to 38; there are now 68 across the Government.
A question arises that needs to be answered: why do this Government need to resort to so many more special advisers to do more or less the same job as was done under the previous Conservative Government? The example of my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley, who is temporarily absent from the Chamber, has not been followed at all: according to that example, officials, including special advisers, should see their role as giving the most accurate presentation of information and disclosing it in response to a question. Today, however, their role is often to prevent the disclosure of that information.
The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he should be careful; he himself has experience of withholding information. He and I have been corresponding about whether, would you believe, it is reasonable for me to have sight of the Cabinet Office's staff magazine. That seems a fairly innocuous proposition: it might be useful for a team shadowing the Cabinet Office to know what is going on there, given the hopeful prospect that we might inherit it in due course. Imagine my astonishment when the Minister answered my parliamentary question by saying that it was not in the public interest for me to be given access to that magazine. I was generous to him and assumed that this was a mistake, so I wrote him a friendly note saying:
"I am at a loss to understand why you won't let Members of Parliament see copies of the Cabinet Office staff magazine...Would you mind reconsidering"?
But just in case he did not, I said:
"or alternatively, treat this as a request under the Freedom of Information Act".
I fully expected to get a copy of the magazine through the post, but amazingly the Minister instructed his officials to go through the bureaucracy of denying permission for that. I have a two-page letter from the freedom of information team within the Cabinet Office saying that it will take not just the standard 20 working days but
"an additional 20 days to take a decision on where the balance of public interest lies" in Members of Parliament seeing the Cabinet Office staff magazine. That is from a Minister who only last week told the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase that when it came to freedom of information,
"I agree with Gus"— the Cabinet Secretary—
"that there is a big culture change that FOI brings. I think that overall it is a positive culture change for government."
I am afraid that the culture change seems yet to affect the right hon. Gentleman.
There are important questions, and they are not motivated purely by political partisanship, as the Minister suggested in his reaction to the speech by my right hon. Friend Mr. Maude. In particular, the Government, having set out a course of freedom of information and greater impartiality through the White Paper, are failing to live up to the standards that apply in that document. For example, there is the question of waste. All of us, every day, receive mailbags full of ever-more-glossy, ever-more-expensively produced publications, often from quangos, all with advertising and public relations budgets. I am not saying that all money spent on advertising and public relations is wasted, but there is a question of accountability. How are we to know that the vast sums of money being spent, especially by non-statutory bodies, are being spent in people's best interests? Why, for example, has the Civil Aviation Authority paid in the past five years nearly £500,000 to one single PR company and £700,000 to another? Why has the Meat and Livestock Commission paid out £750,000 to a PR company? The East of England Development Agency has paid one single PR company £500,000. Many businesses instruct PR firms to influence Ministers, but Ministers are instructing PR firms to do their job of communicating with the electorate.
When it comes to incompetence, where to start? This is a Government who take more and more information from citizens and then proceed to lose it. The personal details of 25 million citizens were lost by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs when Ministers, including those present, knew that there was a systemic problem across government because it was reported to them in the July before the incident was reported. One of my constituents brought to my attention the fact that the online delivery team within the Legal Services Commission in the Ministry of Justice had won the 2007 civil service award for technology. The very next day after the prize was awarded, my constituent received an e-mail saying:
"we are aware that a number of providers have had difficulties being able to sign into the new LSC online and as a result of this we have made the decision to close LSC online from
Why did one of my constituents receive a letter confirming an urgent gynaecological appointment? He was rather baffled by that, as he is a 65-year-old man. That just shows the degree of chaos and confusion in the way that information is held in the Department of Health. It is important that Ministers are held to account for the incompetent handling of the administration of government.
We heard some excellent speeches by right hon. and hon. Members. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who serves with great distinction, made a marvellous speech, with a sweep of history worthy of Melvyn Bragg's programme, "In Our Time", looking back to the origins of the current civil service settlement. The commendation of the 22 pages of the Northcote-Trevelyan report is a lesson to the Government and to the prospective Government on the benefits of economy as regards Government publications.
