Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:28 pm on 5th March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Holme of Cheltenham Lord Holme of Cheltenham Liberal Democrat 12:28 pm, 5th March 2004

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. May I say how strongly I agree with him that the solution for Parliament in many of these issues lies in our own hands, and that we should find a way in which to act more effectively as a check on the executive? May I also, like other noble Lords, pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Lester? This is an extremely ambitious but very elegantly constructed Bill and, if it is passed, it would be an important plank in our constitutional arrangements. It deserves very serious consideration by the House.

I shall concentrate on Part 2, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and others, have done. As he mentioned, in May 2002, through good fortune and the ballot, I was able to introduce a debate on the need for a Civil Service Act, which had many distinguished contributors, some of whom are speaking again today. On that occasion, it was particularly apparent that two former Cabinet Secretaries, in the shape of the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, both declared themselves converts to a Civil Service Act.

It is interesting that those who have led the Civil Service find themselves, in retirement, believing that the arrangements need clarifying. Sir Richard Wilson, as he then was—the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, as he is now—from whom we shall hear later, in his farewell speech when he left his job as Cabinet Secretary anticipated retirement by saying that he saw a clear need for a Civil Service Act. In that sense he was ahead of his erstwhile colleagues. It is noteworthy that very shortly thereafter we were promised an issues paper from the Government. That was in March 2002, and we are now two years on. We have had no issues paper or the consultation that we were promised by the Government and, although I gather that Douglas Alexander MP in another place has promised a draft Bill in this Session, we still have not seen a Bill for the House to consider. So we have no issues paper, no consultation and, so far, no Bill to consider.

I wonder whether this is because the debate in May 2002 was summed up in rather sunny and reassuring terms by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, who was in his place earlier and I regret is no longer here. He said that there was no pressure because there was no crisis. In one sense, that is right. There is no immediate crisis but any rational analyst would say that since then the problems that we were discussing have been apparent and that in some ways they have been exacerbated.

At the heart of a lot of the concerns expressed by noble Lords is the relationship between civil servants and advisers. I am not phobic about the number of advisers. I think that quotas is not the right way to go. The way in which special advisers do their jobs in relation to civil servants is far more important.

I particularly commend to your Lordships Appendix 13 to the Hutton inquiry, which is very illuminating on this issue. This is the notorious e-mail appendix, which requires close textual analysis by anyone interested in the way in which British government have operated in recent years. It is extremely illuminating. So illuminating is it that it makes the Book of Kells look positively understated by comparison. Let us take page 662, where a Felicity Hatfield is communicating "on behalf of" Alastair Campbell—I stress that this involves not Alastair Campbell himself but Felicity Hatfield on his behalf—directly with John Scarlett. She wrote in an e-mail:

"I asked someone in my office, whose judgement I trust, who has nothing to do with this area, to read the dossier 'cold', as it were, and give me impressions, which I want to pass on.

"Overall, she"— that is, this third party who is no expert—

"found it convincing. CW/BW, in particular".

She went on:

"'By the time I got to human rights, I was in no doubt he has to be dealt with'. Indeed, she felt she could have read a lot more on human rights.

"However, she found the nuclear section confus[ing] and unconvincing. 'It left me thinking there's nothing much to worry about'".

These are the reported views of the third party—this friend of Felicity Hatfield who is a friend of Alastair Campbell. The e-mail continues:

"She felt the whole section lacked the clarity of the rest of the document. 'It needs a section that sets out what you need to make a nuclear weapon, set alongside to what he has already'. She also felt it could benefit from an explanation of sanctions, how they work, what they do".

After a lot of rather more legitimate criticisms—spelling mistakes of "Qusay", "Edinburgh" and so on—Felicity Hatfield says:

"Finally she felt that the conclusion box on CW/BW should include a list of agents in possession and production. I agree with that".

This is a communication from Felicity Hatfield on behalf of Alastair Campbell to John Scarlett, the head of the JIC. Anybody who reads this carefully will not only have been slightly surprised by the conclusions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, but must think that there needs to be some proper adjustment of the relationship between advisers, and their friends, and those who are in positions of executive responsibility for weighty matters. In considering the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, we should address ourselves to the issue of the relationship between advisers and executive members of the Civil Service.

Sir Andrew Turnbull appeared yesterday before the PAC. I was delighted to see that he said:

"One of the things I am sure will come out of the Butler review"—

I admire his certainty and hope he is right—

"is that if you accept the premise that you want to inform the public to the greatest extent possible, how can you do this in a way which makes it clear what is intelligence and what is the view of Ministers".

I was very reassured to hear that from the Cabinet Secretary and I hope that his prediction of what the Butler inquiry will do is right because Parliament is the apex of accountability—this bears on something the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said. This was the view of the Newton commission on behalf of the Hansard Society, of which I have the honour to be chairman. If Parliament is to be the apex of accountability then, alongside a Minister's normal responsibility to Parliament for the operation of his department, we need clear accountability for the Civil Service as a whole for the way it carries out its functions in compliance with various codes of conduct. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, said, that should be conducted through the Civil Service Commission.

We have seen wonderful constitutional improvements at the initiative of this Government. I think I should pay tribute to them from these Benches. It has been a period of great constitutional reform. But I hope that they will not mind me saying that there has been a slightly Jekyll and Hyde approach. Alongside the great achievements of the Human Rights Act and devolution for Scotland and Wales we have seen the way that certain great British institutions operate when put under considerable pressure; I put it no higher than that. We have seen the ethos of Cabinet government, the judiciary and the BBC challenged. We have seen their authority challenged in many ways and it would be good to know that the Government have learnt the error of their ways before we have to put the Civil Service, one of the great decorations of the British system, into that same threatened category.

The proof is that the Government finally do something about a Civil Service Act. I hope that they will adopt my noble friend's admirable Bill. If they do not, will they please produce a Bill of their own very quickly? When the Minister replies perhaps he will be kind enough to tell us when we shall see the Bill—the actual date on which he anticipates that we shall have it before us. One way or another, we need to put the Civil Service into a rational statutory framework where people know what their spheres of responsibility are, and where they can get on with their jobs in the way that has always been a decoration to the British system of government.