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6.22 p.m.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for calling our attention to a document published at the beginning of the Recess which contains, among other things, the statement that important documents should not be published after the rising of Parliament. His account in the light of his own ministerial experience of how this differs from or complements the previous document which was also public is something that we may well wish to study in Hansard.

I have no such experience to share with noble Lords. My interest is a different one. During the period when the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, held high

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political office I had to teach about the British system of government. I have been all too painfully aware that that has been in constant change. Therefore, I look to a document of this kind to see what clues it may provide to the way in which government is at present conducted. From that point of view it is a very striking document because of the emphasis that is given to the presentation of policy rather than its formulation or implementation. For example, one of the matters to which it refers--it is not something for which this Government bears responsibility--is the pullulation of junior Ministers with particular aspects of their department confided to them and those aspects made public. That used not to be the case. It raises all kinds of questions as to what junior Ministers are supposed to do and how they fit into the presentation of government policy. As to that, the document is singularly unenlightening. The only positive statement that is made is that the Permanent Secretary retaining responsibility for the department at large is not subject to junior Ministers but, on the other hand, junior Ministers are not subject to his directions.

One can visualise some confusion when policy must be made and presented at very short notice. For example, one would have liked to know in greater detail--it may become very important as government legislation appears before us--the position in the Department of Social Security. We have a Secretary of State who is supposed to conduct that part of the Government's business and a Minister in the department who has been told to think the unthinkable. We have a Minister in this House who, presumably, has to mention the unmentionable. After all, the matter must be complete in some way. One would like to know how the balance is struck. It is not an academic question or one that has not already had some consequences.

I shall not rehearse what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has said about the confusion induced in the financial world by the antics of presentation of government policy regarding EMU. I take a different example. Noble Lords will be aware from the press that Her Majesty's visit to India, which is a very important event in her reign--earlier today we were assured how important was her position in the Commonwealth--was clouded by attacks on the part of the Indian press upon the alleged determination of the British Government to act in some mediating capacity in relation to the problem of Kashmir. How did that arise? It arose because at the Labour Party conference a junior Minister made a speech in which he precisely suggested that Britain could intervene favourably in this long-running conflict. It appears that he was unaware that among his audience were not merely Labour Party stalwarts but a representative of the Indian High Commission. As a result, India knew that at least one Minister--not, I hasten to add, the Foreign Secretary--was contemplating what for India was something that should never be contemplated, like it or not; namely, that the Kashmir problem was an international one.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, also drew our attention to the whole business of co-ordinating the presentation of government policy, in particular the quite extraordinary role that is allotted to an officer not

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new to government but clearly of great importance: the head of the No. 10 Press Office. When one reads of the importance that is attached to his assent to any communication between a Minister and anyone else one begins to understand why, so it is rumoured, the policeman in No. 10 Downing Street has been given instructions as to what to do if someone comes along--let us say a Korean--and says, "Take me to your leader". The policeman is told that he must ask that individual whether he is referring to the Dear Leader or the Great Leader. If he says, "the Dear Leader" he is conducted straight to the Prime Minister. If he says, "the Great Leader", he is allowed to enter the Downing Street press office.

It does not, as we have seen in recent weeks, altogether work. The trouble is that although the Labour Party believes that it has a mandate not merely from the electorate but occasionally from Heaven, and it talked at the last election as though the party manifesto was a combination, at the highest level, of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, there are voices, apparently even in the Labour Party, even of persons elected on a Labour ticket, who disagree, who have different views. It is hard to believe that even that great apparatus will, in the end, succeed in doing what, thankfully, no government have been able to do: silence the natural scepticism of the British public and British Members of Parliament. Even the Mandelson clones at the other end of the Palace have been unable to silence their natural scepticism and natural desire to speak out.

6.31 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for introducing today's debate. The Motion seeks clarification of the new components and features of the Ministerial Code. At the outset we should acknowledge that, at a variety of levels, these should have the potential of promoting within government the essential virtues of probity and integrity. There is nothing wrong with that. But the real question we should be asking ourselves here is what price is being paid for this benefit.

It is something of a truism, but things are not always as they seem. The code is no exception. It is symptomatic of the process whereby this Government's protestations about giving more power to the people are tempered by:

    "parallel thrusts towards less accountability and a strengthening of the executive".--[Official Report, 14/10/97; col. 422.]

It could reasonably have been supposed that new Labour would have used the code as a mechanism to deliver greater democratisation. In this we cannot dispute that it does deliver a very much stronger framework of ministerial accountability. But it does not place this in the hands of the public. It does not even place it in the hands of Parliament. No, my Lords, it delivers it into the hand of the Executive as personified by the Prime Minister, and the No. 10 press office.

By way of illustration, I wish to focus upon Paragraphs I(iii), I(iv) and I(v). These represent a substantial re-working of the sense conveyed in

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paragraph I(iii) of Questions of Procedure for Ministers. I shall not weary your Lordships by reading the relevant texts in full.

