[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair] — Ministers and Civil Servants

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 30th October 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Public Administration Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 122, on Politics and Administration: Ministers and Civil Servants, and the Government response, HC 1057.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 2:30 pm, 30th October 2008

It is a great pleasure to introduce the Public Administration Committee's report, "Politics and Administration: Ministers and Civil Servants". It may not immediately seem the most exciting topic for a Thursday afternoon, but perhaps we can make it slightly more exciting.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister. It is the school half-term holiday, and his young children are in town today. Assiduous followers of his blog and other things will know what a great family man he is, and we want to reunite him with his family as soon as we can. We are grateful to him for being here.

I say a real thank you—not because it is customary, but because it is true—to the members of my Committee. Select Committee vacancies are advertised every week, but we on our side of the House have noticed that there is never a vacancy for the Public Administration Committee. That is extremely revealing. It shows that a number of us have set about a body of work over a number of years and are able to contribute to that work collectively. The fact that we have worked together for so long helps us in what we do, and I hope that that is reflected in our products, including the report.

I apologise to the House for the huge delay in debating our report. I shall now be less generous to my hon. Friend the Minister and say that the delay is entirely of the Government's making. The convention is that Select Committee reports are replied to within two months. Extraordinarily, the report was published in March 2007 and the reply in September 2008—a full 18 months later. I have to tell my hon. Friend that the delay was not caused by the intellectual effort that went into producing the reply. It could have been done a good deal more quickly. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree, and say that the Government will do better.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I want to head off repetitions of that complaint by long-standing members of the Committee. I give my unreserved apologies to the Committee on behalf of the Cabinet Office. When it was brought to my attention that our reply was so late, I said that we must ensure that we do not make that mistake again. If such problems arise again, I ask the Committee Chairman to please get in touch with me directly, and I shall try to put things right.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I fully accept that handsome apology. Let us now put the matter out of the way. Let us not keep reciting the problem, as it will take a lot of our time.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee, Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

As the hon. Gentleman says, it was a handsome apology—but it was an apology without a reason. Having read the Government's response, it is difficult to see what on earth could have held up such an anodyne reply.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Indeed; but I am not in a position to answer that. We have probably identified the issue—

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

My hon. Friend says that we have not quite finished with it.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

The implications of that huge delay can be seen in the reports before us. We started taking evidence in November 2005, which is four years ago.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

It is three years. On this occasion, I am not going to say that we have come to the end of the discussion, but I should like to think that we have probably covered its most useful territory. We expect the Government to do better and hope that the problem will never recur.

In general, the Committee's job is to keep an eye on what the Government get up to. That takes us in a number of different directions. Recently, it has taken us in the direction of reporting on the machinery of making government changes. Again, the subject is not exciting in itself, but we highlighted the fact that, although other public bodies are expected to engage in consultation when they want to reorganise themselves, the Government can reorganise themselves at will by changing nameplates on Ministries. That has costs as well as benefits.

We argue that existing arrangements to involve Parliament in the making of such changes are completely unacceptable. I made that case the other night in relation to the new Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is a good idea, but it would have benefited hugely from consulting Parliament. That is an area to which we should return.

We keep our eye on these things, and I have noted how the size of the Government is covertly increasing. Parliament has made provisions about the size of the Government. Some issues derive from the increased size of the Government. We now have many more Parliamentary Private Secretaries; we also have unpaid Ministers—indeed, there is a good number of them—and we have what are called "assistant Ministers", whose job is help the regional Ministers. The effect of that is to increase the size of the Executive. It also increases the size of the payroll vote.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Without the pay, but with associated costs.

The reason for such restrictions was to maintain a proper balance between the Executive and Parliament. We should therefore be watchful of developments that could cause difficulties. It is worth reminding the House that, once upon a time, it was the constitutional convention that, when a Member of Parliament joined the Executive and took a ministerial post, he had to resign his seat and fight a by-election, so jealously guarded was the dividing line between Parliament and the Executive. We are entitled to watch out for such developments.

On another front, I was told the other day that, when ministerial reshuffles take place, civil servants produce reports on ministerial performance. I do not know whether that is true, but it is an interesting suggestion—interesting even if it is not true. In turn, it raises the question of whether Ministers should produce reports on their civil servants. That would take us into some interesting relationships.

Our role is often to stand back from the daily disputes and the perennial scandals, and to distil some of the underlying issues and principles. The Committee is currently working on an extremely ambitious inquiry, rather grandly called "Good Government", in which we are trying to work out some of the underlying principles of good government. We are having some extremely illuminating discussions.

The report that we are debating today is very much in that tradition. We are standing back and trying to say something about what, on any test, is the key governing relationship in this country—the relationship between what Peter Hennessy always calls the "governing tribes". We need to revisit that relationship from time to time, to ensure that it is working well.

We began our report—this was its whole purpose—to dispatch once and for all the perennial arguments about whether the civil service was being politicised. That has been said repeatedly over the years. It has been said that it was happening under the previous Government and under this Government. We wanted to be helpful by trying to disentangle all the things that might be meant by "politicisation". We stripped away some of the difficulties surrounding the word and its pejorative overtones, and tried to say something sensible about it.

It is worth recording that, in some sense, the civil service is necessarily politicised and partial, because its constitutional function is to serve the Government of the day. Of necessity, it is not impartial between the governing and other parties, because its job is to work for the governing party and to deliver their programme. That is what Professor Colin Talbot calls the civil service's "serial monogamy". In that sense, there is a necessary politicisation of the civil service, but we know what we are talking about when we identify the bits that we worry about. We are worried about politicians interfering in such things as the appointment and advancement of civil servants when it contaminates the principle of appointment on merit.

That takes us to the relationship between the political and administrative sides of government, which we explored somewhat in our inquiry. We visited Finland and Sweden because, among other reasons, they are traditionally cited in all the analyses as the homes of good government. Universally, Finland comes top of the league tables. It is interesting that one finds far more politicisation in those places and far more political involvement in those respective Administrations than here.

In many respects, this country is unique—it is at one extreme end of the international spectrum. Even in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, the people whom we call permanent secretaries are called deputy ministers, and they are political appointees. I was introduced to the Australian cabinet secretary a few years ago, who turned out to be a political appointee. We should remind ourselves that, although we get into a great lather here about 50, 60 or 70 special advisers, we are at the far edge of the international spectrum when it comes to the division between the political and administrative sides of government.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I am following with great interest what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he accept that other polities have other systems of checks and balances, and that the difference between some of those places and here is that we have a very strong Executive, meaning that our checks and balances have to be built in in other ways, including by having a strong, independent civil service?

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Absolutely: we have to build in checks and balances in other ways. Traditionally, we have been short of them. We have had a strong Executive backed up by a kind of majoritarian politics that says, "If you win an election, you get to control the show." That has changed slightly, because we have put more checks and balances in, particularly under this Government—we now have human rights and freedom of information legislation, devolution and so on. We do not quite conform to the traditional picture but, on the whole, my hon. Friend is right.

We concluded from our examination that the evidence for politicisation in the sense of inappropriate political involvement with the civil service does not stack up. I do not believe that it stacked up under the Thatcher Government and it does not with this Government. Our conclusion, starkly, was that

"despite the regular accusations of politicisation, Britain...remains singularly unpoliticised".

That is because we have an in-built distinction between administration and politics. As my hon. Friend indicated, that provides an in-built probity in government.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Is this really a matter of perception? When a string of former Cabinet Secretaries have lined up to say that they are worried about perception, one cannot help feeling that they are using typical Cabinet Secretary-speak to say that there is politicisation. Lord Wilson of Dinton said:

"There is a wide perception that the Civil Service has become politicised."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 5 March 2004; Vol. 658, c. 917.]

Whether or not one shares that perception, it has to be addressed.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones Labour, Clwyd South

Order. It is not normal to quote during interventions, Mr. Tyrie.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Oh. Well, I have done so now, but I will not do it again.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones Labour, Clwyd South

You managed to get away with it.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I do not doubt for a second that there is a wide perception, just as there is a wide perception that all Members of Parliament have their snouts in the trough and are utterly corrupt. We know that that is not the case, but the perception prevails. Civil servants are anxious—they have some cause to focus on this—that they are being disconnected from their traditional policy advice role.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

That is indeed a different issue. If that bevy of Cabinet Secretaries were worried about that disconnection, I am sure that they would stress the point. However, they are not; instead, they are stressing the perception that the civil service has become politicised. Will the hon. Gentleman speculate as to why on earth civil servants spend so much time worrying about a perception that he alleges is false?

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am not alleging. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that we tested the proposition to destruction, not only in this inquiry but in previous and associated inquiries. We asked every Cabinet Secretary for the last God-knows-how-many years and an array of former civil servants to give us some concrete evidence of the charge of politicisation and, simply put, it was not there. The same opinion has come from outside observers. We are right to be anxious about it and we have to protect what needs to be protected. However, even if there is a perception and if people like to say that politicians are encroaching where they should not, we should try to establish the facts of the matter to see whether it really is the case.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Perception is important. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the continued habit of civil servants in Departments to clap in new Secretaries of State? We saw that only a couple of weeks ago when the foyer of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform filled up with civil servants to clap Lord Mandelson in. That was wrong: it would be wrong if it was a Conservative Secretary of State, and it was wrong—whoever it was—with a Labour Secretary of State. Is that not so?

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I can feel myself being drawn into territory into which I do not want to go. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Committee. It is quite proper for departing Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers to be applauded by their staff—it is a perfectly human thing when people have worked together for years. It is a courtesy. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman.

Indeed, the hon. Gentleman has persuaded me to go further, and I will give another reason for the example to which he referred. Many things are said about my noble Friend Lord Mandelson—we have to learn to describe him that way—but so many civil servants over the years have told me, "Whatever else you say about Peter Mandelson, he was an outstanding Minister because he gave the kind of leadership to Departments that civil servants demand and respond to." When they applauded him in, they remembered the kind of leadership they had when he was last there and were quite pleased to see it return.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I think he was only there for three months, many years ago, so those people have a very good memory. A quiet drink is a courtesy. An engineered applauding-out or applauding-in is exactly that. It was engineered with the media. If Conservatives do it when we get in power—we will get in, eventually, in a year and a half—I will be equally concerned. I was not making a political point.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Perhaps we have different views on courtesy. I undertake to the hon. Gentleman that I will never criticise any incoming Conservative Minister who is gently applauded by his civil servants as a matter of courtesy when he enters office, or even when he leaves, when there may be more occasion for applause.

We started off wanting to focus on the question of politicisation but found ourselves being taken wider. That happened because, as always, events happen. A series of events in major Departments raised all the old issues about where ministerial responsibility ends and civil service responsibility begins. Events in the Home Office—I shall not go through them again—clearly illuminated that issue in a dramatic form. We had the events in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over the farm payment scheme. We had the NHS budget, which removed the chief executive and so on. Subsequently, we have had problems relating to data loss and everything else.

Each event raises the question of what Ministers and civil servants are responsible for. One of the regrets about such a debate is that everyone gets terribly exercised when events happen, and they want to talk about nothing else. There is less interest, however, in wanting to talk about the relationships that are produced whenever such events happen.

We discovered that there were good reasons for revisiting some of the old issues. Mr. Tyrie may have been with me on the Public Service Committee in the mid-1990s, when the Scott inquiry sat. That inquiry led to the House of Commons producing the 1997 resolution on ministerial accountability. Again, events triggered an interest in the issue, and the House of Commons wanted to nail down what that relationship was. Of course, it did not finish the business, as we see from current events.

As we explored the matter in our inquiry, a number of people agreed that there was an unresolved problem that we needed to try harder to solve. The first civil service commissioner, Janet Paraskeva, said:

"I believe that the doctrine of ministerial responsibility needs to be reviewed... We no longer understand what it means."

That is quite a remarkable statement from the first civil service commissioner. If they do not now understand what ministerial accountability means, it suggests that we should at least give some consideration to the matter and try to find out whether we can do better.

The Home Office tried to improve matters after the events that led to the failed deportation of foreign prisoners, which caused the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke to resign. It devised a compact, which has been reproduced at the end of our report, that outlines the responsibilities of Ministers and civil servants. I am not saying that it was a complete document, but it was a response to a demonstrable difficulty, and it attempted to point the way forward. If the Home Office can do it—albeit under such circumstances—I cannot see why other parts of the Government cannot have a go at it, so that Ministers and civil servants know what they are respectively signing up for. We do not want to do it in a way that splits the different parts of the Government. Above all, we want them to work co-operatively.

