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House of Lords

Thursday, 16th March 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Hereford): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Home Office: Press Officers

Lord Cope of Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the expected cost of the new team of press officers being set up to react to breaking news stories involving the Home Office.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the major cost to the Home Office will be the recruitment of up to 10 press officers. The majority are likely to be employed at Information Officer grade, for which the salary band is £17,000 to £28,000 per annum. As with all Civil Service posts, there will be employment costs of superannuation and national insurance amounting to approximately 20 per cent of salary. We estimate that the total cost of staff will be up to £400,000 per annum. There will be some accommodation and information technology costs which are not yet finalised.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that full Answer. Can he confirm, as the Home Secretary suggested in another place earlier this month, that at present there are still 11 press officers and three trainees in the Home Office press office? Can the Minister confirm that the extra 10 press officers--to be appointed specifically, as the advertisement said, "to react to breaking news", of which, admittedly, there is plenty at the Home Office--are to be paid at least up to half as much again as a London police constable? Can he further confirm that these press officers will be in addition to 10 extra internal communications advisers in the Home Office, who are to be paid twice as much as a London police constable?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am happy to confirm the figures and statistics upon which the noble Lord has based his interesting point. To try to compare the pay of police officers with that of press officers working in the Home Office rather misses the point. Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that when he was in another place as a Minister at the Department of Employment, his departmental advertising budget shot up between 1985-86 and 1986-87--I draw attention to that year in particular--from £100,000 to £12.7 million. No doubt the noble Lord thought that was very good value for money and a good investment.

In another place on 13th March 1989, in reply to my right honourable friend Frank Dobson, the noble Lord, while still a Minister, said that his department

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(the Department of Employment) employed 68 members of staff in the press and public relations office.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, many of us on these Benches fully understand that both sides are as bad as each other. Can the Minister say why we need these new people?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very interesting contribution. It is most important to focus on the real issue behind this. When the external consultants looked at press and communications within the Home Office they found that we received 150,000 calls per annum; that we were missing 20 per cent of those calls; that the number of incoming calls to the Home Office had increased by 50 per cent over a period of five years; and that the service was designed for a time when very few news outlets and communications demands were being made on the Home Office. That situation has changed and we have to respond. There are now 24-hour news broadcasts, sometimes at hourly intervals; there is a fifth channel; there is Sky Digital; there is On-Line; there is the Internet; and the media is growing exponentially. For that reason we need an effective service to offer to those journalists who, quite frankly, have been complaining that they cannot get through and make contact with the Home Office press office.

Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I speak as a former working journalist who has spent many of the most fruitless hours of his life trying to get a reply from the Home Office press office. Does my noble friend agree that this increase in staff will be justified if it brings about a proper response rate--although I do not think that my former colleagues will be any more satisfied with the answers that they receive more quickly than they were with the ones that they failed before to get at all?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord makes his point well, with his customary wit and charm.

Lord Glenarthur: My Lords, can the noble Lord say why it was necessary to employ external consultants to look into this matter and what was the cost?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am more than happy to confirm that the cost of the external consultants was £50,000, paid for from the Home Office budget. I should remind the noble Lord that during his party's time in government, the bill for consultants' work grew massively. I have the figures in front of me which demonstrate the full value of that work. We believe that we should make effective use of consultants in advising the Government how best to manage their business. I thought that the noble Lord and his party colleagues opposite shared that view.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, how many of the extra staff will be needed to identify Ministers' jokes?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I was going to speculate on the number of jokes that Ministers tell, but that would be unfair to the House.

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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, will this new team--with its specialist services, access to the media and so on--be restrained from the knee-jerk reaction of saying that, whenever this House decides something, it will be reversed?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his advice. No doubt the press officers will seek to advise their masters and their officials wisely on all occasions.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, is the Minister aware that part of the answer he gave earlier will cause considerable concern? He seemed to imply that more than twice as many press officers are to be employed because there are so many news items these days? Is he not aware that many of them repeat the same things over and over again? It should not be necessary to double the number of press officers to deal with repetition.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Home Office is an extremely busy department as regards news. Many Members of your Lordships' House try very hard to put us on the front pages of newspapers and in broadcasts. Business coming into the Home Office is increasing, as it is in many other departments. We want to offer a first-rate service in the Home Office and in all government departments.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, in his role as spokesman for the Government, will the Minister kindly ask his colleagues in this House and in another place to ensure that, when documents are sent out for public consultation, these press officers--no doubt his department is not the only one to have an increase in staff--use some of their time to publicise the issue of them? For instance, the review of the Mental Health Act was issued in November and it has only now become public knowledge when consultation ceases at the end of this month. It is most important, not only in his department but right across the board, that consultation documents are made public.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. It is important that such documents should remain in the public domain and that people have full and proper access to them.

European Parliament: Voting System

3.9 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their attitude to the proposal by the European Commission that some Members of the European Parliament should be elected on European lists, presented to all voters throughout the European Union.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Government see little merit in this proposal, which would only lead to a decrease in the number of MEPs representing local, regional and national interests in the European Parliament. Nor is it an idea which has so far attracted any serious support from other member states in the IGC.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that surprisingly welcome reply regarding a suggestion that was put forward by the Commission. Does she agree that, given the deep gulf between the man and woman in the street and European institutions, it would further increase alienation were we to have European-wide lists of candidates unrelated to countries or constituencies--Greeks standing in Italy, Fins in Luxembourg, Portuguese in Spain, Swedes in France? While it is utterly unobjectionable if an individual decides to stand, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, did, in another country, it is wholly different if that is forced upon the European public by treaty and by European-wide parties financed by Brussels. Does the Minister agree that that idea is wholly incompatible with a Europe of nation states and that it is designed simply to further the idea of a European political entity?


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