I beg to move amendment 48, in page 3, line 7, at end add-
'(6) The Minister for the Civil Service shall delegate the appointment and approval of senior civil servants to senior posts in the Scottish Executive to the Head of the Home Civil Service, acting on advice of the Civil Service Commission.'.
This is a simple and modest amendment that seeks to transfer the appointment of senior civil servants from London to Edinburgh. May I start by giving a bit of the context before I get into the meat of the amendment? This is not the preferred position of the Scottish National party. We would, quite obviously, prefer to see a properly devolved civil service accountable to Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament, much like those that we observe in normal legislatures around the world-in normal, self-respecting Parliaments. That is what we seek in terms of a civil service for Scotland, but it is not what we intend to seek when it comes to the appointments of senior civil servants. We would prefer that decision to be made by the First Minister of Scotland, and we would see him as responsible for making those key appointments. That is what happens in any self-respecting normal Parliament or legislature throughout the world. That is what we would preferably seek in order to try to ensure that we had the proper deal and arrangements for Scotland.
Through amendment 48, I am putting forward the agreed position of the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal party, as agreed with the Calman commission. I am prepared to set aside our preferred option-what we would ideally like to see-so that progress can be made. This is important. Progress can be made, and sometimes it is important for us to set aside our preferred and ideal options so that we can move forward to consensus. Sir Nicholas, you know me well enough to know that I always try to be as helpful as possible in such cases. This evening I am trying to be helpful, constructive and positive so that we can make progress on this serious key issue.
I do not want the Front Benchers from all the political parties to get up and thank me for tabling this amendment. That is not necessary; I am not looking for it, and I would feel a little embarrassed if they did so, so perhaps they can restrain themselves and remain seated while I make the rest of my speech. However, I expect to secure from the Front Benchers of all the Calman parties their overwhelming and enthusiastic support. I expect to see them and their right hon. and hon. Friends going through the Lobby, overwhelmingly backing their position. I expect that, because it is their agreed position, as agreed with the Calman commission. There can be no excuse whatsoever for a failure to support my amendment this evening. I am looking forward not just to support but to enthusiastic support.
The only thing that surprises me is that it has been left to me, a humble Scottish National party Member, to table an amendment on the agreed position of the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal party. I thought that when we had an opportunity to make progress on some of the very important Calman recommendations, there would almost have been a race. I thought that the Labour and Conservative Whips Offices would have tried to outdo each other in a stampede to be the first to the Public Bill Office to table this amendment. But we have not heard a peep from them, and it is left to a humble Back Bencher from the Scottish National party to get to his feet and try to ensure that we get some progress on this matter-to try to advance the agreed position of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties. I find it a bit odd that it is left to me to do this task, but I look forward to their support.
The Minister will know that there will be precious few opportunities to introduce some of the Calman recommendations in the next few months. Parliamentary time is tight and we have here an ideal opportunity to ensure that one of the key proposals of the Calman commission is introduced. For the life of me, I cannot understand why there could possibly be any reluctance to support this modest but important amendment, which is in line with Labour, Conservative and Liberal party policy.
I tried to frame the amendment as closely as possible to what was suggested in recommendation 4.21 of the Calman report. My amendment reads:
"The Minister for the Civil Service shall delegate the appointment and approval of senior civil servants to senior posts in the Scottish Executive to the Head of the Home Civil Service, acting on advice of the Civil Service Commission".
The Calman commission's recommendation 4.21 states:
"The responsibility for appointing, or approving appointments of, senior civil servants to senior posts in the Scottish Government should be delegated by the Prime Minister to the Head of the Home Civil Service, acting on the advice of the UK Civil Service Commissioners."
They are almost identical.
I do not want the Minister to say that I am trying to twist or misinterpret what was suggested about her position in relation to the Calman commission. That is not my intention: I have been as helpful as I can be by framing the amendment so that it is as close as possible to the commission's original wording. The only difference that I can see is that this Government cannot get their head around the fact that Scotland has a Government, rather than an Executive.