I recognise that things may not be the same in each Department, because different Ministers bring different approaches to the job. Some Ministers want to be far more hands on; they want to be managerial. I could cite examples, but I will not. Others want to take a more strategic view. Therefore, I am saying not that there is one model, but that there should be a discipline in each Department, in each period, whereby the different parts say what they think they are responsible for.

The problem with the current doctrine of ministerial accountability is that, if it becomes difficult to pin down exactly who is responsible for anything, we have a defused accountability. That happens all the time. Whenever incidents happen, it is never clear who is responsible. On the one hand, how can Ministers be responsible for everything that goes on in their Department? On the other, we cannot identify civil servants, because they have anonymity. They are there to serve the Minister; that is the chain. No wonder that leaves Parliament and often the public baffled about why it has not been possible to get inside the chain of accountability.

In recent times, we have had strains on both sides of the relationship. Some Ministers have said quite regularly, and in some respects openly, that they are dissatisfied with the performance that they get from some of the civil service. The civil service is not very good at delivery or project and performance management. It does not do what the politicians, who are elected, want it to do. They might say that that has been confirmed by the capability reviews, which showed that civil service departments had major deficiencies.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Can my friend tell us how Home Office civil servants reacted when the former Home Secretary, my friend John Reid, said that the Department was not fit for purpose?

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I was coming on to that. Civil servants say that it is unfair that they should take responsibility for things which Ministers are responsible for. The problem with that case is that we did not know who was responsible. Civil servants also say, "It's not fair if we don't get consistent leadership and a clear, strategic direction. It's not fair if we don't know what we are being asked to do. It's not fair if our policy advice isn't listened to. It's not fair if we don't have the resources to do the job."

On both sides, those voices have spilled into the public with former Ministers and former senior civil servants saying disobliging things about one another with regard to the relationship. That is an indication that we should better clarify the respective roles, and it is why we say—in the language that we use—that we think that there is a case for trying to put together a new public service bargain. We know what the old bargain is, and we know the difficulties that it poses for real accountability. Can we put together a new bargain that is underpinned by a good governance code? We say that there is one code for Ministers and one for civil servants, but is there a code for Ministers and civil servants? By that I mean the integral relationship.

We often talk about Ministers and civil servants in different categories, yet what we do not do, and what we need to do, is to talk about them collectively, because their collective operation determines whether or not we have good government. We have lots of talk about Ministers and civil servants, but we have little talk about that relationship. That question of improving accountability was one area that we considered. A second area that we stumbled into while exploring politicisation was the respective roles in relation to appointments.

The traditional principle is that civil servants are appointed on merit and that politicians inherit their civil servants. The fact is that we have a mismatch at the moment regarding the role of Ministers in relation to public sector appointments generally. We have a different system for Ministers in relation to externally appointed civil servants; by that I mean civil servant appointments that go out to external competition. In those appointments, the Minister is simply given a name to accept or reject. If the name is rejected, the whole process must be rerun.

In the case of quango or public body appointments, Ministers get to choose from a shortlist of people who have gone through the public appointments system. That raises questions about why there are separate arrangements for external civil service appointments and quango or public body appointments. We need to think our way through without simply making knee-jerk charges of politicisation every time the issue is raised.

We all know that we have an absolute requirement to prevent patronage, but we want at the same time to give Ministers a proper role in the appointment process, because they are the people held accountable for the performance of appointees. Different views were put to us about that during our inquiry. One view put to us forcefully was that we should stop pussyfooting around and allow Ministers essentially to appoint whom they want, including to the civil service. That was from someone by the name of Ed Straw, who is not entirely unconnected with a certain Justice Secretary. His view as a management consultant was that we have an interest in Ministers hiring those whom they consider the best people, because Ministers are accountable for their performance, so why on earth stop them?

We did not go down that road, because we thought that the dangers of patronage must be avoided and the principles of probity and impartiality safeguarded, but there is a case to be put. It is not the case that every kind of political involvement is simply a contamination of elected people. People are elected to do things, make policies, make a difference and produce outcomes. It is right that they should be involved in deciding which people run organisations.

It is worth saying that, in some respects, we have a peculiar arrangement in how we govern. How many other organisations require people to run them on the basis that they cannot directly appoint anybody to enable them to deliver what they say they will for that organisation? Who would take a job like that in any normal organisation? What chief executive would do so if they were told, "The condition of the job is that you don't get to appoint anybody else"? They would say, "How on earth can I deliver what I want to deliver if I can't do that?" It is a very proper consideration. We say that because it is extremely important that we have an impartial civil service that can serve any Administration, but it is a peculiar arrangement compared with those of other organisations.

Ministers are fully entitled to say, "Given that, we're absolutely determined to get a civil service that is as efficient as it can possibly be, because we depend on it for our own performance, and we're going to be held accountable for it." It is worth remembering—I have said this umpteen times, but I will say it again—that when we classically reformed the civil service in the middle of the 19th century, rooting out patronage in those great Gladstonian reforms, it was not just because patronage was an evil. It was because patronage was inefficient. Appointing poor people through patronage resulted in poor services. The imperative was the rightness of appointment on merit, but also the sense of it for getting efficient public service. They have always run together.

Ministers are entitled to expect efficiency. I am glad that the civil service has taken that seriously through capability reviews. The Cabinet Secretary is much to be commended for that. I note that the revisited capability reviews are showing marked improvement on the first round. Setting up that system showed great confidence. I hope that it will become an integral part of Government and will be developed further. The relationship between Ministers and civil servants may seem arcane, but it goes to the heart of the matter and gives Parliament its core business. We have an interest in ensuring that that relationship works well. It gives people policies and all the things that affect their lives.

The concluding section of the report returns to the question of a civil service Act. It does so deliberately, because we as a Committee have lived with that issue for many years. I will not give all the dreadful chronology, but year in, year out, we have argued for it. In the 1997 election, all parties were committed to a civil service Act. We finally have a serious Act, in draft, in the Constitutional Renewal Bill. It is 150 years overdue, but we are getting there.

The Committee got so frustrated by the delays that, back in 2004, we drafted our own Bill. I think that that is the first time in modern parliamentary history that a Committee has sat down and drafted its own Bill, hoping to induce the Government to make further progress. I like to think that we can claim some role in bringing it to this point, and I hope that the proposal will sit firmly within the Queen's Speech in a few weeks' time.

The job is to embed certain key constitutional relationships, to give protection to the principle of appointment on merit to an impartial civil service whatever malign Government might come along in future, and to put down in statute what we think the key constitutional relationships are. The job is not to freeze the civil service or keep it in its present form, but to allow change and development to take place, some of which I have just discussed, and to combine constitutional solidity with the ability to make change and be flexible. That is why we turned our attention to those matters.

I end by repeating a sentence that we used in our report:

"It is essential that the key governing relationship between ministers and civil servants is kept in good repair, both for effective government and proper accountability."

That is important, and I hope that our Committee and the report will play some part in doing that.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 3:07 pm, 30th October 2008

It is a delight to follow the Chairman of our Select Committee, who made an outstanding speech. As a Conservative member of the Committee, may I say what a pleasure it is to serve on that Committee under his even-handed guidance?

When I was a youngster, which was not too long ago, there were two things that made me proud of this country. The first was our history of democracy and Parliament, and the second was our civil service, which was impartial and beyond reproach. It is something in which we can still take huge pride. I believe that, despite what we read weekly in the newspapers about sleaze and corruption, we have a good and decent body politic in this country, both here in Westminster and down the road in Whitehall.

There is a great move towards external appointments, as though they were some panacea for problems afflicting the civil service, but we need to be cautious. I feel that many of the people whom we are bringing in are good, decent, able and talented, but they are not steeped in the ethos of public service. Many people in the senior echelons of the civil service who earn good money could leave the civil service, or could have pursued different careers in the private sector, to earn enormous sums of money. We are so privileged to have those people in public service.

Of course, civil servants are prone to making mistakes. When one makes mistakes with public money, it is a serious thing, but in the past two months—or, really, in the past 12 months—we have seen the so-called masters of the universe, who have been earning tens of millions of pounds, making mistakes that have cost the taxpayers of this country hundreds of billions of pounds. That is public money, after all, because it is our money. There are no quick fixes in this matter. For that reason, we need to guard jealously the impartiality and integrity of our civil service.

I promised that I would not speak for long, and I do not intend to, but I was truly concerned by the welcome that the new Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform received. It has nothing to do with the fact that he is Peter Mandelson; it is just not right for civil servants to be put in the position of having to perform for the cameras for the 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock news, or the morning bulletins, smiling and clapping a politician in. That is not their role. As I said earlier, I would be equally horrified if they did that for a Conservative Secretary of State. I am disappointed because Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, came before the Committee in, I think, June, and when we raised that concern, he seemed to take it on board—but it has happened again just a few months later. It damages the civil service in the eyes of the public, because the civil service belongs not to a political party but, wonderfully, to all of us. We must not allow it to be diminished in the eyes of the public.

That is all that I have to say. The report is important. I wish that I had been present when we took evidence; I joined the Committee only a month before the report was published. However, I can give an assurance that the Committee continues to do good work in this area, and that there will be more reports, to which I shall be able to make a fuller contribution.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 3:12 pm, 30th October 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I am sure that you must be greatly favoured in the Speaker's Office to be allocated a debate on this fascinating subject for three hours on a Thursday afternoon.

For me, the key revelation about the civil service was a series of talks given by David Henderson in the 1980s with the arresting title "The Unimportance of Being Right". He gave two examples of work in the civil service: the decision to build Concorde and the advanced gas-cooled reactor programme; he chose them as examples of investment, comparing the beneficial result with the amount of investment. He described them as the worst investment decisions since the Pharaohs decided to build the pyramids. Regardless of any view of those investments at the time as not, in our modern jargon, cost-effective, the point that he made strongly was that there were civil servants who bravely challenged or opposed the then conventional wisdom that those were two great, sexy, important projects on which all politicians agreed. Those civil servants' careers withered, but the careers of those who went along with conventional unwisdom prospered. The view that that is the ethos of the civil service is one that Sir Gus O'Donnell finds offensive, but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that it is something that still exists there: people must go along with the party line, and those who are courageous, innovative and brave and challenge the foolishness of fashion suffer.

There are a great many civil servants in my constituency. I have the great good fortune to have the UK Intellectual Property Office—the old Patent Office—the Office for National Statistics and the regional passport office there. There are people in those offices who are greatly concerned about the ethos of the civil servant. In 1987 a group came to see me who were very concerned, as professional statisticians. Their office was being moved from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury. As they pointed out, they had been moved into the Department with the greatest vested interest in fiddling the figures.

There were allegations at the time that the Department of Employment was the most shameless and disreputable massage parlour in London, given the way it treated unemployment figures in the late 1980s. Those civil servants told me, "We do the work. We produce objective figures, which stand up, and which are the best we can produce in our professional lives, and they are handed on to politicians to manipulate." Their great fear was that that would happen. I sent a letter to the then Prime Minister, passing on those concerns, and received one back expressing her astonishment at the thought so unworthy that Governments would ever manipulate figures.

The present Government have not been given credit for the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. They took the decision, which should have been taken many years ago, to remove from Ministers' direct control the job of producing and publishing statistics, and to reduce the period in which Ministers could look at the figures beforehand. One commentator judged the Bill to be one of the most important of this Parliament, but it has passed almost unnoticed. However, it is of great significance in establishing the role of civil servants.

We know that the civil service is no longer like Dickens's Circumlocution Office, or Trollope's Internal Navigation Board, where civil servants were, I believe, entirely independent and removed from the political process. However, I agree with my hon. Friend Dr. Wright that a degree of politicisation is acceptable in civil servants—and probably desirable as well. As to the much maligned advisers, I am told that there are fewer advisers in the civil service than people responsible for setting up and removing the pictures in Ministers' offices. It is a tiny figure.

An influential critic, Sir John Hoskyns, posed questions about the issue and argued as long ago as the early 1980s that if civil servants were not allowed to be politicised it put an unnatural and fundamental brake on Government activity. He suggested that the concept of political neutrality put senior civil servants in an impossible position, in which they had to become passive. As my hon. Friend said, that is probably the answer—that they are passive. If there is a need for change, and there usually is when a new Government who want to change things for the better come in, the people we need are not those who carry out the work passively, without being moved by any enthusiasm. If we have enthusiasts in the civil service, they are likely to work in a far more radical way, which is far more likely to be productive.

