Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Ministerial Statements to Parliament

10.16 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what role they anticipate the Strategic Communications Unit, launched on 14th January, will have in ensuring compliance with the requirement expressed in paragraph 27 of the Ministerial Code that "when Parliament is in session, Ministers will want to

16 Feb 1998 : Column 119

bear in mind the desire of Parliament that the most important announcements of government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament".

The noble Earl said: My Lords, it may be that the Strategic Communications Unit is something of a closed book to many of your Lordships. Its launch was muted. Without fanfare and with little coverage in the media it tiptoed into being by means of Written Answers to both Houses of Parliament. And yet, as an indicator of the style of the Government and as a central plank of the restructuring of the Government Information Service, it is a development of some significance.

Superficially there should be few complaints about its purpose. In so far as government are the public persona of the nation, it is important that its image and the presentation of its policies are arranged in a co-ordinated and coherent way. That makes sense. It is especially important at a time when, as the report of the working group on the GIS, the Mountfield Report recognises,

    "The media world is changing fast".

Additionally a great many of the major policy issues facing us as we approach the millennium--welfare reform, youth crime and so on--cut across traditional departmental boundaries. The unit's implicit acknowledgement that these should not be the province of narrowly focused specialisations within individual ministries, but require a more integrated approach, is welcome.

The Mountfield Report makes the point that,

    "The handling of communications has attracted much public attention since the General Election".

This rather bland assertion belies the considerable degree of anxiety that has been expressed in this regard. While by no means exclusively--the role of "spin doctors", the seeming politicisation of the GIS and so on have also attracted adverse comment--it is the apparent lack of adherence to, and almost cavalier flouting of, paragraph 27 of the Ministerial Code that seems to have caused most concern. Even the Speaker of another place has felt compelled to rebuke the Government about this, ruling that "it"; that is to say, Parliament,

    "must be the first to hear of important developments in Government policy and I deprecate most strongly any action that is taken that tends to undermine this important principle".

Nor was this an isolated incident. She has ruled in similar vein at least seven times since 1st May; hence, of course, the terms of my Question.

One of the first ports of call for my preparations for tonight was the debate on the Ministerial Code initiated by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. At that time the Minister enthused that,

    "I happen to think that our publicity machine in Opposition was brilliant"--

I agree with him; so it was. But Government is a very different beast from Opposition. That point was conceded by the noble Lord thus:

    "But I recognise that it is not the same as the responsibilities of an information machine when in government".

16 Feb 1998 : Column 120

He went on to say

    "it would be dangerous and probably shortlived were we to continue to think of importing into government Labour Party practice in Opposition".--[Official Report, 28/10/97; col. 1044.]

And yet in many respects that is precisely what the unit and its somewhat sinister bedfellow, the Media Monitoring Unit, do. Some commentators have gone further. Iain MacWhirter writing in The Times said:

    "It is all about the creation of a centralised propaganda machine at the heart of government, which is unprecedented in British political history outside wartime. It is the final triumph of Millbank over Whitehall. No more will civil servants be impartial witnesses to government, there to inform and elucidate policy. They are now part of the message".

Viewed from that perspective, it is difficult to conceive the unit as being in any way sympathetic to our parliamentary democracy. That being so, I hope that the Minister can assure the House that copies of the reports alluded to in paragraph 6 of the Mountfield Report will be made available to Parliament.

Of course I do not underestimate the importance of the Prime Minister, any Prime Minister, being comfortable with mechanisms at his disposal to assert his authority. Indeed, given the catalogue of selective leakings, gimmicky press conferences and trailing of policy initiatives that has characterised much of the Government's performance to date, it may be that that authority is in need of bolstering. As Anthony King has commented,

    "It seems to me rather odd to describe the Blair administration as 'highly centralised' ... when you have Gordon Brown doing his thing, Jack Straw doing his thing, David Blunkett doing his thing. Robin Cook, to a very large extent, doing his thing".

Tensions, I put it no more strongly than that, are clearly evident between the heavy hitters of the Cabinet. Of course that is not so surprising. What is of concern is the way in which individual Ministers seem to be seeking to establish their own departmental fiefdoms--something Anthony King has identified as an absence of collegiality. That may be a contributory factor as to why so many policy initiatives, spun mercilessly by this Administration's merry band of special advisers, seem to hit the headlines ahead of Parliament.

Be that as it may, paragraph 27 of the Ministerial Code, buttressed by the Prime Minister's foreword, is unequivocal in determining Mr Blair's authority here. By inference, the establishment of the Strategic Communications Unit has little enough to do with Prime Ministerial authority because that is, or should be, more than adequately catered for by the Ministerial Code itself. It is about control, control of government information and communications and, thereby, control of the media and Parliament.

