rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take following the independent review of government communications.
My Lords, I ought to declare an interest as for a number of years I was the Minister responsible for the co-ordination and development of government policy and, as such, had some ministerial responsibility for the Government Information Service. In addition, as I suspect most noble Lords will know, I was the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission for seven and half years.
My Question has in a way been answered by the Leader of the House in her Written Statement of
The Government Information Service, in serving the government of the day impartially and with integrity, comes in for a great deal of criticism, which is misplaced. It has a negative as well as a positive job to do: stopping Ministers acting outside the rules and conventions; for example, issuing party political press notices through the government machine or spending public money on publicity, not to inform people about their rights and obligations arising from government actions, but for party political advantage. This is why Parliament should look critically at the Government's emergence as the second largest advertiser, at something approaching £200 million per year.
The report refers to a three-way failure in the breakdown in trust between the Government and politicians, the media and the general public. I do not accept this. It was due to a failure by this Government and their special advisers to maintain that proper balance, and to the outcry at the excess of spin, that Phillis committee was set up in the first place. The Moore affair was only one of many examples, but this is not the time or place to rehearse the press management of the past seven years for one could perhaps go on all night.
However, whatever the problems that caused the setting up of the Phillis committee, I doubt very much whether its report is the answer. A lot of the report is unexceptional, and some of it is welcome, but I fear motherhood and apple pie come to mind for much of it. It is the central conclusions of the report that need challenging.
I am in favour of the presentation of issues being taken into account at an earlier stage in policy development, but in my opinion, this is best done by strong communications people in departments and not by a centrally controlled press machine.
The report is somewhat sparing about the lobby, and quite simply wrong to advocate only on the record briefing. The fact is that the lobby is not, and should not be, a creature of government. It is an association of journalists for journalists. There will always be a lobby or association of journalists working at Westminster, whatever it is called, and it will continue to meet. The existence of the lobby will always be of greater help to those representing smaller news outlets than to those representing the larger ones. How the Government react to the lobby is a matter for them but I suspect they will find it much to their benefit to continue to use it. Indeed, in my view, a certain amount of unattributable briefing is essential to get a proper understanding of policy. On the record briefings are likely always to be far too cautious. The larger organs will always be treated somewhat differently by the Government and will get their favoured briefings whatever the Phillis report says.
Phillis's attachment to on the record briefing is, I fear, politically correct nonsense. The prime rule should be that governments should have on the record press briefings or press conferences when they have something to say or they should, through unattributable twice-daily briefings of the lobby, give journalists an opportunity to seek reaction on the events of the day. It is interesting that, in putting the No. 10 spokesman on the record at lobby briefings, this Government have insisted on not identifying the spokesman by name and the media have acquiesced with that. It is even more interesting that the broadcasters have not insisted on being able to record the briefings with microphones and cameras. I wonder why. But I am clear that no civil servant or political adviser paid by the public purse should do twice-a-day briefings that are fully on the record and broadcast and remain a civil servant or in receipt of public remuneration. Such briefings should be done by a Minister.
But here we come up against a constitutional point. Parliament would rightly soon object, or should rightly object, to this usurping of its constitutional role of holding the executive to account. I am all in favour of on the record briefings where there is something to say, but they should be given by Ministers and they should mostly be given by Ministers to Parliament.
However, the most serious aspect of this report is the constitutional one. It is an acknowledgement that this Government's centralising tendencies are acceptable, and so undermine our traditional constitutional position. Under our system of Cabinet government, the Prime Minister is primus inter pares and power is spread among members of the Cabinet. It is not for No. 10 to usurp the proper role and position of members of the Cabinet, which would be the result of a centrally controlled press machine. Individual Ministers are responsible for their own departments' policies, actions and staff, and the staff owe their first allegiance to their Minister, and not to the Prime Minister, the No. 10 Press Secretary, the Director of Communications or whatever he is called.
