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Dr. Jack Cunningham: The right hon. Gentleman has made that allegation more than once, but has not produced a single shred of evidence to substantiate it. He has read the allegation in a newspaper and is simply repeating it in the House. He cannot substantiate it.

Sir George Young: I shall make the point by referring to Romola Christopherson's remarks in The Sunday Times--[Interruption.] I hope that Labour Members will not denigrate a civil servant who has served the Labour party well for the past 18 months. She said:

Indeed, the more one reads about Mr. Whelan, the odder it seems that he was ever allowed in the Treasury in the first place.

The tensions that I have mentioned have, in recent weeks, led to much distress for the Government, over which I shed few tears. However, there have been some worrying developments, both for civil servants and for news management. I think that the House needs to be concerned with those developments.

Jill Rutter, a former head of the Treasury press office, made the point well at a meeting of the Social Market Foundation. She said:

She went on to warn that we could be turning the Government information service into a

    "powerful machine to secure the permanent advantages of incumbency."

Mr. Bercow: While my right hon. Friend is dealing with that important point, will he recall that the current Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in his earlier capacity as Minister for School Standards, shamefully sought to bully a career information officer, Mr. Jonathan Haslam, into putting more political spin into a press release on education? When Mr. Haslam refused to comply with the instruction, the right hon. Gentleman reported him to the permanent secretary. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Haslam left the public service. Is that not a shameful state of affairs?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend refers to the incident in which the official, who left his post shortly

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after the incident occurred, was said to have insisted that it was a party political matter with which civil servants should not have become involved. It is a good example of some of the changes that have occurred.

I should say, as an aside, that the Labour party's disciplined and centralised approach to policy announcements is in marked contrast to the Liberal Democrats's approach. The Liberal Democrats' more devolved and relaxed style permits a more flexible approach to policy, readily adaptable to an urban or a rural environment. If I may say so, I prefer the third way that has been adopted by the Conservative party.

Jill Rutter's warning, which I have quoted, should concern all hon. Members. The use of the ownership of a valuable commodity to secure favourable coverage in the press--and, conversely, withholding information, which is the raw material of a journalist, from those who are less co-operative--is a dangerous development. That concern was shared by the Select Committee on Public Administration. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) on that Select Committee. Although a number of amendments put forward by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were voted down by the Labour majority, many of the recommendations that were carried were aimed at clarifying the distinction between effective presentation of Government policy and party political advocacy.

Another worrying development was the production last July of the Government's annual report. All references to bad news were airbrushed out and it contained a number of political aspirations better located in an election manifesto.

We have also seen a tendency to recycle information. We all approve of the proposition that 65 per cent. of new houses should be built on recycled land, but we now have a policy that 65 per cent. of all press notices should be recycled news. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced that £55 million was to be spent on teaching more maths. The press release was headlined, "Times tables key in £55 million numeracy drive". The money turned out to be a close relation of the £60 million announced for the same purpose back on 8 July under the heading, "£60 million boost makes maths count". Sadly, £5 million had been lost on the journey.

The Government amendment shows no recognition of the important issues raised in the debate and by serious political commentators on the civil service. The Minister's speech also lacked any recognition of those points. The more that one reads about the Government, the more that one asks how collective government can work with such a poisonous cocktail of warring personalities jockeying for position under the Prime Minister. The Government's reaction to the crisis has been a counter-offensive featuring speeches. The Chancellor's keynote speech on Monday was described by The Guardian yesterday as "humourless, repetitive and earnest" and its message as

Hon. Members on both sides want a more positive response. In the words of The Scotsman on 5 January:

    "It is time for Mr. Blair to put this wretched period behind him and replace the fetish for style with some radical substance."

That is a difficult challenge for a Government whose programme, lacking a theme or any philosophical continuity, is merely a rag-bag of items derived from focus groups.

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What is happening is bad not just for the Government, but for the House of Commons and for democracy. Despite regular warnings from Madam Speaker, many Government announcements are so comprehensively trailed that telling Parliament is an afterthought. Journalists get more information earlier than Parliament does. Proper scrutiny is becoming more difficult. That adds to the sidelining of Parliament, something that concerns hon. Members on both sides.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East): The right hon. Gentleman seeks objectivity from Prime Minister's press secretaries. Does he believe that the comments of Sir Bernard Ingham, a previous Prime Minister's press secretary who referred to John Biffen as "semi-detached" and Francis Pym as "Mona Lott", were conducive to good Cabinet government?

Sir George Young: Sir Bernard Ingham is well able to defend himself. He was a civil servant and rigidly defined his role as never crossing the boundary between the civil service and party politics. Alastair Campbell is not a civil servant; he is a special adviser. That is the key difference.

Dr. Jack Cunningham rose--

Sir George Young: I am not giving way. I have given way once. I have given way lots of times.

Dr. Cunningham rose--

Sir George Young: No, I am not giving way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. You all have to give way to me. It is clear that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is not giving way.

Sir George Young: A number of hon. Members want to speak and I have given way several times.

Alastair Campbell is a special adviser. Despite many warnings from Madam Speaker, the Government have adopted a dismissive approach to the rights of Parliament. In the words of The Times:

The chickens are coming home to roost. I can do no better than end with a perceptive quotation made by Matthew Parris six months ago:

    "This world and these men"--

he was referring to the spin doctors--

    "will be the downfall of Mr. Blair. These are not the fire-fighters, they are the fire and they will burn him."

4.49 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): I very much welcome this debate, and I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have chosen this issue for discussion this afternoon. I only regret that we have not touched on the big questions that are posed by information not only to our democracy, but to our commerce and industry. I regret

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that the Liberal Democrats have emphasised the minutiae and left the big picture. I would like to develop some of the big ideas as well.

It seemed to me that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the official Opposition spokesman, built his speech on fanciful notions and false presumptions, and I will pick up on some of those points as I go along.

It is clear to me that information is power. Perhaps it is because I am old Labour, but I can recollect all the trade union banners of old which showed that the point that education and information are power was recognised by those pioneers. It is as true today as it was then. Information poses a challenge to us as members of the legislature in terms of how we access power. I shall return to this matter in discussing the White Paper on the right to know and the freedom of information Bill. Information is critical to the struggle that goes on under all Administrations between the legislature and the Executive, and that is right and healthy.

The other aspect of the debate is the relationship between the Government and the citizen. With many more outlets to dispense and disseminate information, it is critical that the citizen have access to information. I would argue, and the Government recognise, that information is a critical part of the democratic process. It should not be a bolt-on aspect, but an intrinsic part of the democratic process. The Labour party recognised that in opposition, and we tried to put it in practice from day one in government. It is ironic that information technology allows an increasing amount of information to be disseminated, and it is through IT that we need to tackle the matter.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the special Order in Council concerning Alastair Campbell, and the role of the Government at that time. We took the decision for the very reason that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire outlined when he cited Sir Bernard Ingham as an independent career civil servant. He was a career civil servant, but nobody could challenge his instinctive feel for what the then Prime Minister was thinking. He pulled no punches. I do not grumble about that--that is the job of a good press officer to the Prime Minister.

With that in mind, we felt it important that, to ensure the political integrity and neutrality of the career civil servant, we should have the Order in Council, and that we should make this special exception for Alastair Campbell--as the Prime Minister's press officer--to be a civil servant as a special adviser. He is a civil servant, but he is not a career civil servant. We felt that that was the best and most transparent approach.

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