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6.45 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): I am pleased to wind up the debate for the Government and to seek the House's agreement to the amendment. Obviously, like all Opposition Members, I am seized by the importance of the issue, given that there are now four members of the official Opposition in the Chamber and only half the Liberal Democrat party has attended one of its precious Opposition days.

I was particularly taken by the fact that, although the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) opened the debate and the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) closed it, in between, only one Liberal Democrat Member wanted to engage in what the Liberal Democrats see as a momentous issue--their allegation that there has been some corruption of the Government information service. The implication was clear.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff,West (Mr. Morgan), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), for Luton, South (Ms Moran), and for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for their constructive, if at times slightly critical, contributions. As a Government, we recognise that we can have friends who are critical as long as it is constructive criticism. That is not necessarily what we have heard today.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to put on record, as indeed did the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Government's appreciation of the important work that

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is performed by the Government Information and Communications Service. It performs its work diligently, effectively and in a way that enables members of all parties to have confidence in its ability to serve Administrations of whatever political party. That is a key issue when we consider the roles of special advisers. We have to have a halfway house between the two roles if we are to maintain confidence in continuity in government. I have no experience whatever of members of the GICS showing anything other than that studied neutrality and commitment to the public service that we extol our civil service for. Rightly, it is held in high regard for that throughout the world.

All Governments have a duty to explain their policies to the public. The criticism that we have received for the emphasis that we place on presentation is misplaced, if for no other reason than that we have made a virtue of presentation. That may upset a few Opposition Members, but we have made no secret of our presentation of Government policies being integral in terms not only of the presentation itself, but of the development of policy.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: My hon. Friend talks, rightly, about the need for accurate presentation of policy. May I give him a contrasting example of poor-quality presentation? Is he aware that the leader of the Liberal Democrats in my borough was forced recently to apologise publicly for a Liberal Democrat "Focus" leaflet that alleged that a vast sum of public money had been wasted by new Labour councillors on office equipment and showers? Having apologised in public for that leaflet, he then attempted in the press to disown responsibility for the leaflet.

Will my hon. Friend, in his usual gentle style, chide the Liberal Democrats in my constituency and, indeed, on the Opposition Benches for their complete failure to ensure that the information that they put out bears some passing resemblance to the truth?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the Liberal Democrats do not require chiding from me; I am sure that they will be chided by their own party for being caught with their metaphorical trousers down. One of the virtues of presentation is that, on occasion, we have to rebrand things, often where the product is not moving--where it is not being bought by its potential customers. Perhaps we should rebrand the Liberal Democrats as Heinz, because of the 57 varieties of truth in which they indulge.

I should like to deal with some of the specific points that have been made in the debate. I shall pick, first, on the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who made a comment about bypassing Parliament. Paragraph 27 of the ministerial code makes it absolutely clear that

We take that commitment seriously. I am not saying that there are not occasions on which, inadvertently, hints and words are dropped. However, the firm intention--and, as far as I am aware, the firm commitment--of all Ministers is to subscribe to the code.

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Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I would have if the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber for most of the debate. I will not give way to him.

If anyone has a complaint about a Minister not applying the code, he or she can raise it with the Speaker.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) asked about the objectivity of special advisers. He will know full well that paragraph 14(c) of the model contract for special advisers exempts special advisers from the requirements for impartiality and objectivity. Special advisers are not expected to work for a different Administration. The point is that special advisers can put a political slant on matters, as one should not expect civil servants to do. That is the point of the distinct designation of special advisers. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is fully aware of the point.

I was taken aback by the Liberal Democrats' apparent verbal dyslexia in talking about "carnage over Christmas". I would understand it if they had talked about the "carnival over Christmas" for the press and the other media, and for those who got themselves into a terrible fix. However, it was certainly not carnage--[Interruption.] Two Ministers did resign. However, there was a marked difference between that and events in the previous Government, when evidence of wrongdoing was plain, but Ministers hung on by their fingernails until their fingers bled.