There is certainly a case for a degree of politicisation. However, we value the idea of civil servants acting as independently as possible. As has been said by hon. Members on both sides, we treasure that aspect of the service. We always think that the grass is greener on the other side of the hill. One reason I wanted to go to Finland with the Committee was that Finland has committees of the future to consider Bills from the point of view of someone who will be alive in 25, 50 or 100 years, so as to get rid of short-termism. One of the metaphors about political life is that we live in a saucer-shaped world, in which we are on the edge of the saucer, looking at one another, and obsessed with our internal divisions and gossip. The rim of the saucer, beyond which we cannot see, is the date of the next general election. There is some truth in that. However, Members of the Committee were surprised when we went to Finland and Sweden to be told that they were great admirers of our system—our foresight and organisations. We were told that we were one of the countries that is an exemplar for the rest of the world. We have many treasures here that are not always recognised.

Something that concerns me is the rise of the public service industry, which becomes a practical problem in the mythology of government, and what happens to be the narrative of the moment. Of course, there has been privatisation and outsourcing for years. The Patent Office was urged to outsource, because that was what everyone else was doing, but there was a great need to in-source, because it was providing services for patent examiners, trademark examiners and various other middle men who acted as agents. The public would go to see them and they would get in touch with the Patent Office and the trade mark department, which would do all the work while they creamed off the profits. A powerful case was made to alter the Treasury rules so that the public could go directly to the Patent Office, thus cutting out the middle man and providing a quicker, more reliable and more efficient service. The problem was that the Treasury rules were against it, and the idea of in-sourcing was so strange and eccentric that it was difficult to get Ministers to take it seriously.

The trade union, Unison, has pointed out that a public service industry has been created, and significant sums of money have been spent on it, creating a sympathetic habitat for increased privatisation. That is the current state. That has helped to produce a climate in which there is little opposition in the main political parties to its growing role. It is the fashion of the day and is accepted. Lobbying organisations such as the CBI Public Services Strategy Board, the PPP Forum, the Business Services Association and the NHS Partners Network have been set up and have developed close relationships with the Government and the media. The industry also devotes considerable sums to sponsoring research that supports its role, through bodies such as the Serco Institute and the Aldridge Foundation, or through the direct funding of think tank activities. The whole mythology feeds on itself.

Contractors have recruited many former Ministers and civil servants as directors and advisers. In relation to this report and others, the Committee is concerned about that revolving door, which can be corrupting to the role and independence of civil servants. Many civil servants retire at a relatively early age—perhaps at 60, just as they approach the prime of life—and go on to have a long career elsewhere. Does it enter their heads, when they are doing their work and making independent decisions, that there might be something in it for them, such as a cushy retirement job?

Lord Wilson of Dinton has been mentioned. Sir Richard Wilson was the head of the home civil service and secretary to the Cabinet. As such, he had overall responsibility for seeing that the Prime Minister's policies on public sector reform were carried out. Afterwards, he was appointed a director of Xansa, now part of the Steria group, which is one of the main providers of business process outsourcing services to the public sector.

I have a whole list of such examples. Sir Gerry Loughran was head of the Northern Ireland civil service from 2000 to 2002. After retiring he took on a number of private sector directorships, including Phoenix Natural Gas, which is owned by the Terra Firma private equity firm, and he soon became chairman upon joining the board. When he was a senior civil servant, Loughran chaired the Strategy 2010 project to sell and lease back the civil service property portfolio. After leaving the civil service, Loughran became a director and chairman of Partenaire, where he led the company's unsuccessful bid to win the £2 billion workplace contract.

Lord Wilson's successor as head of the home civil service was Lord Turnbull. His current directorships include British Land, which is active in the private finance initiative and public-private partnership market, and Prudential, which is also active in the market. The famous Sir Peter Gershon, who gave us a report of great value, has had an interesting portfolio since he left the service. He became a civil servant in 2000, as a founding chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce, and conducted a series of well-known reviews in the period up to 2004. Sir Peter is now the executive chairman at Vertex, one of the largest suppliers of business outsourcing services, and is the non-executive chairman of the General Healthcare Group, which is the largest private health care group in the UK and is owned by the private equity group, Apax Partners, and the South African health care company, Netcare. Sir Peter has also completed a review of ICT procurement for the Australian Government.

There are a great many such examples of people who have been at the top, such as our friend Chris Woodhead, whom we all know and love. Following his period as the chief inspector of schools, he set up the Cognita group of independent schools, using funds supplied by a private equity firm, Englefield Capital.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Is my friend telling us that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is falling down on the job? What conclusions is he asking us to draw from this long list of former senior civil servants who are now active in the commercial world?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I shall come to that committee in a moment. We have interviewed the committee, and we know that it rarely meets and that its members may contact each other by letter. It is a bit of an old boy's club, and one member was described as having an austere point of view for believing that limits should be placed on the jobs that civil servants and Ministers can take on.

Another person whom I would like to mention is Sir Steve Robson, who was one of the regular attendees at our Committee. One of his triumphs as a civil servant was overseeing the privatisation of British Rail. I was rather surprised, when I questioned him, that he did not seem to be aware of a splendid independent report by a Select Committee of this House, chaired by a Tory, that came to the unanimous conclusion that the privatisation and fragmentation of British Rail would be an unmitigated disaster. That turned out to be accurate in every respect. After privatising the railways, Sir Steve was the second permanent secretary at the Treasury until he retired in 2001. While he was a civil servant, he was seconded to 3i, so he was partly private then, with a foot in both camps. He also oversaw the Government's policy on PPPs while serving the current Government at the Treasury. Since retiring, Sir Steve has been a director at Partnerships UK, JPMorgan Cazenove, Xstrata and the Royal Bank of Scotland. He is also a member of the chairman's advisory panel at KPMG. That is a full life!

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend's comments about Sir Steve Robson. What are his feelings about Sir Steve Robson having said that there is no such thing as the public service ethos—in other words, that there is only the market and money?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Yes, Sir Steve Robson is one of the people who entered the civil service without any great respect for the ethos that we all like to praise. I am afraid that there are others with similar views. The civil service is a changed body with a different culture from the one that we long believed existed. Some people have been politicised in a certain way, very much along the agenda of the Thatcher Government—of moving towards privatisation, in the belief that that is right.

I remember when the executive agencies were first set up. That development had a great deal of support in many quarters. We do not really recognise that most civil servants now work for the next step agencies. At the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, more staff work for the Rural Payments Agency in Newcastle than directly for DEFRA in London. When those agencies were set up, they were so remote than when hon. Members asked questions about them, their questions appeared in Hansard, but their answers never appeared. Instead, they were sent to the individual Members. With the help of the Rowntree Trust, I set up a private enterprise project that printed all the answers every month in a booklet called "Open Lines", because it was a denial of information programme. About a year later, the Government nationalised my private enterprise project, reversed the trend and started to publish the answers.

It has been suggested that there is something we could do about the appointments body, and I believe that there is. The appointments body is made up of the great and the good, and we have spoken to its members. There seems to be dissatisfaction among the members with the limits of their power. I suggest that the appointments body should have the power to impose limits and to say to people who are taking these high offices and jobs after their retirement that they should not be lobbying in certain ways or that they should not be active for a year or so; it put a certain limit—two years—on one former Minister to avoid problems.

What would perhaps be useful is if we could have a system whereby civil servants and perhaps Ministers too are banned from working in those areas that are related to the Departments in which they served. They should not be allowed to take retirement jobs in those areas. That would remove the temptation, and the possible accusation, that they are looking for cushy retirement jobs when they take their decisions as civil servants. I believe that we need a strengthening of the appointments body and that that would generally improve the quality of civil servants.

I would like to come back to the original point of the report. There is a powerful case for a civil service Bill, for the benefit of both civil servants themselves and the country, because we want to continue to have the wonderful service that has been supplied to us for a couple of hundred years at least by a civil service that is still in many ways the envy of the world.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle 3:31 pm, 30th October 2008

It is a delight to follow my friend Paul Flynn. I would just like to pick up his closing point about the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. We really need to shine a light into dark corners. When Ministers leave office and take up employment in commercial organisations, very often with huge salaries, they are often told that they cannot lobby their former Department or the Government. However, the system is not policed in any way, and it is crying out for reform, which I hope will happen sooner rather than later.

My friend Dr. Wright, who is the Chairman of our Committee, covered the ground and I have only a few other points to make. First, I would like to say that we spend our time talking about mandarins, but there are thousands of civil servants across the country doing less elevated work that is none the less just as important. A civil service strike is coming up on 10 November, and I think that politicians and Ministers are often too ready, when things go wrong, to blame civil servants for policy failures. The former Home Secretary, Mr. Blunkett, talked about taking decisions in his ministerial office and pulling rubber levers. He wanted something to happen; he would pull the rubber lever, and it would not happen. Well, that is what happens when a decade or two decades are spent hiving off, privatising, outsourcing and fragmenting, so that we have a civil service that is not a unified civil service in the way that we used to think of it. Instead, we have a fragmented civil service, with the next step agencies, the arm's length organisations and so on.

This Government benefit from scrutiny. Too many decisions are taken in a hole in the corner. Our late friend, Robin Cook, who was the former Member for Livingston, told us:

"Good scrutiny makes for good government".

I entirely agree with that statement. This Government need a lot more scrutiny.

I welcome the movement that the Government have made on pre-appointment hearings. We had long pressed for that movement, but Parliament will now have a role in the appointment of people who run key organisations. I do not have the list of those people in my head, but I hope that the chair of the BBC will come before relevant Select Committees. Certainly, the regulators, who shape so much of our lives these days, should be on the list, along with the police complaints officials. There is a core of public appointments that should be brought before Parliament, and Parliament should be invited to give its imprimatur before they are appointed. So that is a good thing that the Government have done.

The constitutional renewal proposals were published in the summer, and as part of those proposals the Government agreed, at long last, to introduce a civil service Bill. For years, the former Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, was dancing around this subject, prevaricating and giving hints. It was like a dance of the seven veils—it really was. There were hints that a civil service Bill would be introduced, and we on the Committee got so exasperated that, as my friend the Chairman of the Committee said, we published our own Bill way back in 2004. Now, however, we have a commitment on the record that the Government will act on this subject, which is good.

I am disappointed, however, that our recommendation for a code of good governance has been rejected; I am looking at the Minister at this point. The Government response to the report says:

"The Government does not believe that introducing an additional code is the most appropriate way forward in this area."

The civil service code and the ministerial code should be approved by Parliament. We wanted a third code—a code of good governance—to underpin the other two. However, that third code has been thrown out of the window by the Government. Presumably, Ministers think that we are perfectly well governed as it is. However, that is not the case, is it?

We heard earlier in interventions that mandarins—senior and retired civil servants—came before our Committee; I think that we have heard from the lot of them, really, at one time or another. I remember Robin Butler coming before us and saying—it may well have been in answer to a question from me, although I cannot recall precisely—that there had been a decline in the quality of government. All the other retired mandarins there nodded sagely at that.

I reflected on that observation, and I thought that there have been some truly spectacular policy failures. In fact, the front page of the Financial Times on Tuesday—you would have seen this, Mr. Jones—said:

"NHS computer records project grinds to a halt".

That is not any old computer records project, but a

"£12bn computer programme designed to give doctors instant access to patients' records across the country".

We are told by the Financial Times that the project—the Connecting for Health project—has virtually ground to a halt. I do not know whether I should feel despair, because we have the super-expensive identity card project somewhere in the pipeline. If we cannot deliver a sophisticated computer project for the NHS, I wonder whether we can deliver on ID cards, and I hate to think what the cost to the public purse of that project will be.

Let us look at the other failures. We had the tax credit fiasco. Every MP had people whose hair was dropping out or going grey because of the problems that they had with tax credit. Equally, for as long as I have been an MP, I have been wrestling with child support in all its forms; that is another spectacular failure. There is also immigration and nationality, which is now called border control. A constituent came to see me at the weekend. He was applying for asylum. His first marriage had broken down, and he had left the marital home before he had indefinite leave to remain in the country. He got married again, and his new wife, if I can describe her that way, is pregnant, so it is really important that his immigration status be resolved quickly. I was shown a letter by the authorities saying that his case may be decided by, I think, 2011. Now that is simply not acceptable. I do not know the details of the failure, but it is an administrative failure of gigantic proportions that affects the lives of those constituents of mine.

Of course, we then had the loss of data. We have had various Committee sessions on it, and the losses seem to happen with regularity: whether in the Ministry of Defence or some other Department, someone leaves important information on a train or in a car, and it disappears. And finally—at least I think this is finally—we had the failure involving the 10p tax debacle, with the payment of money to 22 million basic-rate taxpayers who did not lose anything, while those who were on the receiving end have not yet been fully compensated. We wait to hear what the Chancellor says in the autumn statement, but 1.1 million people still have not been fully compensated.

