Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:54 pm on 5th March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Wilson of Dinton Lord Wilson of Dinton Crossbench 12:54 pm, 5th March 2004

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, probably feels that he is now festooned with praise but I am afraid that I shall add my own warm tribute to his work in bringing forward this Bill. It is a very important subject and his triggering this debate today is an act of true public service.

I should also like to add my praise to the praise that has already been given to Dr Wright for the work of his Select Committee in this field which was very important. I am impressed by and grateful for the speeches that we have already heard today. They show great understanding and wisdom regarding the Civil Service. The service is lucky to have that kind of supportive and intelligent debate.

I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not follow him on Parts 1 and 3 of the Bill. I have to admit that that is partly because I do not fully understand all the implications. I am also tempted to say that there are so many proposals for major constitutional change bubbling away at the moment to uncertain effect that I am not sure one should be putting more of that kind in the pot, except as regards a Civil Service Bill. I strongly support the principles underlying Part 2 of the Bill. If I may say so, I made that clear while I was still head of the Civil Service not just in the speech that I made towards the end of my time there but also before that. I have come round to that view which I shall explain in a minute.

We still have one of the finest civil services in the world. I am partisan but I would argue that we have the finest. It is highly regarded by other countries. There is a regular stream of visitors from other countries who come to see how the Civil Service operates and to learn from us. I was pleased to note that my successor, Sir Andrew Turnbull, in his report last week—that report has been mentioned—quoted impressive statistics from the World Bank and the OECD on the performance of our Civil Service compared with that of other countries, showing us in the top position for "government effectiveness" in 2002. He was right to praise the service where praise was due. He was also right to remind the service of the need for continuous improvement in its performance. His proposals carry forward reforms of the service that it has been developing for many years. I was interested to note in what he said some echoes of the report of the Fulton committee of which the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, was a very distinguished member in the 1960s.

I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said about the Prime Minister's speech. I do not have time to comment on what he said but it is worth noting that the Prime Minister paid a welcome tribute to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms—something to which we can all give a ringing endorsement. He made clear his ambitions for public services. That is a proper thing for a Prime Minister to want to do. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, raised the question of movement backwards and forwards between the Civil Service and the business sector. If the Minister can add anything further to that, one would be interested to hear it.

The Prime Minister also said that the Civil Service must not act as a shock absorber to maintain the status quo. Of course, the basic point is right although I question the metaphor. Without wishing to go too deeply into motor mechanics, I do not think that shock absorbers hold things back. They provide the passenger with a smooth ride over bumps while travelling at speed. I should have thought that most governments would like that.

The Civil Service has never been frightened of change. There has been change, great change, over the years. I can only give one example in this short speech but between the late 1970s and 1997, the number of civil servants was reduced by nearly 40 per cent, from nearly three-quarters of a million to below half a million. That was done quietly and without fuss. No cuts now proposed compare with that kind of change. The senior ranks of the Civil Service were cut by more than 20 per cent in just two years between 1995 and 1997. The service has shown that when it is required by the democratically elected government to respond to calls for change, it will do that.

The secret of successful reform of any great public institution or service is to base it on an intelligent understanding of that institution and its values, not treating them as some Dickensian irrelevance; to build on its strengths; to establish trust; and to respect the conventions within which the institution works. That is as much true of the Civil Service as it is, say, of this House or the judiciary.

The relationship of each government towards the Civil Service is one of stewardship for which each government is accountable, and must be accountable, to Parliament, as was described earlier. Each government are under an obligation to respect those features of the service which must not change—selection on merit, integrity, political impartiality, giving its best advice, and a commitment to public service. Each government are under an obligation not to use the resources of the state for party-political purposes. Each government are under an obligation to leave the Civil Service in a condition which will serve future governments equally well.

In return, the obligation on the service is to serve the government of the day to the best of its ability, to support them in formulating their policies and to implement them excellently and energetically. That is the deal. It is against that background that I see a Civil Service Bill on the lines before us today, or of the kind proposed by the Public Administration Committee—I shall refer to it as the Select Committee—not as a means of protecting vested interests or stalling reform, but as an essential component of any continuing reform programme.

