Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, but I wonder whether in the light of what she has just said she will clarify something for me. I refer to what exactly was the role of Sir Bernard Ingham under the previous Government if it was not to produce what the noble Baroness has called "propaganda" on behalf of the then Prime Minister and her Government. Secondly, is it really appropriate to quote in this House statements attributed to the Cabinet Secretary by a newspaper when that civil servant does not have the opportunity himself to give any official explanation and when we are relying on what is really nothing more than gossip?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord's first comment, my understanding is that Bernard Ingham was a factual press secretary--

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord's second question, from my own experience I do not know whether it is improper to quote something that Sir Robin Butler has said. If it was improper for me so to have quoted him, I apologise, but I really do not know. I am afraid that I am not experienced enough to know whether that was correct--

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, it is not at all improper; it is simply that a newspaper attributed those words to Sir Robin. We do not know whether those were his words or what the context was. As the noble Baroness has rightly said that it is not customary to criticise civil servants by name, it seems equally inappropriate for us to rely upon what was in a newspaper when the Minister has given a very clear account of the position in the past.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I do not believe that the Minister commented on the particular point that I have made, but I note what the noble Lord has said.

I note that the Minister without portfolio does not have an adviser but, as the fountainhead of all political advice to the Government, obviously he would not need one. One can only hope that, in the interests of the public purse, when Ministers become more used to their jobs they may not need so many advisers.

When one talks about the public purse, there is another problem. Questions to the Prime Minister on 2nd June by two of my honourable friends and again on the 15th June elicited no information about the salary bill involved, except that five of the special advisers--we do not know which--were being paid a total of £163,000 and that the salaries of the remainder were still being negotiated. On 13th June the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, informed my noble friend Lord Northesk in a Written Answer that information on the

9 Jul 1997 : Column 696

total salary bill would be provided when agreement had been reached with each individual on his employment terms.

During the election campaign the Prime Minster asked people to trust him. I am glad to see that all of these special advisers are following that exhortation by leaving their previous employment without knowing the terms of their new employment. I draw the attention of the Minister to the Employment Rights Act 1996 which requires every employee to be given a written statement of the terms of his employment not more than two months after the commencement of the employment. That is the significance of my earlier reference to 19th July. As it is clear from the small amount of information provided in the other place that the appointments had been made prior to 19th May, perhaps the Minister can tell the House when the Government will be able to overcome their coyness and publish the details. I remind the noble Lord that the Prime Minister also promised open government.

With all of these additional special advisers taking away the powers and duties of an impartial Civil Service we do not want to have the same situation as in the United States of America where whenever there is a change of administration there is a total upheaval in the machinery of government instead of the smooth overnight transition that we traditionally have. We are beginning to see attempts by this Administration to marginalise Parliament: the curtailment of Prime Minister's Questions; an attempt that was thwarted by the Speaker to move a constitutional Bill off the Floor of the other place and into Committee; the plan to set up separate parliaments and regional assemblies; and the attempt to gag a Member of another place. We also do not want to see the establishment of a system in which decisions are taken in a secret conclave where unelected advisers play a key role from which senior civil servants are excluded.

Accountability is very important. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Annan. He said that civil servants were not just there to say "Yes, Minister" but to ensure that all of the pros and cons were carefully considered. I believe that policy decisions are to be taken by Ministers based on both political considerations and the advice that they receive from whatever quarter, including their special advisers. We do not want to see the introduction by government of cronyism. The experience of established civil servants accumulated over many years is no less valuable than the advice of the most astute politician that the Government can hire.

In supporting the noble Lord, Lord Annan, in introducing this debate, I agree with the earlier comments of my noble friend Lord Beloff that it is a pity that some of the experienced Members of this House have not spoken in this debate. However, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that that deficiency was very well made up for in the gap. I urge the Government to learn at this early stage of their Administration that the Civil Service is well aware that it is its duty to carry out the Government's decisions loyally and effectively. That is what it has always traditionally done.