Where does the responsibility lie—with the politicians or with the civil servants? In the example that I have just mentioned, it was clearly a political failure, because we had in front of the Committee the relevant civil servant—well, I say relevant; he was the head of the home civil service—and I asked him how could it conceivably have happened. What were the checks and balances? Who tested this policy to destruction? Who said, "If you lower the basic rate of income tax and get rid of the 10p band, how many people are going to lose?"? Who asked the questions? I was told that the distributional analysis of the winners and gainers would have been put together by Treasury civil servants and placed in front of the Chancellor on his desk. So we know where the blame lies in that case; but, in many others, we do not.

I think—I have felt this for years—that we need a kitemark for policy. For as long as I have been an MP, I have seen translated into legislation policy that should have never seen the light of day. We just do not have a robust system of testing policy to destruction, and I blame my colleagues—you would expect me to say that, Mr. Jones—and the senior civil service for letting it happen. I am not going to go into ancient history, but earlier I mentioned Robin Butler, who, along with Lord Hutton, exposed for everyone to see the internal wiring of the British Government: the way in which we went to war in Iraq, when the Cabinet was treated like a vegetable patch and not brought into the discussions. It is all there—I will not go through it all—in the Butler report.

There is then the absence of records. Over the past 10 years, records have been seen as almost incidental. The famous sofa Government seemed to say, "We don't need to keep a record of this; we can just, kind of, agree among friends." Well, record keeping—accurate, meticulous record keeping—is essential for good public administration, and the senior civil servants, the mandarins, fell down on the job. They—Robin Butler, Lord Turnbull, Lord Wilson of Dinton and the rest of them—should have insisted that records be kept and proper procedures followed. One senior civil servant, Sir Nick Monk, who came before the Committee during our inquiry, drew up a code of good governance based on what happens in companies. It is probably not the best time for me to refer to good practice in companies, but Sir Nick looked at what happened there and concluded that the template could equally apply to central Government, whereby people—I am thinking about the Cabinet, the very centre—would be brought into the decision, given ownership of issues and papers to read well in advance of the meeting, and contribute. We get good government and administration when it is not kept to a tiny group of people at the centre—it is almost Leninist—but involves more people and Departments.

I found it astonishing when—was it 2005, or perhaps 2006?—Lord Warner, who is now significantly involved in the commercial world but was then the Minister with responsibility for health reform, made an announcement on Parliament's last sitting day, in July, saying that 250,000 NHS employees working for primary care trusts would be transferred out of the NHS and into the private and not-for-profit sectors. That was a huge policy decision, and it was reversed—countermanded—months later, in the December of that year, by the then Secretary of State for Health, Ms Hewitt. But I ask myself, "How on earth did such a flawed policy ever get to the stage where it could be publicly announced by the Minister for health service reform, only to be repudiated afterwards?"

I have one or two closing remarks. The civil service commissioners ought to keep an eye on the system. Whistleblowers should flag up their concerns to the commissioners, but the commissioners should—I hate this word—proactively police the system. I talked earlier about the essentials of good public administration and good governance, and they should police them.

The reconfiguration of Whitehall, which my friend the Member for Cannock Chase mentioned, is an absolute disgrace. It is a disgrace how Prime Ministers can, on a whim, completely reconfigure Whitehall. It was a scandal that the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Woolf, found out about the creation of the Ministry of Justice from reading The Sunday Telegraph—absolutely scandalous. And someone, somewhere decided to get rid of the office of Lord Chancellor, until they looked at it in detail and figured that it was not as easy as that, so we still have a Lord Chancellor, except that he sits in the House of Commons, perversely.

There are any number of examples of departmental reorganisations going off at half-cock. We had the famous example, again a few years ago, when the Department of Trade and Industry, which is now of course the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, was going to become the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry. A plaque went up outside the building in Victoria street, but later that day, it was taken down and the Government did not go ahead with the name change. We need to do something about that. The Committee made recommendations, not in this report but in another, about Whitehall configurations. If they are major enough, Parliament should vote on them. It happens in our sister democracy in Canada. Major Ottawa reorganisations have to be approved by the Ottawa Parliament, and we ought to do that, too.

The Prime Minister ought to give some consideration to the number of Ministers who move around without getting their head around their brief. The whole process is totally capricious anyway. I know so many good Ministers who leave the Government and it is a total mystery to me, and probably to them, why they were sacked.

The former Home Secretary, John Reid, famously said that his former Department was not fit for purpose. He is a real bruiser; he says it as it is. I was looking at his ministerial record on his website, however, and in 1997-98, he was a Defence Minister; in 1998-99, he was a Transport Minister—vroom, vroom—and from 1999 to 2001, he was the Secretary of State for Scotland. In 2001-02, he went over the Irish sea as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; in 2002-03, he went back to London as party chair and Minister without portfolio, so that he could extend his tentacles wherever they go. In 2003, he was Leader of the House—I remember him still, pugnacious at the Dispatch Box—and from 2003 to 2005, he was the Secretary of State for Health. In 2005-06, he was Secretary of State for Defence, and then in 2006-07, with all that experience of home affairs behind him, he was made Secretary of State for the Home Department, and he said that it was not fit for purpose, and he knows about that.

There is an issue about how long people stay in ministerial positions and ministerial training. I give the Government 10 out of 10, or nine out of 10 for starting to address the problem of training Ministers. I have probably said too much, but I had to get some of those things off my chest. This is a good report, and I am glad that the Government have moved at least some way towards addressing the concerns that we have flagged up.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 3:52 pm, 30th October 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. It is an even greater and more long-term pleasure to be a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration, which is absolutely splendid. We have heard some of its members speaking today. In my view, it is the most interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile work that I have done while I have been in Parliament for the past 11 or so years. We have heard four splendid speeches, most of which I agree with, but I have my own take on many of the issues. I hope that my hon. Friends who are members of the Public Administration Committee will forgive me, as they will have heard my views before, but I want to put them on the record in a Westminster Hall debate.

In an intervention earlier, I mentioned checks and balances and the importance of ensuring that we preserve those checks and balances in our democracy. We do not have a written constitution as in America, where there is a separation and balance of powers, and our electoral system does not have proportional representation, which gives immense power to Parliaments because Parliaments have to assemble Governments from various parties. Even before the Governments of Thatcher and Blair, we had what was described as an elective dictatorship, because once a party gets power, the Prime Minister has enormous power of patronage, and control of a party and the Government in every sense, so checks and balances are important.

Historically, one of the checks and balances that we have had is the independent and impartial civil service. We tried to get the best possible minds, those committed to public service, into the civil service. Even when I was a student at university, some 40 or more years ago, there was talk about non-civil servants moving into the civil service, and having an exchange with the commercial world outside. Even at that time I felt uncomfortable about it. I have always felt that there is a distinct set of values involved in being a public servant, compared with being a market trader in the City or making money for McDonald's. Those jobs are no doubt worthy in their own way, but they are different.

I agree with every single word said by Mr. Walker. I hope that my support for him will not damage his future political advancement—me being a socialist of the left. Nevertheless, I agreed with everything he said and I think that on these matters we agree with each other. We have had checks and balances, and progressively, all opposition to the centre has been stripped away. It was stripped away in the civil service and even in the universities, and certainly within my party. A number of hon. Members have asked me how I got through the net—I was elected in 1997—and I have said, "What net is this?" I have even had people who, when they have heard me speak, have moved their chair away from me, because they are uncomfortable with my views, which do not always accord with the new Labour religion. So, even within parties, there has been resistance to having a range of views.

It was Robin Cook, speaking at the Hansard Society, who said that one of the problems within the Labour party has been that our leader is now elected by the mass of the party, so MPs do not have control of the leader and the leader has much more power within Parliament than he or she had before. Instead of having to appoint a range of views from within the party, and having a Cabinet ranging from Roy Jenkins to Tony Benn, from Denis Healey to Barbara Castle, he or she can now appoint hon. Members in their own image, and resist all pressure from those who disagree with them. That is what has happened. There are many splendid MPs on the Labour side who would, in any normal Government, be in Government, but they are not because they occasionally take a dissenting view and they represent opinions that are slightly different from those of the leadership. That is deeply unhealthy in our democracy.

We have heard today some speeches from colleagues, and the tour de force came from my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice. He is a man of immense talent who, because his views do not accord with the leadership view on some matters, is being passed over for advancement. That is a loss to the country and a loss to our party, although I do not want to sound flattering. There are others. Some hon. Members have chosen not to seek advancement, and that is their choice. I know that the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, my hon. Friend Dr. Wright could have been a Minister, but I know personally that he chose not to take that route. His chairmanship of the Committee is one of the best things that I have seen in Parliament while I have been here. He does not always agree with members of the Committee and we sometimes have robust debates, but as a Chairman he is splendid and it is not surprising that none of us has resigned from the Committee, because we value our membership so much.

In any democracy, we have to build into all our institutions differing voices. In the civil service we have to do that, too. When I was a student, I was told by one of my economics lecturers, who said that he had worked in the Treasury, that in the Treasury there was a range of views—there were Keynesians and people who took different views. Whenever there was a change of economic policy there was always somebody around who would take over and put the new policy into effect. The 1967 devaluation, for example: there were those who resisted it and those who knew it had to happen, but they could bring out something that they had prepared earlier and present it as a policy that worked straight afterwards. Some of us, like me, were urging devaluation; others were resisting it; nevertheless, there were people there. Had that been the case at the time of our entrance into the exchange rate mechanism, we may not have had the disaster that followed, which led directly to the destruction of the Conservative Government at the 1997 election. That collapse of the ERM in 1992 was the major factor in undermining and destroying that Conservative Government.

When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson insisted on having a private office of civil servants who all agreed with him—people who were, as Mrs. Thatcher used to say, "one of us". He wanted all his civil servants to be like himself and in line, getting his ducks in line politically, so that they all were supporting the ERM strategy. He did not want people who would ask, "Are you sure this is right? Are you sure we can sustain a parity of 3 Deutschmarks to the pound? Do you not think it possible that the money markets may destroy the pound at some point?"

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could cite any evidence for that. I was in the Treasury at the time, as—dare I mention it?—the special adviser to Nigel Lawson, and what the hon. Gentleman is describing is quite alien to anything that I recall.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I defer to the hon. Gentleman's greater knowledge of such matters, but that is what I have read and what has been reported. I understood that that was the position.

In my own small world, I insist that people challenge what I say and correct me if I am wrong. I want people to tell me if I get something wrong. It would be healthy if Ministers did that, and if the civil service held a range of views. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle spoke about disastrous party political decisions. The greatest catastrophe of all is what has happened recently with the financial markets, the banks and the housing market. It will haunt us for years, if not decades, to come. I have written every month for the past 10 years in an obscure left-wing journal that the policy was disastrous, mistaken and misguided. Of course, nobody took much notice, apart from the small group of people who share my view, but it turned out that we were right.

Indeed, if we had accepted what seemed to be an extreme policy of the Labour party 30 years ago—to take the banks and financial institutions into public ownership—we would not be in the present situation. The institutions would have been publicly accountable, and that kind of debacle would not have been allowed. My key point is that we ought to build critical voices into everything we do, to ensure that we get things right. My hon. Friend said that, as well.

The situation has been very unhealthy in the past few years, but I would like to think that things are changing now. We had a big debate in the Committee about the role of special advisers. If they are interposed between the civil service—or, indeed, Ministers—and the leader and his Downing street team, that is deeply unhealthy. I have used the term "Leninisation" many times to describe having people who, in effect, act as political commissars and control things throughout the Government. That view may seem extreme and some might challenge it, but I believe that it is now accepted.

I would like to think that the present Prime Minister is making changes. There are fewer special advisers. I believe that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend Mr. Wills, who has done a great deal on the White Paper on constitutional change, has recognised that, as well. Having to one side special advisers who advise Ministers is fine, but having special advisers who directly instruct senior civil servants and, indeed, Ministers is not.

We had the situation of Baroness Morris, who obviously resigned as Secretary of State for Education because she was not in charge of education policy. A special adviser in Downing street was controlling education policy and she was being bypassed, so she thought, "What is the point of being the Secretary of State if I do not have any say on policy?" Subsequently, of course, that special adviser became a Minister in the Department, but such a situation is not healthy in politics or in government.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest. Is it his view that the number of special advisers should be limited, or that their role should be formally limited?