The report's endorsement of its earlier conclusion for a strong central communications structure takes centralisation as desirable and a move to a more presidential style of government as acceptable. It is, I fear, another illustration of the Phillis report's alarming ignorance of the constitutional position in our parliamentary democracy. I for one would not accept this Phillis theory of centralisation if I was a Minister and member of the Cabinet and I am surprised that members of Mr Blair's Cabinet are prepared to do so. Perhaps they are not. I have my doubts whether Gordon Brown has bought into it.
I suspect that the Phillis theory of centralised communications stems from what the committee would describe as a rational analysis of the purpose of government communications: the need for a single, consistent government voice. But British government is not, and never has been, about selling soap flakes or popcorn. It is about a Cabinet system of collective decision-making and parliamentary accountability. That is inevitably a less tidy and controlled system than the centralisers would like. But that is what our constitution is about: the dispersal of power, not its centralisation in the hands of presidential Prime Ministers and their obsessive spin doctors.
It is not my task to blame Bob Phillis and his colleagues who gave their time to serve on the committee. Indeed, on this occasion I warmly congratulate him on the knighthood that he was awarded in the recent honours list. He is a very distinguished man and does a very good job well, even if I do not think much of his report. My purpose was to point out a serious manifestation of the undermining of our constitutional arrangements in this country and a weakening of Cabinet government and parliamentary democracy that started in 1997 and is doing great damage. That is the real mischief of the Phillis report.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for his initiative in putting this matter on the Order Paper. As he rightly says, he has form on these matters and therefore his comments are to be taken seriously. I thought that we might perhaps have a love-in about the Phillis report but, from what he said, that will clearly not be the case. I take a more positive view of its recommendations. I take on board what is said about the over-centralising nature of No. 10, but a reading of the report suggests that other aspects of Phillis counteract that.
It is not my habit to quote Daily Telegraph editorials, but today's editorial talks of the public being alienated by,
"the bossy, spin-ridden politics of the past decade".
Phillis talks of,
"the breakdown in the level of public trust, and credibility of, government communications and the disengagement from the political process".
Where I start to depart from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, is that I do not think the fault lies entirely with the Government—a great deal lies with the Government but the media have motes in their own eye so far as this is concerned. Wherever we attribute blame, alienation and mistrust are damaging weaknesses for a democracy that must be addressed.
Lord Phillis—I am giving him even more honours—rather, Sir Bob Phillis answers one of the tests of a good servant to a government. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, was reputed by Mrs Thatcher to come up with solutions and not just with problems, there are solutions in the Phillis report that deserve better consideration.
Spin did not begin with new Labour. However, the bruising experience of the 1992 defeat and the lessons learnt, particularly from the Democrats who had themselves learnt the hard way after the Dukakis debacle in the United States, produced an over-aggressive approach to government communications that was also influenced by a mistrust of a Civil Service machine that had been in the hands of the Conservatives for 18 years—a mistrust that I consider was misplaced. However, that lack of confidence, and a desire to deliver the project via a more powerful No. 10 policy unit and a better co-ordinated and "on message" media exercise in joined-up government, was what started all this.
In retrospect, it is clear that far too much power was given to Alastair Campbell. As he himself has now admitted while "treading the boards" round the country, the carrying into government of the opposition style of press tactics was a mistake. I refer to the abuse of position on the part of special advisers—the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, referred to the Jo Moore case—the collapse in morale in the Government Information Service, and some questionable use of public funds; that is, the Government annual report and the upsurge in government advertising prior to the 2001 election.
I turn to the Phillis solutions. I believe that there are doubts about the creation of the new post of permanent secretary for government communications. It is slightly odd that, having separated the roles that Campbell occupied of both political and government spin doctor, and in finding someone to reinvigorate the Civil Service side of the act, a former Conservative appointment, Howell James, was selected. It is fair to say that he went through the most rigorous of appointment procedures undertaken by the Civil Service Commission. One must accept its judgment that he was the best man for the job. The job is a tough one. The Phillis report recommends:
"The new Permanent Secretary should be tasked with forging a new communications function across government pulling together current members of the Government Information and Communications Service and other departmental communications staff into a fully functioning communications operation. At its heart should be the principle that communications are a professional function that is core to the Civil Service".