Before embarking upon an analysis of the nuances of meaning between the two texts, some background is necessary. Your Lordships will recall that, in the wake of the recommendations of the First Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, a new paragraph I was drafted for insertion into QPM to buttress and, in a sense, replace the provisions concerning accountability of Ministers to Parliament as outlined in paragraph 27. At that time and in subsequent debate of the Scott Inquiry Report, both main parties of opposition expressed considerable concern at the phrase "knowingly mislead". Ann Taylor, in giving evidence to the Public Service Committee inquiry on accountability in 1996, noted that QPM would be rewritten if there were a Labour government and that "knowingly" in paragraph I(iii) would be removed. We now have a Labour government. We have the promised re-write, and yet, paragraph I(iii) retains the phrase "knowingly mislead". No doubt the noble Lord will wish to explain this apparent change of heart.

So to the revisions made to the text. The phraseology of QPM:

    "Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament and the public",

may well have been imperfect. But the new code, while requiring Ministers to be "accurate and truthful" to Parliament, only imposes a duty of being "as open as possible" in their dealings with the public, a requirement that was, in any event, explicitly stated in paragraph I(iii) of QPM. By any measure that is a dangerous dilution of ministerial accountability and responsibility to the public. I ask the noble Lord to explain that apparent anomaly and to clarify how the Government reconcile it with the Prime Minister's:

    "strong personal commitment to restoring the bond of trust between the British people and their Government."

We should not lose sight of the fact that the code is no more and no less than a Prime Ministerial edict as to the standards he expects his Ministers to live up to. The chain of accountability that it delineates is from Ministers upwards to the Prime Minister alone. This is exemplified by the phraseology that:

    "They can only remain in office for so long as they retain the Prime Minister's confidence".

In effect breaches of the code and any sanctions that may be applied as a result, notwithstanding the possibility of an intervention from the Cabinet Secretary, vest wholly within the personal judgment of the Prime Minister. That was a particular criticism of QPM and its operation under the previous administration. As the Public Service Committee Report noted:

    "It seems extraordinary to us that the only explicit statement of how Ministers are expected to discharge their obligations to Parliament appears not in a Parliamentary document, but in a document issued by the Prime Minister".

It went on to say that this:

    "contributes to an illusion that the obligations on Ministers in relation to Parliament are derived from the instructions of the Prime Minister, and not from Parliament itself".

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And yet, perhaps not so surprisingly in the context of this Government and despite all of their protestations about greater accountability, the Ministerial Code perpetuates, even strengthens, this centralisation of control and power in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Here I ask the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, to give an authoritative and definitive statement as to the constitutional status of the code. In particular, I would ask him if it is the Government's view that the Resolution on Accountability of another place has primacy in this area. This bias towards centralisation is most apparent in the code's provisions with respect to the media and special advisers.

As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has already told us, it is in these areas that it has been most extensively revised. Here I do not dispute the desirability of co-ordination of government strategy and implementation, but the text is now framed almost to convey the impression that Ministers are not permitted to sneeze, particularly in front of the media, without authority from the No. 10 press office.

That desire of the centre to exert absolute control over all presentation of policy has about it the character of obsession. It lends credibility to the impression that this Government perceive policy exclusively in terms of its impact upon the electorate. Its presentation is deemed to be more important than its substance. That is dangerous. It does no favours for either good government or democracy.

There is merit here in seeking to review the operation of the code by reference to policy presentation in recent months. It is my understanding that the code was implemented on the first day of this Government. That being so, it is curious that the Chancellor, despite the provisions in paragraph 27 that:

    "the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament",
found it convenient to use the media as his preferred means to disseminate his intention to transfer control of interest rates to the Bank of England. There is scope for similar criticism to be levelled at the handling of various other major policy initiatives such as the Budget Statement and the publication of the Dearing Report.

Taken as a whole those examples demonstrate a certain disdain of this Government for Parliament. They are also technical, if not actual, breaches of paragraph 27 of the code, and yet, so far as we know, no sanctions have been applied to the Ministers concerned. No identifiable action has been taken to reprimand them. In effect Ministers have been able to by-pass their accountability to Parliament and the public. The chain of accountability has been diluted.

A charitable mind might infer that, despite previous lapses, the Chancellor's decision to withhold any policy statement on the single currency until yesterday is indicative of his and the Government's desire to be seen to be bound by their own code. Fair enough perhaps, my Lords. But this should not disguise or excuse the muddle of recent weeks or the damage that the Prime Minister has admitted it has done. As we all know, this was not a product of idle or irresponsible speculation by the media. No smoke without fire. It was a nudge here,

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a wink there, from this Government's serried ranks of special advisers indulging in their favoured pastime of off-the-record briefing on behalf of their ministerial masters.

This highlights the area of the code about which I have my most serious reservations. A recent Daily Telegraph article summarises the role of special advisers thus:

    "[They] are, in Tony Blair's new Britain, at least as important as politicians. Gone are the days when Cabinet Ministers would ring editors on their direct lines to set the news agenda--these days leave it to the professional. Spin doctors are busily employed rebutting negative stories about their bosses ... More significantly, advisers work by telling journalists, off the record, of the 'real meaning' behind seemingly mundane words."
Here I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that the source of my quotation last week--that "You have to be economical with the truth sometimes"--was a senior political adviser to this administration speaking openly on television. The problem is that the Ministerial Code does not include them within its general remit, despite the fact that many of them are, to all intents and purposes, ciphers of their respective Ministers.