The hon. Gentleman said that in the previous Conservative Government, the question, "Is he one of us?" would be asked. I can envisage the same question being asked by the current Prime Minister. Indeed, I know from some of my friends and colleagues who have served in the Government in various Departments with which the Prime Minister has been associated that it is almost exactly one that passes his lips. If not expressed in quite such clear terms, it is certainly an assessment that is made. The hon. Gentleman is to be commended for the fact that we have the prospect of a civil service Bill, and I congratulate the Government on making that progress. It is very much down to the work of the hon. Gentleman's Committee, supported by Kelvin Hopkins, and other Committee members over the years. The prospect of that Bill is a great step forward, and it is important that we proceed to scrutinise the legislation on a cross-party basis. There is a precedent for that: the Charities Bill proceeded for the most part without political contention getting in the way of proper scrutiny or the achievement of a consensus on what should be a charity, and on how charities should be regulated. I hope that it will be possible to make similar progress on the civil service Bill.
The contribution of my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley reminds us of his distinguished career. He quoted with alarm what he regarded as a departure from the high standards that he enjoyed as Secretary of State. When his officials made a mistake on his behalf and caused him to say things that were inaccurate, he said that he was intemperate in his response. I have only ever seen my right hon. Friend in temperate mode; I cannot imagine the hinted fury that he pointed to. He made an important point about getting specialist skills into the civil service. It is important that there is such a contribution. I cannot understand why it is still relatively unusual for people to move backwards and forwards between the public sector, the third sector and government. We should address the question of why people should not regard themselves as doing particular jobs, and of why those sectors are in silos so that it is relatively unusual and remarkable when people move between them.
The hon. Member for Luton, North made a reasonable contribution. It was not reasonable in terms of its quality because its analysis of some of the drivers of centralisation was quite brilliant. He is right to say that we should avoid making the matter too personal and that we should not ascribe malign motives, but there was a plan. One of the great differences between the parties is that the Government had a deliberate plan to exercise central control over Government—perhaps for the best of intentions. Perhaps it was the case that Ministers thought that by defining a template for how things should be run and making sure that it was implemented without any movement from it, they could achieve high standards. We were always sceptical of that approach. The hon. Gentleman described it as Leninist, and it involved controlling the related information as well as the plans. We were sceptical of that approach, and we can now see that it has not worked and that we should move away from it. The hon. Gentleman's insight into that process was extremely valuable.
My hon. Friend Mr. Syms talked about the longevity of Governments, and he made the point that we should not impugn each other's motivations because it does decrease the standard of respect for all politicians. My hon. Friend Mr. Walker made a passionate contribution. I know that he is a committed member of the Select Committee, and he will be engaged in the scrutiny of the Bill, ensuring that we take a close interest in the passage of the Bill. My hon. Friend Dr. Lewis pointed out in his contribution some of the history of the use of special advisers. He made a point, on which we should reflect, about whether it would be useful discipline to restrict special advisers solely to comments on matters of policy rather than allowing them to brief the press.
I listened with great interest to the speech of my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis. He described the situation in which I was parachuted in during a ministerial reshuffle to be responsible for local government finance, specifically the poll tax, at nil notice. I recognise some of the situations that he described.
Would my hon. Friend Greg Clark confirm that there is a difference between our perception of the civil service as it operates in Whitehall and of the large number of civil servants who do straightforward administrative but absolutely vital jobs in every part of the country? They are formidable in their professionalism and paid far too little. They have great responsibilities in carrying out policies engineered in Whitehall, and we should not necessarily lump them all together.
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the wider spread of civil servants. They include people who work in local government, and, as constituency Members of Parliament, we all know that they do tremendous work in dealing with some of our constituents' problems.
We have debated the Government's management of the civil service. As the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, one of the ways in which the Government try to manage the civil service is through capability reviews, which they impose on all Whitehall Departments. One naturally assumed that the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for those reviews, should lead by example, especially when No. 10 Downing street is, and I quote
"a management unit of the Cabinet Office."
Being the Minister responsible for assessing the Prime Minister's capability must be terrifying. I therefore read the assessment with interest.
When the questions verge on the impertinent, they go to the heart of the problems at No. 10. The first question may have given hope to the Minister for the Cabinet Office's brother—and perhaps even to him. The question asked:
No. 10 Downing street—
"have a leadership development/promotion process that is fair and transparent?"
The second question asked:
"How do you manage the performance of everyone—by rewarding good performance and tackling poor performance?"
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suspect that you share my dismay but not my surprise to learn that No. 10 Downing street falls down in the effectiveness of the processes to ensure that it benefits from competent leadership and roots out poor performance. The inspectors of the capability reviews concluded that that was "an urgent development area" for No. 10.
