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7.39 pm

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

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has painted an extraordinary picture. Few hon. Members would recognise it as an accurate or fair

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account of the way in which the Government have started to reduce costs and improve accountability in political life. It is a sham and a farce to peddle the notion that this Government are less accountable and less open than the previous Administration.

The hon. Gentleman referred in a cavalier fashion to perceptions; I shall deal in reality now, and answer some of the arguments that he has attempted to make.

The hon. Gentleman argued that costs have risen. I have just listened to figures produced by the Opposition that could exist only in a fantasy land--just like last Sunday's claim by the Leader of the Opposition that the total cost of running Whitehall has risen by £1,000 million in the past two years and that he would cut that to fund his health spending plans. That is not the real world. Those figures are ludicrous: they take no account of inflation--of the running costs of wages and of materials that people use in their work every day.

The real figures show that administration costs have fallen in real terms compared with those of the previous Government. We are spending less than the last Government on Whitehall bureaucracy. Spending was higher when the Conservatives were in power, yet they now say that they would make cuts in public services. We all know where those cuts would fall. The Conservatives would scrap the working families tax credit, the new deal and the national minimum wage; they would undermine child benefit and cut help for pensioners. Those are the first real cuts that they would make.

The hon. Gentleman argued that the Conservative party would make a difference in the health service. Would they make as big a difference as we did in the first year, with £21 billion announced for NHS spending? [Interruption.] In the first year, we announced a spending figure of £21 billion. I shall go on to give the figures for the second and third years, if Conservative Members will give me a break.

Spending on NHS bureaucracy has been reduced, and spending on front-line patient care has increased. We have done away with the two-tier system and, under the primary care system, patients' voices will be heard. We have started the building that will continue in the second year with the money that was announced in the first year. It will go on 37 new hospitals, the £100 payments towards winter fuel bills, free eye tests and increases in child benefit. Those changes have been made: they, and not the Opposition's perceptions, are the reality.

The hon. Gentleman's second argument is that special advisers are a drain on the public purse. I am sorry that he disagrees, as he made it very clear, with Lord Neill, who said last week in his sixth report that special advisers have a valuable role to play. Sir Richard Wilson, head of the civil service, has said that he does not think that the senior civil service--who number about 3,500 or 3,600-- is in danger of being swamped by 70 special advisers; he does not regard what is happening as creeping politicisation.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): When the Prime Minister appointed 53 advisers, which was a substantial increase on the 38 posts that existed when he came to power, he said that although there would be more advisers, the total salary bill would be kept under the same

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cost umbrella of £1.8 million that he had inherited from the previous Government. Why has the salary bill now reached £4 million?

Marjorie Mowlam: The Prime Minister made no secret of the fact that he wanted special advisers in the Government to help drive the Government's policies forward. I make no apology for the fact that we are governing in a different way from the previous Administration. Given the mess that they got into, I am sure that most people welcome the change.

In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), the overall costs have remained broadly in line with what the Prime Minister promised. We have made no secret of the numbers and cost of special advisers or of their work. We said that the number and funding of special advisers would be published--something that no previous Government had done. We have done all that.

The fact that we have special advisers guarantees--contrary to what the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire argued--the impartiality of the civil service. Who writes my party conference speeches with me? Do I ask a civil servant? No--I ask a special adviser. That is what they are there for. They protect the civil service, rather than making it political.

Let me reinforce that point by quoting Jonathan Baume of the Association of First Division Civil Servants. He said:

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): The Minister quotes Jonathan Baume. His predecessor at the Association of First Division Civil Servants now sits on the Labour Benches in the Lords, so I am not sure whether those comments are completely impartial.

The Government have put special advisers in executive control of impartial civil servants. Career civil servants know that they must serve the interests of the Government of the day if they want to get on. That is the new corruption that the Government have introduced through the special adviser system.

Marjorie Mowlam: That is an insult to the civil service. The quote I gave was from the head of the Association of First Division Civil Servants, whose integrity the hon. Gentleman has just questioned. Civil servants continue to be impartial advisers. If they were not--if we did not have special advisers giving us political advice--there would be the potential for politicisation. At the moment, there is not.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): What about Alastair Campbell?

Marjorie Mowlam: Alastair Campbell is not a party spokesperson. It is right that he is not paid out of the party purse. His contract makes it clear that he is employed to speak to the media on the Government's behalf. He expresses not his own views but those of the Prime

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Minister, and he avoids personal attacks. [Laughter.] Does the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) want to follow that up? Alastair Campbell's role is clear.

Mr. Green: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Will the Minister give way?

Marjorie Mowlam: Not for the moment. The fact that Alastair Campbell's is a political appointment means that civil servants are not being asked to become involved in political arguments. As with all special advisers, Alastair Campbell's appointment helps to preserve impartiality. [Interruption.] I look forward to hearing less of the raucous shouting and more inclination to deal with reality.

The civil servants with whom we work have not complained, and their trade unions have spoken in support of our policies.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?

Marjorie Mowlam: Not at the moment. Let me deal with the media monitoring unit to which the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire also referred. There is, indeed, an attempt to monitor the media; all Governments have done it.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?

Marjorie Mowlam: I just want to finish this point. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already. Media monitoring is an important aspect of Government policy and is intended to correct inaccuracies. All Governments have done it. The media move faster today, and there are many more outlets. That means more questions to which people expect a faster response.

We have a duty to respond, to keep the public informed about what we are doing. We need the staff and the technology to make that possible in today's media world. We are not ashamed of that; I think that it leads to better information for the public whom we serve.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire also referred to changes of press officer in the past two and a half years. During the similar period from 1979 to 1981, the number of changes was comparable. There are many reasons for such changes; some are personal, some arise from recruitment, some result from promotion and so on. We have never tried to hide any change that has taken place.

The hon. Gentleman argued that Ministers are not accountable. Unlike previous Governments, we have set high standards for Ministers, and we expect them to be upheld. I welcomed Lord Neill's statement last week that there is less cause for concern about standards in public life than there was when the cash for questions affair led to the setting up of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I also welcomed his statement that there was no need for an independent ethics commissioner to investigate alleged abuses by Ministers. Since we came to office, we have strengthened the ministerial code to make sure that it worked effectively.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire argued that democratic accountability had diminished under the Labour Government. In fact, the opposite is true: we have

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strengthened ministerial accountability. Devolution is enhancing democratic accountability, bringing government closer to the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, ultimately, London. We have brought democracy out of the dark ages by abolishing the voting rights of hereditary peers. We have increased parliamentary accountability by introducing pre-legislative scrutiny of some draft Bills, as the previous Government did not.

Labour Ministers have made nearly twice as many oral statements in the House--80 in 1998-99, compared with 45 in 1993-94. Ministers are being held to account more often as a result of Westminster Hall debates. We are increasing the opportunities for Opposition Members to hold us to account. It is not our fault that the press do the job better than the Opposition.

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