9 Jul 1997 : Column 697

7.45 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in preparing as far as I could for this debate I recognised that possibly three kinds of issues might be raised--on the relationship between special advisers, Ministers, civil servants and Cabinet Committees. I also recognised that those could be issues of propriety, efficiency and where power lay. This has been a remarkable debate in which serious and thoughtful contributions have been made on issues of efficiency and power. I propose to answer those aspects of the debate with the seriousness that they deserve. We have had a single speech from the Opposition Front Bench which is no more than a series of abusive comments about propriety.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I certainly did not say anything about propriety that was abusive. I asked the Minister some questions.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall seek to justify what I have just said.

Lord Burnham: And to answer the questions?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall answer those questions, too. However, those questions were put to me in such a way that they involved allegations that deserve to be treated perhaps not with contempt but without the degree of seriousness that I propose to adopt in my response to the remainder of the debate. The noble Baroness who has spoken from the Opposition Front Bench claims that there is a whole series of outstanding questions which the Government, due to coyness or evasiveness--she has used both words--failed to answer when challenged. I repudiate that charge. In no case has there been either coyness or evasiveness in the answering of outstanding questions.

The noble Baroness began by speaking about the haste of the appointments on Saturday 3rd May of Mr. Jonathan Powell and Mr. Alastair Campbell. She complained that I had refused to comment on their qualifications for the job. Indeed I did--and I shall do so again. I shall refuse to comment on the qualifications of any special advisers for their individual jobs, just as in the past Ministers would have refused to comment on the qualifications of Sarah Hogg, Norman Blackwell or any others. I do not believe that when in opposition we would have presumed to ask such questions.

The noble Baroness said that the kite had been flown and that Mr. Jonathan Powell was to be the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. She then claimed that the kite had been hauled down from Millbank Tower when I made it clear--I repeat it--that there was never any intention of appointing Mr. Jonathan Powell as the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary. The allegation that Millbank Tower made that claim has been specifically repudiated by me. I repudiate it again. It is an unworthy allegation. The noble Baroness chose to use press comments, which she could never verify, that the Cabinet Secretary was seriously unrelaxed about any such appointment. Since there was never any intention to make such an appointment, although I acknowledge that the phrase is

9 Jul 1997 : Column 698

one that Sir Robin Butler, as a witty man, might well have made in other circumstances, there is no truth to the claim that he expressed any objection to the appointment of Mr. Jonathan Powell to the post that he holds. There is no truth in any suggestion that he was to be appointed to any other post.

The noble Baroness asked me about the number of political appointments. That has been made clear on many occasions. There has never been any question of trying to conceal the number of political appointments. If one wants to make a comparison with the previous administration, it is true that there are more special advisers to the Government than in the past, but the noble Baroness forgets that the previous government also had a considerable number of expert advisers. Some political appointees to the previous government were paid at Permanent Secretary level rather than at the lower levels which are within the range for special advisers at the present time.

The noble Baroness seems to think that there is something sinister about the salary bill. I have said, and we have all said, that as soon as negotiations on salaries for all special advisers have been concluded then the total salary bill will be published. There will be no concealment of any kind. There is no special significance in two months, because of course special advisers were appointed at different times.

The noble Baroness claimed that we are seeking to marginalise Parliament, but she produced very little evidence for that claim. The number of Statements and announcements of policy that have been made to Parliament make it clear that the Government take Parliament extremely seriously. In the serious part of my speech I shall refer to the efforts that we wish to make to improve the efficiency of parliamentary scrutiny of government activities.

I move on to the rest of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, gave us some historical analysis. That was deepened by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, suggested that the debate could take the form of an historical analysis or act as a note of warning. I prefer to take it as a note of warning. I prefer to think of it as being an admonition in the sense of warning rather than of reproof at this stage, because I do not believe that we have quite reached that stage.

A number of concerns have been raised about the component groups which provide advice to Ministers--civil servants, special advisers, the policy unit, and Cabinet Committees. It is proper to question, from the point of view of efficiency and the locus of power, how that works. I take first the Civil Service. I am delighted to have the opportunity to put on record the Government's total commitment to retaining a politically impartial Civil Service. The Civil Service plays a vital part in underpinning the constitution, and in sustaining good government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, expressed concern about devolution to agencies. I know that she has been doughty in defence of the Recruitment and Assessment Service in the private sector. I pay tribute to her for that. I was interested that the noble Lord, Lord Gillmore, thought that the agencies were beneficial. I tend to agree

