Martin Sixsmith

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:33 pm on 26th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 4:33 pm, 26th February 2002

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, has raised a number of detailed questions about the minutiae of this affair. In some ways, this may well play into the Government's hands because they would like to ring-fence this issue in the minutiae of who said what to whom. I should like to go further and probe the Minister about the Government's views on a wider philosophy.

In the Statement, the Secretary of State says that,

"people will judge us by what really matters".

In another place, he has been well supported by honourable Members, who have spoken about transport, roads and so on and have said that those are the things that really matter. However, I put it to the Minister that—especially in this House—as well as those things really mattering, so does the principle of an independent Civil Service, selected and promoted on merit. So, too, do the standards of public administration. I should like to use this opportunity to probe the Government about how they are approaching those responsibilities—the ones that really matter.

Before I do so, I should like to question a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. It is extraordinary that in his Statement the Secretary of State confirmed that he gave the view that Mr Sixsmith was not suitable for transfer to another department. That surely is outside the code of conduct for Ministers and is not proper behaviour. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can confirm that Ministers are not expected to interfere in personnel matters in that direct way.

The Secretary of State also said that, as well as Mr Sixsmith, there were at work in the department,

"unnamed officials, acting quite contrary to the traditions and ethos of the Civil Service".

These are extremely serious charges. Can the Minister say whether the specific civil servants are under inquiry at this moment and whether they will be named and disciplined? Or will this charge be left hanging in the air as another part of the smokescreen surrounding the Government's explanation?

Is the Minister aware that outside the Downing Street bunker—if he is, he must be the only one—everyone now believes that the department needs a fresh start under a fresh Minister? The Government can send Mr Byers wherever they like, but that department needs a new start.

Does the Minister agree that this is not only a matter of a single Minister and an individual civil servant? The Labour Party had 18 years to think about it, and has had five years to practise it. Yet it has got its relationship with the career Civil Service into a terrible mess. There is something about this present mess that goes to the very heart of government—for instance, the way in which the Prime Minister handles his Cabinet and his special advisers in No. 10; the way in which he lets loose the Downing Street press machine and the lack of guidance to the press offices in individual departments. There is a need for the Government to clearly state, and underpin with action, the Northcote-Trevelyan principles which have stood us in good stead for 150 years.

Do the Government believe that there is a genuine conflict between the purely information role of press officers and their wider political propaganda role? What does the Minister think of Mr Charlie Whelan's suggestion that all press officer posts should be political appointments so that the role they play within government is clear? Will the Government introduce a Civil Service Bill? If not, what is the reason for delay?

Does the Minister agree that in these past four or five years, by the way they have allowed their special advisers to act the Government have missed a wonderful opportunity to reform our system of administration to enable us to bring in outside experience—including outside political experience—to the betterment of government?

Does he agree that there is also a responsibility on the senior civil servants—the so-called mandarins—to protect the Northcote-Trevelyan principles? They should be able to say, "No, Minister" as well as, "Yes, Minister". If a Minister and a government go beyond those principles, they should have the courage to resign.

In some ways it is not appropriate that a transport Minister should be answering these questions because this is not about transport policy but about governance and probity in government. We are lucky in this House because the Minister responding is well known not only as a departmental Minister but as one of the Prime Minister's close confidants, a man to whom he listens. Will he tell the Prime Minister that this is not a matter to be dealt with by bluster and braggadocio, but by looking at the crisis of confidence that really and genuinely exists in our Civil Service at the moment and acting on it? If the Prime Minister does not, he will deserve the contempt, and ultimately the punishment, of the electorate for failing in one of his most fundamental duties.