Committee (and remaining stages)

Part of Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Lords at 12:30 am on 7th April 2010.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 12:30 am, 7th April 2010

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for moving the amendment. I also thank him for the part that he played in this afternoon's discussions. I shall deal with the amendments as briefly as I can. On Amendment 1, we agree that it is very important that,

"civil servants who advise Ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions", that govern,

"the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty's Government".

In short, we accept the amendment. I am grateful to the noble Lord for moving it.

I am afraid that I cannot be quite as helpful about the other amendments. Where Amendment 2 is concerned, we have considered this carefully in the light of evidence in pre-legislative hearings on the draft Bill, and the recommendations of both the Public Administration Select Committee and the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. We also noted the Joint Committee's view that the proposal should not place any additional undue pressure on the resources of the commission or risk politicising its role. We are concerned, as the Government, that such a provision would risk the commissioners being diverted by politically motivated or vexatious correspondence, which would, in turn, have resource implications about which the commissioners themselves had voiced concerns, as well as the potential for politicisation.

Civil servants can already take complaints or concerns directly to the Civil Service Commissioners, who can then investigate and make recommendations. I emphasise that this will continue under the provisions. The commissioners can also approach the Cabinet Secretary with complaints or concerns raised from other sources. The Cabinet Secretary has always taken seriously any approach from the commissioners if there is a concern which needs investigating. I am advised that the commissioners feel no restraint under the legislation about raising concerns with the Cabinet Secretary. Under the Bill, the Minister for the Civil Service and the commission would be able to agree that the commission should carry out additional functions in relation to the Civil Service.

It is also the case that the commission has undertaken an audit of departments in handling complaints under the Civil Service Code. I can tell the Committee that a further audit is planned for April 2011. In the light of that work, the Government, in consultation with the commissioners, will consider whether further amendments will be required to legislation.

Amendment 3 relates to the exceptional circumstances as far as the Diplomatic Service is concerned for heads of mission. It would require the Secretary of State to inform the Civil Service Commission of an intention to use the exception to fair and open competition to appoint an individual to the Diplomatic Service as head of mission or governor of an overseas territory. It would also limit to three the number of individual appointments to such posts at any one time. The Joint Committee on the draft Bill recommended that this exception should be limited to exceptional circumstances and should require the direct approval of the Prime Minister. The committee said:

"If the Prime Minister wishes to make political appointments to senior diplomatic posts in exceptional cases, he should be able to do so, but he must be politically accountable for any such decisions".

As the Committee knows, this exception has only ever been used very sparingly. It will continue to be used only on an exceptional basis and to require the direct approval of the Prime Minister. The Government also commit to making any such appointments public. I hope the fact that I have said those words in Committee today will be some comfort to the noble Lord when I tell him that I am afraid we cannot accept his amendment. We do not think it is necessary in these circumstances.

Amendment 4 in the noble Lord's name deals with promotion in the Civil Service. These amendments would put promotion within the Civil Service on the same footing as recruitment into the Civil Service, with promotions regulated by the Civil Service Commission. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, reminded us a moment ago, the principle of promotion on merit is a mandatory requirement, set out in the Civil Service Management Code, which forms part of the terms and conditions of employment of all civil servants. The current role of the Civil Service Commission is to regulate recruitment into the Civil Service. At the request of the Cabinet Secretary, the commissioners are involved in moves within the top 200 appointments, including promotions. This role would continue under the legislation.

Below the most senior Civil Service posts it is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said, that departments are able to manage staff in the most efficient and effective way, in accordance with their business needs and the requirements set out in the Civil Service Management Code. The current framework puts a clear obligation on departments and enables the Minister for the Civil Service to develop and change the requirements as necessary. I have to tell the Committee that there is no evidence that the current arrangements are failing or that stronger regulation of the arrangements for internal promotion is necessary. Furthermore, current arrangements allow for internal management flexibilities-for example, for temporary promotion or urgent deployment, which may occasionally be required for the effective conduct of public business. So, we do not think that the case has been made for that amendment.

I turn finally to Amendment 5. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for his praise of special advisers. They are, certainly in my experience and, I know, that of other Ministers, much appreciated in the various departments in which they serve. The noble Lord's amendment would introduce a new clause, the effect of which would be to allow all Ministers, even those as lowly as me, to appoint up to two-or more with the approval of the Prime Minister-special advisers. I was immediately attracted by the amendment, but I must resist it. The Ministerial Code already makes clear that, with the exception of the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and those Ministers who regularly attend Cabinet may each appoint up to two special advisers, and that all appointments require the Prime Minister's approval. The Ministerial Code does not permit all Ministers to appoint special advisers. Provisions in the Ministerial Code provide the appropriate mechanism to regulate the number of special adviser appointments. We also publish an annual report on special adviser costs and numbers and were the first Government to do so. Transparency about numbers and costs provides for accountability. The provisions in the Bill will maintain this. I ask the noble Lord not to press the amendment.