I agree with that. There needs to be better training of civil servants in communications, better use of outside expertise and more use, as Phillis mentions, of the practice of both the Foreign Office and the Treasury of bringing civil servants in from other disciplines to give them experience in their news departments. However, that can be done only if it is underpinned by other action. That is the real test of the Government. There must be a Civil Service Act to underpin any strengthening of the role of the Civil Service communications sector.
There must be a robust implementation of freedom of information. One of the core recommendations of Phillis is that the Government should carry through their commitment to freedom of information. I made my next point to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, the other day. I wonder whether the Government are embarking on a real programme of training in a new spirit of open government. One of the most damning phrases in the Phillis report is that "the culture of secrecy" is alive and well seven years into this Government's term of office, when they were supposedly elected in 1997 to remove that culture of secrecy.
I am not as relaxed about the lobby system as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. I consider that it is corrupt and corrupting. The sooner it can be removed, the better. I refer to the findings or non-findings of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, regarding the impact of Campbell's aggressive spin on news organisations. However, one point that emerged from the Hutton report which was a real plus was that he showed that government could reveal large amounts of information directly to the public and the media and let people make up their own minds about it.
Another recommendation of the Phillis report that is worthy of consideration relates to an independent statutory statistical body. CP Scott said:
"Comment is free but facts are sacred", and he was right.
I still believe in the merit of the special adviser system. It has been well tested. I declare my own special interest in that I served as a special adviser more than a quarter of a century ago. Few mistakes and misjudgments have been made, and most civil servants find that it is a plus to have a political adviser within a department.
As I say, we must accept that the media have responsibility regarding the damaging failure of trust. People as varied as Martin Kettle of the Guardian, John Lloyd writing yesterday in the Observer, and Professor Steve Barnett have all drawn attention to something that Phillis calls for; namely,
"a clearer separation of fact from news, comment and entertainment and a greater willingness to admit and to correct mistakes and inaccuracies".
A parallel recommendation was made by the Puttnam committee, on which I served. Yet certainly most of our popular media, rather than reporting news, initiate predetermined campaigns that distort and preselect news. One has only to consider the u-turn on the European referendum or the treatment of asylum seekers to appreciate how that is exercised.
I would hope that as well as journalists taking responsibility for higher standards of journalism and the Government resisting any further concentrations of media power—perhaps the test of that will be the fate of the Daily Telegraph—the Prime Minister might recapture some of his old radical spirit. Would it not be radical if, in the next few weeks, he took time to recommit his Government to an effective Freedom of Information Act and give a pledge that a Civil Service Bill will be in the Queen's Speech? I am not as pessimistic as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, about the recipe proposed in the Phillis report. The Government have a problem of credibility, but, to use a phrase that is popular at the moment, his report provides a road map back to respectability and the Government should take it.
My Lords, by drawing attention to the Phillis report, my noble friend Lord Wakeham has done the House, and members of the public who notice such things, a service. His experience in government as Leader of both Houses, which is a rare feat, as Chief Whip in another place and his experience since leaving government as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, give him a special insight into these issues. I take seriously his warning of the dangers to Cabinet government and Parliament's place in our constitution.
The review committee was chaired by Bob Phillis. I echo the congratulations on his well-earned knighthood in the Birthday Honours. The committee was set up to help to help the Government get out of the mess following the Jo Moore affair—or, if one prefers, the Martin Sixsmith affair, or the DTLR crisis, or whatever one might wish to call it. That was not an isolated, freak affair, it was a particular example of what can go wrong when spin doctors and other special advisers get out of hand.
Two trends have occurred since my noble friend and I were Ministers—a massive centralisation of power and detailed control by No. 10 and a massive shift from reliance by Ministers on civil servants to reliance on special, that is to say, political, advisers. I am not against special advisers. Like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I was one myself—in my case, over 30 years ago—but I had no responsibility for media relations and it is not a healthy development that so many special advisers are now appointed primarily with such responsibilities. The report emphasises the reasons for that.
