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Cabinet Office: Standards-setting Bodies

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:47 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 12:47 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing the debate and presenting a most interesting and challenging case. It is not one to which I am able to respond positively in all respects, nor would he expect that, but he certainly identified crucial advantages that might derive from placing the bodies for which the Cabinet Office is responsible on a statutory basis. We have had a lively debate, largely concentrated on the Committee on Standards in Public Life, not least because noble Lords who have served on that committee attested to the nature and value of their work, as did the noble Lord, Lord Neill, so assertively and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. We have had an interesting debate in terms of perspectives on this issue.

Specific questions were addressed to me, not least by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, who is in a favoured position; namely, having asked a Question earlier in the week to which he considered that he did not receive a satisfactory Answer, he gets a second shot at it today. Would that we were all so lucky to get such second chances. I hope that I shall satisfy him today, at least more than I appear to have done earlier in the week.

This has been a wide-ranging debate. It was bound to be given that the bodies which were clearly enumerated—the Civil Service Commissioners, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the House of Lords Appointments Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Life—are very important bodies which cover a wide range of extremely important issues.

I recognise criticism about certain aspects of behaviour. The public are increasingly sceptical about all matters political, and we recognise the nature of our times and the change in our political culture. We have all sorts of explanations for that. There is an extremely questioning public, but whether that questioning relates to specific criticisms of particular bodies is an altogether different matter. I maintain that, on the whole, those bodies have operated effectively and with considerable success without a statutory footing. They are independent of the Government. It cannot be maintained that somehow, once distinguished individuals are appointed to such committees with clear terms of reference, they then lose their independence. One of the main issues of contention in this debate, advanced particularly by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, relates to Sir Alistair Graham. I cannot think that anyone is suggesting that the body that he chairs, or he as its chairman, has lacked independence and a spirit of challenge over the period in which he has been in office.

Before we suggest that we need dramatic changes to these bodies, we have to put them in the context of the quality of the work that they do. The media will, from time to time, express enormous interest in these issues, and for a short period the public may feel that,

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark", and be enormously concerned. However, more substantial surveys do not bear out the impression that the whole of public life in Britain is held in disrepute. Last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life commissioned a national survey from the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute of public attitudes towards the standards of conduct of public office-holders in the United Kingdom. The results of that survey make for interesting reading: 74 per cent of those questioned thought that standards of public office-holders in the United Kingdom were higher than or about average compared with those elsewhere in Europe; 64 per cent thought that standards of public office-holders had either improved or stayed the same compared to a few years ago: and only 13 per cent rated the standard of conduct of public office-holders as low.

That is a slightly different perspective from the alarm bells that are sometimes rung in the media and are reinforced by comments during the course of lively political debate to suggest that everything to do with public life is held in low regard by the nation. Some of those bodies have attracted very little criticism of their work. We have scarcely heard a critical mention in this debate, which gave an opportunity for critical voices to be heard. Who does not think that the Civil Service Commissioners set good standards on recruitment by which the Civil Service goes about its tasks? They audit compliance by departments and agencies against those standards. They publish a recruitment code that interprets the principle of selection to the Civil Service on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. They also hear appeals from home civil servants under the Civil Service Code that cannot be resolved through internal departmental procedures.