This gives rise to a peripheral but equally important point. There is a burgeoning sense of disquiet from all sides of the House at the not infrequent, some would say increasing, inadequacy of replies from the Government Front Bench. By way of example, I refer to the Second Reading of the Data Protection Bill. It goes without saying that that is antipathetic to paragraph 1(iii) and (iv) of the Ministerial Code. And, as such it is very much of a piece with the apparent flouting of paragraph 27.

16 Feb 1998 : Column 121

Of course in that regard, Ministers, perhaps inadvertently, have tied millstones around their necks by imbuing Government with a "review culture". I do not seek to devalue in any way the great benefits of consultation. But the criticism that the process provides a means to evade the "hard choices" of Government has merit. Indeed, a cynic might be tempted to suggest that with so many reviews floating about it is difficult for Ministers to say very much about anything if they are to stay within bounds. Little wonder that, driven at least in part by what many commentators see as an obsession with short term news management, policy items are dribbled into the media ahead of any announcements in Parliament.

One thing above all else can be said of the restructuring of the GIS. It is a manifestation of Will Hutton's "centralising tendency". That paradox between the decentralising and centralising instincts of the Government--I would not dream of being so uncharitable as to call it hypocrisy--begs all sorts of questions. For example, how is this "communications strategy" intended to be applied to devolved Scotland and Wales? As Peter Riddell has commented,

    "There is a real reluctance to surrender the Executive string".

The restructured GIS underscores that sentiment".

By way of confirmation of that centralising trend, we now hear that the Prime Minister intends to establish his own prime ministerial department. Conceptually, the proposition is not without merit. I quote Peter Riddell again:

    "In implementation there's a feeling that the Prime Minister's office is too weak, it needs to be linked in more with the Cabinet Office".

But that is a rather different supposition from that advanced by one Minister in response to the proposal:

    "It's becoming more and more important, both politically and administratively, to have a strong centre and a lot of people are now looking very intently at how we can get that".

I do not, and would not, gainsay the Government's mandate. Nor do I dispute the sincerity of their devolutionary proposals. There is virtue in the desire to return power to the people. But--and it is a very big "but"--the legitimacy of that mandate is conferred only by virtue of the proper scrutiny of its terms within Parliament. And yet, increasingly, we are given cause to wonder whether the Government recognise that Parliament is the people. After all, that is a core precept of the representative principle. At risk of stating the obvious, and being mildly conscious that this may touch one or two raw nerves in New Labour minds, government is the servant of the nation, not its master--shades here of Sir Hartley Shawcross. In parliamentary terms, particularly by reference to paragraph 27 of the Ministerial Code, that is unnerving.

There is a further twist to throw into the melting-pot. A necessary corollary to any co-ordinated presentation of government policy is a working--I stress "working" as opposed to "good"--relationship with the media. Time constraints prevent me from exploring the dichotomies of the media's role in political debate in too

16 Feb 1998 : Column 122

much detail. Suffice it to say that I find it astonishing that the Prime Minister's official spokesman recently rubbished the BBC as a,

    "downmarket, dumbed-down, over-staffed, over-bureaucratic, ridiculous organisation".

It may be that no love is lost between politicians and the media but, come what may, much of the art of politics is about getting the message across--hence, of course, the Strategic Communications Unit. It seems to me that Enoch Powell--I pay tribute to him as one of the greatest political intellects of this century--had it about right in suggesting:

    "For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship's captain complaining about the sea".

It is even more extraordinary therefore that, increasingly, the BBC is being forced to adopt the refrain that Ministers have declined to appear on its programmes. How that squares with informing the public about the thrust of government policy I do not know. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the House on that point as well as advising us as to how often that has happened since 14th January (the inception of the Strategic Communications Unit).

I have one final thought. I assume that it is merely coincidence that the Strategic Communications Unit could be represented by the acronym, SCU--that is to say, "skew". I am sure that your Lordships do not need to be reminded that the Shorter OED defines that as:

    "a slant; a deviation from the straight line".
Someone, somewhere, has an incredible sense of humour!

10.29 p.m.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Northesk has introduced this topic in the most erudite manner. I congratulate him on his speech and on introducing the debate. I am amazed that, apart from the Minister, there is to be no contribution to the debate from the Government Benches, the Liberal Democrat Benches, which are fairly vacant, or even the Cross-Benches. Has a degree of spin been put on this debate, or is nobody interested in the sovereign role of Parliament and the impartiality of the Civil Service? That is what this debate is all about.

