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4.31 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The official Opposition endorse the criticisms in the Liberal Democrat motion of the Labour party's treatment of the Government Information and Communications Service.I congratulate the right hon. Member for

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Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on his perceptive and important speech. Like him, I deplore the obsession with appearance as opposed to substance. I hope that progress can be made with freedom of information legislation, although I must add that I do not think such legislation will solve the problem that the right hon. Gentleman described at the beginning of his speech.

On the subject of freedom of information, I was concerned to receive today, from the Cabinet Office, a reply to a letter that I had written to the Minister on 1 December. Six weeks later, the letter states:

the Minister--

    "had hoped to reply to your letter by now and is very sorry he is unable to do so as advice is being sought from the Freedom of Information unit."

I hope that the Government's objective is to accelerate rather than delay the distribution of information to hon. Members.

The Liberal Democrats have identified an important issue, but if I were offered the first Opposition day debate of 1999, with the Government very much on the defensive--with the national health service facing a crisis, the retail trade trying to recover from a difficult Christmas, agriculture on its knees and the Chancellor sticking to a growth forecast that hardly anyone else believes--I am not sure that, given that promising list of targets, my prime suspect would be the Government Information and Communications Service. The Liberal Democrats' choice of subject tells us something about the dilemma that confronts them: they are having to decide, basically, whether they are with the Government or against them.

Mr. Beith rose--

Sir George Young: Perhaps I will pre-empt the right hon. Gentleman's intervention if I add that the motion is serious, and deserves a better response than the one that we have just heard.

Mr. Beith: The right hon. Gentleman is very generous, but he may have missed the fact that we spent a considerable part of the morning engaging in a major and well-attended debate about the crisis in the health service, initiated by a Liberal Democrat.

Sir George Young: It is true that a debate lasting an hour and a half took place this morning on pay and conditions for NHS nurses, but that is not quite the same as a three-hour debate on an Opposition day.

There are many ways of describing both the worrying changes in the presentation of Government policy that have occurred since 1997, and the shift in the terms of trade between policy maker and policy presenter. One of the best ways of explaining the change is, perhaps, to refer to a chart that appeared in a Sunday newspaper 10 days ago. On one side of the chart--in favour of a proposition--were pictured seven Cabinet Ministers, with their individual views; on the other side--against the proposition--were seven other Cabinet Ministers, with their views. At the bottom of the page were six more, described as maintaining a discreet pager silence.

What was the important issue? Was it early entry into the euro, increasing the top rate of tax, giving nurses the full amount recommended by the pay review body,

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reforming the House of Lords? No; the issue was whether Mr. Charles Whelan, a junior Treasury official, should be sacked. That that should have become the currency of serious political debate is a direct consequence of the style of news management that we now have, and of the status given by the present Government to those who are believed to have particular presentational skills. The fact that Charlie Whelan's resignation overshadowed the launch of the first European single currency since the Romans tells us that we have a Government whose priorities are distorted--they are preoccupied with packaging as opposed to content.

It is not just Liberal Democrats and Conservatives who find that offensive. A growing number of Labour Members are reacting against the power that the Government have given to the spin doctors. Two of the bolder ones raised the matter on a point of order on Monday on the first day back after the Christmas recess.

We have become so accustomed to the partisan briefings of the Chancellor's former press secretary that it is necessary to be reminded of the ground rules--the official guidance on the work of the Government Information and Communications Service, which was circulated by the Cabinet Office in July 1997. Paragraph 2 tells us that the activities of the service

It goes on to say that they

    "should not be, or be liable to misrepresentation as being, Party political."

The guidance goes on to say that the resources of the Government information service

    "may not be used to support publicity for Party political purposes",

and that

    "personalisation of issues or personal image-making should be avoided".

Dr. Jack Cunningham: The right hon. Gentleman was just complaining about the devotion of pages of the national newspapers to matters of trivia, yet here he is devoting the opening part of his speech to the same trivia. It is obvious, as the Prime Minister and I, and others, have made clear, that the Government would much prefer such stuff not to be in the national newspapers, but the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we are in charge of their editorial policy as well, is he?

Sir George Young: The right hon. Gentleman misses the point. We have a new Administration who are obsessed with presentation. They have changed the terms of trade and attach almost as much importance to those with presentational skills as to those who have the ability to formulate policy. They are paying the price for that because the press are diverting attention to those who carry the message and not focusing on the substance. Frankly, the Government have no one else to blame for the problems over the past three weeks but themselves.

I have referred to the new rules that were brought in by the Government. As I looked through the mountain of press cuttings that have been kindly supplied by the Library, I was struck by the number of commentators--not politicians--who believe that, to put it kindly, the rules have been stretched to breaking point and that injury is being done both to our tradition of a professional and impartial civil service and to the concept of not using taxpayers' funds for party political purposes.

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To understand what has happened, first one must look at the key position of Alastair Campbell. It is no secret that he was closely associated with the presentation of Labour's policy in opposition. He is personally deeply committed to the Prime Minister and to the Labour party. He is now technically a special adviser--a ministerial appointment--and not a civil servant. His importance is due to the fact that, both in opposition and in government, the Prime Minister places a premium on presentation. That is why, in last weekend's edition of The Sunday Times, the former director of information at the Department of Health said:

That person held that post until January 1.

Not only can Mr. Campbell now get involved in party political controversy, but, by an amendment to the Civil Service Order in Council 1995, he was given executive power and instructs civil servants. However, the civil servants are, of course, bound by the guidance from which I have quoted. A political animal giving leadership to a non-political service inevitably gives rise to tension.

As we have heard, within months, seven chief press officers left their post--I think that it has now risen to 10--causing much concern in the civil service and to the then head of the civil service, Sir Robin Butler. Although the Mountfield report has promised to maintain a politically impartial Government information service, the key role given to Alastair Campbell and the introduction of special advisers into the new strategic communications unit that co-ordinates presentation of Government policy has inevitably led to further accusations of the politicisation of the information service and to tension within Whitehall. However, that is not the only tension in the system.

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

Sir George Young: I will make the point and then I will give way.

To understand the fuller picture and the other tensions that culminated in Charlie Whelan's resignation, one needs to know a little about today's Labour party. Perhaps the easiest and shortest way of doing that is by referring to the African tribal system and to the Tutsi and the Hutu. There may be some important philosophical differences dividing those two tribes, but all we really need to know is that they do not like each other.

Similarly, there are tribes within the Government. However, the divisions within new Labour have less to do with policy and more to do with past betrayals, failed power struggles, opportunistic alliances and disappointed personal ambitions. In other words, as we were reminded over the weekend, they do not like each other.

To counterbalance the key role that Alastair Campbell had at No. 10 Downing street, Charlie Whelan was brought in by the Chancellor at No. 11. Therefore, far from having a unified service giving a coherent Government message, the introduction of politically committed press officers accentuated and widened the fault-line running down the middle of the Government.

The new press officers are often more concerned with the standing of their Ministers in the popularity stakes

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than in the presentation of their Department's policy. As The Daily Telegraph rather unkindly said, on 6 January, of Charlie Whelan:

    "I doubt if he knows the difference between M1, M2 and the M25."

The future of those press officers depends on patronage from their Minister and the success of that Minister's political future. That relationship creates a crucial distinction between the role of those officers and the previous practice of the civil service, and explains part of the reasons for the difficulties in which the Government found themselves over the Christmas recess.

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