The Civil Service Commissioners are chaired by Janet Paraskeva, whose predecessor as First Civil Service Commissioner was the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. No one is suggesting that their work has not been up to standard. They have been operating on that basis for over 150 years. During that period, it has been necessary for their role to evolve and keep pace with changing times. For example, the new Civil Service Code, issued in June 2006, allows the Civil Service Commissioners to hear a complaint under the code directly from a civil servant. In addition, the selection panels for the most senior appointments to the Civil Service are now chaired by a Civil Service Commissioner. They show ability and an element of flexibility, to which I will return later in relation to other committees. The Civil Service Commissioners have had an excellent record in those terms.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, mentioned the question of a Civil Service Bill, which did not feature as the most fundamental part of the debate. There is considerable public interest in that, and there is interest in this House. I am not in a position today to make a statement about a Civil Service Bill, but a statement will be made in due course. Criticisms have been expressed about the necessity for a Civil Service Bill. The issues that have been raised in consultation on the Bill, which has been in the public domain for some time, have resulted in action already within the framework of government. There is already an annual report to Parliament on special adviser numbers, costs and responsibilities. One of the prompts behind the concept of the Civil Service Bill is the inclusion of the responsibilities of special advisers. Updated codes of conduct for Ministers and special advisers were published in July 2005. Induction programmes for new Ministers and special advisers, so that their roles are clarified and the boundaries and responsibilities are clearly defined, take place already. There is consultation with the main Opposition party leaders on the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner and the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It is contended that the Bill becoming an Act has been overlong in the waiting as far as some noble Lords are concerned. The Government are aware of some significant issues, and we have ensured that appropriate action has been taken within the framework of government.

The Commissioner for Public Appointments also seems to have occasioned limited comment today. I am not sure whether it is meant to be in the statutory framework that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is suggesting, but I presume that it is. The strength of the regulatory system for making public appointments was commented on by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which praised the arrangements. It commented on:

"The successful development of a culture which recognises the importance of appointment on merit ... The broad ... acceptance by appointing authorities of the Commissioner for Public Appointments' authority as custodian of the Code of Practice on Public Appointments; and ... The commitment of most appointing authorities to running proportionate operations, strong on process, but that clear outcomes—excellent appointments contributing to public service delivery and carrying the confidence of both ministers and the general public—are important too".

The existing arrangements have been commented on by the very committee that has been the main focal point of discussion and debate in this House today and in recent consideration; the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, indicated that that body would benefit if it had been established in statute. First, does anyone doubt its independence? Whatever one says about the period of tenure of Sir Alistair Graham—and it has been true of his predecessors, too—does anyone think that he was in anything other than a category entirely independent from Government? I have heard it said today that he was a thorn in the side of the Government from time to time and challenged them. Objectively, that is certainly the case. What does that establish? It establishes his independence.

Secondly, I very much respect the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on the importance of flexibility and the ability of a committee such as this to address the significant issues of the moment, which, if it were in statute, could not even begin to address issues that were not within its terms of reference until an Act of Parliament had been amended. Given that the committee would need to look at issues of high controversy, can one think of the process by which such a Bill would go through Parliament? All noble Lords are experienced enough to appreciate that that Bill would have a fairly stormy passage, it certainly would not be swift in its execution and achievement and it would lose precisely the features that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, identified, in terms of the past practice of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

I have been questioned by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, on the continuation of the committee. Let me put this into context—and I am somewhat surprised that the Opposition do not recognise the significance of that context. On one side, the Government are being pressed to recognise that a Select Committee in the other place has been engaged on these issues for a considerable period. It rightly expects its recommendations to be taken seriously and the noble Lord enjoined me to give an assurance that the Government would look at its recommendations with due care and attention and take them seriously. I give that commitment. That committee is due to report shortly.

Also, we are in a unique position. Whether this House has suddenly become so delicate about democratic affairs that it will eschew any discussion about what is happening at the other end, I am not sure. It did not have such reservations yesterday, although that was a different matter. We should not ignore the fact that this country is in a unique situation in which a Prime Minister has announced that he is giving up his position within a certain time frame, leading to the expectation that there will be a change of Prime Minister in the next few months. Suggesting that that does not impact at all on a body such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life while a Select Committee is evaluating the work of that body and others is engaging in an element of naivety. Of course, we expect that the Government will look at the recommendations of that committee with due seriousness, but we also recognise that the Government who will be doing that will be on the point of change, as far as the office of Prime Minister is concerned.

Like other chairmen of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair is leaving after three years in office. Is there therefore anything surprising or particularly sinister in his term of office coming to an end at this stage?