We are referred instead to "the Model Contract promulgated by the Prime Minister on 19th May, 1997". This, apart from some exceptions relating to impartiality and objectivity, requires them to act in accordance with the Civil Service code. But the only apparent and binding chain of accountability to which they seem to be subject is directly to the Minister by whom they have been appointed and whose interests they are in any event seeking to protect. This is "crony-ism" at its worst. What special advisers in this administration contribute to government is an essentially hidden, unaccountable and unelected tier of decision-making, operating within the machine, within the political and democratic processes, but outside--even, to an extent, actively flouting--the requirement for truthfulness, accuracy and openness. As the "unattributable" mouth-pieces of their respective bosses, they exist as a mechanism to allow Ministers to by-pass parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.

We can but hope that the Government intend to address this problem as a matter of urgency rather than falling back on the platitude of blaming the activities of their spin doctors on media speculation. In a spirit of helpfulness, I suggest that there would be merit in amending paragraph 48 of the Ministerial Code to create an explicit linkage of accountability between Ministers and their special advisers. This would bring the latter within the framework of proper accountability to Parliament and the public as well as binding them unequivocally to truthfulness, accuracy and openness.

In conclusion, as with so much with this Government, it is what lies behind the veil of the rhetoric that matters. The Ministerial Code is of a piece with this. It brazenly parades democratic virtue with one hand while furtively increasing the power and control of the centre and weakening accountability with the other.

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6.44 p.m.

Lord Hayhoe: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for raising the Question today. Percipient commentators should always look carefully and critically at Government announcements slipped out by way of planted Written Questions on the last day before a long parliamentary Recess. That has not been unknown in the past, but in recent years the practice has been strongly discouraged by authority. I wonder why the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, was asked to plant the Question about a new edition of Questions of Procedure for Ministers at the last moment. It was not because the Question was of little importance. It was answered by no less a noble Lord than the Lord Privy Seal. Much more likely, the timing was chosen because of the high political significance of the changes made by No. 10 to the document, which is now renamed Ministerial Code: A Code of Conduct and Guidance on Procedure for Ministers.

Perhaps there was fear of embarrassment if Members of both Houses of Parliament could have picked over the document while Parliament was in Session. No doubt, the Government will deny any such shabby intention. But, to adapt a well-known phrase, "They would, wouldn't they?".

Peter Riddell of The Times, a widely-respected and distinguished political commentator, described the new Ministerial Code as:

    "the most revolutionary publication produced by the Government since the election".
In his article on 1st August, he focused his comments, as do I, on paragraph 88, which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. It relates to the co-ordination of government policy. I believe that the paragraph deserves to be read in full. It states:

    "In order to ensure the effective presentation of government policy, all major interviews and media appearances, both print and broadcast, should be agreed with the No. 10 Press Office before any commitments are entered into. The policy content of all major speeches, press releases and new policy initiatives should be cleared in good time with the No. 10 Private Office; the timing and form of the announcements should be cleared with the No. 10 Press Office. Each Department should keep a record of media contacts by both Ministers and officials".

Of course I accept the need for proper co-ordination of government and ministerial announcements and speeches. No doubt on many occasions the previous Government could have done a lot better in that regard. But the essence of paragraph 88 goes well beyond sensible co-ordination and implies a measure of central control by the No. 10 Press Office which threatens the constitutional independence of Cabinet Ministers and their departments of state. There are real issues at stake which generate worry and concern.

In recent weeks, we have seen the attempts by the Prime Minister's Press Secretary to impose tight controls over Civil Service press officers of the Government Information Service. His actions have aroused a great deal of informed press comment and genuine anxiety that the political impartiality of civil servants may be at risk. I understand that the Select Committee on Public Administration in another place is

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taking a close look at the situation, which sits uneasily with the Government's proposed Freedom of Information Act.

There are also serious questions to be answered about the removal or departure of heads of information--they were referred to again by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy--from the Treasury, the Department of Social Security, the Ministry of Defence and other departments. Your Lordships will recall the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy on Wednesday 15th October. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was not at his best in answering that day, perhaps for the reasons so well described by my noble friend. The Minister's anxieties about his difficult task in defending the Government on the issue were exemplified by his response to the rather silly supplementary question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. The Minister suggested that he should look at what Sir Bernard Ingham had written in his memoirs about what happened to him in 1973 at the Department of Employment. I have my copy here, having read it a long time ago. The case the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, called in aid occurred almost a quarter of a century ago, although I well recall what happened because Keith McDowall, who was also involved, is a good friend of mine and perhaps of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.

However, there is much more recent and relevant evidence available from Sir Bernard. I commend to the Minister the Parliamentary Monitor of October of this year and the article in it by Sir Bernard. The article was entitled "Spindoctors Prescribe Bitter Pill for Government Information Service". Now, Sir Bernard is a very firm supporter of the GIS. He certainly approves of Alastair Campbell's efforts to improve that service, both in ensuring that it has early access to information and in underlining to all policy makers, Ministers, the importance of presentation. No one with experience of government would deny that general issue, and I believe that Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, was also endorsing those same objectives in his evidence to the Select Committee on Public Administration in another place, as reported on the lunchtime news programme today.