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

It is the role that is key. Numbers are neither here nor there. In a sense, everybody ought to have a special adviser, but after one has taken the advice, they should deal with the civil servants. Special advisers should not come between the leader and the civil servants, or give direct instructions to civil servants to ensure that a line is followed.

I think that the situation is changing now. I would like to think that the present Prime Minister has recognised the problem. I had a welcome report yesterday from a fellow member of my party who said that the Prime Minister has recently been asking civil servants for their views. Apparently, that shocked quite a few civil servants. When a group of them were first asked for their opinion, they sat in silence. They did not know what to say because they were so used to taking instructions rather than giving views. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it was reported to me as being genuine by someone who has worked inside Downing street, and I would like to think that it is the case.

It is not so much that civil servants have been politicised or selectively appointed because of their politics, but that there has been a tendency to change the political culture from the very bottom. I believe that that started with Mrs. Thatcher. If someone wants to bring about a revolution, they have to start at the bottom and work upwards.

For example, Keynesian economics was considered out of fashion in universities. If one goes back to Mrs. Thatcher's time, the Cambridge department of applied economics used to make forecasts of the economy and get it right time and again. The group that got nought out of 10 for its forecasts was the London Business School, but Mrs. Thatcher withdrew funding from the Cambridge department and took all her advice from the business school.

My hon. Friend Paul Flynn said that it was not a question of being right but of being in fashion. The economic fashion for neo-liberalism started a long time ago, and even in universities one could not find people who taught Keynesian economics, yet Keynes is suddenly acknowledged as having been right. Many of the remedies that he would have proposed are now being considered. Keynes, of course, is dismissed as an extremist who talked nonsense, but apparently Bertrand Russell used to defer to him because he was intimidated by his intelligence, so he was not daft.

I am not saying that Keynes was always right, but his was a counter-voice. We should have people with different economic views debating the future so that we can test ideas to destruction before they are put into practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle said that in his speech.

We have to challenge the whole culture. We have to develop a genuine debate about politics within parties—parties are a vital part of our constitution, and part of our pluralistic world, too—within the civil service and within the universities. People must not be viewed as on or off message, or as one of us or not one of us. Those authoritarian undertones have to go.

In future, we must have a much more open debate about policy, and we must listen to some of the voices that have been regarded as dissident or out of fashion. The civil service is still relatively safe compared with some of our other institutions. I believe that my party is much less healthy than the civil service, but I would like to think that it will improve considerably in future years. I could speak at greater length, but I think that I have said more than enough.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester 4:07 pm, 30th October 2008

First, I apologise to you, Mr. Jones, and to everybody else who has been here throughout the debate. I had to slip away and miss some of the proceedings to attend a meeting of west Sussex MPs to discuss a crisis in the delivery of hospital care that affects a hospital in my constituency.

I very much enjoyed listening to the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). I always do, and I agreed with a great deal that was said, some of which I therefore shall not repeat.

However, I take issue with the point about Nigel Lawson's selection of advisers to ensure that he had around him people who always agreed with him. I do not recognise that at all. As I think almost anybody who knows him or knew him at that time would confirm, the one thing he liked was a good intellectual scrap. He used to spend most of his time trying to find people with whom he could have a good argument. I am running through in my mind the people who he had around him at the time. For example, he had in charge of supply-side policy—the epicentre of what became known as the Thatcherite revolution—Denis Healey's former principal private secretary. He had in place a deputy chief economic adviser who strongly disagreed with the central tenets of the exchange rate mechanism policy—that was an open secret—and in meetings that I attended gave dissenting views.

Nigel Lawson's view, which is the correct one for all Ministers, was that it was important to get the best people around him and to get the best out of them, and to create an ethos in the civil service that instilled enough trust to enable robust discussions to take place in complete confidentiality.

Incidentally, that is why when the Select Committee discussed the Bill that became the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I disagreed with Dr. Wright, who was the Chairman at that time as well, on one area. I felt that policy discussions should remain wholly outside the remit of the Act, and I still believe that.

I felt part of that civil service ethos. I was much more a policy adviser than a political adviser, which is what special advisers seem to be these days. I did some political work, but I knew what my job was. As the Lord Chancellor said recently, when describing his time as a special adviser when giving evidence, "It was my job to keep my head down." I certainly did that and he seems to have done so when he was a special adviser. I am sad that that attitude has been lost with some of the current incumbents.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I think that the hon. Gentleman has answered my question. I was going to ask whether there were any serious heavyweight voices saying that the ERM strategy was going to be a disaster and should not be entered into.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

That is all ancient history now. There certainly were from a monetary perspective, although there are many angles to the issue. Let us move on, because this is not a debate about those issues, which may interest the two of us but not everybody else.

Listening to the Prime Minister's statement, in which he gave us an apparently bold set of initiatives on constitutional reform, I was immediately suspicious, not because the words seemed bad, but because of who was saying it. I had followed what he said about the economy and had seen the gap between what he appeared to announce and what he actually announced in many areas of tax and spending policy. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase did a tour of the TV and radio studios, describing those initiatives as "Christmas", but I am afraid it turned out to be Christmas in a board school, or somewhere where few presents were around, because when we finally got, through "Governance of Britain", the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill it was surprisingly thin on all these issues. I should say that, to me at any rate, it was unsurprisingly thin.

There are a couple of acid tests by which the Bill can be judged. First, if it were in place, would Parliament be better able to scrutinise the activity of the Executive? For example, would we have been able to have in place better ex post scrutiny of Iraq, even if not ex ante, and would we have been able to have the full inquiry, which many hon. Members who opposed the war feel is necessary? I cannot see much in those proposals that would have improved the scrutiny of the Iraq war, even if they had been in force at the time of the war. We must give Parliament and its Committees independence—and its Select Committees enough power—to be able to make those ex post inquiries themselves; they do not have it at the moment. They must be able to call for papers and officials, as American committees do, and they should, of course, have Chairmen who are independent and seen to be independent as a consequence of election by secret ballot of the whole House. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase is an independent-minded Chairman, which is why his Committee has functioned better than many, but we should not have to rely on people who adopt that degree of independence of mind.

The second acid test of the whole constitutional renewal package is whether the British public will trust and respect their system of government any more once the Bill is in force. After all, we are all agreed that there has been a decline in the level of trust. The Bill contains scarcely any measures that will do much on that score. There is a tiny bit here and there, including putting the Ponsonby rule on a statutory basis; the public will not know what that means, but at least wars will be slightly better scrutinised than they would have been.

Among the things that I would like to see is an end to the Prime Minister's almost exclusive control over patronage, because that enables the Prime Minister to wield such huge power. I am pleased that the democracy taskforce on which I sat, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke, came out in favour of a wholly independent committee for the appointment of peerages, knighthoods and other honours and for a complete divorce of the appointment of honours for people whose job is to serve in the legislature.

An elected House of Lords, which I would prefer, would be a step forward. We should clean up party funding by putting a cap on all big donations by individual donors and trade unions, for example. That is controversial for all parties, but I think that it has to be done. Perhaps we should consider some measures for direct engagement with the electorate, such as giving some teeth to petitioning and giving some place in the timetabling of our legislative programme for petitions.

If we had had any of the proposals that I have just mentioned, the trust issue would begin to be addressed a little. Has the report done much in that regard? I am afraid that I am not a strong supporter of it. There have been a lot of friendly words about it, but I did not find much in it that was exciting. Rather than go through it bit by bit, let me just illustrate why I feel that it is a little bit thin by mentioning a few things that need addressing and saying where I think it is off beam.

One of the worries that the report seeks to address is a bit of a non-worry: that politicians may try to politicise the role of appointing civil servants. That is not the main problem. The main problem is not that the civil service needs to be kept pure through the appointments mechanism, but that it may be bypassed from the heart of decision making within the machinery of government.

Certain clauses as drafted in either the first or second volume of the Constitutional Renewal Bill—I cannot remember which—suggest that the civil service should give impartial advice to Ministers, but it should also say that Ministers should give due weight to that advice. In other words, they should have to show that they have at least listened to that advice and that civil servants had an opportunity to say their piece in front of the Minister, rather than being channelled and funnelled through intermediaries, such as advisers.

Hon. Members might say, "What sort of remedy could there possibly be with such a clause?" Freedom of information could help there and could establish whether the fact of advice, rather than its content, was ever received or looked at by a Minister. This Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, had a habit of getting into a huddle with a trusty few—an inner core—often without the civil service being involved at all, when taking decisions in the Treasury. That has been a major source of disquiet, not only in the civil service but more widely in the financial and economic communities that have been affected by those decisions. It has been pernicious and, from what I can tell, he seems to have carried over the practice, to some degree, into No. 10.

All of what I am describing is a much more important abuse than tampering with appointments. A related abuse is the emergence of what has been called by one Cabinet Secretary the development of a parallel state—meaning special advisers and envoys. We have to clamp down on that. Taking envoys first, patronage has been extended to the appointment of Back Benchers, who are given envoy titles and expenses. We have had an envoy on forestry and on—

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Yes, and on just about everything I can think of. There are certainly quite a few of them. I am concerned about that, although I do not want to develop that theme in any detail.

Let us take a look at advisers. The argument is that they somehow enable civil servants to stay pure, and that if a Minister wants to do something a little political he can call in his adviser and the civil servants can keep their hands clean, but that was never really the problem. Ministers need civil servants who are close to them. The danger is that advisers may become influential enough to drive a wedge between civil servants and Ministers, which is what seems to have happened. I think Lord Wilson said that they have become a substitute civil service, and Lord Turnbull used a similar phrase. A substitute civil service is not healthy.

There has been a huge increase in the number of advisers, and I regret that John Major increased them from around 20 to around 40. When I was a special adviser, there were fewer than 20. We met occasionally with Prime Minister Thatcher, who made it clear that there were far too many of us, and that if any of us misbehaved, by which she meant involving ourselves directly in public politics, she would have our heads on a platter before tea time, or possibly earlier. The number of advisers then rose from 40 to 80, where it has remained, more or less. Friends from the civil service say that having advisers in such key jobs has changed the character of the civil service and the way that it functions at the heart of Whitehall quite a lot.

The predominantly policy role that most of us played when I was a special adviser seems to have been supplanted by a role of spin, which has been extensively examined and confirmed in memoirs. Advisers have often become more powerful than Ministers. The hon. Member for Luton, North made a point about education policy, and he was right on the button. That is exactly what has happened in a wide number of areas. Such advisers deliver speeches, write articles in newspapers, and represent Britain at meetings abroad. Twenty years ago, those functions would have been considered inconceivable for special advisers.

Alongside that, for a long time under Tony Blair, there was a takeover of No. 10 by advisers, and there probably still is. The then Prime Minister congratulated Alastair Campbell on doing a good job of attacking the Conservative party, and he did so at the Dispatch Box. That was not a sensible thing to say, and it is not sensible for an adviser to spend his time doing that. I certainly hope that, if we appoint advisers, they will not consider that to be their role. I worry that there may be a steady deterioration, and that as advisers come in, as they will after the next election or the following one—I expect that it will be the next one, judging by the polls—they will think that that is part of their role. They will have seen what the present incumbents are doing, and think that it is all right. We must change that culture, reverse it and get advisers back to having a much more limited role, and carrying it out properly.

What I have described is clearly politicisation of the civil service. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase said that that is not happening, and that he did not know what evidence there was to support that, but the evidence is overwhelming from the memoirs and leaks that we have had so far about what has gone on during the past 10 or 11 years.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am trying to agree with the hon. Gentleman as much as I can, but I cannot agree with everything he says. He often cites people such as Lord Wilson, but we have talked endlessly to him, and to other former Cabinet Secretaries and permanent secretaries. To a man and a woman, they say that there may be problems with having special advisers in the system, but also that they bring huge advantages, not least in ensuring the civil servants are not asked to do things that are inappropriate. They provide protection for the civil service, and no one has been more emphatic in asserting that than Lord Wilson.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I completely agree, and those were some of the functions that I undertook—for example, producing a first draft of a party conference speech, with which civil servants would not want to be involved. They may have been prepared to check some facts, but they would not have wanted to get too close to the writing process.

My point, which I have not yet been able to communicate to the hon. Gentleman, is that such legitimate functions as part of a largely policy role for advisers are a long way from what has been going on at the heart of government, where a large number of advisers have directly assumed many of the functions of Ministers. The hon. Member for Luton, North gave an example from education, and such examples are legion. There is clear evidence of advisers writing articles, making speeches and travelling abroad to represent Britain in meetings, and that is quite new in our system of government. Such activities should be brought to an end.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I give way first to the hon. Member for Pendle.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I think that I am going to say something helpful to my friend, the Chairman of the Committee. When Lord Butler came before us—the hon. Gentleman will have the report in front of him—my friend, the Chairman, suggested to him that

"having more special advisers, for example, by itself does not cause a difficulty".