My noble friend Lord Northesk has drawn attention to the number of times that Madam Speaker in the other place has had to express her dissatisfaction at the Government's attitude towards their responsibility to Parliament. The formation of the Strategic Communications Unit does not appear to have offered any solution to the problem. In fact, the SCU appears to be a dangerous propaganda unit, politicising the Civil Service.

I make no apology for repeating the definition given in the Written Answer by the Prime Minister on 14th January this year:

    "The aim of the unit is to make sure events are scheduled, launched and followed through to maintain impact and to convey the central story and themes of the Government in all their communications".--[Official Report, Commons, 14/1/98; col. 234.]

16 Feb 1998 : Column 123

The unit comprises two special advisers and four civil servants. This is a spin doctor's dream and constitutes nothing more than a crass propaganda exercise.

My noble friend Lord Northesk has already quoted Mr Iain MacWhirter of The Times. I should like to quote what he said on 30th November 1997:

    "The way this whole affair has been handled is profoundly disturbing. Just imagine if this centralisation of government information had happened under a Conservative government? The Liberal press would have been condemning it as an unwarranted politicisation of Whitehall, not only contrary to British constitutional practice, but carrying disturbing implications for democracy itself".
That is exactly what this debate is about: the responsibility of government to Parliament and hence to the people.

I should like to mention a specific example of what has been described to me--and I do not doubt the genuineness of the description--as a misunderstanding which I believe goes to the nub of what we are discussing. On 28th January this year I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, (Hansard, col. 287) whether I could have an assurance that the Foreign Secretary would not refer to the results of the review on the dependent territories in his keynote speech to the dependent territories conference on 4th February, bearing in mind the requirements of paragraph 27 of the Ministerial Code. The answer I was given by the noble Baroness was:

    "there is no question of the Foreign Secretary announcing a major policy change on 4th February. The issue remains under active consideration but no decisions on the issues that the noble Lord raised have yet been taken as regards this important and complex issue".--[Official Report, 28/1/98; col. 318.]

On 4th February the newspapers contained direct references to the contents of the speech to be made by the Foreign Secretary at 9.30 that morning. They had obviously received copies of the speech beforehand. The press release stated that the Foreign Secretary would,

    "set out the conclusions of a six month review of the territories".
That was precisely my question on 28th January. The Foreign Secretary said in his speech:

    "These are the principal conclusions of our review".
I find it extraordinary that I could have been given the answer that I was given, albeit through a misunderstanding, and that the Foreign Secretary could have spoken as he did without coming to Parliament first.

Your Lordships may be aware of the proceedings of the House last Thursday, when it came to light that a Written Answer had been released to the press before being sent to me, for which I received a handsome apology from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. I fully accept that all efforts have been made to determine how that occurred and I received an explanation for it. However, one cannot but wonder whether the Strategic Communications Unit had any part in that insult to Parliament.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answers and his assurances that the normal procedures for the release of Written Answers will be retained. As I understand it, a Written Answer is delivered to the Minute Office, from

16 Feb 1998 : Column 124

whence it is sent to Hansard and to the Press Office. That procedure was obviously not adhered to in that instance.

We had yet another example of the lack of consideration to Parliament in the previous debate, the subject being the Treaty of Amsterdam--one of the most important debates in this House. It is so important in Denmark that they are holding a referendum on it, and Germany referred it to its Constitutional Court. What do we get? The Minister is not in the Chamber for the debate. I understand that a similar situation arose in the other place when it was debating the beef-on-the-bone legislation. Surely all of that lays down suspicions for the conclusion that this Government have let their majority in the other place go to their head in relation to respect for parliamentary process. Hence, it leads to great concern as to what the SCU will actually be doing.

Noble Lords may be interested to learn of a paragraph in the Red Book which comes under the heading, "Press Office best practice". It states:

    "Parliamentary papers can also be issued under embargo to the lobby and relevant specialists as confidential final revises (CFRs) which must be signed for. However, as this is a breach of parliamentary privilege, it can only be done with No. 10's agreement and the responsibility must be borne by the Secretary of State personally".
Need I say more? The same Red Book states that,

    "Any announcement of new policy must always meet the needs of parliamentary propriety. It must reach all MPs via an Answer or a Statement".
It appears that the Red Book does not consider your Lordships. Perhaps the Minister can say whether all policy decisions arising from the 113 reviews and 37 task forces included in his Answer to me dated 11th February and delivered to me on 12th February will, in the first instance, be reported to Parliament either by way of an Answer or a Statement and that any breach of that will be treated with the sternest action.

10.38 p.m.