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I know that the hon. Lady listens to every word that I say, and I am saying that I am prepared to set our ideal position aside so that we can make progress. The amendment would be at least a start to transferring some decisions on the civil service from London to Edinburgh. I am hoping to enlist her support in getting it through, although the crucial difference between the Calman process and the Scottish Government's national conversation is that we trust the people of Scotland to make the choice. We are prepared to take our proposal to the Scottish people, but the hon. Lady rejects that. When the Conservatives come to contest the next election, they might find that there is a heavy price to pay in Scotland for their failure to allow the people there to have a choice.
The amendment represents the agreed position of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties, all of which have the opportunity to support it this evening. What happens if they do not? That is a key question. Is Sir Kenneth wasting his time? Is he sitting in Glasgow university wondering what will happen to the rest of his recommendations? This evening, with this key piece of legislation, there is an opportunity for the House to enact one of his recommendations, but he will be observing our debate and wondering, "What on earth is going to happen to the rest of them?" What will parliamentarians in the Scottish Parliament who are keen to see progress made and more powers devolved make of their colleagues in Westminster rejecting this proposal?
My hon. Friend asks where the Labour Members are. Looking at the deserted Labour Back Benches, I am wondering the same thing. No Scottish Labour Member is present, with the honourable exception of the Parliamentary Private Secretary sitting behind the Minister.
Where is the Scottish Secretary? I though that this was his big idea. The Calman commission was supposed the vehicle for looking at devolution 10 years on. Here is a chance for the right hon. Gentleman to get one of his key proposals through, but he is not even here.
That is appalling, Sir Nicholas. I am sure that when you look at all the empty Benches, you are wondering what on earth Scottish Labour Members are doing. I am also sure that the people of Glasgow, North-East are looking at what is going on this evening. They will see that whereas my hon. Friends sitting next to me and I are ready to debate and consider an important recommendation for Scotland, not one Scottish Labour Member is present on the Government Back Benches. The people in Glasgow, North-East will be looking very carefully at who represents the Scottish interest best in this House.
What happens if the amendment is rejected? I believe that it will mean that the work of Calman commission is not worth the paper that it is written on. That will be very closely observed-but in the spirit of my helpful contribution, I will make the Minister a deal. I am sure that she will stand up and say that the amendment is not suitable for this Bill, and so on. However, if she can give me a cast-iron commitment and guarantee that a specific piece of legislation will be introduced in the next few months to get this proposal through, I will not have to go through with the appalling prospect of embarrassing Labour Members by asking them to vote against their own measure. That is my contract with her this evening.
I do not want to be so cruel- [ Interruption. ] My colleagues are egging me on, but I believe that I owe it to Labour Members to give them an opportunity to try to put this matter right. The Minister can do that on their behalf but, if she does not say what I want to hear, I will press the amendment to a vote.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, as I have a genuine question. He is right to point out that no Government Back Benchers are present to ask questions on behalf of those who are puzzled by the amendment, so in their absence I shall try to do so.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the Calman commission. I understand the conclusions of Sir Kenneth Calman and his colleagues, and I have some sympathy with them. However, it is difficult to see how the amendment will transfer the power to which the hon. Gentleman refers from London to Edinburgh. I understand that he is saying that the amendment is only a step in the right direction. It would take power away from institutions in London, but it does not say specifically that power will rest in Edinburgh.
The hon. Lady has obviously never looked at the amendment. It seeks to achieve the transfer of the appointment of senior civil servants from London to the home civil service in Edinburgh. It is the start of a process. That is the hon. Lady's position, too. It is what her party agreed in the Calman commission. It is her party's position, as well as the position of the Labour party and of the Liberals.
