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Lord Filkin: My Lords, this is one of the situations in which I can say with honesty, "Not to my knowledge". As noble Lords well know, the Government regard a company limited by guarantee as being one possible way forward. It will ensure that when the rail administrator invites bids, there will be at least one bid on the table which is clearly in the public interest. The SRA is supporting the development of such a proposal. Clearly, that is at arm's length from the final decision that will be made by the
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, on the question of Railtrack making information available, is the Minister certain that Railtrack can provide an accurate list of the size and value of its assets?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I would be mad to say that I was confident, on the basis of the knowledge that I have, that due diligence would be perfectly fulfilled in the circumstances of which we are aware. The administrator has a particularly challenging job in that respect. One reasonnot the sole reasonwhy Railtrack went into administration was because it was not aware of the scope and extent of its assets or liabilities. The fact that that happened after a period during which it was a company is astounding. The second reason, as noble Lords know, involves the unbelievable cost overrun on the West Coast Main Line. I am certain that the administrator is doing his best to fulfil his responsibilities to the court to ensure that bidders have a full and fair picture, so that we do not have a repetition of the complete mess that we have seen previously in relation to Railtrack.
The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that Railtrack is having to continue to advertise for new staff? Is he satisfied that, despite the uncertainties of the period of administration, it is able to recruit people of adequate skill and calibre in engineering and administration?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am certain that Railtrack is having to advertise for new staffit is a substantial business and it is continuing to operate. That was the purpose of having an administration order rather than a winding up order. I do not know in detail whether it is having any difficulty recruiting staff. However, most people believe that, given the Government's commitment to establishing a strong railway industry in this country and to remarkable levels of capital investment over the next 10 years, many able people in the public and private sectors will be keen to join the rail industry. We saw that in relation to the success of the recent Chiltern bid and extension of that franchise.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers and the Civil Service Code, with the exception of the provisions of impartiality and objectivity, apply to special advisers. The Guidance on the Work of the
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, first, does the Minister agree that some of the comments in another place suggesting that there is a contradiction between efficient government and honest government were very unfortunate? Does he recognise that the Northcote-Trevelyan principles of independence and impartiality have been a crucial element in establishing the reputation of British governments for honesty?
Secondly, does the Minister agree that while special advisers often do an excellent job, the network of special advisers associated with the Policy Unit of No. 10 are seen, at least in some quarters, to be rather more powerful than elected Cabinet Ministers and other Ministers to whom they offer advice?
Finally, in order to close the circle of accountabilityaccountability through Ministers to Parliament, which the Minister mentioned, is pretty distantwould the Minister consider the possibility of Parliament being consulted on a ceiling on the number of special advisers and of Parliament having to approve the appointment of any special adviser who has the executive power to give orders to civil servants?
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I readily agree with the implication that the British Civil Service is the best in the world. We all have a shared pride in its integrity, propriety and, indeed, impartiality. As to the suggestion that there are special advisers who are more powerful than Ministers or Secretaries of State, that has not been my experience in government.
As to the other questions that the noble Baroness raised, we have promised that we shall bring in a Civil Service Bill. That will be preceded by full consultation. Those issues would best be dealt with at that point.
Lord Sheldon: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Select Committee on Public Administration in the other place has tried repeatedly to get special advisers to appear before it but its requests have been consistently refused? Will the Minister lift that unwarranted barrier on their coming before the committee to give evidence about what they do?
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, Ministers are accountable to Parliament and, as I have said, special advisers are responsible to Ministers. It is for Ministers to judge who should appear. That includes permanent as well as temporary civil servants, such as special advisers. We have a very thorough system of accountability. The most accountable Minister of all is the Prime Minister, who answers questions every week in Parliament. The present situation and the Government's present practice are well justified.
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, to repeat, all special advisers are temporary civil servants. The noble Lord refers, I am sure, to Article 3(3) of the Civil Service Order in Council of 1997, which provided scope for the government to appoint three special advisers, who would have the power to direct other civil servants. Only two have been appointed, as the noble Lord saidthe director of communications and strategy and the Prime Minister's chief of staff.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should keep a sense of proportion about recent events and recognise that under this Government, as under the previous government, civil servants and special advisers rub along together most of the time tolerably well? Does he further agree that no codes of conduct, however well drawn up, will work if there are individuals who are determined to prove themselves the spin doctors from hell?
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I agree with the general thrust of that question. It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who has great experience in these matters, say the other day in this House that no Act can prescribe for personal relationships. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, referred to that as office politics. I have no doubt that for the people involved that is a very serious matter.
However, all governments have certainly suffered from these problems in the past. I was looking at evidence that the then Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, gave in 1996 when he complained about leaks. He said that from 1980 430 leaks were reportedabout one every fortnightwhich were worthy of investigation. He concludedas I am sure would the party oppositethat any leaks are to be deplored.
Lord Butler of Brockwell: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there was nothing novel in 1997 about two special advisers in No. 10 Downing Street giving directions to civil servants? That has happened in the press office and in the Policy Unit of No. 10 many times in the past. What was novel was that proper provision was made for it under the Civil Service Order in Council.
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. It emphasises the comment made by the Public Administration Select Committee, which praised the Government for their commendable progress on special advisers. For the first time we have a specific code of conduct and, as the Select Committee said, for the first time we have transparency, which did not exist under previous administrations.
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