Draft Civil Service Bill

– in the House of Lords at 11:16 am on 27th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour 11:16 am, 27th October 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many responses have been received following the consultation on the draft Civil Service Bill.

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 on proposals for a draft Civil Service Bill.

Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour

My Lords, I see that there are no more responses, so will my noble friend publish the Government's replies to those 50, which we knew about many months ago? Is he aware that very many people view with dismay the decline in the standing of the Civil Service, the dominant role of some special advisers, and the way in which the integrity and independence of the Civil Service has been put at risk? The introduction of a Bill would enable Parliament to consider all those matters. What does the Minister say to that?

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

My Lords, as I have said on many occasions from the Dispatch Box, we value the independence, integrity, honesty and directness of civil servants and the quality of their advice. We are carefully considering the responses that have been received and we shall make our views known in due course.

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, will the Minister go further? His answer sounded extraordinarily complacent, first, in the light of the criticisms made by Sir Alistair Graham, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, in which he accused the Government of being in breach of the seven principles of public life because of their reliance on mere orders to effect change—in particular, the principle of openness and transparency—and, secondly, in the light of the powerful argument advanced by the Civil Service Commissioners, who wrote as long as a year ago that the constitutional position of the Civil Service and the core values which underpin the Civil Service are not suitable to be supported solely by Orders in Council and need to be embodied in a Bill. If the Government are unable to produce a Bill themselves, can they bring what they have before us and we can then see what we can do to improve it?

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

My Lords, I shall try to answer the noble Lord's points briefly. We simply do not accept what the noble Lord says. I have made plain on many occasions that we believe the current constitutional position to be well understood and well settled. It has been that way since Northcote and Trevelyan, and I think that the Civil Service works well in the current circumstances.

Photo of Lord Marsh Lord Marsh Crossbench

My Lords, does Minister not agree that this is a fundamental issue in terms of the constitution and the way that this country is run, and that it is a matter of some urgency? Can he give us a rough indication of what "in due course" might mean?

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

My Lords, the noble Lord is far more experienced in these matters than me, and I am sure that, as a former Minister, he understands exactly what "in due course" means. I am not in a position to provide a timetable and it would be wrong of me to do so, but the Government take these important issues extremely seriously. For that reason, even without a Bill being actively in play, the Government have been extremely keen to see that arrangements are strengthened, with proper rules, codes of practice and contracts put in place, to ensure that the relationship between government and the Civil Service is properly regulated. We remain committed to that.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, it is something of a relief to know from the noble Lord that the Government take these issues seriously. Are he and his masters aware of the growing concern felt at the widespread infiltration of the Civil Service as a result of the proliferation of specialist advisers? The Civil Service is coming very near to being reduced to a satellite of the Labour Party.

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

My Lords, I do not like having to disagree with the noble Lord, but that is a nonsensical analysis. There are 3,900 senior civil servants in central government departments. My recollection is that there are now 82, perhaps 84, special advisers. We must have a sense of proportion on this issue. To suggest that there is some sort of political infiltration, I am afraid, is nonsense.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, why have the Government not given effect to the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to appoint an independent arbiter of the ministerial code, as recently put forward again by Sir Alistair Graham?

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

My Lords, I ought to express the Government's gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, at this point. As the principal Civil Service Commissioner, she chairs a working group that, as I understand it, does exactly that. It considers the purpose and effectiveness of the code and monitors the way in which it performs. The noble Baroness is doing a sterling job, and your Lordships' House would do well to support and encourage her in that activity.

Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench

My Lords, this is not a question. I am chairing a working party dealing with the Civil Service code, but not the ministerial code.

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her correction.

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, are not the Government becoming increasingly arrogant in their declining years? They brush aside the opinion of their most senior civil servant and the needs of the best Civil Service in the world. It is time that the Government addressed the idea of bringing this Bill forward. The new Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell, has recently said that he believes that the Civil Service Bill must be passed to protect the honesty and integrity of the Civil Service. Will the Minister give the House an assurance that Sir Gus's fears that politics will get in the way of this important piece of legislation will not come to pass?

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

My Lords, I am pleased to hear that the noble Baroness is enthusiastic for this legislation. Her government decided in 1995 not to proceed with such legislation, and the Conservatives took the view at the last general election that it was not sufficiently important to include in their manifesto.