I have heard from a sedentary position the assurance that the Liberals will support the amendment, and I thank them for that. It is now a matter for the Minister. She can either assure me without equivocation that she intends to introduce a separate piece of legislation to achieve the aim of the amendment, or we will have to go through the ridiculous, almost grotesque spectacle of Labour Members voting against their own policy. It is up to the Minister.
I am not sure whether I can speak on behalf of the old Liberal party, of which I used to be a member, but I can certainly speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I would urge Liberal Democrat Members to support the amendment if it is pressed to a vote.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the amendment does not represent the separation of the civil services which some in his party seek. It is simply a measure of further devolution politically-not by further devolving the power itself, but by removing a power from the UK Prime Minister. It seems a perfectly sensible suggestion to transfer power over senior appointments in Scotland from a politician-the UK Prime Minister-to the head of the home civil service for the United Kingdom, the Cabinet Secretary.
Some people might think that that is a purely symbolic gesture, but it would provide some protection for the process of appointment to the civil service in Scotland, which does not exist now. Given the history of prime ministerial interference in senior civil service appointments that we suspect has been going on at United Kingdom level-at least under a previous Prime Minister-that seems an entirely sensible thing to do. It raises the question why the Bill retains the power of the Prime Minister, as Minister for the Civil Service, to interfere with senior appointments at United Kingdom level-an issue that seems to have disappeared from the Bill, in comparison with previous drafts. Perhaps that is the reason why the Government are nervous about the amendment.
I come back to the point about devolution. It seems perfectly reasonable to have a different system even on that question in Scotland, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not think that threatens the unity of the civil service, and it provides a sensible way forward. Speaking as an outsider, I think that the Calman commission provides a sensible way forward for further devolution to Scotland, so I approve of the amendment and would vote for it if the Committee were to divide on it.
I have the highest regard for Pete Wishart. His humility goes before him. I admire his talents-his musical talents more than his political talents. As he knows, I represent a midlands seat in England, but when I look from afar at the amendment, I begin to think that he is selling out. He might be selling Scotland down the river with the amendment. The trappings of office are getting to the Scottish National party. The amendment is a pathetic piece of symbolism. If he really stood up for Scotland-
Hey, I am on the Back Benches. It might be my party policy but I can say what I want now. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is selling Scotland down the river with that amendment. It is a pathetic piece of symbolism to score points in a by-election. He has spoken eloquently, but the amendment would not fundamentally change the relationship between London and Edinburgh, and he knows it. I want to stand up for the people of Scotland and the voters in Glasgow, North-East, so I shall oppose the amendment if he presses it to a vote.
First, I welcome the conversion of Pete Wishart to the Calman commission. That will receive widespread support from Labour Members-even though there was no great support for the commission from the Scottish National party, which would not even take part in it. I listened to the hon. Gentleman carefully when he said that he was being helpful, and I wish that I could believe him.
The provision in the hon. Gentleman's amendment was one of the recommendations in the Calman commission's report on Scottish devolution, and the Government said publicly that we were carefully considering our response to the report in the round, and that we would produce our response by the end of the year. The proposals from the Calman commission, which the SNP did not take part in, were wide-ranging and significant, and there is widespread agreement, including from Kenneth Calman himself. The proposals are being treated with due attention, and considerations are not just cherry-picked one after another. They have to be looked at in the round, and all issues must be considered.
It was argued that there is almost no autonomy for Scottish Ministers, but it must be said that they, quite rightly, have a large degree of autonomy in their day-to-day management of the devolved Administration in Scotland. However, the hon. Gentleman also stated that he would withdraw his amendment if I guaranteed that legislation would be introduced in the next few weeks. If any Calman commission recommendations were taken forward, they would be achievable under the provisions of the Bill as it stands, and no legislative change would be necessary. It is important that the Government consider the Calman report in the round, rather than looking at one or two items and cherry-picking them.
I shall wait for inspiration-but there does not seem to be any great transfer of power in the amendment at all. The right way to address the concerns is to have a proper response to the Calman commission in the round. If the amendment is pushed to a vote and Members vote against it, they will not be voting against Calman; they will be voting for a proper considered response to the whole report.