However, Sir Bernard draws the line when Mr. Campbell commands the GIS to:

    "Decide your headlines ... Sell your story and, if you disagree with what is being written, argue your case".
Perhaps I may now quote Sir Bernard's response to that. He says that,

    "the GIS is not there to sell stories. Its job is to present policy. Nor is it there to build Ministerial images. That is precluded by rule. And it most certainly is not there to dictate to a free press what should be written, how it should be written and to challenge its news judgement ... The GIS also has to have some regard for its behaviour. Frankly, there would be no place in my GIS"--
that is, Sir Bernard's GIS--

    "for Mr. Mandleson, Mr. Campbell, Labour Party communicator Dave Hill and the aforesaid lout Charlie Whelan on the evidence of their Mafia-style approach to news management from Nick Jones, the BBC's political correspondent, in his book Campaign 97".
Recent television programmes, referred to by previous speakers, "We are the Treasury" about the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Whelan, Ed Balls et al,

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together with the briefings and the counter-briefings about the EMU, clearly indicate what an awful mess the Government are in.

When Peter Kellner, not known for his antagonism to this Government, commenting in the Evening Standard upon the way in which the announcement about the extra £250 million, £250 million, and then, surprise, surprise, £300 million for the NHS this winter, was made, concludes that the Government,

    "puts the demands of spin doctors ahead of the needs of real doctors";
and when Melanie Phillips warns of the dangers in a cogent article in the Observer of 12th October under the headline:

    "Democracy is the biggest casualty when journalists are prepared to stand by and let Labour's spin-doctors engineer the news",
surely it is time for second thoughts on such matters. I wish that I had more confidence that journalists and the press barons would take appropriate and effective action. But I recall the old lines of doggerel:

    "You cannot hope to bribe or twist, Thank God, the British journalist But seeing what the man will do Unbribed, there's no occasion to."

6.55 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I believe that we are all more grateful than perhaps we suspected we would be to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for raising this matter in the form of an Unstarred Question. We have heard four speeches of very substantial merit. Not only did I enjoy listening to them but I will also want to read them more fully in Hansard to consider some of the very important points that have been made. However, I wish that we were not discussing such a matter on an Unstarred Question but that we were doing so on a more substantial occasion. The issues raised by the document under consideration do go to the heart of parliamentary government, whether we approve of the document on the whole or whether we are as critical of it, as some noble Lords have so far been.

However, looking back on my own ministerial experience which lasted for 11 years, I have to say that I am not quite as surprised at some of the points contained in the document as are other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. For example, he referred to paragraph 88 as being,

    "an astonishing new directive",
and said that the real object was to hamper and restrict normal contacts with Ministers. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, said that it was,

    "a measure of centralised control",
threatening, as I understood it, parliamentary government.

As a Cabinet Minister, I remember very well that no Minister was expected to appear, for example, on the "Today" programme on the "World at One", on "The World this Weekend", on "Newsnight" or, indeed, on "Panorama" without reference to Number 10. The permission of the Prime Minister, which really meant that of his principal press officer, was always required by any Minister appearing on a major media event.

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Whatever the previous document may or may not have said, I find it difficult to believe that a very similar rule was applied by the previous Prime Minister. I believe that it is a matter of common sense.

There was a very similar convention, if not a rule, applied to the speeches of Ministers. I remember the trouble that we sometimes took to evade it. If it was a major one, we were meant to send a speech to No. 10 for approval. Indeed, all too frequently--and I can confess it now because the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, is absent from the Chamber this evening--if I was making a speech on a Friday night, I would send it to No. 10 when I caught the train and then I would be lost until the moment I delivered it. Those were the days before mobile telephones! I was prepared to risk the Prime Minister's wrath the following day, provided that I had had my say. However, the convention, the rules, were very plain. Therefore, I am not too surprised by what the document says, except for the boldness of setting it down.

Then there is the question of special advisers. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, drew attention to paragraph 48 of the document which contains a reference to two special advisers. As I understand it, that was the case in 1974--23 years ago. I had one special adviser and I thought that that was quite sufficient. But certainly my colleagues in the Cabinet at that time could have none, could have one, could have two; but not more than two. So I am not too surprised that that has been embodied in a very open way in the document before us this evening.

The noble Lord also referred to the acceptance of gifts. I very well remember the case of Anthony Crosland and a coffee pot. But if we are concerned with the probity of government, paragraph 126 of the document corresponds very closely indeed with paragraph 83 in my document which dates from 1966. I am sure that I should have given it back, but I retain it to this day--No. 108, marked "Confidential".

Therefore, looking at the document before us--I read it carefully at the time of its publication; and I do not dissent from the view that it ought to have been published not on the eve of the Recess, but at some other time--I do not get quite as upset as have other noble Lords. However, I agree that Ministers should be more able and feel themselves freer to make statements on their own account. Indeed, we should have a great deal less of spin doctors than we have been having in recent months.

