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5.49 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): If the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) had seriously wanted answers to those questions, rather than putting out another spin of his own, he would have put in for a debate on the railways. [Hon. Members: "We have already done that."] Opposition Members have not done that. The motion covers a bit of Railtrack, Government management of news—spinning—the civil service, political advisers, parliamentary and Government standards, reform and modernisation of Parliament and how to use Parliament. It does not offer a serious debate about the future of the railways.

It is not for me to advise Conservative Members on their general election strategy; as a Labour Member, I think that they were remarkably successful in managing their strategy in the previous two general elections and I wish them great success in the future. However, if they think that this argument about Railtrack is going to help them with the public, they are so fundamentally wrong that it is not true. The reality is that two railways issues impact on the British public: that it is an expensive, slow, uncertain and uncomfortable way of reaching a destination; and that it was privatised by Conservative Members. That is what the public know and what they will remember.

If Conservative Members want to make any political progress at all—although when I listen to this type of debate I sometimes think that they do not—they will have to start by recognising that they got it very badly wrong on railways and try to move on to a new agenda.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): My hon. Friend has made my point for me. Nevertheless, does he agree that this constant bluster from Conservative Members is simply a grotesque attempt to shift the blame from them to us for the mess that they created?

Mr. Soley: My hon. Friend has made the point more briefly than I did.

There are, as I indicated, several important issues wrapped up in the Opposition motion—several of which have been identified by the hon. Member for North

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Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)—that cross party lines and are relevant to the debate. The first issue is parliamentary reform, which is in some respects what the Opposition seem to be talking about. The right hon. Member for Wokingham and other hon. Members have described what they regard as a lack of opportunity to hold Ministers to account. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall knows, the Modernisation Committee—which the Government established as soon as they won in 1997—has attempted to move the agenda forward to increase the House's effectiveness. However, we have almost always found ourselves fighting Conservative Members to make those changes.

Westminster Hall is the first example of that conflict. I take some pride in Westminster Hall, especially because I was, I think, the first person to present to the Modernisation Committee a paper suggesting that we establish a second Chamber. Conservative Members opposed the proposal. Given that even I was not sure that Westminster Hall would work as well as it has, I suppose that that opposition was fair enough. The point, however, is that that Chamber has increased the number of opportunities to hold Ministers to account. Although I—like the majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House, as I understand it—think that Westminster Hall is a remarkable success, I suspect that the majority of Ministers do not like it that much, because they are expected to go there far more often than they were ever expected to reply to debates and answer questions in this Chamber.

Westminster Hall was a major achievement that was won in the face of early opposition from many Conservative Members who have now come round to seeing it as a good thing. If we tried to abolish Westminster Hall, which I am happy to say that we would not attempt to do, the outcry from Conservative Members who opposed it only a few years ago would be enormous.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) said that a previous Conservative Government were the first to establish Select Committees. They were not the first Government to do that, as the House had Select Committees in the 19th century and, I think, in the early part of the 20th century. Nevertheless, those Committees lapsed. However, when the current Select Committee system became increasingly successful, Norman St. John-Stevas—who, on the Conservative side, deserves much of the credit for establishing it—fairly quickly found himself outside the Cabinet. I do not know whether Select Committees were the reason for his removal, but I do know that he was the author of the Special Standing Committee concept which enables the House to take evidence before legislating. Consequently, in the early 1980s, several Bills were considered in Special Standing Committees. However, as those Committees were an embarrassment to the then Government, that Government stopped using them. From 1983, I think, to about 1997, only one or two Special Standing Committees were convened; now, however, it is fairly common practice to hold them. They not only take evidence from the public but give the public an opportunity to influence legislation. Conservative Members had the opportunity to do all that from the early 1980s onwards but they did not take it.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) has left the Chamber, although I am sure that he has done so for good reason, because

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I want to take up one of the points that he made in his speech. He said that he was a political adviser to the previous Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, and he went on to complain about the way in which the current Government manipulate the news. As the Opposition motion states, he does not approve of the Government's "news management" strategy. The hon. Gentleman, however, presumably was the political adviser advising John Major when he—rightly, but secretly, without telling the House and denying the fact—opened talks with Sinn Fein.

