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Ministerial Replies

3. Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): If he will make a statement on progress in improving the timeliness and quality of ministerial replies from all Government departments to requests from hon. Members. [58913]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): The Cabinet Office issued guidance last month to all Departments reminding them of the correct procedures to be followed when handling correspondence from hon. Members. Copies of the guidance have been placed in the Libraries of the House. The guidance emphasises the importance of setting robust and challenging targets for replying to letters from hon. Members and reminds Departments of the need to ensure that all replies are of a consistently high standard.

Mr. Pickthall: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that a great deal still needs to be done? For example, only this Monday, I received a reply to a letter I sent to a Department on 20 March this year. As we inflict league tables on schools, would my hon. Friend consider league tables for Departments? Perhaps there could be performance-related pay, the idea of an advanced skills civil servant and, possibly, "headlamp" training for Ministers.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I agree that the treatment that my hon. Friend received is not up to expectations, but I hope that it was the exception, not the rule. We are mindful of the need to improve target times for the turnround of correspondence. If we were to introduce performance- related pay and league tables for the House and apply

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them to the performance of the Opposition, they would end up paying money into the Exchequer and would face another relegation.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does the Minister accept that many of my Buckingham constituents, whose courtesy is unsurpassed anywhere in the United Kingdom, are justifiably irritated when they have regularly to wait a minimum of two months--sometimes much longer--before they receive ministerial replies? Further to the Minister's reply to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), does he agree that a reply, if it has taken at least two months to provide, should always be accompanied by an apology to the constituent from the Minister involved for its tardiness?

Mr. Kilfoyle: The guidance sets out clearly the responsibilities of Departments and Ministers. The guidance for the treatment of correspondence from members of the public is different from that for correspondence from hon. Members. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that correspondence from hon. Members is often more substantive and it takes longer for Departments to reply, but that is no excuse for not making a speedy response.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Let me press the Minister on his point about a speedy response. In response to a request dealing with central standards and decisions in the House, a card was received stating that the matter had been passed to the Northern Ireland Office. Surely such a request should be answered by a Minister in the Department to which it was addressed, not passed all around the world to the Northern Ireland Office and back again.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it makes sense that correspondents should have one initial point of contact for any request, and an explanation of the reasons behind it. The guidance makes clear the good practice that should be followed, but doing so is the responsibility of the Department concerned.

Drugs Misuse

4. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): If he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's priorities for reducing drugs misuse in 1998 and 1999. [58914]

6. Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York): If he will make a statement about the Government's policies to curb the use of illicit drugs. [58918]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): The Government's anti-drugs strategy, "Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain", published in April this year, established a framework for action over the next 10 years. On 1 September, I announced £217 million of additional funding over the next three years for anti-drugs activities, in line with the strategy. Our long-term targets are to reduce drug misuse by young people, to reduce drug-related crime, to increase participation in drug treatment and to reduce the availability of drugs. Specific short and medium-term

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targets will be in place by March 1999. Locally, drug action teams are now drawing up action plans for 1999-2000.

Mr. Hughes: I welcome those four targets. Will the Minister dwell on the last of them and ensure that his discussions are widened to bring in the Department of Health, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Employment so that we have a culture that reduces the use of illegal drugs and the unnecessary use of all drugs, especially tobacco and alcohol?

Dr. Cunningham: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support for what we are trying to achieve in our new strategy, but my responsibilities focus on illegal use of drugs. I would not for one moment deny the importance of the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, but they are not principally matters for me or for the Committee of Ministers, which I chair and which is doing just what he suggests in co-ordinating activity and action across Departments.

Mr. Bayley: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be head teachers who decide whether to exclude a pupil if that pupil is found in possession of drugs? Does he agree that the decision should reflect the individual circumstances of the case?

Dr. Cunningham: Yes, I agree. My hon. Friend simply reflects accurately what was said yesterday by my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): In his role of co-ordinating policy across Government, will the Minister ensure that the clear, unequivocal message against the use of illegal drugs is consistent? Perhaps he might have a word with the Prime Minister to ensure that his right hon. Friend does not in future invite to Downing street personalities such as those from the pop music world who are known to take drugs and who set such a poor example to the young who idolise them.

