Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill — Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 13th January 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat 4:15 pm, 13th January 2014

My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend’s amendment and that put forward so effectively by the noble and learned Lord on the Cross Benches. Having been a Minister, I want to say a few words about what in my view is the absolutely vital importance of including special advisers in this Bill. I would add to that the first three ranks of the Civil Service, by which I mean under-secretary, deputy secretary and Permanent Secretary.

I find it very puzzling that the specific rank of civil servant mentioned in the Bill is that of Permanent Secretary. I can think of almost nobody less likely to be open to exploitation by lobbyists. To be a Permanent Secretary, you have to be somebody of outstanding integrity, whose honour cannot be doubted, who will be respected in his or her own department and who sets the quality and standards of that department. You are, frankly, the last woman or man to be likely to fall for the more dodgy approaches of some slightly dodgy lobbyists. In fact, it is close to inconceivable that this particular person is likely to be open to temptations of a kind that all of us would eschew.

However, I am asking the Government to include the first three levels because, as has been very rightly said, the much more tempting position is that of people near but not at the top. For example, I was for some years on the Government’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. We looked consistently at what the gap should be between a senior civil servant leaving his or her department and being free to take up other employment afterwards. Members of this House will know that certain departments have very close links with the private sector and that, therefore, their officials carry with them a level of expertise that is quite exceptional. They are indeed very attractive recruits to private business because obviously they have a great deal of experience and knowledge.

Generally speaking, in the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, consideration is given to how wide the gap should be between leaving one’s employment as a civil servant and joining a private industry with which one may previously have had some kind of relationship. It is extremely tempting, obviously, for somebody to join a private sector business when they have a great deal of knowledge that would be useful to that business, but the longer the gap the less useful that knowledge may be. It is therefore strange, to say the least, that the level of seniority in the Civil Service that makes an individual so attractive to major industries that have close relations with a certain department should not be covered by this Bill.

I have suggested that we should limit that practice as much as possible. I quite agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, but it is no good having what he called a laundry list or a telephone list of names. Deputy and under-secretaries are very limited in number and particularly attractive to those who want their expertise. I do not doubt that both sides behave with full honour but I also think that lobbyists will be very attracted to people in that situation, and therefore it would be strange if the Bill did not cover that particular group of civil servants.

When I first became a Minister the number of special advisers was extremely closely controlled. According to Prime Minister Wilson, the absolute maximum number of special advisers any Minister, however senior, could have was two. They had to be shown to be knowledgeable about the kinds of organisations with which that Minister would interact; for example, in my own case as Minister of State for Education and Science, it was very clear that the special advisers I needed had to be able to show expert knowledge and evidence of science, universities or the education of children in schools. The two I had were both eminently well suited in that way. But the general attitude towards special advisers was very limited. They were experts, they were there to advise, but they were not there to substitute.

That has rather changed over the years. There are now many more special advisers than there were. There have been one or two worrying cases where a special adviser has taken upon himself or herself responsibility for something that clearly should belong to the Minister. My noble friend Lord Tyler gave an example. Some of your Lordships may remember the famous occasion when a special adviser told her Minister that it was a good time to issue bad news and crises were ideal because they meant that the bad news was hidden by the interest of the media in other issues. I do not want to push that very far, but there are certainly a few cases—not many—where special advisers have behaved as if they were autonomous, and beyond what seems to be either the wishes or the desires of the Minister concerned. Some people may remember that the previous Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown, had difficulties with at least one of his special advisers, which did not do him or his reputation any great good, despite the fact that he is undoubtedly a man of integrity and honour himself.

Quite straightforwardly, that means there is a very strong case indeed for recognising that special advisers are, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hardie, and my noble friend said, something of a highway to a Minister. They are the quickest route to his personal information; they are probably closer to him than anyone else in his department, with the possible exception of his PPS. Often, they are also people who have their own agendas, and those agendas may not invariably be the same as that of the department. I therefore feel that it is important that special advisers should be held accountable. Indeed I would go further and say that it is crucial that they should be held accountable, and that this Bill takes congnisance of the relationship between a Minister and a special adviser.

Therefore I hope that the House gives full consideration to the proposals in these amendments and will recognise that, without some movement towards including special advisers, the effectiveness of this Bill will be very much limited. I have already argued for the top three ranks of the Civil Service. I hope that the amendment will be seriously considered in this House, and that the Government will reconsider the narrowness of the interpretation of which people are open to lobbying.

As the Bill stands, it is steadily getting better. I pay full credit to my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness and his noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for the improvements that have been made to this Bill, but we should include special advisers in evidence that we are serious and committed to the idea of limiting unfortunate and ill-motivated lobbying to those who might be effecting it.