Lord Birdwood: My Lords, there is one dimension of the art of governing in which no one could accuse our present Government of failing; that is, failing to learn from the experiences of the past and of their predecessor. The Government today are an object lesson for us all in how to watch, analyse and digest the realities of a society and then implement conclusions with bold initiatives and uncompromising purpose.

Prime among such realities is that all developed societies now are based on the management of information. In a democracy of Utopia, I would have phrased that without dropping in the word "management". A universal franchise of access to information is a dream of the conviction democrat, but leaves the professional politician--even one with libertarian leanings--with a nagging sense of unease. Perhaps the present Government share the collective belief that so natural and unassailable is the practice of liberty in our nation that it need never be referred to or reinforced in official pronouncements. Perhaps the present Government have ever so slightly confused their

16 Feb 1998 : Column 125

hearty embrace of market economics with an affinity for individual freedom so obvious that it never needs to be expressed.

However, we can, in passing, disabuse any party which takes this linkage for granted by giving it the political model of China, a ripalong market-based economy bolted onto a viciously authoritarian political regime. So let us leave freedom on one side as being largely an irrelevance to a government whose priority is the smooth exercise of the management of perception, and congratulate the party opposite, thinly represented tonight, on the almost faultless execution of this policy. I think one must concede that even the Government's natural allies among the commentating classes are not unaware of the importance now being given to the lubrication of the information machinery. But this is not, in itself, unfitting or even distasteful. If you design a machine whose function is to communicate, you have recognised the critical importance of the function itself; and then it is completely logical for that machine to be tended and serviced by experts. For first among the lessons the Government learnt in their later years in opposition was the absolutely bedrock importance of the symbiosis between a modern executive and the media.

It may be that I am straying from the focus of the Question posed by my noble friend this evening. The mandate of the Strategic Communications Unit was spelt out four weeks ago in Written Answers in this House and another place. In passing, an early victim of the unit could itself be the Written Answer. After all, the mechanism of the Written Answer has been a classic billboard for government information for a century at least. Perhaps the Strategic Communications Unit will regard it as de minimis, or beneath contempt compared with the majestic deployment of the big ideas.

Several things engage me in this Question. I read the Written Answers, redundantly, because, of course, they were identical--there is no need for market differentiation between these two target audiences--and as I read, I was reminded of some of the conventions of advertising copywriting: rule one, if you have not anything fresh to say, say things that no one could disagree with; use words such as "achievements" and "themes" and "improve". It makes for feeble ads but is wonderfully soothing to the client.

I confess I am curious about where the emphasis will be in the daily workload of the SCU. Will it find itself performing as a fast response outfit, like a sort of riot police of the information landscape; or will it have more in common with Papal annunciations, a hip, Cool Britannia, source of Internet pronouncements ex cathedra No. 10?

I am also curious--and this follows from what I have just said--about whether the SCU will take control over Excalibur, the instant rebuttal mechanism which did so much to turbocharge media contacts before 1st May. Will the SCU have a focus group capability to test some of its message impact? I would expect no less from the communication professionalism of this initiative. I can visualise some interesting turf wars developing around this body in the area of policy directives from Brussels. Will these have the firepower of the central mission, or

16 Feb 1998 : Column 126

will they be in a version of political parenthesis? And how far down the train of communication runs the remit of the SCU? Is it the people's SCU? Lastly, will the SCU need to assess the political colouring of those Civil Service staff co-opted to serve on it?

No, I am being less than fair, because the SCU has got at least one real job, which is to set up this electronic feed flowing from the Prime Minister's office to the departments. I assume that consumer--or in this case Minister--comment will not be welcome on the host website and that the communication architecture will be strictly a one-way traffic. The SCU has another job, too, to write the annual report. For this, I can hardly wait. I would be mildly interested to be told the circulation of pre-publication copies of this document, if only as an insight into the Government's view of their particular, and maybe transient, friends in the media.

What I believe we are seeing here is the evolution in Britain of the whole process of government. While the culture of enlightened companies is moving towards the non-hierarchical, and the empowerment of employees at the edge of the organisation, the culture of government seems to be adding to the notion of hierarchy. My own party felt the same anxieties over loss of control and collected authority to the centre, quite at odds with its historic convictions.

The genius of our present political masters is nowhere better encapsulated than in this creation, the Strategic Communications Unit. The acquisition and retention of power in a communication-rich society, lies in communication. To communicate well demands a mastery of the techniques. Nothing can be left to chance.

And so we edge closer every day to the perpetuation of a system where the alliance between government and the mastery of the media is the entry ticket for power without end. Without the vigilance which is our birthright, at the end of this process, is the schoolyard bully in the silk suit, the soft persuasive voice telling us it's really all for the best.