Dr. Cunningham: I begin by congratulating the right hon. Lady--

Mrs. Winterton: Hon. Lady.

Dr. Cunningham: I beg her pardon.

Mrs. Winterton: Only a matter of time.

Dr. Cunningham: It is, indeed, only a matter of time. I congratulate the hon. Lady on her new position on the Front Bench, and I thank her for her co-operation in taking a non-partisan approach to these issues. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment will also revert to taking that non-partisan approach on the illegal use of drugs. We are concerned with the impact of drugs on children and young people, and that simply is not a party political issue.

I am very pleased to be able to say that the Prime Minister's guest lists for 10 Downing street are not a matter for me and fall within none of my responsibilities.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his efforts to reduce use of

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illegal drugs. Will he join me in congratulating the groups which have come together over the past three years in Paisley, North to fight the menace of drugs, and which, by doing so, have reduced violent crime by 36 per cent. over that period? Does my right hon. Friend agree that only when every section of the community comes together can that kind of progress be made?

Dr. Cunningham: Yes, I agree. We are willing and determined to work with local drugs action teams and other organisations, and I pay tribute to them. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the courageous stance that she has consistently taken in her constituency and in wider Scottish debates.

Civil Service (Independence)

5. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What new measures he plans to take to ensure the independence of the Civil Service. [58916]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): The role of the civil service, as summarised in the "Civil Service Code", is to assist the duly constituted Government of the day with integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity. We intend to bring forward legislation to give statutory force to the code as and when a suitable opportunity occurs. The "Ministerial Code" requires Ministers to uphold the political impartiality of the civil service.

Mr. Swayne: Does the Minister believe that the taxpayer is getting value for money for Alastair Campbell at £90,000 a year for a job which the Prime Minister describes as one of attacking the Opposition, and which the press are increasingly discovering to be one of concealing information, or providing misleading information?

Mr. Kilfoyle: It is arrant nonsense to talk about the Government concealing information, certainly about the role of the chief press spokesman for the Prime Minister and those in similar posts. We have set out clearly and publicly to place presentation at the heart of Government. We have made it clear, and we make no apology for saying, that we shall drive our agenda forward from the centre in a way that will not compromise the political impartiality of civil servants. That is the role of special advisers.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is my hon. Friend aware that, after 18 years in which it was said that the only question asked of any civil servant was, "Is he one of us?", Labour Members not only expect the Government to maintain the independence of the civil service but strongly believe that that is the only way in which the interests of the public will be preserved?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I could not but agree with my hon. Friend. The use of special advisers in certain matters means that we avoid the dangers, which many people would allege that the previous Government strayed into, of politically compromising regular civil servants. We have no intention of doing that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Was not my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West

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(Mr. Swayne) right to focus on the independence of the civil service and to draw attention to the injury done to that tradition of impartial civil servants by the Government doubling the number of special advisers and giving them pay increases way above the average of those given to other civil servants? If one sets that centralising tendency against all the others displayed by the Government, are we not right to conclude that the country needs not more central enforcement from the Minister for the Cabinet Office, but less?

Mr. Kilfoyle: Let me make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that we said at the outset that the Government would place the drive for implementing our programme at the very heart of Government. That is why, in July, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reconfigured the Cabinet Office. We have also clearly and unequivocally said what role we expect special advisers to fulfil. I point out to the right hon. Gentleman, who mentioned costs, that the average salary paid to a special adviser under the present Government is £1,000 less than the previous Government paid their special advisers.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): Has my hon. Friend read the remarkable article by the Prime Minister in the new issue of Prospect magazine, in which he asserts the independence and integrity of the civil service and invites civil servants to think across Departments, learn from mistakes, extend boundaries rather than protect turf, and work closely with their European counterparts to advance the interests of the nation and the Government? Will my hon. Friend distribute copies of that article throughout the civil service to encourage initiative and independence and acknowledge its contribution to good government of our nation?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me of the occasion on which that speech was made. I am sure that it was so inspirational that, if we made copies available, even Conservative Members would be moved to recognise the Prime Minister's commitment to joined-up government, better government and an efficient civil service. That commitment was certainly recognised by the members of the senior civil service who were present when the speech was made.


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