Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:38 pm on 5th March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs 12:38 pm, 5th March 2004

My Lords, I am pleased to have the honour of following my noble friend Lord Holme and in particular to sustain his underlying message that there is a degree of urgency about confronting these issues that has not been reflected in the seven years of this administration.

I ought to begin by declaring an interest as a member of the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which looks at Civil Service issues. I should also make it plain that anything I may say about that is entirely a reflection of my own views and not those of the committee.

In approaching this debate, I reflected at some length on why there has been such inaction on the part of the Government in response to the reports that have been coming forth for many years, going right back to the most important report, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, referred—that of the Treasury Committee in 1994.

When the Labour Party entered into an agreement with my party prior to the 1997 general election, to which my noble friend Lord Lester referred, I had assumed that in government it would seek to give legal force to the code, which should be tightened up, to underline the political neutrality of the Civil Service and to clarify lines of Civil Service and ministerial responsibility; and that it meant it. It is frankly astonishing that nothing has been done. It was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, as a disgrace. However, I think that we are obliged to ask why there has been this delay.

The evidence is not clear. As my noble friend Lord Holme said, the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, spoke of there being no crisis to precipitate a change of the kind that is so widely advocated by those who have considered these issues. However, I beg to disagree with the view that there is no crisis. There is a crisis of confidence in the business of government. It is a crisis that affects not only the view of the public about Ministers; it is one which also affects the public's view about the Civil Service.

It may not be a crisis in the sense of the crisis that faced the former Prime Minister, in the autumn of 1978, when he returned from the Caribbean and asked, "What crisis?" But it is a crisis none the less, to which Ministers have repeatedly referred as a withdrawal of support, at elections, from the democratic process; as a commitment of the public to pressure groups rather than politics; and as a crisis which erupts from time to time in different places, which led to the Hutton report and the Phillis report. How many more manifestations of this difficulty and problem of loss of public sympathy and support do the Government require before seeking to address these issues?

It seems that we have to approach this with a sense of history and a recognition that the conventional, classical view of the relationship of the Civil Service to our constitution is one which will no longer be sustainable. Perhaps the striking definition of that was given as long ago as 1985 in the famous Armstrong memorandum in which he said:

"The Civil Service as such has no constitutional personality or responsibility separate from the duly constituted Government of the day".

That seemed even then to be a somewhat shocking view, but it is not a sustainable view now. Parliament is at the centre of our constitution. Parliamentary supremacy is at the centre of our constitution, and the Civil Service must be seen as relating not solely to the Crown or the executive but also in its relationship to Parliament. It requires that that relationship should involve at least a duty—an explicit duty—to tell the truth to Parliament.

I take issue with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in seeking to draw the sharp distinction that he did between the role of the executive in our constitution and the role of Parliament. The role of the executive can be effectively discharged only to the extent that it is supported and sustained by Parliament. It is not a matter in which the executive can pick and choose the occasions on which they seek, as he put it, the advice of Parliament about an issue of war and peace. The reality—and it is a reality which I think the present Prime Minister recognised in going to war in Iraq—is that Parliament's support is essential if the armed services are to be committed to a major conflict in which life is threatened.

To revert to the main thrust of my argument, civil servants must, it seems to me, be firmly embedded in their parliamentary accountability in relation to a declaratory Act that does not prevent them from operating flexibly and adaptably in the public interest, but make quite clear where their duties lie.

I return briefly to the issue of the delay. I think it is interesting that, on 24 February, we had from the Prime Minister a speech to which the noble Baroness, the First Civil Service Commissioner, referred. I do not think it has been given anything like the publicity that she suggested in her own contribution, which I greatly respected and admired. I think that that speech reveals the tension that exists at the highest level of government between the goals of the Prime Minister for the Civil Service and the objectives that we have been discussing today of securing the accountability and continuing neutrality—the Northcote-Trevelyan principles—in the modern world.

The speech was predominantly about effectiveness. It was predominantly about how to make the delivery of the Civil Service's goals more achievable. It was not about accountability. It was not about responsiveness, save indirectly. If I may, I shall cite a couple of examples of the thinking that lies behind this. The Prime Minister said, and I agree:

"The calibre of the individuals within the Service is enormously high; in many respects every bit as good as their private sector counterparts".

I thought that that was a curious way to put it, for it reveals his instinctive belief that it is the private sector—the private sector values and private sector ethos—which should inform the Civil Service. He continues: "So why does it"—the Civil Service—"need radical reform?". He says:

"The world has changed and the Civil Service must change with it. The purpose of change: not to alter its ethos and values but, on the contrary, to protect them by making them work in a way more relevant to the modern age".

That does not actually sound like the preservation and the advancement of the Northcote-Trevelyan principles.

Even less like Northcote-Trevelyan is the statement:

"The principal challenge is to shift focus from policy advice to delivery . . . It means working naturally with partners outside of Government. It's not that many individual civil servants aren't capable of this. It is that doing it requires a change of operation and of culture that goes to the core of the Civil Service".

It seems quite clear that the Prime Minister is, despite his disclaimer, seeking to alter the ethos and values of the Civil Service, and by a process of indirection. If such a change is to go ahead, then it must be clearly defined and limited. I am not at all opposed to the Prime Minister's goal of focusing more on delivery, but we need to look at the fallout consequences of that.

In a later passage, the Prime Minister said:

"In future the key roles in finance, IT and human resources will be filled by people with a demonstrable professional track record in tackling major organisational change, whether inside or outside the Service".

It is quite clear that there is a deliberate blurring of the tests of Civil Service capability. That has consequences which we ought to recognise.

These matters need to be on the record because to my mind they explain clearly what is holding up the reforms that so many of us seek. The Prime Minister continues:

"We intend to continue to recruit extensively from outside the Civil Service to senior posts, including at the highest levels. We also need to examine the business rules to make it easier for civil servants to move into the private sector and back again".

How are we to respond to that? Codes govern the consideration of these matters and the appropriateness of the moves backwards and forwards between the private and the public sectors. Are these codes adequate to sustain proper scrutiny of the appropriateness of such moves and, indeed, to sustain the belief in the integrity of the Civil Service—a point that was spelt out in the parallel paper published on the same day by the Cabinet Office? That paper drew attention to the values of the Civil Service including the belief that the incorruptibility of the Civil Service means that public policy and individual decisions made by civil servants are not influenced by considerations of personal gain either while they are in the service or in the form of an outside appointment as a reward after they have left. That is a core value that has to be preserved but it must be recognised that it comes under much greater stress as a result of this encouragement of trafficking between the private and the public sectors.

I hope that the Government will not delay further in bringing forward their proposals. Seven years is substantially too long a period. As Mr Kenneth Clarke said in another place in January, procrastination can amount to deception. Some of us are beginning to wonder why the Government are not even prepared to bring forward a draft Bill for consideration as it will clearly be some time before either House is in a position to enact its provisions.