The centralisation of decision-making—presidential style government—and the enormous numbers and influence of special advisers has led to worse decisions and has damaged trust. One reason for those decisions becoming worse is that presentation has been given too big a role by comparison with the substance of a decision. Like my noble friend, I believe that centralisation has devalued the role of Cabinet Ministers and hence Cabinet government. It has also devalued Parliament.
I am disappointed that the report, while it contains hints in such a direction, was not more forthright about the desirability of decisions being made known to Parliament first. When I was first involved in such matters, there used to be huge inquiries when there was a so-called leak. But now we take leaks in our stride. There are leaks first thing every morning on the "Today" programme. Even the Budget is leaked to the "Today" programme, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. As my noble friend said, briefings should normally be made by Ministers and should normally be made to Parliament, not constantly spun in advance. We should try to return to that position in the interests of our constitution. The centralisation of communications is an element in the centralisation of government and my noble friend made some excellent points about the dangers of that.
The review has to be seen against the wider background. It reviews the issue arising out of a particular example of trust breaking down between the Government, the media and the public. That trust has been damaged many times, before and since and, after all, the electorate has recently demonstrated its view of how much it trusts government. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, the fierceness of media competition is partly to blame, but those organisations respond to government actions. It is the Government that to a large degree provide the ammunition with which the media operate.
It is important that that trust between government and the public is redeveloped. That should particularly be the case in the event that we found ourselves having to respond to a 9/11-type situation. If the Government cannot be believed about the reasons for going to war, will they be believed in an emergency? Ministers say that they do not wish to talk about threats and what to do about them in case people panic. But the British are not a panicky nation and we want to feel that the various possibilities, which everyone realises exist and which from time to time Ministers confirm exist, have been thought through as much as possible, although we all recognise that no-one can prepare for them completely, and that the responses have been though through.
However, those matters are not central to this report and I wish to make some particular points. Regarding the role of special advisers, there is a devastating account on page 10 of what has gone wrong. It says:
"Many of them concentrate their limited time on the political reporter in the 'lobby' and on a handful of specialists. We have been told that this has created an 'inner circle' of reporters who have good access, but a disenfranchised majority who do not. This can leave reporters dealing with a sometimes poorly informed and demoralised press operation. The way some have operated has also led to a blurring of information and comment"— a point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. That paragraph, in itself, is a key to what has gone wrong and what requires to be put right. I think that special advisers, and particularly those with responsibilities for talking to the media, need to be reined in. Recommendation 7 makes some suggestions. I would have been happier with stronger wording, but the analysis is excellent.
Next, as my noble friend said, it is a mistake to try to pretend that briefings will all be on the record. That will be a pretence, and I do not believe that it will happen quite like that. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, may not like it but the lobby will exist, formally or informally, and I think that, in general terms, it is much better that it should do so formally. I do not necessarily mean that everything about the system is perfect, but I believe it is better that it exists formally.
Another part of the report struck me very forcefully—indeed, it shocked me. Recommendation 9.2 on page 25 states:
"If Ministers choose to use such data"— that is, statistical data—
"in speeches or argument, ahead of publication of the official statistics, they should be under an obligation to release all the relevant data, not just quote selectively from it to make a case".
What shocked me was the use of the word "if". I do not think that Ministers should use statistical information, which is due to be given out according to clear timetables set out in other recommendations, in speeches or in argument ahead of publication. Like everyone else, they should wait for it to be published. I do not object to Ministers being given advance information of statistics in confidence in a limited area—other recommendations deal with that—so that they are in a position to comment when the statistics are released. Clearly, that is an important part of day-to-day management in government. But I do not think that they should be able to choose to release a statistic in advance if they feel like it, even in the circumstances of Recommendation 9.2.
Incidentally, the report goes on to state:
"This would be an equivalent discipline on Ministers to the legislation which requires formal disclosure of material information to the stock market by companies".
The fact is that, if Ministers came under the same rules as now apply to company directors, their treatment of statistics would have to be very different from what has been the case. From some of the wording, one might also think that that should be so even if that recommendation were carried out. However, I do not believe that Ministers should anticipate the regular issue of statistical services for any purpose.
