Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Saatchi: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree that this would be a particularly good time for the Government to demonstrate their credentials for openness and transparency in their dealings with civil servants? Why does he think that the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life would describe the Government's response to his committee's recent report as a,


Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, with great respect, I dissent from that conclusion. The Government will have an independent ethics adviser. I

17 Sept 2003 : Column 908

repeat the point about our commitment to a draft Bill for consultation for a Civil Service Act, once the Select Committee's proposals have been published. We are proposing a new section to the code of conduct for special advisers, and we are further agreeing that, in future, the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner will be made following consultation with the leaders of the main Opposition parties. Anyone who had a spark of objectivity or, indeed, generosity would accept that those are significant steps forward.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, all of that sounds marvellous, but why is the Prime Minister still insisting on using Orders in Council to give political appointees the power to direct civil servants?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord said, "All of that sounds marvellous"; I am sure that it sounded equally marvellous when he was a distinguished member of the late Cabinet. Openness in public life is, in itself, a virtue. It also contributes to the accountability of government.

All the steps that I have put forward ought to meet with the unanimous approval of the House. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has pressed us on this for a long time, as has my noble friend Lord Sheldon, and we are now delivering. Just occasionally, a spirit of calm objectivity in receiving the proposals might be welcome, if surprising.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, it is all very well to have a spirit of great cordiality, trust and love, but will the Minister please answer the question?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I welcome the cordiality: I do not think that I invited love—the noble Baroness seems to be making an inadvertent gesture, and I am sure that the television cameras will have focused on it. If they have not, I recommend that they do and that it be replayed on many appropriate prominent occasions.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sheldon is absent on parliamentary business in Frankfurt, but I am sure that, if he were here, he would be as delighted as I am with the replies that my noble and learned friend gave. For the first time, I am able to compliment my noble and learned friend completely, and I do not see how anybody could disagree with what the Government propose. Even the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, must accept that it was a thoroughly objective statement, as my noble friend Lord Sheldon would agree.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, normally, I am terrified when my noble friend Lord Barnett offers to be helpful. On this occasion, I believe him to be 100 per cent correct.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that the measures herald the end of the culture of spin and the return of the Government to a pristine, lily-white condition?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, all the governments in my memory have sought to present

17 Sept 2003 : Column 909

their achievements—or lack of them, in some cases—in the most favourable light. There is nothing new about that, as the longest-serving Minister in the Welsh Office in living memory can well remember.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord help me with a point of detail? In the new arrangements, what will be done with the Strategic Communications Unit? Who will end up running it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the SCU will continue to work, and the special advisers there will work to Mr David Hill.

Lord McNally: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and I pursued the matter because we thought that the previous arrangement was flawed. We accept what the noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council has said today as a recognition that the previous arrangements were flawed.

There is, however, still some clearing-up to do. In a Written Answer to be published today to my Question about whether Mr Alastair Campbell's views on the BBC's coverage of the Iraq war was government policy, the noble and learned Lord said:


    "the BBC was responsible for some of the best journalism during the conflict in Iraq. However, as is well documented, the Government were critical of some aspects of their coverage".

That is a long way from what Alastair Campbell said on Channel 4, which was that the BBC had an anti-war agenda. Can I take it that the Written Answer is a withdrawal of that accusation by the Government?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: No, my Lords. I repeat: the BBC was responsible, in the view of the Government, for some of the best journalism during the conflict in Iraq. We ought not to forget, when there are criticisms of journalists—print, television or sound—that journalists discharge an extremely important public duty and public service, often at serious damage to their own life, as we know.

On the other hand, as is well documented, the Government were critical of some aspects of the BBC's coverage, as, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, used to be critical, on occasion, of some aspects of the BBC's coverage when his party was in power. I hope that we never have a situation in this country in which there is a perfect identity of interest between government and the free press.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, did I hear the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House say that nobody with a spark of objectivity could disagree with the Government's approach? The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life disagrees with the Government's approach. Is the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House saying that Sir Nigel Wicks does not have a spark of objectivity? If so, what is the point of his committee?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I did not say that. Plainly, the art of selective quotation is not limited to former members of the Bar. I said that

17 Sept 2003 : Column 910

generosity and objectivity would, I respectfully suggested, require your Lordships to welcome the proposals. I repeat that, and I am grateful for the generous support of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. He has pressed the Government and, frequently, he has been met with answers that he thought were rather less than focused. The measures to which I have adverted today are a reasoned, proportionate response to the points made by my noble friends Lord Sheldon and Lord Barnett and the noble Lord, Lord McNally.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: My Lords, I welcome the Government's continued commitment to a Bill on the Civil Service, but I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord agrees that, if a competition is held to fill a post on the basis of merit, the role of the Minister is either to accept the person who wins the competition or to run the competition again.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am personally grateful to have that question from the noble Lord. When I was a baby Minister at the Home Office, he was my first permanent secretary. His teaching, instructions and stratagems have guided me since.

It will be chaired by the First Civil Service Commissioner; that is as it should be. The process will start in the autumn. The noble Lord is right: when the recommendation is made, the appointment will be made by the Prime Minister, with the agreement of the relevant Minister, on the recommendation of the head of the Home Civil Service. Those are significant advances on what we have, and we should welcome them in a spirit of objectivity and generosity, as the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, said.

Business

3.18 p.m.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, with the leave of House, my noble friend Lady Amos will, later this afternoon—the suggested time is after we have completed consideration of Commons amendments to the Local Government Bill—repeat a Statement on the World Trade Organisation ministerial conference.

Procedure of the House: Select Committee Report

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the 4th Report from the Select Committee be agreed to.(HL Paper 162)—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:


    1. Thursday sittings


    As we indicated in our third report, we are reviewing the arrangement whereby the House sits at 11 a.m. on Thursdays but adjourns between 1.30 and 3.00 p.m. We should like to obtain the views of Members of the House and are therefore circulating a

17 Sept 2003 : Column 911

    short questionnaire to all Members, to be returned by Friday 10 October. We shall meet again later in October to consider the responses.


    2. Proposed Standing Committee on the European Union Intergovernmental Conference


    The committee has considered a letter from the Leader of the House inviting it to consider a proposal for a Commons Standing Committee on the forthcoming European Union Intergovernmental Conference. The letter is printed as an annex to this report.


    The proposal is similar to that for a Standing Committee on the Convention on the Future of Europe, on which we reported in our second report of last session and to which the House agreed on 24 June 2002. In both cases the procedure permits Lords to attend and speak, but not to vote, nor to move Motions or count towards the quorum. The new proposal is, however, for a Standing Committee that would engage with Ministers rather than parliamentary representatives.


    Some members of the committee have reservations about the basis on which Members of this House are to be permitted to participate. A procedure in which Members of both Houses played an equal part might be preferable. We recognise, however, that what is proposed represents a development from the Standing Committee on the convention and that no new precedent will be set.


    Accordingly we invite the House to agree to the participation of Lords in the new Standing Committee.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page