I have not always been in favour of a Bill. My reasons for thinking that it is now needed are very similar to those quoted earlier from the noble Lord, Lord Butler. There is a wide perception that the Civil Service has become politicised. I regret that perception very much. In some ways, it is confusing, because the term is unclear and means different things to different people. Whether one believes it or not, it is a perception which has now to be addressed. At a time of rapid change, Parliament and the public are entitled to be reassured that those characteristics of the service which should remain unchanged indeed remain unchanged.

The legislation required to do that is not earthshaking, nor really very difficult. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, under the chairmanship of Sir Nigel Wicks, has prepared the ground with thoroughness, lucidity and understanding. The Select Committee has done sterling work in consulting relevant interests and in preparing a short Bill which commands widespread support. The noble Lord has put a great deal of wisdom and effort into drafting a parallel Bill.

The legislation should put the role of the Civil Service Commissioners on to a statutory basis, as Northcote and Trevelyan recommended 150 years ago. Surely 150 years is enough time in which to consult and introduce a Bill. The commissioners are the bedrock of the Civil Service's constitutional position and the guarantee of its commitment to fair and open competition on merit. The battle between merit and patronage is never really finished. The commissioners are our guardians against patronage. I pay tribute to the work of the current commissioners, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who has done so much to ensure that their role remains strong.

The principle of merit must be maintained for permanent appointments to the service. I shall not repeat what the noble Baroness said but, to the extent that the commissioners are prepared to make limited exceptions—for instance, for inward secondments—that is well and good. But they must be in control. There must be no backdoor route for patronage or cronyism.

The legislation should give the Minister power to regulate the conduct of civil servants and special advisers by codes. It should give the commissioners power to make such inquiries as they think fit into the operation of those codes. It should provide for the regulation of special advisers. A limited number of special advisers, properly deployed, can be a great asset to Ministers and their departments alike. It is not fair to special advisers generally that their role has acquired a bad reputation, but there have been difficulties, as everyone knows.

It is in the interests of everyone that the boundaries of the role should be clearly defined, and that those difficulties should be resolved, so far as one can humanly do that. Following the Wicks report, the Select Committee and the noble Lord have proposed the way forward very succinctly. Both this Bill and that of the Select Committee contain very sensible proposals for defining what special advisers cannot do. That seems the right approach, coupled with a limitation on the overall number of special advisers by Parliament, and with the regulation of conduct of special advisers by code, as I mentioned.

There are of course the three posts in No. 10 which have "executive powers". The Select Committee accepts that there should be two such posts, as did the Wicks report. The noble Lord proposes that there should be none. I understand his position, but if the price of getting a Bill were to be that concession, I would pay it provided that the executive powers of the special advisers did not extend to their being involved in recruitment to permanent posts.

Above all, the Bill should bring the operation of the Civil Service more clearly within the oversight of Parliament. The matters should be subject to proper scrutiny, not dealt with in private. The Civil Service Commissioners should make an annual report to Parliament. When I was Secretary to the Cabinet, I received quite a lot of letters of one sort or another. I remember getting one from a Member of Parliament asking me to hold the government to account. I found it very hard to find the words to reply, because it seemed to me so clear that it was the job of Parliament to hold the government to account.

None of that should be contentious. The Government have already accepted, in their reply to the sixth report of the Neill committee in July 2000, that there should be a Bill, and that it should embed selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition, with responsibility vested in the Civil Service Commissioners. The Government also said in that reply that they accept that an overall limit on the number of special advisers should be included in legislation, and that increases in the limit would require the consent of both Houses of Parliament. Nothing could be clearer.

There is a school of thought which says that most of those things can be accomplished without legislation. In my view, that is not now so—not in the world today where the concerns and issues are more contentious than they were and the role of Parliament more necessary. Frankly, too much water has passed under the bridge.

It is now more than six years since the Government first committed themselves to a Bill. That commitment has been repeated many times, with occasional warm words, but nothing has happened. What matters in the management of change is not only what people say, but what they do. If leaders promise action but do nothing, people draw their own conclusions. The question why the Government have still not produced a Civil Service Bill is becoming deafeningly loud. I hope that the Minister, as others have said, will tell us the date when the Government will bring forward a Bill.