Lord Butler, the former Cabinet Secretary, said, "No." In response to a second question from the Chairman, Lord Butler said:

"I have always been in favour of special advisers; they add a great deal."

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I totally agree, and I do not know how the hon. Gentleman is managing to suggest that I disagree with that.

I think that there is a point at which the number of advisers alters the character of Whitehall, and 80 is far too many. Incidentally, other former Cabinet Secretaries and senior civil servants would not agree with Lord Butler if he suggested that 80 is a reasonable number. I certainly agree with Lord Butler's suggestion that advisers can and do play a useful role. The question is: what role, and have we allowed advisers to overstep the mark?

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am trying to forge a constructive consensus. It seems to me that there is unanimity that the central issue is not numbers. Almost everyone agrees with that. If special advisers are good, there is a case for having more of them; if they are bad, there is a case for having fewer of them. On the whole, they seem to be good, so a reasonable number is required. That is logical, but surely the key issue, which I think the hon. Gentleman agrees with, is to be clear about what they should do and what they should not do. That is the issue, and that is precisely what we have said in our draft Bill and in our commentary on the Government's proposals.

The other issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is of civil servants being bypassed and their advice not being taken. That is covered by another recommendation in our commentary on the draft civil service Bill. I am sure that he is an assiduous reader of such documents and knows that.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

The hon. Gentleman and I are still like ships passing in the night, despite his best efforts to forge consensus. What he is missing is that having a large number of advisers changes the culture at the heart of Whitehall. Small numbers of advisers may keep their heads down, knowing that if they overstep the mark—the Prime Minister will have approved each appointment, as used to occur during the Thatcher years—they will be out on their ear. Their relationship is different from that of the civil service, and of advisers who are brought in to be pretty much the doorkeeper to a Minister, which is what many current advisers and those of the past 10 years have been.

When I was a member of the hon. Gentleman's Committee—it may have been immediately before he was the Chairman—we had before us Lord Butler, who was then Cabinet Secretary. He did his best to defend the Orders in Council that he gave for Jonathan Powell to effectively take over No. 10. He tried to pretend that the existing structure was exactly the same and that Jonathan Powell was a bolt-on extra who provided added value. I asked Lord Butler where Jonathan Powell sat in the room and he said, "Well, he sits at a desk in the private secretary's office." I said, "Yes, but which desk?" Of course, I happened to know the geography of the room quite well, and he said, "Well, the desk in the top left-hand corner." I said, "That's the desk always occupied by the principal private secretary who runs No. 10." So he has displaced that person. Indeed, that is the doorkeeper position—geographically and in every other way—and it is right by the door to the Cabinet room. Lord Butler said, "Yes." I then asked him whether he thought the geography of a room ever played a role in deciding where power lies and, quietly, he nodded his agreement. That is what is meant by a takeover of the roles formerly played by special advisers, which is certainly what went on during the Blair years.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Several hon. Members want to intervene. I shall allow the hon. Member for Luton, North to do so and then the Minister.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I am interested that several hon. Members have suggested that civil servants were quite happy about special advisers. Lord Wilson was the permanent secretary at the former Department of Energy, I think, in Tony Benn's time. At that time, Tony Benn was one of the first to have a kitchen Cabinet of two or three special advisers: Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell. He used to meet them at 8.30 am before meeting the permanent secretary at 9 am, and the civil servants used to be enraged by that. Did civil servants still object to special advisers if they did not give instruction in any sense to the civil servants, but just provided advice to the Minister before seeing the permanent secretary?

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I shall come on to Cabinets in a moment. The hon. Gentleman is right to imply—at least I think he was implying—that perhaps the civil service always grumbles whenever there is any innovation of that type. We both cite Cabinet Secretaries as being for and against our various arguments, but we should not necessarily allow them to have a veto on all thinking about the subject. The hon. Gentleman has described Tony Benn's methods of taking advice from those two advisers and that seems a thoroughly sensible and reasonable way for him to have gone about his business.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman is an acknowledged historian on the location of desks in Downing street. I reassure him that, if his judgment of the impartiality of the civil service is based on the matter of location, the current Prime Minister's personal private secretary's desk is no more than 10 ft away from that of the Prime Minister. Has he read the code of conduct for special advisers that was rewritten in November of last year? It states

"No special adviser can authorise expenditure, exercise line management supervision over permanent civil servants, or discharge any statutory powers."

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

That is a good description of the things that advisers certainly should not do. Of course, that is exactly what they were empowered to do by the dispensation of the Orders in Council that were granted in 1997 by Lord Butler to the incoming Blair Administration. He now regrets that decision and the Government have belatedly reversed it. The Minister is right: the Government have started to act on some of these matters themselves, but that does not excuse the fact that we have had a decade of considerable awkwardness, during which time unacceptable relationships and methods of doing business have developed.

I want to talk about the Cabinet system. The changes in No. 10 under Tony Blair led not only to the growth of presidentialism—someone else mentioned that word earlier—but to the growth of what was really a Cabinet to the Prime Minister. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer did much the same with the growth of a kitchen Cabinet in No. 11. That was a profound mistake. It did a great deal of damage to the civil service, led to widespread demoralisation and impeded and eroded the likelihood of high-quality advice getting to Ministers.

I very much regret that the report seems unable to come to a clear view about all this; in fact, conclusion number 25 states:

"We remain neutral on whether a formal cabinet system would be a useful innovation."

After the experiences of the past decade, I would have thought that it was blindingly obvious that it would be appalling for the British culture of the civil service to try so radical a step, and I strongly oppose it. On the contrary, we should make it clear—and I hope that my party will—that Cabinet systems are not for us or our political culture.

The one area where the Constitutional Renewal Bill, a piece of draft legislation, was substantive was on the civil service Act. All these issues relate to that proposed Act and, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase has pointed out, that is the one area where the Government seem determined to kick the whole issue into the long grass, rather than actually introduce the measure. However, we might be fortunate and the Minister might give us a timetable for when we will get it on to the statute book.

I have been talking almost exclusively about the changes that will be made in relation to politicians, but I shall make one point on the reform of the civil service itself. There are many proponents of splitting the role of advisers to distinguish political advisers from non-political technical advisers. If we are going to have advisers, Ministers should find the best people, appoint them to the job and not worry about any of the other issues. However, it is important that we have a civil service that is flexible enough to absorb people from other careers and walks of life—not on the basis of secondment for a few years, but on the basis that the civil service is not the type of institution where people are simply recruited at 22, or 23 to do 37 or 42 years of service. The civil service is an institution that should recruit from all age groups. If we are to go down that road, as most other large institutions have done, including big private sector institutions, there will have to be quite a big change in the way in which people are paid and how their pensions are organised. Such changes would mean a breach of the "same pay for same work" principle.

When I worked on privatisation, groups of high-powered, highly-paid people came in from the City and gave us good advice on how to handle things. After three hours in an alien culture, one could almost see them breathing a sigh of relief as they staggered out of the Treasury along the linoleum, which we had in the days before we put down a cheap carpet, on the way to the door to get into a cab and go back to the City. Even if it had cost a lot of money, what we really needed was to have a couple of those guys full-time for a year or two in-house. The Government have moved some way in that direction, but we need more progress to be made on that.

We must also consider the highly controversial issue of pensions. MPs should themselves act as a beacon in relation to pensions. How long can we as MPs continue with the final salary scheme in its current structure, even the funded scheme? We cannot carry on like this indefinitely and I am pleased that the democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, came out in favour of the need to reform MPs' pensions and stated that, over time, the final salary scheme should be brought to an end. I am not articulating the particular type of reform that needs to be put through, but reform of MPs' pensions will act as a beacon for reform of civil service pensions. Why is that so important? It is important because if a civil servant has been in the service for 10 or 15 years and is on a final salary scheme, the incentive to stay is extremely strong—it is a lock-in. Until we reform pensions quite fundamentally, we will find it very difficult to get the flow in and out, the exchange between the civil service and other careers and walks of life, that I think all of us believe would make the civil service even healthier than it is now.

There is already some two-way flow. An example of that is Jeremy Heywood, whom I used to work with in the Treasury many years ago and who is back right at the centre of things. However, on the whole, such people are exceptions, right at the top; they are not the rule.

The Select Committee's report is interesting, but it is interesting as much for the things that it has missed out or failed to be robust enough about as it is for the things on which it has been firm and given a clear view. I hope that we will move towards better reform of this whole area of our constitution than we have seen so far. I am confident that an incoming Conservative Government will do what is required, or will do much more of what is required, but in the meantime I hope that the Government will press on vigorously with getting us to a civil service Act, which I have supported ever since I saw what was going on with advisers. After a year or two in Parliament, I came to the conclusion that such an Act was necessary. I started arguing for one in the Public Administration Committee and I have been arguing for one ever since.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase was not a supporter when I first put those ideas forward. He did not want an investigation into the role of advisers and the need for a civil service Act to protect us from it, but he is now a firm advocate of that. I am very pleased to find that he is aboard and is now a strong a supporter of it.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

The hon. Gentleman tests my patience. I have noticed in the past that his ability to reinvent history, as well as claiming authorship of anything that has ever happened, is simply extraordinary. First, he was completely wrong when he described my position on freedom of information. The idea that I said that all policy advice had to be covered is complete nonsense. The idea that I was ever not in favour of a civil service Act is nonsense. The idea that I did not want an inquiry into something is nonsense. I do not know why he goes on saying those things.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I think the hon. Gentleman protests a little too much. I have not made any allegations of the type that he has suggested. On the first, he is absolutely right to say that he was prepared to put in some limits in relation to policy advice, but he also wanted some scrutiny of it under freedom of information and I resisted that. I am surprised that he is so sensitive about that. I cannot remember all the ones that he has just mentioned. On a civil service Act and an investigation into the role of advisers, is he really sure that he did not oppose such an investigation in the run-up to the 2001 election?

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am absolutely positive that I have taken the lead in ensuring that our Committee, over the years, has interrogated the issue of special advisers ad nauseam. There is no issue about special advisers that we have not reported on. We have produced endless reports on the matter. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman, when he sees an opportunity to have some agreement and solidarity on an issue, simply does not take it, instead of making these niggling disagreements all the time.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that these are niggling disagreements. All I am trying to do is to demonstrate that I have been arguing for these sorts of reform for a long time.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

No, the hon. Gentleman is not doing that; he is claiming unique authorship—he does this all the time—of a set of proposals. Yes, he may have had a role in those over the years, but so did a lot of other people. It is a very disagreeable habit.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

The hon. Gentleman seems to be getting very over-excited about a number of relatively minor remarks that I have made. I regret to say that my recollection and his seem a long way apart, but he has asked that we end on a note of agreement—absolutely. I agree with his enthusiasm for a civil service Act. I hope that between us we can push one through and that in time he will also come round to the view that a cap on numbers, as well as a definition of roles, will be required to tackle the special adviser problem.

Photo of Susan Kramer Susan Kramer Cabinet Office, Shadow Secretary of State, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:45 pm, 30th October 2008

I congratulate the Select Committee and especially its Chairman, Dr. Wright on the report. Obviously, it has to be viewed as one in a continuum of reports, the crown jewel of which was almost certainly the draft Civil Service Bill. The Government seem to have squeaked this debate in—I thank them for it—just in time before announcements in the Queen's Speech in a sense make this debate redundant. We hope that we will then get to the meat and drink of the reforms that we all want and to a civil service Act.

I am conscious that, of all the Members in this room, I am the least expert. Consequently, and looking at the number of minutes that have gone by on the clock, I shall try to keep my comments brief. I hope that that will not be interpreted as a sign of inadequacy. It is helped by the fact that either the heating is off or the air conditioning has been turned on behind me. In any case, let me try to keep this simple.

I was struck by an early comment in the report:

"Civil service responsibilities are not simply to the government of the day; they should include responsibility to Parliament, and to the constitution."

I have referred to that comment because much of the tension that generates the type of debate that we have had today comes from the difficulty in the relationship between Parliament and the Government as the Executive and the fact that they have moved farther apart over the years. We have a sense that parliamentary government does not function in the way in which it did. Many people have talked about checks and balances and the shift towards something that is much more presidential in style and content. That creates an underlying tension and difficulty in relation to the role that the civil service plays and where its loyalties lie. We must sort out a great deal of that, to have clarity on how the civil service needs to respond and the roles that it performs, and I hope that we will do so.

