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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): If my hon. Friend had been in the House earlier this afternoon, he would have heard one such example of over-hype when the Secretary of State for Health told us about 100 new intensive care beds. However, despite the fact that he had had almost a week's notice of today's debate, when push came to shove, he was able to tell us where only eight of them were.

Mr. Bruce: That is an example of the problem.

We can all have a little bit of fun at the Government's expense. Sometimes these debates form a legitimate part of that process. However, the Government must address the fact that, if the public become cynical about targets and do not think that they have honestly been met, or if the targets are renewed and redefined when they are not being met, or if the public can tell that what surrounds the targets does not add up--that there are no genuine improvements to the quality of service--no amount of presentation will get the Government off the hook.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is especially remarkable that, during the past few days, in Standing Committee, the Government have rejected attempts by his party and by the Conservatives to ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General audits the performance target results?

Mr. Bruce: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's question. That is a point that we have been making for some time.

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I challenge the Government that--although it might be an uncomfortable suggestion to Governments wrestling with genuine difficulties and uncertainties--the crucial test will be whether government by objectives and outcomes will be a real part of the process, rather than a synthetic sham. If the Government are the only determinant of whether they are achieving their targets and can redefine those targets, the public will become cynical.

I offer some advice. In their comprehensive spending review, the Government have got into the habit of triple accounting--globally adding up the cumulative effect of all their spending plans to telephone numbers that are meaningless. I doubt that the average Member of the House--never mind the wider public--can really conceive of the difference between £2 billion and £20 billion in regard to what those amounts can achieve. We want to know what the practical difference will be, in a way that we can all understand. By hyping the figures to the largest possible amount, the Government have raised public expectations to an unsustainable degree. They are now reaping the consequences.

Another problem is the role of the House. I have been in the House for 16 years, visited and talked to parliamentarians in other legislatures and shared experiences with them. By comparison with many others, we are a pretty weak and ineffective Parliament and that is because the Executive do not use Parliament as part of the process. They do not recognise--it makes no difference which party is in government--that politicians from both sides of the House could make a contribution to many policy issues. They have experience of representation, not all of which is party political, and that fact does not deny that the Government will ultimately decide and use their majority to do so.

When I came to the House, I had the naive belief that we had heated, public debates on the principle of a Bill in the Chamber, but we then went into Committee where everyone sat down and worked through in a business-like way how to make the legislation work. What a load of baloney! I am not saying that it has never happened--there must have been one or two occasions when it has--but I can rarely think of an occasion when a Government have been really willing to work with a Committee in those terms. That makes many Members feel frustrated, given their and the public's expectations of what we should be doing.

I wholly agree that it would be good if the House had more say in helping to determine Government objectives and on how their targets should be set and monitored. That would raise the standard of debate and public confidence in Parliament and in politics. A bold Government might regard that as something that would benefit them as well as the political process. However, I fear that this Government are more concerned with the management of the process.

When I read the note on the knowledge network project, which has already been mentioned, I was appalled at what it was supposed to do. According to documents obtained by The Guardian, its objective was to

The article continues:

    "It will take the form of a computer network into which every Department can feed their 'lines to take' on every key issue and from which every Department can read."

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    The Kremlin would have been proud of that turn of phrase. In other words, the project will produce the line to be defended at all times. It does not provide substance to the belief that there is the degree of inclusiveness that the Government like to boast about.

Mr. Miller: May I remind the hon. Gentleman of his comments on The Daily Telegraph? He said that he was reluctant to quote from it regularly. That point acknowledged that the process of media communication distorts what is said in the House by, for example, the hon. Gentleman and by Government. Does he not acknowledge that there is a place for direct communication--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman communicates regularly with his constituents--between public and Parliament that bypasses the organs of the daily press?

Mr. Bruce: Yes. I used a turn of phrase that suggested that the media were some kind of obstacle to the process rather than a different component of it. That is a different matter. My speech has balanced a quote from The Guardian with one from The Daily Telegraph. On this occasion, I agree with what The Daily Telegraph said.