9 Jul 1997 : Column 699

with that from my experience, in that agencies, although they are to a certain extent more remote from parliamentary control, nevertheless can be assigned specific and clear objectives. They can be held to account if they do not achieve those objectives. That was very much more difficult with the previous departmental systems.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, rightly drew attention to the need for the Civil Service to attract the most able. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, made the same point. I can confirm not only that we are considering bringing forward legislation to give legal force to the Civil Service code but that we are committed to do so. There is no question of us retreating from that.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, referred to the Haldane principles. Those principles are critical to our consideration of efficiency, because they refer to the requirement that advice given to Ministers should be based on the full evidence available from whatever source. I can confirm that we adhere to the Haldane principles. Indeed, some aspects of them are enshrined in the present Civil Service code which is to be made statutory.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, was concerned that special advisers might be diluting the role of the Civil Service, if I understood him aright. There is a continuing role for the provision of honest and impartial advice to Ministers. The Government benefit enormously from the Civil Service's commitment to provide that impartial policy advice. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, confirmed the necessity for that.

Special advisers provide an additional source of advice to their Minister in the development of government policy in a party political context. That has always been the role of special advisers, and there is no particular change in that. I was glad again to have the confirmation of the noble Lord, Lord Gillmore, that he had found that helpful. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, wondered why special advisers should not be accountable. I am not clear as to what she means by accountable unless she means publicly accountable. Privately, they are accountable to their employer. Publicly, surely, they are no more accountable than any others giving advice to Ministers. When we come to the freedom of information legislation I shall be interested to see whether she takes the view that advice to Ministers by civil servants or special advisers should be made public. I rather think that she will not.

We have set out clearly and openly the role that special advisers or civil servants must play. In answer to the particular point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northesk, the Prime Minister set out a copy of the terms and conditions for the employment of special advisers in the Library of the House. That is publicly available. I am not sure whether that has ever been done in the past. It includes a comprehensive description of their roles and responsibilities, which are complementary to the role of career civil servants.

An additional strand of advice which has been referred to is the policy unit at No. 10 Downing Street. There may be questions as how that relates to the old Central Policy Review Staff. It dealt with metapolicy

9 Jul 1997 : Column 700

above departmental level, whereas the No. 10 policy unit is set up to work closely with departments at all levels to determine longer term policy. In case there is any doubt, Cabinet Committee policy advisers may well attend when it is appropriate, but special advisers do not attend.

There appeared to be differing views about outside advice from business people and others. I take seriously the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, although it was a historical view, that Ministers lack managerial experience and that Permanent Secretaries tended to take advantage by filling that gap. I was puzzled by the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, seemed to think that bringing outside business people into government and into contact with government, and using their services, was somehow a diminution of the efficiency of government. I do not believe that to be the case. The presence of people such as Mr. Martin Taylor of Barclays Bank, to name but one, and business people such as my noble friend Lord Simon of Highbury, to name someone in a different position, is enormously valuable to government.

One of the problems of government has always been that we do not have the movement between the private sector and the public sector which is a feature of government in the US, with all its other defects which have been referred to.

Cabinet Committees provide a framework for collective consideration of major policy issues. Let me make it clear again that in the interests of open government we have continued the proper policy introduced by Mr. John Major in 1992 of publishing the names, terms of reference and membership of Cabinet Committees.

I do not have a great deal to add to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, who referred to the growth of ad hoc committees. I believe that he was referring to ad hoc committees in the Thatcher years. My impression is that the openness of Cabinet Committees described the real situation and that those committees are as they appear to be in public. Cabinet Committees perform an essential function because they have the benefit of consideration by career civil servants, by special advisers where appropriate in main departments, by the No. 10 policy unit and by the Minister responsible for the issues discussed.

It is too early to say whether during the two-and-a-half months since the Government were elected there has been any significant change in the efficiency of government. I accept that the proof of the pudding will be evident over the next five or 10 years. I am sure that, during that period, Ministers, whoever they are, will always be willing to answer debates of this kind. At the same time, I am confident that the ability of your Lordships' House to provide expert critiques of the way in which government do their business will always be welcomed by the Government, as we have welcomed this debate.

9 Jul 1997 : Column 701


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page