I should remind the Minister that we are in Committee, so we are allowed speak again in the same debate. She did not explain precisely how the ends that Pete Wishart desires in moving the amendment can be achieved through the Bill as it stands. I would be very grateful if she were to put on the record exactly how they could be, because I can see no such power. However, she seems to be claiming that it exists.
There are two points. First, Mrs. Laing is quite right: there would be no transfer of power to Scotland; the power would remain with the Prime Minister. Secondly, I can assure David Howarth that the legislative power exists; no legislative change would be necessary for the provisions of the amendment to be introduced.
I have very much enjoyed this particularly illuminating debate. So that we understand the discussion, I should say that the amendment would take the power to appoint senior civil servants in Scotland out of the hands of the Prime Minister and put it into those of the head of the home civil service. It is a very modest measure. It is not pathetic, as Mr. Watson says, because it would be unfair to describe the Labour party's position as pathetic, and I am not prepared to do that.
The hon. Gentleman is turning into a real London luvvie, defending this amendment, which would hand no power to Scotland. He should be ashamed of himself, and apologise to his constituents and to his party.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that useful intervention. The prospect of my becoming a London luvvie is probably several degrees removed from reality.
The amendment is a modest measure, and I tabled it to try to be helpful. It is about being constructive and making gentle progress towards securing what we believe is a greater ambition for Scotland. I thought that by discussing the agreed position of the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal party, we could start to move the traffic in the right direction.
The Minister went on about some nonsense to do with our commitment to Calman. May I say to her-she is not listening, but I will say it anyway-that where there is agreement on Calman, for goodness' sake let us act on it? There are several parts of Calman that we have absolutely no problem whatsoever about implementing, such as its recommendations on the devolution of firearms legislation and on drink-driving. If the Unionist parties-the London-based parties-think that it is a good idea and we think that it is a good idea, let us do it; there should be no problem with that. But for some reason, Calman has been presented as an all-or-nothing package, so we cannot do the good things and leave aside some of the nuttier suggestions that he mucked about with at the edges. Where it is useful, where it is constructive, and where it takes things forward, let us get on and deal with it.
The Minister's response has not been satisfactory, and that is disappointing and unfortunate. We are now going to see the ridiculous spectacle of Labour Members walking through the Lobby voting against their own position and their own proposals. I am very much looking forward to witnessing that.
I have a lot of sympathy for what Pete Wishart said, as I often do when we take part in the same debates. He has highlighted an important issue. However, as the Minister says, the whole Calman report has to be looked at as one entity, and it would be wrong to press a small part of its recommendations in the Bill. Having said that, I, like the hon. Gentleman, look forward to the Government's responding to Calman soon, so that we can get on with these matters, because we believe in power resting in Edinburgh where it should do so.
"Nothing in this section confers...power to recruit, appoint, discipline or dismiss civil servants, or...any other power for the day to day management of civil servants."
Ministers have the power to hire and fire civil servants, but that provision made it explicit that they should not do so. This Bill does not repeat that explicit assurance, but it should.
The Public Administration Committee made that point in its response to the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, when it said:
"Giving Ministers the general power to appoint and dismiss civil servants does not seem in keeping with the Government's commitment to a civil service recruited on merit and able to serve administrations of different political persuasions."
I agree with that. The Joint Committee on the draft Bill said:
"While Ministers can legitimately be consulted about particular moves within the civil service, Ministers should not be involved in appointment or dismissal of individual civil servants without the express approval of the Prime Minister. We invite the Lord Chancellor to follow up on his offer to look again at the drafting...to reflect this."
I do not agree with the Joint Committee, because I do not think that the Prime Minister should be able to give explicit approval either. I want clear protection for civil servants from this extraordinary power that Ministers have.