The Government tell us that we do not understand the process and they change the targets and the terminology. Since the turn of the year, we have seen what I suspect is a whole new battery of neo-Poujadism emanating in particular from the Home Office. Those who deign to criticise the Government or the Government's programme are either described as woolly Liberals or as the massed ranks of Conservatism. That does not leave much room for anyone else. The more spin doctors there are, the more targets they develop. That means more confusion and disillusionment with the process of government.

The process has sunk to a particular depth in the use of special advisers specifically to brief Labour Members on the party line. That is clear abuse of the process. The Conservatives have come under inquisition for their use of Short money for campaigning purposes. I am not here to defend the Conservative party, but it is difficult to see how using special advisers to brief Labour Members at the taxpayers' expense is different from using Short money to support the Conservative's campaigns. If one is wrong, the other must also be wrong. On that basis, if the Conservatives will have to pay the money back, will the Labour party pay it back to balance things out?

I wish to raise a serious point--I do not think that this will surprise the House--that explains why I and Liberal Democrats are so committed to radical constitutional reform. We want a written constitution, a representative voting system, a federal constitution and an elected second Chamber to enhance the role of Parliament in developing and monitoring public policy. We believe that such reforms are pivotal to securing that aim.

On the passivity of the House, can anyone remember when it last rejected even a component of a Budget? We have not rejected a Budget, and even the European Parliament, which is so reviled by the Tory Opposition, has shown more spine than that.

I am a strong supporter of devolution and I tell those who criticise it that there is something already to be learned from the process that we have set up in Scotland.

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Andrew Cubie's committee, which was appointed by the Scottish Executive, has produced a more considered review of policy on student finance and university funding than anything that the Department for Education and Employment would even be allowed to think about. That is pluralism and it should not be an embarrassment. It is what devolution is designed to do. It allows different ideas to be explored in a different context. However, we hear that Downing street and the Department for Education and Employment are appalled at that degree of independence.

The truth at the end of the day is that new Labour will reap what it sows. To Liberal Democrats, the desert of Tory spending commitments reaps the whirlwind of public anger over the state of the national health service. Reannouncing the same funding over and over, and triple counting spending pledges will yield good headlines in the short run. However, if responses and resources are not there, the targets are not real and the objectives are not met Alastair Campbell's team may spin like whirling dervishes but it will not fool the British people.

8.18 pm

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): I should declare an interest, if not necessarily an expertise, as a former special adviser. It is principally on that subject that I want to contribute to the debate. Four points have been raised about the role of special advisers. They relate to the existence and legitimacy of special advisers, their effect on government and governance, their numbers and the extent to which they help the effectiveness of government.

There has been much media comment on special advisers and the Opposition have made great play of the issue tonight. For example, the Financial Times has referred to the shadowy role of special advisers in general and a leader in the Evening Standard said:

Conservative Members nod, which is helpful because those quotes are from 1989 and 1993 when the Conservative party was in government. They merely demonstrate that advisers work for all Governments and it is right and proper that they should be under continual scrutiny. The righteous indignation to which the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) treated us about special advisers and this Government was not quite as righteous as it seemed.

I shall deal first with legitimacy. The truth is that special advisers have existed in their current form for about a quarter of a century, although I read with interest in the Neill report that the very first special adviser was appointed by Lloyd George. That may not be the best precedent to follow, but it was almost a century ago.

We know that special advisers are curious creatures in the civil service because they are appointed by Ministers and last only as long as the Minister who appointed them. They are required to abide by the civil service code of conduct but, for obvious reasons, are free from the restrictions on political activity. As I pointed out in a recent debate in Westminster Hall, my letter of appointment rather pointedly stated that special advisers are free from the requirement that normally all civil servants should be appointed on merit. I always thought that that was a rather gentle way for the civil service to remind special advisers that they are not quite the same as the people with whom they are working.

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Why has the system evolved? Rightly, Ministers want a source of advice and expertise that civil servants cannot and, as I think all hon. Members would agree, should not be asked to provide. That expertise, as well as covering the Department's policy area, may deal with presentation of policy. Above all, special advisers bring to the job an understanding and knowledge of the governing party's politics, its history and the background to its policy debates.

