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4 Jun 1997 : Column 375

Oral Answers to Questions


Civil Service (Legislation)

1. Dr. Tony Wright: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what plans he has for civil service legislation. [519]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark): As the House knows, this Government are firmly committed to a wide-ranging constitutional reform programme and, as part of that, I shall be working with colleagues to take forward our commitment to give legal force to the civil service code.

Dr. Wright: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and welcome him to his post. He will know that the need to protect the integrity and independence of the civil service under the previous Government led to the present civil service code, following a recommendation by the old Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. He made an extremely welcome announcement just now that he will introduce an Act that will incorporate the code and give the civil service a new statutory footing.

Dr. Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for those kind words. I read with care the code, the debate and the fifth report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. I feel that any legislation must reinforce and reiterate the essential values and features of the civil service, which of course include integrity and impartiality.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I add my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Does he agree that a most distinguishing and distinguished feature of our civil service is its political impartiality? Will he ensure that, while he holds his present office, nothing will be done to compromise that in any way?

Dr. Clark: I can give the hon. Gentleman that categorical assurance.

Mr. Beith: Can the Minister assure the House that the mentality of the general election has entirely left the Labour party? Were the Government to be run on the basis on which the general election campaign was run by the Labour party--that internal dissent should be suppressed--it would certainly not be for the good of the country. It is therefore important that political advisers do not take over the traditional role of senior civil servants in protecting that impartiality.

Dr. Clark: The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point when he talks about special advisers, and it is right and proper that I make the point from the Dispatch Box. The rules under which we are operating for special advisers are the same as those that have been applicable, basically, for the past 25 years. There is one small exception relating to three separate appointments which, by Order in Council, were given special powers. That was done because we felt that it was right and proper that we should be open and transparent with the House, because those were grey areas which had been areas of difficulty in the past.

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The key point is that the whole process is intended to reinforce the political neutrality and integrity of the civil service.

Mr. Heseltine: The right hon. Gentleman says that he intends to stick to the practice of 25 years. How does he square that statement with the suggestion that the Prime Minister's principal private secretary is to be an apparatchik from the Labour party--Mr. Jonathan Powell? Will he tell the House, in the interests of open government, that in the event of that appointment taking place, the views of Sir Robin Butler will be published and made available to the House?

Dr. Clark: I am afraid that, yet again, the right hon. Gentleman has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The Prime Minister has made it clear that Mr. Jonathan Powell is his chief of staff--a position that existed previously in Mrs. Thatcher's early years in office--and that Mr. Powell will not take on the position of principal private secretary. That post will remain in the mainstream of the civil service. The rules were laid down by the Prime Minister and he is sticking to them.

Mr. Heseltine rose--

Madam Speaker: I call Mr. Radice.

Mr. Radice: I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. Is it not the case that there are very few more special advisers under this Government than there were under the previous Government? Unlike the previous Government, however, we are making sure that political advisers are political appointments at No. 10, rather than suborning career civil servants and using them as political playthings, as Mrs. Thatcher did.

Dr. Clark: My hon. Friend, who has a great deal of knowledge on the matter, having chaired for several years the Select Committee that dealt with it, is right. In no way are we taking any action whatever to impugn the political integrity of the civil service--exactly the contrary. As regards numbers, we have never hidden the fact. We said clearly during the election that a strong independent source of advice was needed for strategic thinking in No. 10. At a departmental level, under the previous Government, there were about 38 special advisers; under this Government there will be about 44--not a great difference.

Mr. Heseltine rose--

Hon. Members: No.

Madam Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to two questions. This is his second question.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. It is my choice whom I call. I have made it clear that the right hon. Gentleman is entitled to two questions. This is his second question.

Mr. Heseltine: I am sure, Madam Speaker, that the whole House will welcome the fact that the Government cannot silence you, no matter how much they try to silence everyone else.

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Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that the principal private secretary to the Prime Minister--a civil servant--will in no way be answerable to Jonathan Powell?

Dr. Clark: It is quite clear that the principal private secretary to the Prime Minister is a career civil servant and he is responsible to the permanent secretary of the civil service, who is head of the civil service in that professional capacity. There is a clear distinction of roles.

Civil Service (Management)

2. Mr. Rhodri Morgan: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what proposals he has to improve the management of the civil service. [520]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): We are committed to a modernised, high-quality, efficient and customer-focused civil service, and we wish to mobilise the talents and creativity of civil servants at all levels to achieve that.

Mr. Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate him on his appointment. Does he agree with me, as one of the small band of ex-civil servant Members of Parliament, that during the previous Government, under the pressure of contractorisation, market testing and privatisation, many wrong macho management practices were imported from the private sector into the British civil service? Does he agree that the new Labour Government must do their best to continue the drive for efficiency through benchmarking and other means, but must restore the public service ethos to its rightful place in the civil service?

Mr. Kilfoyle: The watchwords of the new Government towards the civil service will be to make it accountable, accessible, responsive and more efficient. With regard to training and development, we have already reinforced the civil service commitment to Investors in People, the national standard for the effective training and development of all an organisation's staff. We are acutely conscious of what has happened to civil service morale, and we look forward to working with civil servants to improve morale.

Mr. Ian Bruce: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. Will he try to answer the question that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has already been asked twice? Will the principal private secretary have to report to the chief of staff; and will the latter control access to the Prime Minister? If that is supposed to represent better management of the civil service, we clearly disagree.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I endorse everything that my right hon. Friend has said. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman address his comments to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, if he gets the opportunity.

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3. Mr. Gordon Prentice: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will review the current practice in which the estates of those who die intestate in the County Palatine revert to the Crown. [521]

Dr. David Clark: The Law Commission, in its 1989 report "Family Law: Distribution on Intestacy", recommended no change to current legislation. I have no plans to suggest a review of the law on intestacy.

Mr. Prentice: Are not many aspects of the Duchy weird and wonderful throwbacks to the middle ages--none weirder than the fact that the estates of people who die intestate in the County Palatine revert to the Duke of Lancaster? Is there not a powerful case for opening up the Duke of Lancaster's benevolent fund to include people who are elected as councillors instead of just the lords lieutenant, the sheriffs and all the other appointees whom we are fed up with?

Dr. Clark: I am persuaded that my hon. Friend has made a very pertinent point. The Government have committed themselves to more transparency and openness; in that spirit I intend to look at the composition and openness of the board of trustees of the Duchy benevolent fund. As part of that process, I invite representations from right hon. and hon. Members whose constituencies fall within the County Palatine.

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