There is no doubt at all--and here I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Northesk said--that the muddle of recent weeks leading to yesterday's Statement was damaging and that that was principally the work of spin-doctors. I further agree that there is a very real danger of centralisation in No. 10. However, do not tell me that that is a new phenomenon. Let us not forget the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. She of all Prime Ministers centralised things at No. 10. If she is a model for the present Prime Minister, I regret it; but those who laboured and sometimes suffered under her regime should not now seek to be critical of a Prime Minister who may, to a large extent, follow in her footsteps.

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I, too, believe that the system will break down. Methods that are appropriate to campaigning in opposition are totally inappropriate to the running of a government. Sooner or later, if a kitchen cabinet at No. 10 becomes dominant, we shall see the disintegration of this Government. We shall see the unhappiness and the difficulties in which Harold Wilson found himself in 1967, largely as a result of relying more on a kitchen cabinet than trusting his Ministers. The principle of Cabinet government is that the Prime Minister chooses the Cabinet Ministers and they get on with the job. If they are shackled either by No. 10, or more particularly by spin doctors, this Government will be a worse government than I, among others, would like them to be. It is right to issue a warning, and there is nothing wrong in using the document that we are discussing as a text.

Like other Ministers of my era and since--and, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has reminded us, the document has provided guidance over a period of 45 years--I was guided, restrained and occasionally irritated by Questions of Procedure for Ministers. Indeed I chafed a great deal more as a parliamentary secretary than as a Cabinet Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, made an interesting point about the role of junior Ministers today. That has changed. We must recognise that the structure of government must change, and often for the better. Junior Ministers have a great deal more responsibility than they did 30 years ago. Herbert Morrison wrote a book in, I believe, 1950. It was the only text at that time on the subject of how governments had to work through the actions of Ministers. It is fascinating to note the extent to which he considered that parliamentary secretaries were appointed--not by the Prime Minister but by the Cabinet Minister--essentially as dogsbodies for whom work had to be found. No parliamentary secretary is a dogsbody today. They often have important responsibilities.

However, I find it difficult to accept the extent to which junior Ministers--I refer to parliamentary secretaries in this Government, but also very much in the previous government--have often referred in Parliament to decisions as their own, using the first person singular, when they were clearly not, nor should have been, their own decisions. They were decisions made by reference to their parliamentary head, their Member of Cabinet, and yet they have been referred to in a personalised sense. I do not believe that is good for government and it certainly does not accord with my concept of collective responsibility. On the whole I think that Ministers who know their way around should not need this guidance. Indeed some of it strikes me as assuming that Ministers are a great deal more naive than most of them turn out to be. Those of us who have been involved in public life have a sense of what is proper and those of us who are attached to Parliament know that that is where we should often be.

If there is something which is missing in this document which I believe should be included, it is an emphasis on the obligation of Ministers to Parliament and the need for Ministers to be in Parliament, and not only to make Statements or answer questions from time

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to time. Those who have been Ministers know how easy it is to be seduced by the responsibilities and authority of ministerial status and also to be seduced by one's civil servants. A Minister may start off by believing that he ought to go to the House of Commons, but his civil servant may say, "But, Minister, you have a meeting at three o'clock". The Minister says to his private secretary, "But I would like to go to the House". The private secretary then says, "But, Minister, what business have you in the House today"? The Minister says, "I should like to hear other Ministers' replies to questions". The private secretary finds it extremely difficult to understand that, and too often Ministers succumb; they do not go to Parliament except when they have specific business to carry out. It is then that they become out of touch not only with Parliament but also with their own Back-Benchers. In the long run that is another recipe for bad government, whichever party is in power. I should have liked to see in the document a reference to remind Members and Ministers that Parliament comes first. I think that item is as necessary as some items that are included in the document. They are Members of Parliament, whether of this House or another, before they are Ministers. They should never forget that.

The document contains some interesting items which certainly did not appear 30 years' ago. There is a reference, for example, to air miles. Air miles are such new phenomena that I still do not understand them. I think that a reference to air miles in this document is possibly a bridge too far. There are references to special advisers. We all agree that that is necessary. There are no significant changes in the number of areas mentioned. There are no significant changes in the references to civil servants and party conferences. There are no significant changes in the references to spouses.

I remember when I took my spouse--as I am obliged to call her--to a conference in Lille. She did not have to attend, but it was thought a good idea for her to attend. I had to refer to the Treasury the additional cost to the public purse. I understand that an insistent secretary laboured long and hard for up to six months before making a submission to the Chancellor that my wife should be charged the cost of the sandwiches that she ate. We were happy to pay that. I believe that was an extravagant interpretation of what I believe is now paragraph 83 in this document. However, the principle is important; namely, that spouses should not constitute a charge on the public purse unless they are performing some proper function.

