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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way at last. We all know that statements are given first to the press. Given her experience in Northern Ireland, she may wish to read today's Evening Standard, and to discover that the statement that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is to make in the House tomorrow has been given to the press today.

Marjorie Mowlam: I was making the point that pre-legislative scrutiny allows more people to be included in consultation. That can only help us to make decent policy. We have increased the openness of government. The Freedom of Information Bill will involve everyone more closely in decisions that affect their lives. The Representation of the People Bill will increase access to democracy by improving disabled access to polling booths and setting up a rolling electoral register to maximise people's opportunities to vote. The Political Parties, Referendums and Elections Bill will ban foreign donations, and require donations of more than £5,000 to be published and the donor to be identified.

In the past three years, we have begun to transform the ways in which the government can be held to account. We are proud of that record, and the Conservative party, with its history of secrecy and scandal, can have little of value to say about it.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): A few minutes ago, the Minister said that her party had introduced pre-legislative scrutiny. May I suggest that tomorrow she visits the so-called "truth office" in Downing Street to discuss that matter? If that unit is concerned with the truth, it will tell the Minister that what she has told the House is incorrect. In fact, the previous Government introduced pre-legislative scrutiny on, among other things, legislation on Sunday trading and abortion.

Marjorie Mowlam: That was done on specific issues such as private Members' Bills or matters on which that Government were split. We are introducing pre-legislative scrutiny on legislation so that parties across the House may consider it in advance.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire made allegations about task forces. There are clear lines of accountability for task forces. They are accountable to Ministers, and Ministers are accountable to Parliament. We make no apology for using task forces to crack problems that we inherited from the previous Government. They include more people with a wide

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variety of views. They involve experts as well as those whom the policy will affect. Task forces are a less centralised and a more accountable way of working. For the first time, the Government are publishing details of each task force, including membership, and updating those details every six months.

One example is the social exclusion unit, which has policy action teams. For each policy, a committee is created comprising civil servants plus 100 or so people from outside, which allows the inclusion of a range of views previously not heard. The recent independent Democratic Audit report on Government task forces said:

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire also implied that we appoint people out of favouritism--[Interruption.] "Tony's cronies," as someone on the Opposition Benches says. I do not want to get into personal politics, but the individuals whom we have appointed across task forces provide good examples of our approach. David Mellor was appointed to chair the football task force; Chris Patten chaired the independent commission on policing in Northern Ireland; Lord Wakeham chairs the royal commission on reform of the House of Lords; Lord Mayhew chairs the advisory committee on business appointments; and Baroness Chalker is on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office panel of the 2000 advisory group. We have chosen those people for their expertise in particular areas. The cronyism argument does not hold up.

The Government are committed to openness and accountability. We made a contract with the people at the last election to clean up politics, to make them open and accountable. That is what we have done in our first two years. I remind the House again of Lord Neill's observation that there is less concern about standards in public life than there has been since the cash for questions affair led to the setting up of the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the previous Government.

We have come a long way, but we are far from complacent. We shall continue to work to clean up government. We shall work to rid ourselves of the legacy of distrust left behind by the Conservatives. We shall deliver, as cost-effectively and efficiently as we can, good government for the people of our country.

7.58 pm

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): The Minister will be reassured to know that we accept that the Government need special advisers. That is not a fundamental problem. Government, after all, is about politics, and the need for political advice within the machinery of Government is accepted. It was an established fact under the previous Government. The question is not whether we should have policy advisers of a political character, but what the balance should be between political presentation and what is developed as policy advice.

I am slightly taken aback by the complacency, or perhaps the inconsistency, of the Conservative attack--it is as if there had been no continuity of practice between

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the previous Conservative Government and the present Labour Government. There were highly political advisers to the previous Government; for example, Bernard Ingham was a highly political member of that Government, who spun stories against Ministers. I suspect that some of the frustration and anger of Conservative Members is due to the fact that Labour have been more successful at using advisers for positive political affect, rather than for the succession of public relations disasters that harried the Tories out of office.

We need to ask whether we are imposing a more political management on to the civil service. The Minister for the Cabinet Office, does not think so. I do not necessarily disagree, but one or two developments have given rise to the question. For example, to give powers to Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell to direct civil servants raises the question that there could be a tension between political advisers and civil servants--as was pointed out in an intervention. That might compromise the integrity of the service.

Ed Balls was a special adviser and I do not question his ability or the quality of his advice. However, to take him from that role to the position of chief economic adviser to the Treasury in one seamless move, without open advertisement or consultation raises questions about privilege and the process of association. Somewhere, there must be people who thought that they might have got that job, but, until it was filled, they did not even know that it had been vacant. Those are reasonable questions and the Government should consider them.

The point has already been made that expenditure on entertaining, on the press, on publicity and on the number of special advisers has risen under the Labour Government. Since they came into office, the number of special advisers has risen from 38 to 74--nearly double. What effect does that have on the political process? It does not always add anything to that process. The Prime Minister may have read in today's press of the collapse in his personal support--he was the most popular politician, but his approval rating is now only plus 9 per cent. The right hon. Lady emerges as the most popular politician in the country, a fact in which she no doubt takes comfort. Perhaps the Prime Minister might consider whether part of that collapse is the result of his and the Government's obsession with news management and presentation over substance. Over time, people will judge Governments on substance.

Under the previous Government, I sat on several Committees as my party's Treasury spokesman and noted that Labour Members, in opposition, were terrified to commit themselves to any firm policy. Whenever they were under pressure to state their policy, their ploy was to call for a policy review. On our calculations, by the time of the last election, they had asked for 1,000 policy reviews. That might have been understandable when they were in opposition. They wanted to be elected; it saved them from committing to anything and showed that they were interested in policy.

However, although they are now in government, with the responsibility for making decisions, it does not seem that that instinct has been much curbed. The Government set targets; they set up task forces and review groups, all of which are designed to keep the policy process moving. They produce an annual report in which, miraculously, all their targets appear to have been achieved--although the Government's interpretation of an achievement is not

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what most people would always recognise. For example, one target was that there would be a referendum on Britain's entry into the euro. The report described that as "achieved". We still intend to have a referendum on entry. There are several other targets of the same character.

The problem is that the Government set and evaluate their own targets and, then, in their annual report, claim that the targets have been achieved. There have been problems with some of the targets. They have used most regularly those for class sizes and waiting lists. Class sizes for years one, two and three have probably gone down, although they have not yet reached the Government's overall objective. However, although it was not part of Labour's pledge, it is noticeable that class sizes for years four, five, six and seven and the sizes of secondary classes have all gone up. That means that the Government's claim was rather partial.

Hospital waiting lists were coming down, but, after the flu epidemic, it has been acknowledged that they are likely to rise. However, we have discovered that the lists are being reduced by putting people on lists to get on to the waiting lists. The Government may say that they are meeting their targets, but the public say that as that does not change the quality of the service, the targets are not relevant. I do not imply that the targets were not genuine, but they cannot be defined in that narrow way.

I do not often quote The Daily Telegraph, but its leader of 10 January summarises the matter rather well. It states:

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