In these few reflections of mine what word was missing? Probably nobody noticed: the word was Parliament.

10.47 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, three hard acts to follow! I begin by quoting what Mr. Peter Mandelson wrote in his book The Blair Revolution (published before the election) about the role of No. 10 Downing Street in the management of strategy. He said that there was need for a stronger political presence in No. 10 providing political advice and contacts which neither the private office nor the Cabinet Office can do because they are not supposed to get involved and cannot meet the Prime Minister's central need: to focus on and manage the Government's political strategy and programme. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that one of the Prime Minister's early decisions was to set up the working party of four civil servants and two political advisers which produced the Mountfield Report, which in due course recommended the establishment of a Strategic Communications Unit. As he said, it would be based in No. 10 and answerable to him. It would work

16 Feb 1998 : Column 127

on the basis that communication is an integral part of policy formulation, to develop closer and better working relations between policy civil servants and press officers.

The working party recognised the need to educate policy-making civil servants on the communication strategy which every important initiative or decision would require. Meeting in the Cabinet Office daily under--who else?--Mr. Mandelson's chairmanship, it is clearly a very practical recognition of what is said in the Ministerial Code--that is to say, that decisions on policy lie in the first instance with the Prime Minister. I hope that another object is to ensure, as the Ministerial Code says, that,

    "it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament".

In the report Ministers are expressly required to distinguish between the advice available to them by special advisers who can give them political advice and support and the impartial advice of the civil servants. According to the Ministerial Code, they must uphold the impartiality of the Civil Service and must not ask civil servants to act in any way which would conflict with the Civil Service Code.

The Strategic Communications Unit is probably a sensible measure, but its value to the country depends on some important provisos. Ministers are urged by the writers of the Mountfield Report to take trouble to build a relationship of trust with their Civil Service press officers as well as with their advisers. If they continue to feel, as some still appear to do, that they can only trust the latter and that the civil servants have their own basically unsympathetic agenda, the civil servants will not work well. They need trust and respect and if they have that, combined with the credibility with the media which a well informed, impartial spokesman always enjoys, all will be well.

We must, however, be deeply concerned that, although the Ministerial Code and the Mountfield report stress the paramount importance of Parliament, of keeping it informed and of being at all times accountable and open, it seems not to be happening. Ministers, including the Prime Minister, seem to talk first to the media and to care about presentation above all. That may, ironically, be to the great disadvantage of this new, well co-ordinated, well informed, smooth machine.

The other danger--we have seen an example of it in the Treasury--is that Ministers' apparent preference for the trusted and familiar political adviser over the professional civil servant as a channel for the media will devalue and waste the excellent Civil Service machine. I hope very much that the unit will prove influential enough within government both to restore and maintain Parliament's right-to-know as the first priority and to use the Civil Service as it is so well fitted to be used in the public interest.

Civil servants have been undervalued and even wasted for too long. Mr. Mandelson's predecessor in the Cabinet Office (the then Deputy Prime Minister) actively wished to change the Civil Service ethos which

16 Feb 1998 : Column 128

he did not value - except, of course, when it came to selling the civil servants working in the Recruitment and Assessment Service as intellectual property. I hope this Government will not continue the process of market testing, but I hope too that Ministers will lose no time in demonstrating that they put Parliament first and that they trust their civil servants and value and respect the essential Civil Service ethos of impartiality and duty to the country - and of being ready to tell the Minister truths, however hard and unwelcome. Such men and women, if properly valued and trusted, are a priceless asset and may yet save us from media-speak. We do not want or need a White House media circus here. The media tail must not be allowed to wag the governmental dog.

10.52 p.m.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, at this late hour I am tempted to enlarge upon this important topic but being a person of great self-control, I do not propose to do anything of the kind. I merely wish to make two points. First, much as I suspect the motives, ambitions and actions of the present Government, I must admit that there were developments before their time which gave them the possibility of acting as they have done. There has been a down-grading of the public service, an obliteration of the proper boundaries between public and private activity, and the right of people to indulge in both, which goes back some time.

One result which seems to me to be of great importance is that we have had, and are increasingly having at the moment, ill prepared legislation. When British government was the admiration of most of the world it operated on the basis of Ministers spending their time largely in Parliament confronting MPs on all sides of the House, together with their civil servants who were prepared to ensure that what Ministers were putting forward would stand the test of time. If one looks at the great legislation of the early part of this century (and even of the middle of the last century) and compares it with our constant and now inevitable flood of experimentation when it is said, "If we get it wrong this time, we can get it right next time and anyhow we won't let the media know", one becomes rather pessimistic.

