The Civil Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:24 pm on 24th May 2000.

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Photo of The Earl of Northesk The Earl of Northesk Conservative 7:24 pm, 24th May 2000

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter today. I also take this opportunity to join other speakers in congratulating the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Powell, on their stimulating and witty contributions tonight.

It will come as no surprise to the noble and learned Lord the Minister that I want to concentrate on the role of special advisers. I wholeheartedly accept that they can and do contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of government. As has been made plain by many of your Lordships tonight, they have their uses. However, that is not the point at issue. We have to wrestle with the fact that concern about their role, their remit and their numbers has mushroomed during the life of the current administration. In many respects the situation is rather like a ball of string. In the hope of unravelling its complexity, we can tug on what may seem to be separate strands but then, far from unravelling, the knots pull ever tighter.

The Government have argued that these anxieties owe more to perception than to substance and, as such, they are unfounded. But here is the rub. Justified or not, the perception does exist that special advisers or, more correctly, the way in which their political incarnation is operating under, and being used by, this Government is beyond the pale. The substance of concern is neatly encapsulated in the definition: a government special adviser is a study in power without accountability.

What this necessarily implies is that the rules regulating their conduct need to be both certain and robust. In effect, it is a constitutional issue. Unfortunately, we need look no further than the Neill committee's comprehensive analysis of the issue in Chapter 6 of its sixth report to detect some of the weaknesses and inconsistencies in the current regime. I, therefore, like other noble Lords, would ask the noble and learned Lord the Minister whether and when the committee's recommendations R18 to R25 inclusive will be implemented. In particular, pending the appearance of the proposed Civil Service Act, will the Government afford the opportunity to both Houses of Parliament to debate both,

"a limit on the number of special advisers that can be appointed", as advocated in R20 and, to echo my noble friends Lord Patten and Lord Chadlington, to debate also a draft free-standing code of conduct for special advisers, as called for in R25?

Moving on, the suggestion has been made--the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, repeated it tonight in his remarks on leadership--that the use of special advisers, particularly those in No. 10, can be justified because it makes for a much stronger and more effective centre. However, I find it difficult to reconcile the concept of a strong centre, suffused with an innate tendency to centralise, with the stated intention to devolve power away from the centre. The two concepts are chalk and cheese.

Of course, excellent advocate that he is, the noble and learned Lord has a pre-prepared defence here. In replying to a Question for Written Answer, he has argued that:

"Strengthening the centre of government to co-ordinate and oversee the delivery of policy is quite different from the Government's programme of devolution and local government reform".--[Official Report, 31/1/00; WA12.]

This is an intriguing insight into the way in which the Government themselves perceive the effectiveness and role of their special advisers. It is the phrase,

"co-ordinate and oversee the delivery of policy", that is so telling. This is echoed in a recent article from the Evening Standard:

"Another mandarin, a Blairite sympathiser, sums up: 'On a PR level having a strong centre is working and co-ordination in principle is obviously a good thing. But on a practical level, although there is a lot more machinery at the centre, at the end of the day it provides more of a forum for discussion than for making decisions and getting things to happen. So in that sense, nothing much has changed'".

In effect, not only the perception, but also the experience--even from those within the machine--is that this "strong centre" is singularly failing to deliver in any meaningful way. As Sir Peter Kemp puts it:

"Mr Blair may be pulling on the levers, but are the delivery cables joined up or just waving in the wind? What matters in the end is the actual delivery of improvement on the ground, not just the elegant thinking and machine-building".

All this underscores how urgent the problem actually is. It is all the more ironic, therefore, that the Cabinet Office has recently launched the most intensive investigation yet into why people are so disengaged from the political and electoral processes. But is not the reason already well known? In very great part, Parliament has ceased to matter. The perception--that word again--is that decisions are now made behind closed doors by unaccountable and unelected special advisers. In this, there is a,

"geography of politics in which proximity to power is everything. The title special adviser under New Labour has given the holder--whether in Downing Street, the Department of Health or the Welsh Office--unparalleled access to ministers".

In other words--rather ironically I noted that the noble Lords, Lord Powell and Lord Roper, both made this point--they perform a "gatekeeper" role. They are the grit in the oyster of the traditional lines of communication within Whitehall and Westminster. What flows logically from this is that the reins of control are shifting remorselessly away from the electorate. People sense that the tentacles of an already over-mighty executive are being fashioned in a way that is designed to bypass both their anxieties and their mandate.

Peter Riddell's article in The Times of last Monday is grist to that mill. As he so rightly points out:

"The real question is whether the Commons is able, and being allowed, to hold the Government to account and scrutinise its activities".

Inevitably, as special advisers lay their hands ever more decisively upon the levers of power and control within Whitehall and Westminster, so the capacity of all Members of Parliament to hold the executive to account is diminished. Little wonder that, as a reaction to Ministers' response to the Liaison Committee of another place, Mr Riddell commented:

"The Government has not only rejected all the most important recommendations but its response is also evasive and mendacious. The style is almost a parody of Sir Humphrey Appleby trying to look positive, but being almost wholly negative in substance".

We can only speculate on the extent to which political advisers were involved in the drafting of that response.

The words used in the Labour Party's general election manifesto bear repetition:

"There is unquestionably a national crisis of confidence in our political system".

It has not gone away; and it is inextricably linked to the way in which the current administration, however inadvertently, is changing the architecture of the executive to the detriment of transparency and accountability. Lest anyone doubt this, I offer noble Lords an extract culled from an article by Benjamin Wegg-Prosser in the Guardian in January of this year. I make no apology for quoting it at some length:

"There is no greater fear for a senior civil servant than a cabinet minister's special adviser stepping on his toes or bypassing officials. However, much of the great progress that this government has made since the election would not have happened without the energy and drive of the special advisers involved. Political appointees were instrumental in many significant decisions: granting the Bank of England independence to set interest rates; implementing devolution in Scotland and Wales; creating the Social Exclusion Unit; and, within Whitehall, in implementing the communications revolution which has dramatically improved the way government departments present their achievements to the public".

Gosh! And I thought all of that was the responsibility of those who have been elected to office.