In their own terms, the then Government's reason for deciding on secrecy were good enough: it was their dependence on the votes of Unionist Members to stay in power. It was a political decision. From the speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, however, I presume that he told John Major, "We must open up this debate and tell the television channels in time for the 6 and 10 o'clock news that we are having secret talks with Sinn Fein." Of course the hon. Gentleman said no such thing. When I hear Conservative Members talk about news management, I realise why the previous Conservative Government got into so much difficulty on double standards.

Mr. Swire: If the talks to which the hon. Gentleman has referred were secret, how could the then Prime Minister tell the House about them either before or while they were being held?

Mr. Soley: That is my point. The then Prime Minister kept them secret because he needed the political support of Unionist Members. In reality, however, an awful lot of hon. Members and people in the media knew that those talks were being held. Indeed, the vast majority of hon. Members supported those discussions. However, Conservative Members could not go public on the talks because their Government depended on the Unionist votes.

Conservative Members sometimes talk as though spin has just been invented, but that is not so. Occasionally, both the media and politicians spin, as I shall describe later. First, however, I should remind Conservative Members of Bernard Ingham, of whom we were reminded by the hon. Member for North Cornwall. Bernard Ingham was a civil servant, but he was referred to as Margaret Thatcher's "handbag" by the media, many hon. Members and many members of the public because he was occasionally known to go round duffing up the Opposition. On one occasion, I wandered by mistake into one of his press briefings and heard him lambasting the Labour party. He saw such activity as a perfectly normal part of his role.

Mr. Tyler: I think, in all fairness, that we should point out that Bernard Ingham duffed up Conservative Members rather more effectively than he did Opposition Members.

Mr. Soley: There is a lot of truth in that. The hon. Gentleman has also given the example of Bernard Ingham describing one Cabinet Minister, John Biffen, as "semi-detached", not long after which he was out of the Cabinet.

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The relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Bernard Ingham was very close, very important to the success of that Conservative Government and very effective. What they did, however, was to manipulate the news in a big way. When they chose to do so, they would also undermine Conservative Members. They also continued the policy which has been operated under various Governments of trying to present the news in the best possible manner for themselves. That is why I should like to have a bit more common sense in the debate.

Today and in previous debates, various hon. Members have mentioned Jo Moore. I think that the hon. Member for North Cornwall was right to say that much more is being made of that matter than need be. I should tell the House—I do not know whether it is a declaration of interest—that Jo Moore worked for me on one occasion, when I was the shadow housing Minister. She is a very capable press and media officer. That does not justify her comments on that occasion, as they were by any standard gross and incredibly insensitive. As many hon. Members know, the incident has probably also ruined her career—[Interruption.] It is true.

As Opposition Members have said, one could fire someone who has acted in that manner. However, one would probably run into trouble with an industrial tribunal if one were to fire her on that basis. What Opposition Members are really asking us to do is to lean on such people to resign, but the reality is that the Minister, not the civil servant, is accountable.

We try to maintain a rather artificial distinction between civil servants and political advisers. In the United States, all such people are political appointees. I do not want to go down that road, but it is impossible to maintain an absolute distinction. A couple of years ago, as chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, I went to a meeting in Paris with the French and British Foreign Secretaries and various officials. The French Socialist party members, civil servants and advisers all entertained us at lunch in the French Foreign Office. They all talked about foreign policy issues, regardless of their different roles. I am not saying that the French system is better than ours, but it is more honest. There is a role for political advisers.

I suspect that Jo Moore got into so much trouble because of the constant tug of war between civil servants and political advisers. The Conservative party in government had the same problem. Political advisers feel that they are being kept out of the Government machine but they want to be in there to protect their Minister for a policy or a position that is dependent on a political party. Unless we recognise that, the tensions will continue. We need a slightly more relaxed attitude to get the balance right. Political advisers should not need to have battles with civil servants about their level of involvement or information. There is no simple answer, but the French way seems to have more common sense to it than ours.

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