I note that paragraph 77 concerns Ministers who may be recalled from abroad. I well remember driving on holiday across France and Switzerland to my holiday home in Italy. Someone came out and told me that the Chief Whip was on the telephone. The Chief Whip told me on the telephone, "I have to tell you, Bill, there is a vote tomorrow night and we need you". I replied, "You may need me, but I do not really want to come". The Chief Whip said, "I totally understand and if I were in Tuscany I would not want to return home". We all went to Tuscany, even 30 years ago! That Chief Whip is now a Member of this House. I told him on the telephone, "I do not think that I shall come". He replied, "I totally

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understand but I suggest that you tell that to the Prime Minister. He is at Chequers. Here is the telephone number and perhaps you could ring him up and tell him that you do not think you can be present tomorrow evening because you are on the beaches in Tuscany". I caught the 'plane early the following day and went to the House of Commons. The Government had a majority of six, which in those days was quite substantial. Therefore I have been a victim as well as a recipient of good advice from this document.

I wish we had more time in which to speak. I entirely agree with what has been said about the Civil Service and about keeping it impartial by treating it fairly. It would be foolish to alienate the Civil Service or seek to differentiate between individuals on political grounds. I am disturbed by a degree of restlessness that I detect, particularly in the Treasury, on the part of career civil servants who feel that somehow they are being superseded. Although in some cases this evening as regards the comments that were made on the document, it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I welcome this discussion because if there has been a fault it has been a fault on the right side.

7.9 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, my purpose in rising to speak at the end of the debate on the Unstarred Question is to bring together the threads of the discussion on behalf of the Opposition. I wish to convey in particular the real depth of concern that I perceived in listening to the speeches of my noble friends and to some extent that of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, about how the Government are reacting in their early months in government. I refer to their role, their accountability to Parliament and to the accusations made in some quarters that they are treating Parliament with contempt, using their enormous majority in another place to rush through legislation and to make announcements when Parliament is not sitting, quite deliberately, bringing to life what my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham famously called the "elective dictatorship".

First, I very much welcome the opportunity to have this debate. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy always brings to this House lively and interesting subjects for discussion and has done so again today. I agree with him. The Government's start on this issue was not good. They issued this document on the last day before the Summer Recess--incidentally, before the longest Summer Recess for another place in living memory. My verdict on the Government's record so far as regards their desire for openness and accountability is that it is pretty pathetic. As I said earlier, there is a real sense of disappointment. I believe that there is a serious failure on the part of the Government to take many of what I was going to call the platitudes--I think that many are not platitudes--or many of the phrases laid out in the code seriously.

I wish to ask the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, a series of questions. The most important in many respects is this. Can he tell the House whether all Ministers have been required to have read the document and to sign a document saying that they have done so,

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so that it is beyond any real doubt that all Ministers in the Government have read the document and clearly understood the procedures laid out?

One of the chief new features of the document is a foreword by the Prime Minister. It is of great interest. In his foreword, the Prime Minister states:

    "We will extend openness further through a Freedom of Information Act".
I shall be delighted if the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is able to tell us when the Bill will be forthcoming, what stage the ongoing discussions with his colleagues in Government have reached, and when we may expect a Bill.

The Prime Minister continues:

    "We should be absolutely clear about how Ministers should account, and be held to account, by Parliament".
I very much welcome the clarity of that statement. Yet since 1st May of this year we have seen an enormous number of announcements given to the press rather than to Parliament. To some extent that must always happen in any government. But these are major announcements from a Government who always pledged themselves in Opposition to take Parliament seriously. I know how often the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, pledged himself to that aim. That is why I welcome the fact that he will reply to the debate.

Let us consider some of the examples. The change to Prime Minister's questions was announced to the press. So were the issues of the operational independence of the Bank of England, the Joint Cabinet Committees with the Liberal Democrats, the changes to the contract for the millennium dome project, new guidelines on arms sales, changes to immigration rules, and the now infamous case of the briefings on new policy positions on the single currency. I wonder whether the noble Lord who will reply thinks that these first few months of Government have been a success.

As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy pointed out, the Prime Minister draws specific attention to paragraph 1 of the code, which inter alia states:

that is Ministers--

    "must not ask civil servants to act in any way which would conflict with the Civil Service Code".
A number of noble Lords raised the issue as regards Jonathan Haslam. It was reported on 17th October that Jonathan Haslam, the senior information officer of the DEE resigned when Mr. Stephen Byers, the Minister in that department, tried to force him to write a press release that explicitly criticised the previous government. Can the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, confirm or deny this report? If it is true, will disciplinary action be taken against the Minister concerned, or has it already been taken? There is a serious charge attached to this. If the code is to be taken seriously by Ministers, the Prime Minister's office must have some form of retribution; or is the code just regarded as pious words?

Since 1st May, seven chief information officers have been removed. They are going at the rate of one every three-and-a-half weeks--about the survival period of a

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subaltern on the Somme in the First World War. How many more does the noble Lord expect to lose between now and Christmas?

In paragraph 48, the new Ministerial Code explicitly increases the number of special advisers, allowing every Cabinet Minister a quota of two publicly financed advisers. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy mentioned this point. I understand that even in the House of Lords we have two special advisers when one sufficed before. Their numbers far exceed those under any previous government. It is an embarras de richesses, or, in the light of recent events, perhaps it is just an embarras.