We have also seen the increasing engagement of the Government in people's daily lives. That has brought to the fore the issue of implementation in a way that it never was in the past. Hon. Members have talked of some of the fairly stark failures of implementation. The tax credits system was driven by a concept of social justice that we would probably all have signed up to, but it was a complete impracticality in terms of delivery. I will not go through the entire list of failures, but we see them constantly repeated. As a legislature, we have not resolved how we deal with that at the point of legislation: so many debates are now curtailed so early, before fundamental issues have been addressed thoroughly.

I do not think that we can say that this is all down to Ministers and that the legislature can be separated from implementation. It is part of an ongoing strand from strategy through to the practicalities of delivery on the ground. We have to rethink how we deal with that in the House, or we will constantly get legislation where we decide commonly that the principle makes sense but where its application in practice causes great anguish and does not serve the goals that we originally identified.

I agree with the comments on the constantly revolving door of Ministers. We have a Swiss army knife approach to people—one day they are hooking out stones from a horse's hoof and the next they are taking the cork out of a bottle. Given the complexity of legislation and the complexity of Government activity in today's world, we must deal with all those issues.

We should consider this matter from the perspective of the public. The public are deeply proud of and committed to the notion of an independent civil service whose members are appointed on merit and through open competition. Whether or not we think that adjustments are permissible here and there, we must be conscious always that that is not the mandate that the public have given us and not their expectation. The service is part of the core British constitution, political life and democratic structure and it must be protected.

The fact that the public are highly suspicious of whether independence still continues, or whether it continues as it should, is something of which we should take serious note. We need a civil service Act, among other measures, to ensure that accountability and transparency are in place, that there is clarity over roles and that we are not constantly saying that perception will never match reality. We need a process that is transparent enough for people to have clarity in their perceptions.

I also believe that the public are not particularly interested in working out who is responsible if there is a fiasco—is it the Minister, or is it a senior civil servant? They always want the Minister, the political person, even if he or she is not directly responsible for the implementation of the policy, to stand up and say, "The buck stops here." We have lost that sense of honour, and the ability to resign. I use the Lord Mandelson example in a different way: resignation is not necessarily the end of a career.

People seem to believe that resignation is a deep and permanent stain upon the character and a failure, but I think that the public want political individuals to stand up and take responsibility when something goes wrong on the train. It may be appropriate also for civil servants to stand up and take responsibility. However, we cannot get out of the obligation that we take on when standing for election. Whether with strategy or implementation, if something is a Government action, the buck stops at the topmost desk.

The Committee's report also discussed the Institute for Public Policy Research report on what I would call quangoisation. I find it a worrying drift. I have increasingly noticed the notion—for example, in Conservative party policy on the health service—that we can create a much more segregated system, in which Ministers decide policy and some sort of commission is set up to be responsible for implementation. I am highly suspicious of that.

When I talk to the electorate, they say that when things go wrong they want to remove the bloody bastards. They do not want to have the political leadership saying, "It's not my problem. I set the policy, but it was badly handled," or "How it was handled is not my responsibility but that of the commission."

We have seen something similar in local government. I can give only small examples, but a Conservative administration in the borough of Richmond essentially set up a commission to provide grants to voluntary services. That was handy, because whenever a charity complained, councillors could put up their hands and say, "We only set the strategy. If you've got a complaint, go to the commission." That structure, that separation, has been ended because people refused to live with it. They wanted an accountable person making such decisions. The direction of quangoisation is dangerous—comfortable, perhaps, but unacceptable to the public.

The question of special advisers has occupied a great part of our debate. I understand the argument that numbers do not matter, but there is a point at which they start to tell their own story. When we get large numbers, roles inevitably start changing. It seems to me that numbers raise questions, even if they are not necessarily a stigma in themselves. When numbers shift significantly, it shows that the structure is changing. However, I agree with those who say that the power is given to the special adviser—it is the role.

When I talk to senior members of the civil service—they are obviously off-the-record conversations—I feel that there is a great sense of tension among them about the role of special advisers. There is real concern about how the territory is divided. Comments do not come in clear packages, with one being simply a piece of advice and another being an instruction. Life is much more complex. Conversations and meetings are far more complex. That is another reason why we need a civil service Act. We also need a good governance code to show that we cannot consider everything in silos. We need to see how the packages merge together. That is why such a code is so appealing.

I shall stop speaking now and let those hon. Members who have much more to say continue the debate. However, this is only the beginning; I look forward to the legislation coming forward. Only then will we be able to get to the meat and drink of the matter.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 4:55 pm, 30th October 2008

Like the Minister, my alternative entertainment this afternoon was with my children—they too are on half-term holiday—but I cannot think why I thought that it would have been more fun than this debate.

We have had a good old-fashioned spat, which has raised blood pressures. We had sparkling contributions from Labour Back Benchers. Mr. Prentice is always interesting, and he had a lot to get off his chest. He gave the Opposition yet another good example of how to duff up the Government. The welcome spirit of Robin Cook was introduced to the debate by the hon. Members for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Pendle in that marvellous line that good scrutiny is good government.

The debate has also been proof that it is impossible to avoid Lord Mandelson these days. We have to thank my hon. Friend Mr. Walker for introducing the good Lord Mandelson and the ghastly image of him smiling benignly—or smirking, depending on one's political viewpoint—as the adoring civil servants strew palm leaves before him as he re-enters his Department. It is a terrible image, and I am trying to get rid of it myself.

I congratulate the Committee on its report. Dr. Wright, its Chairman, enjoys an outstanding reputation. The report is clearly rooted in a robust process of consultation, with impressive witnesses. As we would expect, it is well argued. However, it did not impress my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie, and I think that my right hon. Friend Sir George Young described as anodyne.

The Committee Chairman may feel that some punches have been pulled, but the most conclusive and clear recommendation—the main one—is to press the Government to deliver a civil service Act. I also congratulate the Committee on its persistence. It has been a long journey, but it seems that it may deliver a result—against what appears to be considerable Government resistance. We spoke earlier about the delay in the Government's response to the report, but that is just one symptom of a wider process of apparent foot dragging. I am sure that the Minister will have something to say on that subject.

As a relatively new Member of Parliament—I have been only three years in this place—some of my most rewarding experiences have been in my work on the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. It is therefore a particular pleasure to see a Select Committee apparently get a result. We should all feel good about that.

I turn to the specific question of whether we are seeing a trend towards the dangerous politicisation of the civil service. With your indulgence, Mr. Jones, I shall put this in a wider context, which I believe is necessary. That context is the erosion of public confidence in the way in which we are governed, which is gnawing away at the vitality of our democracy. We should be concerned about that.

I look at the problem through the prism of my constituency experience. People recognise that there has been change in the style of government. It may have started under a previous Administration—a subject that is open to debate—but people believe that that change has accelerated since 1997. People talk about a presidential approach to government. Prime Minister Blair's outgoing chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, described it as Napoleonic. Similar concerns underlie that sort of language, and they also centre on the short-cutting of due process in policy and decision making.

The hon. Member for Pendle must surely be right that that change was crystallised most clearly in our going to war in Iraq. Out in our constituencies, that is why people's concerns over how we are being governed continue to be crystallised. The reality is that, during the years of that and arguably the present Administration, some of the key words that people conjure up are stamped in our memories. I include names such as David Kelly, Alastair Campbell, the Hutton report, the Butler report and phrases such as "A good day to bury bad news", sofa government and the culture of spin. Those phrases have entered into the lexicon. They have a resonance way beyond the House, and we should be concerned about that.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. One thing that should worry all of us is the declining turnout at elections, which shows a declining interest in politics or a resentment of the political system by the electorate. According to academic research, it correlates to only one thing: the narrowing difference between the parties. Front-Bench Members from both parties seem to be in the same place ideologically, and the range of views that used be represented in Parliament and that retained interest among the electorate is no longer there.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am not sure whether I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I certainly do not agree that that is the only constituent factor in the worrying drop in voter turnout. Long political cycles have a part to play in such things and there is another fundamental, structural problem in that people are not sufficiently persuaded that their engagement is going to change anything. In part, that drove me to take the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 through Parliament—there was a strong sense that people needed to have a much greater influence over the decisions that really affected them. A sense of disengagement is part of the problem. I do not wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I recognise what he is saying.

There is an erosion of public confidence in how we are being governed, and the hon. Member for Pendle was robust in listing some of the failures. There are always failures in government, but there have been a string of high-profile, damaging and painful failures that the public feel, because they deal with them. I am talking, for example, about tax credits, the Child Support Agency and the Rural Payments Agency—that was not mentioned but it is on the list of high-profile failures. Among other things, they cause people to ask again, "What is going on in the Government? Why are we getting this apparently systematic failure?" They notice when a Home Secretary, for instance, says that his Department is not fit for purpose. People sit up and listen to things like that and ask, "What on earth is going on here?"

Such things must feed into the morale of the public services. We are talking specifically about civil servants, but we can extend the debate to the wider public services. We all talk to teachers and doctors in our constituencies, and we know that they do not all have a great spring in their step. They are concerned about how they are being managed and whether they are being listened to. The public recognise that. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester talked about the collapse in morale at the Treasury, and one hears the same about the Foreign Office. Such things must concern us.

Susan Kramer mentioned another problem: it is getting increasingly difficult to get an answer to the questions of who is in charge and who is accountable. The hon. Member for Pendle was strong on the fragmentation of government and the proliferation of quangos and agencies. As MPs, we know that it is getting increasingly hard to find out who can address our constituents' concerns, because the buck seems to shoot round the system. The public are conscious that the power of Parliament has diminished, that local government has effectively been turned into local administration over the past 20 years and of the proliferation of quangos and agencies, and they get increasingly frustrated at the lack of accountability in the system.

One lady comes into my surgery once a month or so with an article ripped out of The Sun, the Daily Mail or whatever—about data loss, for example—and she is incensed by the fact that no one seems to be held to account. No one puts a hand up saying, "It was my fault, and this is the price I pay for it." She does not understand that. She lives in the real world where, when someone makes mistakes, they are identified and held responsible. The report is very much plugged into that wider malaise. It is crystallised in the quote from Lord Butler:

"There are elements of our government that need improvement and it has got worse".

That is the context of the debate and why the report is important.

To return to the narrow but hugely important issue on which the report centres, which is the relationship between Ministers and civil servants, the hon. Member for Richmond Park was extremely modest about her knowledge. I confess to even greater ignorance: I am an inexperienced Member of Parliament and I have never been a special adviser or Minister and certainly not a Secretary of State, although I know a man who has. My only experience of the interface between Ministers and civil servants was taking the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 through Parliament as a private Member's Bill. That brought me into direct contact with the delicate dance that goes on between Ministers and civil servants. It was clear from the outset that the relevant Department and Secretary of State did not want the measure. However, the Minister concerned, enterprisingly, saw the politics of it and decided that he wanted to change the Department's mind. It was fascinating to see that delicate dance. Actually, it worked out well, because the political vision prevailed and the civil service tied in behind to make it work. In that case, it worked, but the evidence is clearly building that it is not working throughout the system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester quoted Sir Richard Wilson and others on their concerns about the politicisation of the civil service, the inadequate process of giving and receiving advice and the implementation of policy. As the report makes clear, there is a muddle—I believe that that expression is used—of relationships and sense of responsibility and the definitions of responsibility and accountability. That is not sustainable in the increasingly challenging, complex and evolutionary background of government.

We have spoken about fragmentation, but not about devolution, which is pushing power away from Whitehall towards local government. That will make life in the civil service more complicated. We have also not talked about how policy areas such as climate change now cut across Departments. Whitehall finds it extremely hard to deal with such things, which are yet another challenge for it. Of course, all those things are happening in a ferocious new media environment, in which the Minister is well versed—he is well known for being the first MP to put up a blog. That ferocious environment places yet another challenge in the way of our ancient systems and ways of doing business. As the report makes clear, we need to ensure that we have a framework that allows Ministers and civil servants to work together effectively and that does not lock

"them into potentially antagonistic bunkers".

That is a good phrase.

The Conservative party have for some time been persuaded of the necessity of a civil service Act. Indeed, a former member of the Shadow Cabinet promoted such legislation in a private Member's Bill in response to the Committee's draft, and it was explicitly called for by the democracy taskforce, which was set up by my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron and so ably served by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester. I almost regret that such an Act is necessary. It is possibly not a panacea for some of the problems that we have discussed, but rather a necessary condition of rebuilding a culture of trust and mutual impartiality.

