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Mr. Beith: The right hon. Gentleman will note that I expressed my appreciation of the work done by the civil service part of the Government's press machine and, indeed, of some of the work done by the Government's more political special adviser press officers. However, he must be aware that, on the civil service side of the press machine, there has been considerable anxiety that the pace of change also involved pushing at what had been long understood to be fairly clear boundaries about what constitutes non-partisan behaviour and what is going too far in the direction of commitment to the Government, as opposed to the public administration system as a whole. It would be unreasonable if he did not recognise that there are anxieties that need to be allayed.

Dr. Cunningham: Shortly after Labour came into office, the then head of the home civil service, Sir Robin Butler, commissioned a review into the GICS which was undertaken by a small group chaired by Sir Robin Mountfield, the permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office. It examined what needed to be done to ensure that the GICS was in a position to meet the demands of what is now a 24-hour media world.

The review was prompted by concerns not about the politicisation of the service, but about ensuring that the service had the skills and resources necessary to take it

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into the 21st century. I remind the House that the group was headed by Sir Robin Mountfield, the Cabinet Office permanent secretary, not by a politician. Its main recommendations were: to improve co-ordination with and from the centre through a new strategic communications unit; to improve co-ordination within departments so that Ministers, special advisers, press officers and policy civil servants all play their part in the coherent formulation and communication of policy; to bring the practice and procedures of the Government press offices up to the standards of the best, geared to quick response around the clock--sometimes I wish that it could be even quicker; to develop closer and better working relations between policy civil servants and press offices; and, finally and most importantly, to reaffirm that the service would remain politically impartial to sustain its trusted values.

One of the Government's earliest decisions, in July 1997, was to publish the latest version of the rules, the "Guidance on the Work of the Government Information Service". Thus, we again published the conclusions and recommendations. The result of the review was a continuing programme of action to ensure that the Mountfield recommendations are given the priority that they deserve. A progress report on them was placed in the Library of the House last summer and we hope to publish the next progress reports shortly. If any hon. Member wants to complain about the recommendations or their implementation, I invite him or her to talk to me in the Cabinet Office, or write to me, and I shall take the matter up. As I said about abuse of power, we have had no such complaints, suggestions or recommendations for change or improvement from any party in the House.

Our decision to have a strong centre with political drive to ensure a firm political focus to the work of this Administration was a pre-election commitment. We have increased the numbers of special advisers and there are now some 70 full and part-time special advisers employed across Whitehall, but I make no apology for that. Equally, it is important that we keep the number in perspective: it is extremely small compared with the number of permanent civil servants.

We have been open about the number of special advisers and the terms and conditions under which they are appointed. For the first time ever, we published a "Model Contract for Special Advisers", making clear their role and responsibilities.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Cunningham: No, not at the moment.

The model contract was promulgated by the Prime Minister and placed in the Library of the House in May 1997. Distinguishing clearly the roles of special advisers and permanent civil servants ensures that there is no misunderstanding about their respective roles. I am aware of no genuine misunderstanding about that. I regularly meet civil servants not only from my Department, the Cabinet Office, but from other Departments; indeed, I regularly meet the civil service unions, as the House would expect of me. No one from the civil service has raised any complaints of that nature with me in the admittedly all-too-brief time in which I have held these responsibilities.

Equally, by acknowledging the role of special advisers in that way, we protect the political neutrality of the permanent civil service. I agree with the right

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hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that it is essential that that is done. The only exception to the general rules regarding the advisory role of special advisers applies to the Prime Minister's chief of staff and press secretary--his official spokesman.

As the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said in an intervention, immediately after the election, the Civil Service Order in Council 1995 was amended to enable up to three posts in the Prime Minister's office to have additional powers, allowing it to have civil servants working for it. Once again, we were entirely open about our intentions. Of those three posts, only two have been taken up. We believe that, to be truly effective, those posts should not be filled by individuals who would be expected to perform a similar role for an Administration of a different political party.

The Prime Minister's chief of staff and the Prime Minister's press secretary--like all other civil servants--are accountable to Ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament. What they can and cannot do is set out clearly in their contracts. The Prime Minister's press secretary made public his contract following a request from the Select Committee on Public Administration.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed rightly focused on a freedom of information Act. I share his general objectives in the matter, as do the Government. The Government entirely agree that the public interest is best served by greater access to information. That has been demonstrated many times in what we have already done. I think of the judicial inquiry into BSE, the encouragement of advisory committees to appoint watchdogs and consumer representatives and to publish their agendas and minutes, and the interesting and important development in departmental web sites. I agree that much more can be done in that regard. None the less, all those developments have been going on, and continue to do so.

The Government's major programme of constitutional reform--another objective that we share with the Liberal Democrats--aims to involve people more closely in decisions that affect their lives. That is done through changing not just institutional structures, but the way in which our institutions work. That means greater openness, greater accountability and greater contact with individuals and organisations outside government and Whitehall.

I personally feel very strongly committed to such aims and objectives. A good example of what I am talking about is the discussion forum on modernising government, which the Cabinet Office and No. 10 Downing street have jointly launched on the internet today. People will be able to call up the site, give their views about what they would like, see some of our working documents and comment on them.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is right to say that the key component of the programme is a freedom of information Act. We believe that such an Act will lead to greater accountability, more involvement of the public in decision making, better decision making across the public sector and, ultimately, better government.

The Government published their proposals in December 1997 in a White Paper, "Your Right To Know". That was a major step towards fulfilling our manifesto commitment to legislate for freedom of

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information. I pay tribute to the work done on that by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark).

The Home Office took over responsibility for freedom of information legislation from the Cabinet Office when changes were made to the Government in the summer, in order to enable policy to be developed alongside other constitutional measures, such as human rights and data protection. That has also allowed my Department to concentrate on its new role of supporting the Prime Minister, and the Government as a whole, in driving forward strategic policy formulation and implementation. In addition, a great deal of my Department's work is aimed at producing the White Paper on modernising government and ensuring that that programme is taken forward across the Government.

Following those developments, the Home Office has devoted a great deal of effort to translating the White Paper's proposals into a draft Bill. I can say that with absolute authority because I am a member of the committee that is working to produce that Bill. We plan to publish a draft freedom of information Bill shortly. We then look forward to a thorough and informed debate. Following consultation, the Bill will be introduced as soon as the legislative programme allows. I accept the point by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that, realistically, given the timetable that we face, it is unlikely to be possible to steer the Bill through all stages this Session, even if it were possible to agree on it being carried over to the next Session.

The Select Committee on Public Administration has asked for three months to scrutinise the Bill. The Government want to meet that commitment on behalf of the House. We have also undertaken, quite properly, to provide a period of public consultation. It will be proper consultation, in which the views of respondents will be taken into account. We hope and believe that consultation and scrutiny will lead to a better Bill, resulting in the smoother passage of Bills in general.

The freedom of information Bill will be a highly complex piece of legislation, as I well know, and it is vital for the Act in which it will result to be effective and workable. I know that some people think that we have waited long enough, but surely it is worth taking just a little more time to do all that we can to ensure that we get the legislation right.

The Government have acknowledged the importance of the Government Information and Communications Service to the effective development and implementation of policy. We have reaffirmed the political integrity and impartiality of the service, and we are making progress towards a freedom of information Act that will form just one part of the wholesale modernisation of the government and constitution of this country.

For those reasons, I urge the House to reject the Liberal Democrat motion and support our amendment.

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