I turn now to paragraph 88, about which many noble Lords have spoken at length. I agree with my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and others that this paragraph is the most significant change that has taken place in this new ministerial code. It is a most extraordinary paragraph. I did not entirely agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. Yes, of course all Government Ministers need to ask permission when they go on a national medium such as the "Today" programme, the "World at One" or "Newsnight". But I am not sure that that is what the paragraph deals with. The last sentence states:

    "Each Department should keep a record of media contacts by both Ministers and officials".
That places the responsibility not just on the Minister but on the Private Office within the department itself.

The new paragraph states:

    "All major interviews and media appearances, both print and broadcast, should be agreed with the No. 10 Press Office before any commitments are entered into".
I believe that this is evidence of the desire of the Prime Minister and his close coterie to control every minuscule aspect of government. It means that everything that is said or done by Ministers can be laid at the door of the Prime Minister. There is no air raid shelter for him when the flak begins to fly. I believe that he will regret many aspects of paragraph 88.

I return to a subject that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, knows well: the debacle that we saw over the policy on EMU. Perhaps I may ask him to elucidate as to who said what to whom. In the spirit of the Prime Minister's statement in the foreword to the code that,

    "openness is a vital ingredient of good, accountable Government",
will he agree to have published the media contacts of Treasury officials and Ministers in the past month; and most particularly in the 48 hours before the infamous Financial Times report disclosing the Government's positive stance on EMU?

The paragraph also demands that Ministers should clear all their speeches with Number 10. Yet I know that during the Summer Recess the Foreign Secretary made a speech to the Trades Union Conference where he announced that reforms would be made to this House and that a Bill would be brought forward in the next Queen's Speech, in the autumn of 1998. Given that I assume the Foreign Secretary cleared that with the Prime Minister's Office, will the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, now confirm whether that is to

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happen? If the Foreign Secretary, as subsequent press briefings seemed to indicate, has gone beyond his brief, was he disciplined; and if so, how?

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, will resist the temptation to lay all the blame on the previous government. We are very proud of our record on openness. It was the former Prime Minister himself who first published our own version of Questions of Procedure for Ministers.

Already this Government have shown that there is much to be worried about. But anybody who is interested in Parliament and the way it operates will be interested to read this debate. It is one that I have very much enjoyed. I have taken up too much of your Lordships' time and I look forward to listening to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.

7.21 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, let me agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has just said. I very much enjoyed the debate. It has quite properly ranged more widely than the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and is all the better for that. I have no difficulty in answering in a few minutes the literal Question that he asked about the nature of the changes and the reasons for them. I hope that I shall have time to go rather wider and deal with the substantive issues raised by noble Lords. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. I recognise his peculiarly lengthy qualifications for introducing such a debate. The House is grateful to him.

I begin with an apology, for which I shall no doubt get into trouble. I believe it was a mistake for the new ministerial code to be published on 31st July. I am sure the reason for that was that the Prime Minister was determined that it should go out before Parliament went into Recess. I am sure that the reason was utterly practical, in that the production and drafting had not been completed until the last minute. However, we ought to have done better. I hope that we will do better. I accept the criticism made, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, on that point--although I have to say to the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, who referred to paragraph 27, that the paragraph is preceded by the phrase,

    "when Parliament is in Session",
which qualifies the other quotations that he made.

Having apologised for the timing of the document, I have no apologies to make for the document itself and for the changes that have been made to the previous Questions of Procedure for Ministers. The code has been expanded to take account of the recommendations of the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is included in the wording of the resolution on ministerial accountability--I shall return to this matter when referring to the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Northesk--adopted by the House of Commons on 19th March 1997--in other words, just before Parliament was dissolved.

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The Government are determined that Ministers will accept their proper measure of responsibility for their conduct and for the actions and conduct of their department. That is in line with our manifesto commitment to,

    "review Ministerial accountability so as to remove recent abuses".

We have amended the rules on ministerial appointments to non-departmental public bodies to reflect the report by the Nolan Committee and the guidance given by the Commission of Public Appointments under Sir Len Peach. As was mentioned, we have highlighted the role of accounting officers in ensuring the efficient and effective use of public resources in departments. We have clarified the rules on civil servants attending party political events: basically, they do not, and should not. We have greatly clarified the guidance provided on Ministers' private interests to show how a conflict of interest can arise and steps that can be taken to avoid a conflict. We have also published separate guidance on the work of the Government Information Service. It is the first time that any government have had a single, self-standing note covering the entire range of the Government Information Service's work.