According to the inspectors, on the leadership of No. 10 Downing street, there are
"significant weaknesses in capability for future delivery that require urgent action".
Sadly, it appears that No. 10 Downing street,
"is not well placed to tackle these weaknesses and needs significant additional action".
The inspectors' conclusion is bleak. No. 10
"is not well placed to deliver improvement in the medium term."
The inspectors, who report to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, have reached the same conclusion that the electors of this country are reaching. The Government have trebled spending on spin and PR but cannot communicate a vision for the future. They have intruded into people's lives far more than any British Government in history, yet display flagrant disregard for the security of the information that has been entrusted to them.
The Government do not only lose confidential data from millions of people, and have not only lost all credibility for their promise to cut waste or end the culture of spin, but have lost their way, lost the trust of their core supporters, lost the control of their local government heartlands and lost the London mayoralty. They are led by a Prime Minister who has increasingly lost the plot—all that is left for them to do is lose the general election.
I have listened with great interest to the important points made during this afternoon's debate. Unfortunately, it began extraordinarily badly with a contribution from Mr. Maude that was irrelevant in content, tawdry in style and persuaded no Conservative Back Benchers, let alone us, to vote for the motion. It ended with Greg Clark talking about spin and waste, which describes his badly used 17 minutes.
I begin by doing what I hope that all hon. Members would support—paying tribute to the professionalism and dedication of our civil service. I want to place on record my gratitude and admiration for the hugely diverse range of activities that civil servants throughout the country undertake, day in, day out, with great professionalism and commitment.
The United Kingdom civil service is deservedly internationally renowned for its high standards. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, the key is to ensure that we maintain and build on those standards as the service evolves to meet the challenges ahead.
Several speakers have taken us on a history tour, beginning with establishing the basis for our civil service more than 150 years ago in the Northcote-Trevelyan report. It was good to see my hon. Friend Dr. Wright on such good form this afternoon. He made a thoughtful and serious contribution, which asked the core question about the relationship between the civil service and the politicians who are elected to govern the country. He discussed the dilemmas that that creates and how we move forward. Many members of the Public Administration Committee, which my hon. Friend chairs, spoke about a draft civil service Bill. The principles set out in the Northcote-Trevelyan report—a politically impartial permanent civil service, recruited on the basis of merit through fair and open competition—endure and continue to underpin the service as we know it today. They still form the bedrock of the civil service, even in a profoundly different environment from that in which they were first written. Let me assure the House that the Government are fully committed to maintaining and upholding those principles for the civil service of the future.
Indeed, our actions speak louder than our words in that regard. The provisions of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which Opposition Members seem to have forgotten was published on
My hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins used the word "honour" in talking about people who work for the civil service. That word is not in the Bill—the other words that I mentioned are—but I certainly understand and recognise the spirit that he described. I did not recognise his analysis of the Leninisation that he described, but if there has been a revolution since 1997, it has been in our ability to create full employment and in lifting 600,000 children and 1 million pensioners out of poverty. That is the kind of revolution that this country has been pleased to see over the past 10 years.
Susan Kramer asked a couple of questions about pre-appointment hearings. Let me remind the House that we are introducing pre-appointment hearings to enable Select Committees to take evidence from candidates for key posts. The final decision will remain with the appointing Minister, but they will take into consideration the Committee's views before deciding whether to proceed with an appointment.
The hon. Lady asked why the civil service commissioners will not be appointed by Parliament. Under our proposals for increased parliamentary scrutiny of public appointments, the first civil service commissioner will be put forward for pre-appointment scrutiny by the relevant Select Committee. She also asked whether senior appointments to non-departmental public bodies, or quangos, should be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by Parliament. I am glad to tell her that we agree with her. We are committed to increasing democratic scrutiny of a range of senior appointments to the boards of non-departmental public bodies. We are currently working with the Liaison Committee to agree a final list of posts that will be suitable for such pre-appointment hearings, which we hope to publish shortly.
The draft Constitutional Renewal Bill contains a number of other reforms, which will underpin and uphold the impartiality of the civil service. The Bill makes provision for a code of conduct for civil servants and a code of conduct for special advisers, and for copies of those codes to be laid before Parliament. The Bill also makes provision for a report on special adviser numbers and costs, and for the report to be laid before Parliament. We have heard a lot of talk about special advisers, mainly from the Opposition, but I want to remind hon. Members that in his evidence to the Public Administration Committee on civil service legislation only last week, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, was clear that, with the numbers that we have currently—74 special advisers from a total of 500,000 civil service—politicisation is
"is not a problem at all. Indeed, good quality special advisers around the system, two per minister in general, work well."
