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Prime Minister's Office: Role of Press Secretary

2.55 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Prime Minister's chief press secretary advises the Prime Minister on the effective presentation of government policy. He also leads the No. 10 press office and the strategic communications unit, ensuring that the essential messages and key themes which underpin the Government's strategy are sustained and co-ordinated across government liaising closely with departmental press offices. The relationship between the chief press secretary and the No. 10 press office and Ministers is set out in paragraph 88 of the ministerial code.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, does not a little confusion arise from the title of chief press secretary? Is it not a fact that if Mr. Campbell had done or said anything which he ought not to have done or said he

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would have been smacked down a long time ago? Is not his real role to save the Prime Minister from getting involved in the inevitable unpleasantness of keeping Ministers in order and in fact to play Mr. Hyde to the Prime Minister's Dr. Jekyll?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the title of chief press secretary has, if not a venerable, certainly an honourable history. The press secretaries to Sir Edward Heath, to the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and to John Major were all called chief press secretary. I do not know whether the same criticisms that the noble Lord makes of Mr. Alastair Campbell apply to those as well.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, in those circumstances, would my noble friend consider having a word with Sir Bernard Ingham to see how the chief press secretary might run his office in a more reticent and self-effacing way, while at the same time helping to achieve for the Prime Minister the highest level of public acceptability of any Prime Minister since the war?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, Sir Bernard Ingham was a civil servant rather than a special adviser. It is well known that he refrained from any activities which could possibly be called party political and refrained from any activities which might lead him to make statements about the qualities, good or bad, of any Ministers in the Thatcher Government.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the House will be indebted to my noble friend for raising what is an extremely important and serious subject. Will the Minister advise the House when the Civil Service rules were altered to enable Mr. Campbell to give instructions to civil servants? Did that include the power to instruct Ministers themselves? Furthermore, are faxes to Ministers, such as those to Mr. Field or Ms Harman, cleared in each case by the Prime Minister; and if not, will he explain the line of accountability to Parliament for such directions by Mr. Campbell to Ministers of the Crown?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not deny the importance of Mr. Alastair Campbell. It would be more than my job is worth to do so. However, the importance of this Question under the eye of the cosmos is greater for those who are more interested in process than in the product of government. As the noble Lord well knows, the conditions under which Mr. Campbell was appointed were determined by an Order in Council on 3rd May which provided for three special advisers, although only two are in post, who do have the power to give instructions to civil servants. As regards Mr. Campbell's faxes to Ministers, they were made with the full authority of the Prime Minister.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, may I express our congratulations to the noble Lord on his care this afternoon not to incur the wrath of Mr. Campbell? Has the noble Lord in his memory any incident when

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Sir Bernard Ingham actually took it upon himself, and in his own name, to advise Ministers "Go easy with the lunches"?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, again those who are interested in the process of government rather than its product certainly have a voice and it should be heard. I think of Sir Bernard Ingham as someone who put an end to the careers of some Ministers by such phrases as "semi-detached".

Local Government: Modernisation

3 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have for the modernisation of local government.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, over the past few months we have published a series of six consultation papers inviting comment and debate on our initial proposals for modernising local government in England. We are currently in the middle of that consultation exercise and intend to set out our firm proposals in a White Paper in the summer. I know that it will be of interest to my noble friend Lord Islwyn that the Secretary of State for Wales is conducting a similar consultation exercise, leading to a White Paper, on modernising local government in Wales. A parallel exercise is taking place in Scotland.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, will the Minister accept that it is necessary to recruit into local government men and women of the highest calibre who will observe an appropriate code of conduct? Will she further accept that citizens are entitled to expect best value for money for the services provided? While I appreciate the Prime Minister's call for an ethical framework for local government, nevertheless will the Minister accept that over the generations Britain has been well served by its local government?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I declare an interest before giving any bouquets. As a former serving local councillor, I agree with my noble friend that local government is well served in the overwhelming majority of cases both by elected representatives and officials of the highest standards. We maintain the importance of ensuring that the highest calibre of councillors are attracted into local government and believe that some of the proposals out for consultation in our paper Local Democracy and Community Leadership will help to establish that. My noble friend referred to the new ethical framework document. We believe that that, too, is important. I know that that has been welcomed by the Local Government Association.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, will the noble Baroness enlighten me as to the meaning of the word "modernisation" because most things that are said to be modernised are worse than they were before?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I can well understand the concern of the noble Lord,

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Lord Beloff, after the experience of the past 18 years, that the process of change in local government has led to things being worse. That is why we are consulting widely and working together in a strong partnership with local government to ensure that this Government's modernisation proposals leave things better, not for local councillors and officials, important though that is, but for the people of the country.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, can the Minister give some information about the consultation the Government propose with parish and town councils? I attended a national conference of the clerks of such councils 10 days ago. They were concerned to be involved and felt that they had not been involved enough so far. In her plans to modernise local democracy can the Minister assure us that the Government will not rule out having a fairer voting system for local elections with a more proportional system? The Government have put forward in their document a good case for it. However, they have not said that they will implement it despite supporting it for European elections, the Welsh assembly and the parliament in Scotland.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, perhaps I may first deal with the second point made by the noble Baroness. As the noble Baroness recognised in her question, she is aware that the Government acknowledge the importance of addressing constitutional change across many areas. We have made it quite clear that, given the wide range of proposed changes in the lifetime of this Government, we have no immediate plans to consider changing the electoral system for local government. However, we have not ruled out the possibility beyond the short term and we do not refuse to reconsider it. As regards local councils, we have had a wide range of responses to the consultation that has taken place from town and parish councils. Our assumptions have been circulated through the county networks and through their close relationship with county authorities. However, were there to be concerns should the National Association of Local Councils make direct representations we would view that very positively. We want the widest consultation and support for the proposals.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, as someone who served in local government for a long time with some distinction, can the Government give an undertaking that whatever format is produced from these discussions the top priority will be for probity and honesty in the staff who man local government in the future--whatever structure is created--because some of it has become rather tarnished lately?

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