This is not the only bad part. What has happened now is something even more fundamental. I believe that there is in the minds of our present rulers a total confusion between themselves as leaders of the victorious party at the polls and holding office under the Crown. Therefore, they are not worried by the fact that in order to achieve this symbiosis they need far more political advisers--or spin doctors if one likes that phrase--than was ever thought necessary before. It is not difficult to find in their utterances an admission of this, of which the creation of the machinery to which we are now directing our attention is one example.

How often since 1st May have we been told that such and such must be accepted by your Lordships because it was in the manifesto, just as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury might say that such and such must be accepted because, after all, it is in the Ten Commandments?

16 Feb 1998 : Column 129

There is an idea that the Labour Party manifesto, which is a piece of paper like any other and has no constitutional role whatever, is somehow binding on Parliament and the people. This is a dangerous confusion and one which will not in the end redound to the Government's advantage. As the noble Lord who moved the Motion pointed out, it tends to make the Government spend a great deal of time--we face just one example of it--on the media and, through the media, on the public and on the tours of the country with focus groups and all the other paraphernalia, as if that is more important than the substance. It is the substance that is important, not the promotion of the substance. We do not need a big picture. The big picture is up in the sky. We need competent government to tackle real problems felt by the people, being prepared always to come to both Houses of Parliament and say, "This is what we are doing. Do you like it? If not, tell us and we will go away and think again". A government who believe that Mr. Murdoch is more important than the House of Lords is a government which is riding for a fall.

10.57 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Northesk for initiating this debate. All of those who respect the institution of Parliament will be grateful to him. The excellent contributions of all my noble friends this evening show their appreciation of the role of my noble friend.

An important feature of our institution is that it runs by the mutual consent of the Members, mostly on the basis of conventions and customs and with very few written rules. Almost from the outset of the present Parliament the Government have failed to honour one of those conventions. I refer to the one whereby policy and other important announcements are first made to Parliament and not to the press. On 17th July Madam Speaker instructed Members of the other place:

    "I expect any Government, when there is a change of policy to be announced, to announce it to the House, preferably from the Dispatch Box .. That can also be done by means of a Written Question".".--[Official Report, Commons, 17/7/97; col. 531.]
I respectfully agree with Madam Speaker, as do my noble friends who have all remarked on this matter this evening.

We in this House may not always be entitled to be informed first, but we are at least entitled to be told second. In the case of announcements by the Lord Chancellor or other Ministers in this place, this House is entitled to know first. It is a deplorable contempt of and for Parliament for announcements of government policies and activities to be made at meetings outside Parliament or by nods and winks and leaks to selected journalists. As my noble friend has already pointed out, since July the Speaker has commented in the other place on the necessity of announcing changes in policy to Parliament first on no fewer than seven separate occasions. Three of them occurred in the same week, which suggests either a total disregard of the words of the Speaker as well as the convention or a selective form of memory loss by different Ministers.

16 Feb 1998 : Column 130

The announcement of the creation of this new Strategic Communications Unit crept quietly into the establishment under the cover of replies to Written Questions in both Houses on 14th January. I do not question the perfectly proper use of planted Questions for that purpose, but this imperceptible, almost diffident, method of announcing its birth makes me wonder whether the new unit intends to carry on how it began. Let us remember that the concept for this unit was as a result of the complaints that were made almost from the beginning of this Government's reign about attempts to politicise the Civil Service, in particular, the attempts by various Ministers to subvert their respective press officers into becoming purveyors of party political propaganda.

That is contrary to the Civil Service code which, in relation to the Government Information Service, requires it to be and I again quote

    "objective ... not tendentious or polemical ... or liable to misrepresentation as being party political".
Not surprisingly, it was followed by the abrupt and well-reported departure of several highly respected professional civil servants. It was as a result of this that the Mountfield Committee examined the problem and came up with the concept which it recommended should be called by the clearly understandable name of the Government Information and Communication Service. However the spin doctors spun and we find ourselves with the somewhat ambiguous name of the Strategic Communications Unit. It is not clear whether it will be making communications about strategy, or indulging in stratagems about whatever it has to communicate.

In fact, the Mountfield Committee said in its report:

    "insufficient emphasis is placed by civil servants involved in policy development on the communication strategy that every important decision will require".
Clearly, then, the report is talking about strategy about communications and not communications about the underlying strategic decisions.