Responsibility is taken seriously in this Government. When someone feels that they are detracting from the impact that the Government are making or want to make, they expeditiously resign. That is what happened over Christmas. I do not call that carnage, unless carnage can be self-inflicted.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): The Minister will recall that, on taking up his current post, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that his objective was to reduce the amount of backbiting, counter-briefing and briefing against colleagues. In the light of the events of the past month, has not the right hon. Gentleman failed abjectly to achieve his objective?

Mr. Kilfoyle: The short answer is no. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Public Administration Select Committee and should be au fait with events in the Cabinet Office--how it was reconfigured and how roles were redefined. I am full of praise for the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has dealt with the one or two little hiccups that we have had in recent months. Along the way, he has been able, with his usual aplomb, to swat aside Opposition Members and journalists. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that point.

I should deal with the point made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who talked about a terrible series of calamities that befell the Government. He used terminology that was indicative of the problem with much of so-called "spin". He directly quoted Chris Buckland; he referred to his opinion of Whelan and to his having said of him, "he is suspected of". I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, when they bother to turn out for our debates, there is a great variety of commentators

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and reporters in the Press Gallery. Some of them are extremely well-informed, whereas others would have done credit to Jonathan Swift's Grub street. Nevertheless, we do not take as gospel everything that is said or imputed by every newspaper, or in every radio broadcast and television news-spot.

We should deal rather more with the substantive issues. The problem is that people have been more concerned with the froth and bubble than with the substance of the issues.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Is the Minister suggesting that it was a "carnival" for two of his very senior colleagues to be driven from the Government, and that it was all got up by the press?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am not suggesting anything of the sort. I was suggesting that there was a carnival for the press--a feeding frenzy--which was not unusual. I am sure that the frenzy will continue until the press finds fresh targets. The hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and for North Devon repeatedly mentioned "carnage". My definition of the word is entirely different from theirs.

I should like to take issue with some of the points made by some of those who did speak in the debate. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), for example, misconstrued--as some type of crude and opportunistic populism--the Government's wish to represent people's real interests by ascertaining what they think. I reject the misconstruction. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) correctly pointed out that our initiatives such as, for example, the people's panel--in which we try to discover what people really think about the Government's policies--are, if anything, undervalued.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned Jonathan Haslam. When Mr. Haslam was questioned on the matter, he wrote a disclaimer--which I had, but seem to have lost. He said that some of the comments attributed to him had nothing to do with him. I have found the missing letter. To provide some perspective on the allegations of the politicisation and purge of press officers at the GICS, I shall quote from Jonathan Haslam's letter to the Committee Clerk. He said:

It might be inconvenient for Opposition Members if the facts turn out to be rather different from those that have been suggested. Mr. Haslam continued:

    "I left the civil service entirely at my own wish, to seek new challenges and rewards in the private sector. I did so against a background of working closely with David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment . . . and operated on friendly terms with them and my civil service colleagues. I am perfectly content for these facts to be spelt out publicly again should any suggestions to the contrary emerge during the course of the Committee's inquiry."

If a Government information officer feels that he or she has a problem with the Prime Minister's official spokesman, he or she can go to his or her deputy, who is a member of the Government information service, to the head of profession in the information service or to the civil service commissioners so that any wrongs can be righted. The GICS is certainly not afflicted by a climate

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of fear or oppression, which is why those at the GICS were so enthusiastic and productive in consultations on the Mountfield report, which deals with their own future.

As there is not much time left in this debate, I shall say only that the other half of the Liberal Democrats' motion dealt with the freedom of information Bill. The Government have made a firm manifesto commitment to introduce such a Bill, and I pay tribute to work done on the Bill in the Government's early days by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. He will be the first to recognise the complexities involved, on arriving in government, in framing a freedom of information Bill that meets all the needs. It is an immense project. We have set out to achieve that. My right hon. Friend produced an important White Paper. There will be three months' pre-legislative scrutiny. A draft Bill will provide an opportunity for further representations to be made because we want to get it right.

I ask the House to accept the Government amendment and reject the motion.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:--

The House divided: Ayes 42, Noes 331.

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