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4.6 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Let me try to deal quickly with what I will describe as the first part of the entertaining, if rather long drawn-out, speech of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He began by talking about some of the changes that have taken place. I will not accept any criticism of a Government who have come in after 18 years of a previous Administration of an entirely different kind and made changes. When the previous Conservative Administration changed Prime Ministers, they changed personnel. That is in the nature of a change of Government. Of course, changes have been made and there will be more to come because the Government are about changing Britain. I cannot accept the idea that we should have continued exactly as before with the same personnel and the same approach as under the previous Administration.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made much of anonymous comments and quotes. As I have said, he spoke with considerable humour, and, by describing those comments as anonymous, he defined the nature of the problem. The fact that they are anonymous makes it difficult for anyone, however great the will, to do anything about them. When we read in the newspaper, "Friends of Mr. Ashdown", we all know that that means the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) or his office. We can all read the code. In fact, we read that quite frequently in the newspapers and hear it on the radio and television. The other claim--that the Liberal Democrats are as white as driven snow and that the Labour and Conservative parties are mired in this business of spinning or briefing either against parties or between parties--is something else that I cannot understand.

As has been pointed out, at the last Liberal Democrat conference, we were regaled with a number of candidates who were lining themselves up to replace the right hon.

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Member for Yeovil. Let us not pretend that this is a problem of only one or two parties and that, somehow, other political parties, important or large or small, are somehow immune to it or have been inoculated against its temptations.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked me what I intend to do about it. I am inclined to photocopy the Sermon on the Mount and place it on the walls of the offices of all my ministerial colleagues and their advisers, particularly that part which says:

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to guarantee this afternoon that no current serving member of the Cabinet has, since 1 May 1997, made a disobliging remark about a Cabinet colleague to a journalist at any time?

Dr. Cunningham: Of course not. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that he is making a demand to which I could not possibly respond in the way that he suggests. I reflected recently on my role and responsibilities in a conversation with the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) who once performed a similar role, although it was as the Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Administration. He told me of some of his experiences. One Friday, he was alerted to the fact that there would be nine or 10 anti-Government stories in the Sunday newspapers. He got his team together and it went to work through Friday, Friday evening and Saturday. On Sunday, there were 27 anti-Government stories in the Sunday newspapers. So let us not pretend that our esteemed friends and colleagues who report on our proceedings in this Chamber and elsewhere are not themselves sometimes the unwitting victims of some of this stuff or simply fall to the temptation of writing it. Unfortunately, some of them seem to be addicted to it. The reality is that it will never completely go away.

I say to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and everyone else in the House that it is a bit much to focus a significant part of a speech on any person who does not have the opportunity to come here, join in the debate and speak up on his own behalf.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Cunningham: No, not for the moment. I want to make this point.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) intervened in the speech of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed to say that, had it not been for the unfortunate resignation, as he put it, of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), some action may have been taken in respect of problems facing the oil industry. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not persuade his right hon. Friend to hold the debate on the oil industry rather than the subject that the Liberal party has chosen.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed even said that we knew what happened in the horrendous catastrophe of BSE only because the Government set up a judicial inquiry, as though it was an error for us to set it up. We set up the inquiry exactly because we wanted the facts to come out for the benefit and information of

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the public. I should have thought that that was one matter on which the right hon. Gentleman would be persuaded to give us some credit.

One can go back through the reports, debates and activities of the House for decades, nay, generations. It was Churchill, after all, who said that nothing should be allowed to interfere with the rancour and asperity of politics. That was a very long time ago. We know that there is rivalry not simply between parties but within parties. I say to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, to my colleagues and to the House that of course one wants to minimise the consequences of that. I have made it clear in recent interviews and broadcasts as part of my responsibilities that the Prime Minister wants the message to go out clearly that he expects his Ministers to work in a coherent team not only in the best interests of the Government but essentially and more importantly in the best interests of the country and its people as a whole.

Let me turn to some of the matters of more substance that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed raised. He talked about people who were in powerful positions properly exercising that power. I agree with him on that. That is essential. Anyone who has worked, or works, closely with any Prime Minister is in a position of considerable power. I worked with Lord Callaghan when he was Prime Minister as his Parliamentary Private Secretary. I saw a great deal of him and was involved in much of what he did. Cabinet Ministers used to stop me and consult me, ask me questions and ask my opinion. When I left that position and became a junior Minister, they used to pass me in the corridor as if I were invisible. Anyone who works closely with a Prime Minister is in a powerful position. I agree that it is essential that we have in place safeguards and that we ensure the proper exercise of that power.

It is exactly for the reasons that I have given that we were the first Government to publish the model contract for the employment of people such as Alastair Campbell. No Government had done that ever before. While I accept that some people may be critical of some of the terms and conditions of that contract, I am not aware that any Member of the House from any party has written to us suggesting any amendments to it. I assure the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that there is no evidence of any abuse of that proper exercise of power, nor did he produce any such evidence.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is it not also the case that what marked out the Labour Government was that they got rid of almost all the in-house information officers in each Department, because they wanted their message to be put across not in an official way, but by spin?

Dr. Cunningham: That is not true; it is a wholly inaccurate statement. I assume that the hon. Gentleman could not have listened carefully to my opening remarks, because the first point that I made to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was that we were determined to make some changes; changes in policy, certainly, but also necessary changes in personnel, where they were appropriate. As I also emphasised, changes in personnel were made by the right hon. Member for

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Huntingdon (Mr. Major) when Baroness Thatcher left 10 Downing street; there is nothing wrong with that at all--although whether those changes were an improvement is another matter.

I must move on to some of the issues of greater substance raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I am pleased to have the opportunity to put on record the Government's appreciation of the important work done by the Government Information and Communications Service. When he discussed the service, the right hon. Gentleman largely confined his remarks to only two people in the whole of a large, extensive and effective service. The staff of that service play a key role, all day and every day, in carrying out the important task of effectively communicating and explaining the policies, decisions and actions of the Government of the day. They do so through the media and through paid publicity campaigns, conducted in an appropriate way, having regard to the need to be able to justify the costs to public funds. In my experience, they perform that task effectively, efficiently and impartially, providing a service as politically impartial civil servants, in line with the civil service code introduced by the previous Administration in January 1996.

Hon. Members will recall that the code was based on the draft proposed by the Treasury Committee. Surely, there can be no complaint between us about the important work of the Government Information and Communications Service.

Since the election, the Government have set a challenging pace in their programme of reform and improvement, and we shall continue to do so. The GICS press and publicity staff have put considerable energy and skill into supporting the Government's programme and, during the past year, they have done so while shouldering the burden of change. The changes are not yet complete, but I should like to take this opportunity to thank the staff for their professionalism and commitment.

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