The Minister may reply to my points by saying that the clauses on recruitment mean that Ministers cannot intervene except within the very narrow tramlines of the recruitment process that is set out, but I do not think that that is sufficient and I would like an explicit exclusion.
If Members want a rationale for such an exclusion, we have been provided with one in the past few days, with the sacking of an independent scientific adviser. Although he was not a civil servant, the incident raises exactly the sort of issues that are relevant to this debate. Indeed, my colleagues tabled new clause 42, which addressed the point. It had the great advantage of topicality, but the great disadvantage of not being timely. Because the circumstances arose over the weekend, it could be tabled only yesterday and therefore could not be selected for today's debate. I shall not speak in detail about it, therefore, but it would have given protection to independent scientific advisers to do their job as independent scientists.
However, I shall press the question with the Minister about why Ministers will not be expressly forbidden to hire and fire civil servants. That should be a basic principle that is enshrined in the Bill. Otherwise, there is the possibility of abuse and people being removed for political purposes. If we are to give proper protection to civil servants, we can do it only through a provision of the kind proposed.
The Minister has been asked repeatedly, even during the debates on the first three clauses, to explain what has changed between the time of the draft Civil Service Bill in 2004 and the Bill before us today. I must say that the explanations given by her advisers have not always been convincing. I hope that, on this occasion, we will at least get some sort of explanation of why a provision that was felt necessary in 2004 is not felt necessary in 2009. In the absence of such an explanation, it is hard to give any credibility to the clause.
Mr. Heath has got his priorities a bit mixed up. It is touching that he wishes to protect civil servants, but I believe that it is the duty of the House to require the accountability of civil servants. That accountability is derived through ministerial accountability to Parliament. There has to be a chain of accountability, therefore, from civil servant to Minister to Parliament. That is what the Conservative party, in other circumstances, has proposed. In so far as the clause brings that about, to a certain extent, we support it. I am disappointed to see the hon. Gentleman get his priorities so mixed up. I hope that the Minister has not got her priorities mixed up.
Is the hon. Lady saying that any Government of whom she might be a member would think it appropriate for Ministers to hire and fire individual civil servants?
Of course not; that is already protected. The Liberal Democrats should not be quite so touchy; my criticism of them does not mean that I am saying that everything that they have said is wrong. They ought to calm down. I am merely saying that the real issue is accountability. It is a pity that clause 3 does not go further in respect of the accountability of civil servants and Ministers to the House, which is then accountable to the people. That should be the principle on which we work.
I listened with interest to Mr. Heath talking about why his new clause was not selected. I put it to him, however, that it might have had the advantage of topicality, but it had the disadvantage of not being relevant to the civil service-it was not about civil servants.
The Government made it clear in their response to the Joint Committee that the provisions in the Bill do not alter the current power to manage individual civil servants. That will, as now, continue to be delegated to the head of the civil service and to permanent heads of Departments.
I am not sure whether the Minister's point was sensible. She said that independent scientific advisers are not civil servants. How does she know?
Because they do not have a civil servant contract. They have not signed the terms and conditions of a civil servant. They have not signed up to the ministerial code. The case to which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred did not involve a civil servant.
I understand the hon. Gentlemen's concerns, but the provisions in the Bill do not signal a change in ministerial involvement in individual appointments. The power to appoint is constrained by subsequent clauses that require recruitment to the civil service to be based on merit, following fair and open competition. That is regulated by independent civil service commissioners in accordance with recruitment principles. Civil servants are protected by statutory legal protection and employment laws. It is right that the power to manage remains with the Minister for the Civil Service and the Secretary of State, who are, as Mrs. Laing made clear, ultimately accountable to Parliament for the management of the civil and diplomatic services respectively, including for the setting of terms and conditions overall.
The civil service code makes it clear that the civil service
"supports the Government of the day in developing and implementing its policies, and in delivering public services."
The code also makes the very point that I have just made, which is that civil servants
"are accountable to Ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament."