I have made a list of all the amendments made. I should very much have wished to have time to refer to all of them. However, in those few minutes I have given enough of a summary of the significant changes that have taken place. I emphasise that in other respects the ministerial code, despite a change of name, is identical with Questions of Procedure for Ministers, which was rightly and properly published by John Major when he was Prime Minister in May 1992. I pay tribute to him for doing that for the first time.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, seemed to think that the Prime Minister was claiming credit for the first publication of the code. He was not doing that. He was introducing the next section referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about extending openness further through a freedom of information Act. If I may deal with the noble Lord's question out of turn, the freedom of information Act is not in this Queen's Speech; it will be in the next Queen's Speech. We have made that clear. There will be a White Paper at the turn of the year and a draft Bill thereafter, so that the Bill can be considered fully and properly by Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, prefers the word "spidermen" to "spin doctors". I rather agree with him. However, I do not think that it will catch on. We had better recognise that we are stuck with "spin doctors". The noble Lord is right, as is the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, to say that it would be dangerous, and probably short-lived, were we to continue to think of importing into government Labour Party practice in Opposition. I happen to think that our publicity machine in Opposition was brilliant. But I recognise that it is not the same as the responsibilities of an information machine when in government. I am sure that, as time goes on, the responsibilities of government will stop whomsoever said that we should continue with our previous practices.

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We were told by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that there is a general unease in the Government Information Service. I have met quite a number of members of the Government Information Service and I do not find that unease. I do not find any feeling that there is politicisation of the Government Information Service--simply that there is a better definition of its role. As the ministerial code and the guidance makes clear, there are a number of matters which government information officers cannot do and which political information officers must do. That is what has happened in the first six months as a result of these publications.

I was asked specifically about a number of resignations from the Government Information Service. As I said before, these issues are largely between the individuals and their departments and it would be improper for me to comment. I would just say, on a question of fact, that Jonathan Haslam, the Department for Education information officer, had indicated his intention to move before there was any question of a possible dispute with Stephen Byers.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, about numbers. I confirm that there are now 16 full-time and two part-time advisers in No. 10, making a total of 54 full-time and eight part-time advisers.

The noble Lord asked me about donations to charities. I take his point, but some people gain treasure in heaven by giving to charities. If they are accepting too much payment and giving it to charities, maybe they are doing themselves some good as well--and perhaps it is a good idea to restrain it.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, referred to his difficulties in teaching about government when governments are so secretive, and I certainly understand that. But I do not think that he has a point when he criticises the fact that there are specific responsibilities for junior Ministers and points out that the permanent secretary is not responsible to junior Ministers. We know from statements of ministerial responsibility, not just from this Government but from the government who preceded us, that the Secretary of State is responsible overall for the work of a department. I do not believe that that is the problem. I say that also to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, who reminds me of Morrison's book Government and Parliament, which was a textbook for me in my time. I accept that it is not merely an academic question but also a practical one. I think it is efficient to have a division of responsibility between junior Ministers and not to treat them as dogsbodies.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, concentrated his criticism on paragraph 1 of the code. The elements of that paragraph which he criticised so forcefully are not those of the Government but of a Resolution of the House of Commons of 19th March 1997 in the last week of the previous government. That applies to subparagraphs (ii), (iii), (iv) and (v) of paragraph 1 of the code, which were the ones to which he took especial objection. They were the result of a resolution of the House of Commons in the time of his government--not ours.

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I was asked about the primacy of the House of Commons Resolution on accountability. I confirm that it is in force and current unless and until it is amended.

I do not take too seriously suggestions that Ministers are not allowed to sneeze, and I do not worry about the metaphor. Certainly most of us have not had any difficulty in expressing ourselves in public and in private in the last six months.

I was interested in the discussion about the role of special advisers and the comment on the model contract for them. I would remind your Lordships that the model contract for special advisers insists that they are servants of the Crown and bound by the Civil Service Code. The Civil Service Code refers to integrity, honesty and objectivity. It is our intention that the Civil Service Code shall, for the first time, be made statutory.

When noble Lords opposite criticise the model contract, they ought to remember that in the past special advisers were employed on a letter of appointment, which was not made public. Surely there is a gain in open government in that respect if no other.

I turn to the important point made by noble Lords about paragraph 88 and relationships with the press. There were no other recent Ministers, other than the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who abstained from comment on this to confirm or otherwise what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said: that these provisions in paragraph 88 are not new but have happened all the time, as the noble Lord graphically explained. These provisions refer to major interviews. Not all interviews and media appearances should be agreed with the Number 10 press office. That has always been the case, under Conservative and Labour Governments. The purpose is to secure collective responsibility, which is why, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I am certainly not going to publish the list of Treasury contacts with the press. That is not the purpose. And I am certainly not going to comment on the Foreign Secretary's speech to the Trades Union Congress. The purpose of this and the detail of it have been well precedented in previous governments, Labour and Conservative, as we have been reminded, and we have no reason to be in any way apologetic about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, did not like Ministers saying "I". I rather agree with him; I think it is dangerous. I find myself tempted to say "I" when I agree with what I am saying and "we" when I do not. I think I ought not to be tempted in that way.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked me whether Ministers sign to indicate that they have read the code. No, they do not, and they did not do so previously. The noble Lord did not do so previously and he knew perfectly well the answer to that question.

On the question of the ultimate responsibility of the Prime Minister, of course the noble Lord is right, and that is exactly the way it should be.

I have run out of time. I agree with all noble Lords who say that substance is more important than presentation. If we have advanced towards a common understanding of that, then the debate has been worthwhile.

        House adjourned at twenty-three minutes before eight o'clock.

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