Civil Service Draft Bill

– in the House of Lords at 2:48 pm on 20th July 2005.

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Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour 2:48 pm, 20th July 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many responses have been received following the consultation document on their draft Civil Service Bill; and when they will complete their consideration of the responses.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the Government have received more than 50 responses to the consultation exercise. They will make a Statement when they have completed their consideration of the responses.

Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but will he accept that the question of a Civil Service Bill is not a new issue? Consultations have been going on for seven years, since the process began all that time ago. The latest consultation on the draft Bill, which produced only 50 replies, ended five months ago. So there have been five months to look at the results of the consultations and the 50 issues that must have been raised. What is a big issue is why political advisers should give instructions to civil servants, who have been acting in the name of all of us for the past 150 years.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, it is not the responsibility of special advisers to give instructions to civil servants. Their role is to work and to assist Ministers, Secretaries of State and parliamentary under-secretaries. The 50 responses were very detailed and we are giving very careful consideration to them. No doubt in full course we shall make our views on the fruits of those consultations known to your Lordships' House and another place.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox Baroness Wilcox Spokesperson In the Lords, Cabinet Office, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Treasury, Spokespersons In the Lords, Work & Pensions & Welfare Reform

My Lords, how many of the responses received argued in favour of an extension in the role and power of special advisers? Why did the Prime Minister, only last month and without informing Parliament, change the role of special advisers from advising to assisting Ministers, thereby allowing a non-elected political adviser to override a civil servant? Is that not just the kind of thing that we need a Civil Service Bill to prevent?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I dispute the interpretation that the noble Baroness puts on the change to the Order in Council. It simply changes the role from advising to assisting.

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I am sorry, but assisting is not instructing. If that is what the noble Baroness thinks that it means, I believe that she is rather mistaken.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson in the Lords, Scotland, Spokesperson In the Lords (With Special Responsibility for Civil Service Reform), Cabinet Office

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that the procedure which the Government followed in making this change—which he announced by an elision in his Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, about advice from special advisers—as the Government did by the Privy Council Order on 22 June, is a wholly inappropriate use of the prerogative power preventing any proper debate of it in Parliament or even a proper public announcement at the time? Why did the Government not act upon the prior expression of concern by the Committee on Standards in Public Life which deplored this hole in the corner way of proceeding and said that it would, as, indeed, today, it clearly has, give rise to further public concern and loss of trust?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I am extremely puzzled by the noble Lord's approach to this matter. I have to tell the noble Lord and your Lordships' House that the change that has been recommended, and which is being made by Order in Council, was a direct result of a recommendation by the Public Administration Select Committee. That recommendation the Government welcomed.

Photo of Lord Marsh Lord Marsh Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister recall that Clause 5(8) of the Draft Civil Service Bill requires,

"civil servants to carry out their duties . . . (c) with objectivity and impartiality"?

Clause 5(9) states that,

"the code need not require special advisers to carry out their duties with objectivity or political impartiality".

Can he think of a better way of creating confusion and general dislike?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I do not think that there is the confusion which the noble Lord suggests. I believe that the role of special advisers in Whitehall is well understood. Their work has been widely welcomed in the past. Governments of all political persuasions have accepted the importance and value of special advisers. I believe that they do a valuable job across government. In fact, civil servants very much welcome their involvement.

Photo of Lord Hurd of Westwell Lord Hurd of Westwell Conservative

My Lords, will the Minister clear up any remaining confusion and confirm in the light of his previous helpful reply that it is not within the power of special advisers at any time to give instructions to civil servants?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, it is not within the power of all bar one of the special advisers to give instructions. I am sure that that position is well understood by the noble Lord. Jonathan Powell has executive responsibilities. All other special advisers currently working for the Government advise and assist their Ministers.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Shadow Lord Chancellor, Law Officers (Constitutional Affairs), Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, does the Minister not accept that the problem is not so much the content of this order but the way in which it was made—that this important new change was made in utter secrecy and without any opportunity for previous discussion?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I dispute the notion that the order was made in secret. The amendment to the Civil Service Code in council appeared in the Gazette on 5 July. Sir Alistair Graham, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was fully aware of the Government's plan to publish a revised code of conduct for special advisers, and that incorporates the amendment that was proposed. As I made plain earlier, the recommendation was made to the Government by the Public Administration Select Committee.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, having been waved down with his usual courtesy by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I should now like to recover from the blow. Is the noble Lord aware that the comforting words that the Government use to themselves that special advisers are no problem are far from reassuring? We are concerned—and I hope that the Minister is aware of this—that the import on the present scale of special advisers into departments complete with their party political germs is a step, and a substantial step, in the direction of a single-party state.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Lord has gone a bit over the top on this one. Come on, my Lords, there are 77 or 78 special advisers across Whitehall, and there is a Civil Service of over 3,500 in the government departments at the centre of the way in which we govern our nation. The noble Lord needs to have a sense of proportion here.