There appears to be some misunderstanding on the Liberal Democrat Benches about the approach of the Bill. The Bill has taken a principles-based approach. None of the principles has changed since 2004, and it has not been felt necessary to list specific activities or specific civil servants, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome would seek to do. With that explanation, I hope that the clause will stand part of the Bill.
I have now heard two speakers, from the Conservative Front Bench and from the Government Front Bench, who are muddled in their thinking and completely misunderstand the basic process that the Bill is intended to elucidate. Mrs. Laing went off on a mini-tirade about how we were completely wrong to question whether Ministers should hire and fire civil servants. When my hon. Friend David Howarth put it to her that she might support the hiring and firing of civil servants by Ministers, she said that of course she did not and that that was outrageous. We really do expect some coherence of thought and some logic in the contributions made in this Committee, especially from the Front Bench of a party that aspires to government.
The hon. Gentleman has completely misrepresented what I said. He is so touchy that the slightest criticism appears to send him into a temper. I do not want to take any more of the Committee's time on this matter, but he must not misrepresent what I said.
I am indeed in a temper: a good temper, as I always am. When the Official Report is studied, it will be clear what the hon. Lady said and how little it resembles what she apparently means.
When it comes to the Minister, however, I shall ask the question again-obviously I am not going to get a response, so this is the last time that I will ask it. Why was something right just in 2004? It was not right because I tabled it as an amendment or because the Joint Committee said that it wanted it, but something that the Government put down as a crucial element, using the following words, which I have already quoted:
"Nothing in this section confers...power to recruit, appoint, discipline or dismiss civil servants".
One would have thought that that was a key protection, but now the Minister says, "It's completely unnecessary: it's understood; it's tacit. We no longer need to say that." What has changed?
Why was that necessary then, probably on the advice of some of the same civil servants who now advise her that it is not necessary? I do not think it unreasonable for the Committee to be given an explanation about that. Simply to assert that something that the Government said was necessary is now not necessary is an insufficient argument. It is very regrettable that we are proceeding with the Bill on the basis of assertion and counter-assertion, rather than explanation and consideration of the underlying principles.
It is with some regret that I rise again to speak on this issue, but the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the whole basis of the Bill. He asks what has changed since 2004. In principle, nothing has changed. The points that he made are there: a principles-based approach is being taken. He says that there is nothing-
If I may finish the point, it might help the hon. Gentleman to listen before jumping in.
The Joint Committee heard the same arguments. The provisions do not alter the current position that the power to manage individual civil servants can, as now, be delegated to the head of the civil service. That was good enough for the Joint Committee, which debated and engaged with Ministers on the issue, and which is content with the response. It is only Mr. Heath who fails to understand the difference.
The Minister seems to be saying that this is now a principles-based Bill, as opposed to a rules-based Bill, but then the question is: what principle did the previous rule represent? The principle that the previous rule represented, it seems to me, was the principle that Ministers should respect the impartiality of the civil service. However, that principle is not in the Bill, and we have had to design a new clause to try to insert it. If that is not the principle that was involved, what principle was involved?
I sometimes wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is serious about the points that he puts forward. The impartiality of civil servants is in the legislation; it is quite clear-
Ministers' respecting that impartiality is implicit in the Bill. If Ministers are putting forward a Bill to the House and that Bill includes the impartiality of civil servants-
I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the Bill intends to make no change to the current arrangements, which have persisted reasonably successfully for a long time without serious challenge. Will she also confirm that the protection for civil servants against ministerial political interference in recruitment, dismissal or promotion lies with the Civil Service Commission, as it has done for many years before this Bill eventually came along, and that that protection will be given greater entrenchment by the Bill?
It does indeed; that is one aspect of it. It is also entrenched in the ministerial code, which ensures that Ministers should respect the impartiality of civil servants. I think that that is quite clear, but I suspect that the hon. Gentlemen on the Liberal Democrat Benches might wish to make that point, as they are not fully conversant with the legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.