I shall give a simple example. A civil servant could, technically speaking, design a perfect policy, such as--to pick an example at random--the poll tax, but a sensible adviser would recognise it as being politically unworkable and advise against it. It is a great pity that there was not such an adviser in the previous Government because they would have saved billions of pounds if someone had been able to say, "Sorry, that isn't going to work."

The key point, however, is that Ministers get that advice from a particular perspective, which is a point that the model contract specifically refers to. It says--and I welcome this--that

We could argue, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office pointed out, that the existence of advisers helps to shield civil servants from pressures that they might otherwise face.

In a very British way, we have evolved a compromise because we have avoided a situation in which Opposition politicians who come into government are forced to leave behind the people with whom they have worked very closely in opposition. In the case of those Members sitting on the Opposition Front Bench today, those advisers are paid for out of Short money at public expense, and rightly so. I have no argument with that. We do not put politicians into the civil service machinery bereft of the support and advice network that they have relied on. That would be nonsensical.

On the other hand, we avoid the spoils system that operates in countries such as the United States, where a change of Administration results in the whole top tier of the civil service being removed and placemen and placewomen being appointed. That is why I think that the Neill committee got it right when it said:

I say to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire that if there were any evidence of malign influence, a threat to the impartiality of the civil service or any undermining of the values of civil servants, I would have expected the Neill committee to identify that and refer to it in its report. It did not do so because that is not the case. In fact, Neill explicitly recognises the legitimacy of special advisers, and I trust that the House will as well.

The second issue is the effect of special advisers on the process of government. I happen to think that the current group of special advisers are very professional and effective. Indeed, they are rather more effective than their predecessors before May 1997, which may, in part, explain the Opposition's sense of grievance about them this evening.

Advisers act as the eyes and ears of Ministers, and with the complexities of modern government, which the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) referred to, and the sheer volume of submissions that emerge from what I call the departmental silos and fall on to the Minister's desk, it is important that special advisers support Ministers in trying to sift through those submissions.

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In my experience, the dialogue between advisers and civil servants was helpful in clarifying issues, which meant that the submission that was finally presented to a Minister had benefited from advice from both of those perspectives. Those perspectives are different but they are both recognised within the system. That system can work only on the basis of trust and respect for those different standpoints. It is essential that advisers advise, civil servants advise and Ministers, who are accountable to this House, decide. Nothing must ever get in the way of that fundamental principle.

On the question of numbers, we must be careful not to confuse influx with influence. The shadow Leader of the House said in his evidence to the Neill committee that we would

That argument has more to do with the relative quality of the advice than with the number of advisers because if one took that argument to its logical conclusion, one adviser could be one too many if he or she were that influential. In practice, as we know, the 70 or so advisers in the civil service are opposed to--I do not mean in a policy sense--several hundred thousand civil servants, which is hardly an equal contest. I do not think that the numbers argument is credible.

My final point is about effectiveness. I thought that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire strained credulity in a slightly half-hearted contribution, not least because the Government have been extremely effective in organising the machinery of government to try to achieve their objectives.

I shall reflect for a moment on my experience as a special adviser in the Department for Education and Employment and some of the measures that the Government have set in train. The hon. Member for Gordon referred to the fact that we are on our way to meeting our class size pledge. Hopefully, by the end of this Parliament we will have nearly doubled the number of early years education places and doubled capital investment in school buildings and equipment.

We are supporting primary schools, in particular, in raising standards of numeracy and literacy. We have gone from having no numeracy and literacy summer schools before the last general election to running 1,500 this year. We have put about 10 million new books into schools, courtesy of the extra money that we have invested. We are investing about £1 billion to support information and communication technologies.

We have made a record investment in further education, which was sadly neglected and greatly punished under the previous Government. We are working towards enabling 50 per cent. of our young people to benefit from higher education and we have managed to more than halve long-term youth unemployment. I simply say, modestly and quietly, that if that is not getting on with the business of government, and if that is not substance, then I do not know what is.

There is a great deal still to be achieved. However, what really lies behind the motion is that the Opposition are attacking the messengers, the special advisers, who cannot speak for themselves. I was keen to contribute to the debate because they cannot respond to the attacks that have been made on them tonight. When we come to the

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next general election, I think that the Opposition are afraid that the electorate will demonstrate, as at the previous general election, that they rather like the message.

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