I raise that question because with a Government who have mastered the art of double speak, it is not clear why they decided to change the name. I ask it, secondly, because of its terms of reference. I again quote, this time from the Written Answers of 14th January:

    "To improve strategic communications so that key government messages are communicated across government. Departmental initiatives and events need to be presented in such a way as to show their coherence with the main themes of the government's strategy. To achieve this, departments must be properly informed of government activity, Ministers must be properly briefed on key government issues at all times, and initiatives must be properly prepared and co-ordinated".--[Official Report, 14/1/98; col. WA 201.]

What on earth does that gobbledegook mean? Is the Strategic Communications Unit designed to keep the public better informed of government activities--especially where that information has a political connotation? Because it sounds very much to me that it is primarily intended to keep Ministers on song, or, shall I say, on message, with government policy. Is it an extension of the Minister without Portfolio's morning prayers briefing sessions? The membership of Mr. Andrew Silverman, the Minister's private secretary, lends support to that suspicion.

16 Feb 1998 : Column 131

What has this job specification to do with the comprehensive recommendations of the Mountfield Report which was intended to improve government presentation to the public and to draw the line between legitimate information and party propaganda? Frankly, this job specification announced by the Prime Minister sounds very much like the Department of Administrative Affairs whose famous incumbent was Jim Hacker: a roving brief to interfere in every government department. Whether it will be able to assist the Minister for Overseas Development who complains that Cabinet colleagues are constantly briefing against her, I cannot say. Will it ensure that dissident Labour MPs are not branded by their party's spin doctors as clinically insane? Is it intended to act as a kind of censor of squabbling Ministers? Will it ensure that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor does not again find himself out of tune with No. 10, at least in public? How much is this new department going to cost to run? There is another question.

When we have discovered with whom this unit is going to communicate strategically, we need to know how it will do so. Will it be by press release issued late on a Friday, preferably just before a Recess? Or will it be by a paper filed without publicity in the Library? Or will we all receive individual copies, borne by a messenger, in a cleft stick? There are genuine constitutional concerns about the nature and objectives of this new organ of government.

It is certainly not that envisaged by the Mountfield Committee, which was to draw the distinction between the dissemination of information about the Government's plans, objectives and policies--a perfectly legitimate activity of the press offices of every department--and party politicking, which, while also perfectly legitimate, is no part of the duties of professional civil servants.

I fear that this new department and its sinister companion, the Media Monitoring Unit, is, to paraphrase the late Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, forged in the white heat of spin doctoring, where it is more important to say the right thing than to do the right thing. The Mountfield Report actually states:

    "Heads of information must be involved in all key decisions and strategy developments".
Why? Ministers should make the policy and heads of information should tell it like it is to the press. "Don't shoot me, I'm only the messenger".

The Mountfield Report asserts:

    "It is not open to appoint Special Advisers or persons of their own choosing from outside the Civil Service Heads of Information".
This new unit, which clearly from its terms of reference is intended to be the supervisor or overlord of Ministers and hence of all the departmental information offices, has two special advisers among its six-person membership.

I referred to constitutional issues in the creation of this new unit. In answer to my own earlier question, I say that indeed it clearly is intended to act as a kind of censor of Ministers. It is clearly intended to control the dissemination and, more important, the content of information to be given to the press and public. It is a

16 Feb 1998 : Column 132

symptom of the increasing marginalisation of Parliament in which the Government have been indulging ever since the election. This ranges from the curtailment of Prime Minister's Questions in the other place; the hiving off of the functions of both Houses to a Scottish parliament, which will have no second revising Chamber; the creation of a Welsh assembly to be followed by regional assemblies (just like the old Soviet Union); to the repeated failure of Ministers to give straight answers to simple questions. Labour MPs are recommended to take gardening leave in groups of 50 in their constituencies rather than add to their overwhelming majority in the other place.

The Government continue to try to bully and intimidate your Lordships on the few occasions that your Lordships perform their duty as a revising Chamber, well within the constraints of the Salisbury Convention. They did so even when they lost one vote, not because of what the Opposition did, but for the simple reason that their own Whips messed things up in a way that would have resulted in severe carpeting when I was a Government Whip.

I am both proud and honoured to be a Member of Parliament, as indeed we all are. I have no desire to be an MD; a member of the Duma or a Peoples' Assembly, as in North Korea, meeting every few years for the purpose of paying homage to the Beloved Leader. It is essential, therefore, that all major announcements are made in Parliament first, and one role of practical value that this new unit could perform would be to ensure that all Ministers saw that they were. I view with trepidation any attempt, which it is all too easy to make, to bypass the greatest democratic institution in the world. We are privileged to sit in the Mother of Parliaments. I do not want to see it turned into the mother of all rubber stamps.