Special advisers protect the civil service and prevent politicisation, because they do the things that Ministers want to have done, but which would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to do.
I was just coming to the hon. Gentleman, who revealed his ambition to be a special adviser. [ Interruption. ] Yes, I could offer him a job, as my right hon. Friend the Minister suggests, but I do not think that the kind of advice that he would give us would be that helpful. The hon. Gentleman said that even if he cannot become a special adviser, he would like to meet one. All that he needs to do is have a word with his leader. Dr. Lewis reminded the House that the Leader of the Opposition used to be a special adviser. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition would like to remind Mr. Walker of the shadowy role that he played as a special adviser to Norman Lamont, when the Tory debacle of crashing out of the exchange rate mechanism happened in the 1990s. The Opposition have conveniently forgotten that, but believe you me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we have not.
The hon. Gentleman also asked what happens to special advisers when they leave the civil service. He will be pleased to know that the "Code of Conduct for Special Advisers" says:
"All civil servants, including special advisers, are subject to the Rules on the acceptance of outside appointments by Crown servants...for the first two years after leaving office. They are required, in the circumstances set out in the rules, to obtain prior approval to accept an outside appointment."
I hope that that answers his question.
Hon. Members made several points about Government communications. The right hon. Member for Horsham repeated allegations about some kind of impropriety by the Government when they made announcements about neighbourhood policing. I suggest that he should get himself on to the circulation lists of Mr. Pickles and David Davis, both of whom have received letters from the permanent secretary that make it clear why the allegations that the right hon. Member for Horsham has seen fit to repeat today are wrong. Such mudslinging will not work, even though he continues to repeat those allegations.
Government spending on advertising has increased since 1997, and we are pleased that it has. It has increased from £69 million in 1996-97 to £154 million in 2006-07. I am pleased to announce those figures because we are saving lives as a result of that Government advertising and marketing. We are on course to meet the 10-year casualty reduction target by 2010, which will mean that there has been a 40 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured.
Mr. Syms complained about the increase in press officers in the Department of Health. Successful advertising and marketing by the Department is helping to achieve a number of important health targets on smoking. The target to reduce the prevalence of smoking among the general population to 21 per cent. by 2010 is a key and essential part of achieving a healthier society.
The civil service and its world has changed dramatically since 1854. That is why important reforms are now taking place, such as the transformation of the Pension Service. Service customers already benefit from a better service that has been designed around their needs. The Department for Work and Pensions pays more than 98 per cent. of its customers by direct payment. That is not only more convenient, but is saving about £1 billion a year between 2005 and 2010.
There have been reductions in the number of civil servants, and more of them have been relocated outside London and the south-east. We are investing heavily in a skills programme for the development of the civil service, and we have a capability review programme that is driving forward the process of change within the civil service.
It is unfortunate that the Conservative party has used this debate not to celebrate the success of the civil service and the challenges ahead, but to make cheap and inaccurate party political points. I am glad that Madam Deputy Speaker intervened on the right hon. Member for Horsham, quite rightly, as he drifted well away from his brief.
We are committed to legislating for the civil service and to safeguarding its impartiality. We have published measures as part of our draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, and we welcome hon. Members' views on that. We are committed to keeping public expenditure under control while ensuring that civil servants have the skills and tools that they need to deliver better services with less. We will continue to undertake a programme of investment and renewal to ensure that Government Departments are in the best possible shape to meet the challenges and demands of the next 150 years.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
The House divided: Ayes 301, Noes 225.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House commends the Government's measures to protect the impartiality of the Civil Service, in particular through its decision to legislate for the core principles and values of the Civil Service; believes that this decision builds on previous improvements, including an enhanced role for the Civil Service Commissioners, the publication of a code of conduct for special advisers and an updated code of conduct for civil servants; welcomes the improvements in efficiency of the Civil Service, which have allowed its size to be reduced in line with the Gershon recommendations; further welcomes the Government's continuing commitment to effective public information campaigns; supports the other steps to strengthen the accountability of government, including a new Ministerial Code and a new independent adviser on Ministerial interests, as well as pre-appointment hearings for key public appointments; and believes that all these measures contribute to a more efficient, transparent, accountable and effective government to better serve the people of this country.