Will the Minister say why such a measure has taken the Government so long? The Chairman of the Committee joked—although he may have been serious—about the journey of 150 years, going back to the Northcote-Trevelyan report. Life did not start in 1997, as we are encouraged to believe, when all three parties were committed to a civil service Act; but since then, we have had an extraordinary process of delay. The hon. Member for Pendle described it as the dance of the seven veils, but I do not think that that is the right image, because it tells of energy, motion, passion and vigour, which have been entirely absent from the process.

To remind ourselves, the process began in 1997. In 2000, a report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended it, and there was another commitment from the Government to the principle. In 2002, the PAC announced its intention to publish its own draft Bill and the Committee on Standards in Public Life again expressed a commitment. In January 2004, I believe, the PAC presented its draft Bill, which in turn was presented as a private Member's Bill, as I said. In November 2004, the Government published their own draft Bill, to which a lukewarm consultation was attached. That consultation expired in February 2005, and the responses to it were published in March 2008. That is not the movement, language or action of a Government who are committed to a civil service Act.

When the Minister speaks, we will listen carefully for reassurances that such an Act has the genuine support of the Government. The messages that underlie the various announcements that have been made suggest that the Government think that there may be a case for an Act, but that "Actually, things work pretty well and are getting better, and anyway we have other priorities." We need to hear from the Minister a stronger commitment to the Act.

We welcome the inclusion of a mini civil service Bill within—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester—an otherwise rather disappointing draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. Questions arise, such as does the Minister think that the Government have struck the right balance in making more explicit the responsibility of Ministers to be impartial to civil servants? A lot of emphasis is placed on the impartiality of civil servants, but is there an appropriate balance with regard to the responsibility of Ministers?

There has been a lot of debate about special advisers. Will the Government be more explicit when they define the role of such advisers, and will they bring them back to being givers of advice rather than givers of instruction? What happens if a special adviser breaks the new code and the Minister does not punish him or her? Again, there will be a lot of devil in the detail. As and when the Bill comes before us—again, I would appreciate the Minister being as explicit as he can on that point—the Opposition will hold the Government to account, so that they deliver a really effective Bill that is well balanced and does not fudge definitions. It must play an important part in restoring public faith in not just the civil service, but the whole process of government.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 5:12 pm, 30th October 2008

It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Wright and his formidable Committee colleagues on securing this debate and removing me from the onerous task of going in the rain to Hamleys in Regent street to shop for three hours.

My hon. Friend said that there were no vacancies on his Committee. I am certain that there is a relationship there with the number of vacancies that have occurred for junior Cabinet Office Ministers over the years. I hope that I can be a rule breaker on that one. He is right to say that the Committee has had many successes over the years through its quiet and patient application of pressure on the Government, and all Committee members should be commended for that.

Because of the randomness of parliamentary questions, this is my first opportunity to welcome Mr. Hurd to his new position. He draws down on a great body of experience, both from the civil service and his ministerial lineage. I wish him well in his new post.

The hon. Gentleman said that we must understand the historical context behind the changes that have been made—and the ones that we intend to make—to the civil service. It is not possible to understand the direction of change without looking back over 150 years at the relationship between politicians and the civil service. The repercussions of those changes and the recommendations that have been made by the Committee go far beyond Whitehall.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice said—a little too often for my liking—if the civil service and Ministers do not get policies and the implementation of those policies right, the people whom we are elected to represent suffer. What matters most to my constituents is that the Government deliver efficiently on their commitments. I hope that hon. Members will agree that that is the key to the whole debate. How can Ministers and the civil service adapt and respond to the increasingly complex changes to the world in which we all live?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said, let us look back at the reforms that have taken place. Peter Hennessy described those changes as

"the greatest single governing gift of the nineteenth to the twentieth century: a politically disinterested and permanent Civil Service, with core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next."

As members of the Committee know, that gift began with the Northcote-Trevelyan report more than 150 years ago. Before Northcote and Trevelyan, servants of the Crown were appointed to office by Ministers. Governance was a family business—I am not making any wisecracks at the relatively new hon. Member—based on who one knew or was related to. Stafford Northcote and Charles Trevelyan were determined to remove untrammelled patronage from the system, not simply because it was corrupt, but because it was inefficient.

The Northcote-Trevelyan report recommended a proper system of examination before appointment; a proper system of transfers between Departments; that promotion by merit should be strictly supervised; and that annual increments of salary should be conditional on satisfactory work. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle would like me to reassure Mr. Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, that we do not intend to change those principles. When it comes to increments, I think that they will remain in place for the foreseeable future, although we may have a dispute about the way in which increments are calculated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase explained how Back Benchers had to resign their parliamentary seat when they joined the Executive. It was Gladstone who ensured that civil servants had to resign from their post before being elected to Parliament. That detachment from political life is one of the things that is meant by the term "permanent civil service", which has such a long and significant history.

Mr. Tyrie challenged the notion and said that we might have to change the idea of three decades in the civil service. We have made many changes in recent years to ensure that we can mix up the gene pool. I hope that he will acknowledge the progress that the Government have made in that area.

The Fulton report sought to move the civil service on from what it called

"the nineteenth century philosophy of the Northcote Trevelyan Report".

It said that it

"concentrated on the graduates who thereafter came to form the top of each service and took much less notice of the rest."

As we have all acknowledged today, times have moved on. Today's civil service reflects changed values. For example, we have, thankfully, made great strides in recruiting women, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities. For example, the proportion of women in the senior civil service has almost doubled since 1996. The percentage of civil servants from ethnic minority backgrounds has risen by almost half since 1997, and the proportion of civil servants declaring a disability has more than doubled in the past seven years.

However, the civil service is still recognisably a product of Northcote, Trevelyan and Gladstone, and the many other initiatives and reforms over the years. Here I want to return to the notion of efficiency that was raised by many hon. Members. It was the key driver for reform both 150 years ago and now. In its report, the Committee pointed out that the civil service is expected to give continuity when Administrations change and stand up to the Government; it used the term "constitutional effectiveness". As the Committee notes,

"despite the regular accusations of politicisation, Britain clearly remains singularly unpoliticised."

Although the hon. Member for Chichester attempted to build up a formidable argument, there is general consensus that that is the position.

An area with which we should concern ourselves is how to formulate and deliver policy, or what the Committee called "operational effectiveness". In 1854, Northcote and Trevelyan noted that admission into the unreformed civil service was

"for the unambitious, the indolent or the incapable".

They claimed that success depended not on civil servants' performance but

"upon their simply avoiding any flagrant misconduct, and attending with moderate regularity to routine duties".

Of course fair and open competition has been the mainstay of civil service recruitment for years now, but we want to go further. We must get the best people, but we must also make sure that they continue to perform.

I was pleased to see that the Committee was

"encouraged by the development of the Capability Reviews, which offer greater transparency about civil service performance."

Capability reviews aim to strengthen the civil service to enable it to meet the Government's objectives today and be ready for the challenges of tomorrow. Reviews are carried out by the capability reviews team with a team of external reviewers assembled specially for the Department under review. The reviews are then published to ensure that the process is open to scrutiny and comment.

That leads me to the big questions posed by the Committee report. What are and what should be the respective roles of Ministers and civil servants in the performance exposed so clearly by the capability reviews and so well documented by my colleagues, particularly from the Labour party? The Committee says at the opening of its report:

"We are fortunate to have a civil service which has been held in high regard, both at home and internationally...We are also fortunate to have a robust system of political accountability."

It goes on to suggest, however, that the notions of ministerial and civil service accountability are far from clear.

My hon. Friend Paul Flynn mentioned the unimportance of being right—perhaps in contrast with the speech of Mr. Walker, which might be described as the unimportance of being wrong when it comes to his criticisms of some of my colleagues—but I disagree. I think that we have a clear and proper democratic line of accountability. It runs from the electorate through Members of Parliament to the Government. The duly constituted Government—that is, Ministers—are assisted by the permanent and politically impartial civil service. Ministers are accountable to Parliament and civil servants are accountable to Ministers. That is proper, because what matters most is to ensure the ultimate accountability of the Government to the electorate.

The Committee is right, though, to assert that

"the civil service's relationship with government has long been recognised as more complex than simply being the enthusiastic instrument of government policies. Politics is separated from the administration in this country, but the two must, can and do work together", whether on the location of desks in Downing street or on major procurement projects in the IT sector.

I agree with the Committee that

"The task is to get ministers and civil servants working together effectively, not to lock them into potentially antagonistic bunkers."

I can perhaps see why the Committee was tempted to recommend a new governance code in order to be explicit about the legitimate expectations and duties of both parties, rather like Einstein searching for a unifying theory. The Home Office compact was a good idea. It has worked, and people tell me that it has worked well. I said that I do not think that the case has necessarily been made for a unifying code, but I do not think that there is anything wrong with Departments supplementing existing codes as the Home Office did. If we can build a body of evidence to show that that has helped to create efficiency, that might be something we should consider in future.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I have the compact in front of me, and I have read it reasonably carefully. It has a lot of the flavour of motherhood and apple pie about it, to be frank. I shall not read out any bits to demonstrate that, but I think that if the Minister takes a look, he will agree. But what happens when it is broken? What mechanisms are laid down for remedy in the event of non-performance of the compact?

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The two guiding codes that we already have—the ministerial code and the civil service code—have served us well. They are the codes that have underpinned any compact agreed by Departments. The hon. Gentleman might see it as motherhood and apple pie, but I understand that the civil servants and politicians who struck the compact find it useful in their work. To have a central code to which every Department must adhere might undermine people's ability to reach such agreements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said, Ministers conduct their portfolios in very different ways. Some are delivery Ministers and some like policy. The hon. Member for Chichester will know that from his experience in previous Administrations.

The ministerial code is a guide to the principles and practices expected of Ministers. It has been strengthened and is now clearly principles-based, so that Ministers and others can be clear about the standards of behaviour expected. In publishing the ministerial code in July last year, the Prime Minister confirmed that

"the acceptance of ministerial office brings with it a serious responsibility and duty to the nation."

Setting out that responsibility and duty, the ministerial code states:

"Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies".

Susan Kramer made the point that power can be delegated easily, but responsibility cannot.

The ministerial code is absolutely clear that

"Ministers must uphold the political impartiality of the Civil Service, and not ask civil servants to act in any way which would conflict with the Civil Service Code", and that

"Ministers have a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to informed and impartial advice from civil servants".

The civil service code explains:

"The Civil Service is an integral and key part of the government of the United Kingdom. It supports the Government of the day in developing and implementing its policies, and in delivering public services."

Civil servants are expected to carry out their role

"with dedication and a commitment to the Civil Service and its core values: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality."

Doing so will help the civil service to

"support good government and...gain and retain the respect of Ministers, Parliament, the public and its customers".

Many Members have discussed the role of special advisers. I do not have time to dwell on the subject, but the code for special advisers says that

"to provide effective assistance to Ministers, special advisers should work closely with the ministerial team and with permanent civil servants, and establish relationships of confidence and trust."

I outlined the new compact from November 2007, which I hope will allay some of the fears of the hon. Member for Chichester. The three codes are related and cross-refer. I do not feel, therefore, that we need a unifying code, but the Committee should keep pressing its case on the role of compacts and how they could improve the way that good governance is achieved.

The latest civil service code, issued in June 2006, provides for the civil service commissioners to hear a complaint under the code directly from a civil servant. That is a new departure, and I hope that the Committee feels it is a response to its pressures about good governance.

It would also be wrong to consider the appointment of civil servants only. Public bodies and the people appointed to them, many of whom are unpaid, also work in the pursuit of better public services. Following a recommendation in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the post of Commissioner for Public Appointments was created to ensure that public appointments are made on merit.

Time does not allow me to go into that further, but I think that the Committee would want me to say that we have moved a long way when it comes to public appointments. I am consulting with other Departments about how we can extend to other public bodies the measures that we have introduced in recent years. I have also asked my officials to consider how we might make information about the commissioner's remit, public bodies and public appointments generally more accessible in the digital age.

The Select Committee has played an enormous role in bringing about the new legislation. If my memory serves me well, not all three parties were signed up to it in 1997; I cannot remember whether it was a manifesto commitment of any of the three parties to have a civil service code. The hon. Member for Chichester could probably wear the crown for saying that he has pushed it for some time. We have already introduced some of the measures in the draft legislation: we have a new civil service code, we make an annual report to Parliament on special adviser numbers and cost and we consult with the main Opposition party leaders on the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner and the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

The sitting having continued for three hours, it was adjourned without Question put.

Adjourned at half-past Five o'clock.