11.10 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, your Lordships may be surprised to learn, after that succession of speeches, that I welcome this debate. It has provided, or I hope it will provide, a valuable opportunity for us to explain in more detail than there has been parliamentary opportunity for so far the very much more limited role than noble Lords seem to think of the Strategic Communications Unit.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, described the launch on 14th January of the Strategic Communications Unit as muted. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, seemed to think that it had been sneaked into the public domain, although, with her usual fairness, she recognised that it was perfectly proper to announce it by way of a Written Answer, as indeed it was announced. It is true that a Written Answer is limited in its scope and that the opportunity which we have now to set out the role of the Strategic Communications Unit was not available at the time and has not since been available in either House. That is why I welcome this opportunity.

I shall set out what it is that the unit is intended to do and the way in which it fits into government strategies. First, I confirm, as noble Lords have recognised, that the unit was set up in line with the recommendations

16 Feb 1998 : Column 133

of the working group on the Government Information Service, which was published in November of last year. I make it clear to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that the Government Information and Communication Service is not the same as the Strategic Communications Unit; it has not been taken over by the Strategic Communications Unit; it continues with its existing functions as redefined by the Mountfield Report, but they are not the same thing.

The Mountfield Report said--and again noble Lords have properly referred to it--that more needed to be done to improve strategic communications to enable key government messages to be communicated across and outside government. I make it clear that even within government it is intended that that communication should be two-way and not simply from the centre to the outside.

In what way is the unit designed to provide corporate communications advice and assistance? First, it identifies and helps to plan key ministerial announcements and events through the management of the new electronic information system--again some people seemed to think that is sinister--called Agenda which will provide a future diary of government events. Mr. Michael Heseltine set up an exactly comparable system. It did not work very well and it had to be relaunched. However, it is no more sinister than Mr. Heseltine's planned system.

Secondly, it is concerned with planning, in liaison with government departments, the presentation of events to ensure that the Government's long-term messages are effectively communicated. The noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, in an amusing and elegant speech made what I think is a very important series of analogies with private industry and notably with the advertising industry. Of course, it is always possible for advertising to be a source of distortion and failure to communicate. But fundamentally those who have worked in advertising, as the noble Lord has, if they respect their trade--and many quite properly do--believe that the communication of knowledge, feelings and ideas is a proper function in modern society and that it is desirable that that should be done. Why should that not apply to government?

The noble Lord seemed to think that that is the function of a school-yard bully in a silk suit. I enjoyed that and I looked to make sure that I am wearing my Terylene and cotton suit. But there is nothing remarkable about that. I am reminded in what he said of David Ogilvy's words about the relationship of the copywriter with his client. I am sure the noble Lord will remember. David Ogilvy said:

    "If the client moans and sighs, show his logo twice the size. If he still should prove refractory, show a picture of his factory. But only in the direst case should you show the bastard's face".
That would be quite a useful discipline for those involved in government communications as well as elsewhere. So there is nothing improper about it: it is a business analogy to which the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, has rightly drawn our attention. On that business analogy, as one who has spent a lifetime in business, I do not apologise in any way for our using business communication techniques in government.

16 Feb 1998 : Column 134

That follows also with the next role of the Strategic Communications Unit; namely, to ensure that announcements are followed up in a structured and supportive way by developing themes and highlighting their strategic importance. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, of course the policy is paramount. However, if one does not communicate the policy, it will not have the kind of effect that it ought to have. It is a responsibility of government to communicate as well as to decide. That is where the Strategic Communications Unit comes in.

I shall pass over the perhaps more mundane duties of the unit such as raising the quality of information provided through the current government website. I do not know how many of your Lordships have tried it, but the home page says, "updated 4th May l997", which does not give one a great deal of confidence. Then, as has been referred to, it has to produce the Government's annual report on its performance and the achievements of its objectives. That, of course, was according to an announcement given in August 1997.

So here we have a totally unsinister body, attempting to do for government what every decent business does for itself, in no way breaching any of the codes that exist or, indeed, in any way supplanting the Ministerial Code about relationships with Parliament or the provisions of the resolutions of both Houses of Parliament on 19th and 20th of March of last year.

Therefore, what arises from this debate? Frankly, I was a little taken aback because we have had no more than assertions. We have been told this evening, quite rightly, that Madam Speaker said on 17th July that announcements should be made first to Parliament. We have also been told that she said so on more than one occasion. But what do we have as examples of breaches of that code? Well, they are pathetic. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, made a better attempt that anyone else to set them out, so perhaps I may turn to what he said. The noble Lord said that on 28th January he asked a question and received a Written Answer about a dependent territories White Paper--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page