Nevertheless, as a whole, we should be grateful for the report, grateful for the analysis that it contains and grateful for many of its recommendations. Like my noble friend, I think that it is wrong in some, potentially damaging, ways but it is also a very useful guide to thought on all these matters. I hope that the Government will respond, but I urge them to treat the recommendations with caution and to study the points made by my noble friend Lord Wakeham.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, on raising this issue. I greatly appreciated the thoughtful way in which he and the other noble Lords involved in this short debate approached the matter. I was particularly charmed by the way in which all noble Lords made it plain that they have form on this issue. I am not sure that I have form—or perhaps, going back to my local government days, I have. I was always accused of being a master of spin in my own locality, so that is on the record too. I also take this opportunity to congratulate Bob Phillis on the occasion of his knighthood in the Birthday Honours List. I believe we all agree that it is well deserved.
I was intrigued by, and interested in, the comments of all three noble Lords who participated in the discussion. They covered the same area to a large extent, although there were some disagreements. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, took a rather more positive view of the Phillis review and report, and the noble Lords, Lord Wakeham and Lord Cope, said that it was a useful document and a valuable guide to behaviour. I believe we all agree with that.
This is a helpful opportunity for me to summarise the Government's position with regard to our plans for government communications, and I shall take my time to do just that. It is worth reminding ourselves that communicating with the public is one of the Government's most essential tasks. There have been criticisms about the level of government spend, but we are massive organisationally. We have the ability to make tremendous impact upon public life, on people's happiness, their wealth, sorrow and opportunities. A government who are dedicated to improving the opportunities for all have an important job to do to explain their policies, decisions and actions and to ensure that we have an informed public who understand their rights, responsibilities and liabilities. I doubt whether there is much difference between any of the political parties about that responsibility of government.
It is hardly a new set of responsibilities. In preparing for this debate I asked my advisers to look at the origins of public information campaigns. I was told that one of the first of those was carried out in 1876 by the Post Office, which in those days was a government department. It was charged at that time with telling the public about government saving schemes, life assurance and annuities. That was one of the first examples they could find of a protracted government information campaign.
During the 20th century, under the twin influences of conflict and a diversifying news media, the government's means of communicating with the public became more structured. More recently, the public's expectations have changed. They are no longer simply content to be told what the Government have decided; they want to be consulted, listened to and informed about policies and decisions which may in some way affect their lives, their families, those close to them, their communities and what they do. That is an important point.
I am sure that there would be agreement that successive governments have in their different ways strived for more effective ways of communicating with the public. It is an issue that both the Select Committee on Public Administration and the Committee on Standards in Public Life have reviewed recently. Both were especially concerned to maintain the political impartiality of government, a matter which all noble Lords who have spoken were particularly seized of, and it is right that that should be the case. The Select Committee on Public Administration also focused on the need to join up communications across departments and integrate them more effectively into policy making and policy delivery. The last report from that Select Committee on the issue called for a radical external review of government communications. The Government responded to this positively by commissioning the Phillis review.
Under the chairmanship of Bob Phillis, the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group plc, the review team carried out what has been recognised as a very thorough examination of all the issues. It published its interim report last August and a final report in January this year. We are grateful to that review team for its work and the way in which it considered the issues. The Government have already taken steps to address the review's key recommendations. That underpins the Government's commitment to improve our methods of communication with the public.
As we all know, one of the most important recommendations of the Phillis review was the creation of a new Permanent Secretary for Government Communications. Howell James has now been appointed to the post. He will be head of the profession responsible for the strategy, co-ordination and effectiveness of government communication across Whitehall. He will also be responsible for increasing the professionalism and capability of government communicators. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, acknowledged that that was long overdue and much needed, particularly in terms of training. I do not see that as a centralising measure. Indeed, the objective is to ensure effective communication from all government departments. The relationship between the Minister and the head of communications within each department will obviously be very important. However, I am sure that most Members of your Lordships' House would agree that co-ordination and drawing together the threads of government is an important role too.
Howell James will take up his post in the summer. He will focus on the redefinition of the role and scope of government communications to ensure that we are communicating with the public in the widest possible way. That includes increasing two-way communications to help improve policy-making and the delivery of public services. It also involves more communication with the public at a local level, one that matters to them, and more direct communication, especially through the electronic media.
