The Civil Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:34 pm on 24th May 2000.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 7:34 pm, 24th May 2000

My Lords, the excellent initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, in tabling this debate has been rewarded by excellent contributions, but in particular characterised by two very fine maiden speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Roper, and the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater.

I wish to speak as a member of that most powerful of unions, the union of ex-special advisers. I have taken the precaution of having two other members of my union sitting on either side of me. However, this House enjoys the presence of many more special advisers. Three distinguished heads of the No. 10 Policy Unit sit on the Benches opposite: the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, and the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach and Lord Blackwell. We have on this side my noble friend Lord Donoughue. Special advisers even sit on the Liberal Democrat Benches: the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, who is not in his place, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. There are none sitting on the Cross Benches; it would be a little odd if any were to do so.

Leaving myself out of that list, I do not believe that any noble Lord would doubt that those noble Lords bring a great deal to the proceedings of your Lordships' House. These are people with a great weight of experience. It is puzzling that in our newspapers we read about a completely different breed: wicked spin doctors who use their arts to undermine the great tradition of the impartial British Civil Service.

What is the answer to that puzzle? Perhaps it could be that the new lot are much worse than the previous lot. I know that many more younger people are included in the new group and that the quality may vary, as it always does. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that many of them will one day sit in this Chamber. However, I believe that the No. 10 Policy Unit, under the leadership of David Miliband, is as strong as any that I have seen in my time working in and around Whitehall.

Perhaps it could be that the job itself has changed and that these people wield vastly more power. Before the debate I was reminded of Harold Wilson's classic description of special advisers when he first introduced them in the Labour government of 1974. Nothing has changed since then and the substance of the job is the same now as it was then. In essence, "We brief and they spin".

However, one change cannot be denied; namely, that the number of special advisers has risen. Thirty-eight were in place when the last government left power, while at the last count there are 72 today. I do not know, but that number may possibly be rising further. Perhaps I may make two reflections on that development. First, that is not a large number of people for our Government, given that we have some 3,000 senior civil servants. The figure represents around one special adviser for every 5,000 regular civil servants. The notion that these people are in complete control simply is not plausible. Secondly, this was a new Government who came into office with a huge agenda to deliver. It was not surprising that they needed more special advisers than the previous administration, which, in the immortal words of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont of Lerwick--who, I am afraid, is no longer in his place--was,

"in office but no longer in power".

I do not believe that we have encountered a new phenomenon here, even though it suits certain people to stir up that suspicion.

I shall take my argument a little further. I think that it was the invention in 1974 of the special adviser that has made it possible for the British tradition of the impartial Civil Service to survive and flourish. In 1976 I left the Department of the Environment because my Minister, Tony Crosland, had been made Foreign Secretary. The telephone rang in my new, grand office. It was the late Sir Ian Bancroft, who will be known to many in this House. He was a distinguished civil servant and Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment. Sir Ian said, "David, I have a problem and I need your help. The new Minister has arrived and he does not want to have a special adviser. Can you speak to him because you know that this department cannot function without one? Who will write the speeches for Conference? Who will do all the jobs that only special advisers can do?"

I popped back to the Department of the Environment to see the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney--he was Peter Shore at the time--and put my argument to him. He did not seem to be very interested and asked whether I had anyone in mind. I said that, because Barbara Castle had just lost her job, someone very good had become free. As a result, the noble Lord, Lord Shore, appointed a promising young man named Jack Straw. The department welcomed him, as it welcomed me. To this day, nearly a quarter of a century after I left, my best friends include many of the people with whom I worked so closely there.

The relationship between the established Civil Service and political advisers is a complicated one but it can be made to work. As in any case where power is at stake, there will obviously be tensions. People will bump into each other from time to time and there will be problems. Almost universally, the most effective political advisers are those who work with civil servants, each understanding and respecting their different roles, skills and jobs and finding a way of working together.

I do not like to introduce even a moment's dissent into the debate, but I am slightly sceptical about the idea of codifying these matters. I note that Sir Richard Wilson, when he appeared before the Neill committee, said that he had transcripts of Alastair Campbell's press briefings, and that Alastair had said that if there was anything he did not like he would pop in and tell him to knock it off--I paraphrase of course! It is a fascinating scene to imagine, as Alastair is a good deal bigger than Sir Richard. I am sure that he used a poetic phrase. I do not think that hard rules are the answer. What makes the arrangement work is the relationship between the people involved and their desire invariably to work together in the national interest.

The invention of special advisers is not an example of the corruption of the British constitution; it is an example of its huge strength in building on institutions that work and evolving them so that they work in new circumstances. Occasionally, it suits members of the party opposite to make political capital out of the growth in the number of special advisers under this Government. I understand that. But when they come back to office, if ever that dire day dawns, they too will want their special advisers to bring in their programme; and I shall be very surprised if they are any less numerous. I hope and trust that, when they do so, they will have my support and that of the House.