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9.7 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) expressed concern about the relevance of Committees and even debates on the Floor of the House at the moment. I understand his worry, but the quality of the official Opposition is so poor that it is no wonder there is a problem. The debate has illustrated that in spades.

I was going to refer to the role of special advisers, but my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) was so eloquent on the subject that I shall not develop the argument. I have known him for longer than anyone who was listening to him--with one right honourable exception, who was sitting in the corner like a cat at the cream, justifiably proud of my hon. Friend's speech. In all the time I have known my hon. Friend as a special

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adviser, I do not remember him ever straying from the lines that were developed in the contracts that were rightly in place before he came to the job.

Mr. Letwin: I should like to give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to adjust something that he has said. Does he not think it odd that he attributes only to the--no doubt existing--failings of the Opposition the lack of willingness of Ministers to adjust in Committee, given that we are currently witnessing repeated ministerial resistance to efforts in Standing Committee on the part of the Public Accounts Committee--including the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) who leads for the Labour party on the PAC, and other Labour Members, as well as the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives--to establish a national accounts commission to settle accounts independently and to enable the Comptroller and Auditor General to audit them by enforcement? Is not that proof that he is wrong and that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) was right?

Mr. Miller: If the hon. Gentleman has an axe to grind about the Public Accounts Committee, I suggest that he keep it with the PAC. I was just about to praise the decision of one of his right hon. Friends--the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who set up the Government's central IT unit. When he did so, I said that it was an impossible function and that it was not going to work. There was not the political will, because of the lack of co-ordination on the part of Ministers in that failing Cabinet, to make that central IT unit develop and flourish, as it has done under this Government. There was no willingness to embrace the kind of change to which I shall refer.

I want to concentrate my remarks on a phrase in the amendment, referring to the role of Government in the context of the "Modernising Government agenda". The legacy of the structures and systems over which the previous Administration presided is in many areas the difficulty, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) gave a good example. When we were in opposition, the Tories told us time and again that they knew how to run businesses. If that is how they run businesses, God help British business.

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire was emphasised time and again in research that I did in the period leading up to the publication of the White Paper "Modernising Government". On page 25 of the White Paper, a chart illustrates the number of organisations a person needing long-term care may have to deal with. It is a terrifying list--the whole page shows a complex chart. That is the case time and again when we look at key life events.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) introduced the White Paper, the phrase "life events" was ridiculed by Opposition Members. They may shake their heads, but it is recorded in Hansard. That part of the White Paper was regarded as trivial, but it is not--it is a central area on which we must concentrate.

I looked in detail at the example of the number of organisations that a person has to deal with following a death in the family. Someone came up with the record number of 23. That is absurd. When one is dealing with something that is so painful and personal, one finds that one must deal with people in the hospital and with the

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doctor who issues a death certificate. One is then wandering in a paper maze, trying to find out what to do when one is least well-equipped to deal with it. That is the kind of administrative nightmare that we must unravel in developing the modernisation of our Government.

The philosophy must be based on better service to the customer. There is no doubt that public service needs to be reformed and modernised. Again, the word "modernised" is often ridiculed by Opposition Members. I would remind them of a paper placed in the Library on 15 December--the report to the Prime Minister from Sir Richard Wilson, the head of the home civil service. Under the heading "civil service reform", Sir Richard makes it clear that, in the autumn, at Sunningdale, the permanent heads of the main departments who make up his management board pledged themselves personally to drive forward a new agenda of civil service reform, both corporately and in modernising Government. I am certain that the Opposition would not suggest that Sir Richard Wilson was exceeding his brief by using words such as modernisation, which they ridicule time and again. I genuinely commend that document to the Opposition. I invite them to remember that we are here to deliver services to citizens, and our task is to improve those delivery mechanisms from the shambles that we inherited.

9.15 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): Everybody accepts that Governments of all hues are less accountable to the House than they used to be. I do not think that there are any takers for any other view. The health announcement that the Prime Minister made on the Frost programme is a reflection of that--it was the biggest single spending commitment of this Parliament and it was made on a television programme at 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning, instead of to the House of Commons. That would have been inconceivable 20, or even 10, years ago.

We are living in an age in which Parliament is increasingly bypassed. The press do not get their information from watching our proceedings: they go directly to civil servants whom they hope will leak them information or they talk to Ministers who definitely leak them information. The public do not watch our proceedings much: they watch their elected representatives performing on television in interviews. There has been a steady erosion of the importance and relevance of the House of Commons in British public life, as I am sure the father of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) would wholeheartedly agree.

The Prime Minister almost wholly controls the House of Commons and he is in the process of ensuring that he can put his placemen into the other half of Parliament. That is mostly what the reform of the House of Lords is about. A group of people who had no logical right to be there--the hereditary peers--but who were at least independent, have been removed and are being replaced by appointed representatives, a disproportionate number of whom are from the Labour party. Some 195 life peers have been appointed by the Prime Minister, which is fast

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approaching as many in two and a half years as the Conservative Administrations between 1979 and 1997 appointed in 18 years.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that for every 10 of Tony's cronies in the House of Lords, there are four of Charlie's plants and 12 of little Willie's silly billies?

Mr. Tyrie: That does not merit a response.

We must ask what other ways there are to hold Prime Ministers to account. Prime Ministers have, from time to time, dominated the House of Commons, but even then some checks on them have operated. Prime Ministers have historically been accountable to the Cabinet. Even Margaret Thatcher in her strongest moments was accountable to a small group in the Cabinet and she never really succeeded in ruling alone. [Laughter.] Those who laugh at that idea have little knowledge of the inside workings of the Thatcher Administration in the mid-1980s. If they care to read the memoirs of Lord Howe or Lord Lawson, they will see that what I am saying is accurate. Indeed, it is one of the reasons behind her fall.

This Prime Minister is accountable to nobody in Government. The Cabinet has become virtually a rubber stamp. Historically, Prime Ministers have generally also been held accountable to some degree by the internal party democracy from which they sprang. However, I doubt whether the parliamentary Labour party acts as an effective check on the Prime Minister. I wonder whether the party's national executive council has any teeth. Labour Members may tell me differently and be able to recount occasions when they have knocked the Prime Minister off course and caused him to listen carefully to all their utterances. However, I do not see Labour Members rushing to give me examples of events. I do not think they have taken place.

The Prime Minister has more or less abandoned all pretence at dispersing power in his party, in Cabinet or to Parliament. He talks openly about the need for a strong centre.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is understandable for a new Prime Minister and his party to believe their rhetoric at the beginning of a period of office? In such circumstances, is not it likely that the party will allow that Prime Minister more latitude than when the rhetoric turns out not to be convincing?

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