The Government have recently taken a significant step forward in joining up its web presence to make information more accessible, as Phillis recommended, with the recent launch of the Directgov website. The Government have also accepted and begun to make changes to the way in which Number 10 Downing Street operates. The Phillis recommendations were quite clear about the operation of government communications at the centre. The Prime Minister's special adviser on communications no longer has executive powers, a matter that was objected to. The Prime Minister's official spokesperson, a civil servant who conducts the lobby briefings, will report to the Permanent Secretary. The Government also remain committed to the long-standing principle reflected in the ministerial code that, wherever possible, announcements of government policy should be made in Parliament, as noble Lords have argued in the context of this debate.
The other issue raised this evening is the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. I think that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was suggesting that we should have a government recommitment to an FOI policy. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the major part of the Freedom of Information Act comes into effect in January of next year. That will allow the Government to demonstrate their commitment to openness and transparency, which is part of effective communication with the public. People will have the right to be told if information is held on them and to see it; they will get real, important information about the issues that affect them. This openness will encourage greater participation in democratic life and help to build confidence in public institutions.
I thought that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, on that point were important. I was grateful that he too shares that objective. It needs to be fostered and developed across parties to ensure that we rebuild that trust and take steps to counter an apparent disengagement, which many people have commented on in the past few days.
A great deal of work is going on to ensure that departments are fully prepared for the Freedom of Information Act. The Phillis review's recommendations will be carefully taken into account as part of the implementation process.
The central contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, was his concern about the centrally controlled press machine. I take issue with his description of the role; it was by implication an attack on the role of the new Permanent Secretary. The role is to redefine government communications. In essence, that is a much more strategic role. It is not about managing news; it is about improving communications with the public. Individual Ministers will remain—exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, wants—individually responsible for their departments. As I said earlier, joined-up government requires a more strategic approach to communications. That needs to take into account the importance of getting messages right so that the public understand what government are about, what they are trying to achieve, what their objectives are and what that means for them.
The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, forcibly made the point that briefings should be carried out by Ministers, not officials, and that they should be conducted directly in Parliament. By and large that happens. Government remain strongly committed to the long-standing principle reflected in the ministerial code, that wherever possible in the first instance announcements should be made to Parliament.
It is agreed that more Ministers should host lobby briefings and that those should be open and televised. The Government are discussing with the relevant public authorities, including Parliament and the parliamentary lobby, how best to pursue that particular proposal.
I have dealt with the issues relating to the freedom of information and our commitment towards it. It is a strong commitment and an important statement in legislation. We were the first government to introduce freedom of legislation in this country. I think that we should take more credit on that issue than perhaps we have been given to date.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, never misses the opportunity to criticise government spend and the relationship between that spend and the electoral cycle. It is worth reminding ourselves that that spend has to be properly audited. The National Audit Office specifically undertook a review at the request of the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. It concluded that rules of propriety had been followed and advice and propriety was a significant part of advice provided by the Central Office of Information.
Government spend on advertising includes campaigns that I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will find entirely laudable. Examples include recruitment to the Armed Forces or the Police Service; encouragement for people to take up places in higher education or become nurses; for more doctors to work within the National Health Service; or to ensure effective promotion of literacy training, energy efficiency or a constant stream of blood donors. All those are at the core of what the Government promote through our spend on advertising. As I said earlier, given the size of the Government, it is hardly surprising that the budget is as it is and that it has increased over the years. All of that takes place within the rules and is conducted with propriety.
My time has almost ended. I simply restate that we as a Government are working hard to improve how we deliver on one of our most essential tasks: communicating with the public. The Government agree with the independent Phillis review that we must communicate with the public in the widest possible way. The appointment of a new Permanent Secretary for Government Communications is a first and important step in taking that work forward to develop a communications service that better meets the needs and demands of today's environment. I am confident that we will meet that challenge.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for introducing this debate. It is important and we should continue it, because it reflects well on how the Government work.
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn until 8.40 p.m.