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Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): The hon. Gentleman alleges that the Government pursue party interest, not the public good. Would he care to comment on the case of Michael Simmonds, who was the political adviser to the chairman of the Conservative party in 1996-97 and not only on the Government payroll, but based in Conservative central office?
Mr. Lansley: The hon. Gentleman should have given me notice of that question before he asked it. However, I can answer it from the Conservative party's experience. In the run-up to the 1992 election, I was a paid official of the Conservative party and I was appointed as a special adviser. However, the Conservative party paid my salary. It provided me with, as it were, board and lodging. Under present circumstances, people who act exclusively in the party interests of the Labour party are scattered across Whitehall, at the taxpayer's expense.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): The Neill committee specifically referred to the foreword to the ministerial code of conduct. It said that the effect of the foreword is to underline the status of the code as the Prime Minister's document, written not only as guidance for Ministers but as a pledge to the public. Does my hon. Friend think that the current behaviour of some Labour Members shows that they take that pledge to the public seriously?
Mr. Lansley: I take my hon. Friend's point. Labour Members do not take that pledge seriously. All the promises that were made at the election were about securing office. They are concerned with power, not with serving the public interest.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does my hon. Friend recall that only last year the Prime Minister, abandoning his high-mindedness of 1997, boasted at Question Time of the effectiveness of his press secretary--someone paid from the public purse--in attacking the Conservative party? Was not that an absolute disgrace?
Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend is right, and his point aptly brings me to the points I wish to make about special advisers. Three years ago, before the election, there were 38 special advisers; now there are 79. Earlier this year, there were 74 at the point at which the Neill Committee recommended a limit on numbers. Since then, the Government have not only ignored that recommendation but continued to add to their number.
Let me make it clear--the question was raised earlier--that I am not opposed to the appointment of special advisers. There is a defined role in offering political advice to Ministers, and in keeping that separate from the impartial advice of the civil service. But that is not the
It is no wonder that Labour is all spin and no substance. It is dominated by spin doctors. It thinks only of the short-term presentation, not the long-term public interest. Those Ministers who do not do the same are done down by the mischievous briefings of the spinmeisters and their apprentices.
Most dangerous of all is the tripling of the number of advisers in 10 Downing street. In the past, party officials going to Downing street knew that they were entering the heart of the Government machine. They were the outsiders. Now it is civil servants who feel that they are the outsiders. No. 10 is a Labour party office. It is the recreation of the Millbank tower operation inside Government. The Labour party cannot or will not stop being an Opposition. It still believes that it can spin its way out of the reality of the public's experience.
Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend is right. What he says does not surprise me, as it is in the nature of spin to extract from a paragraph the half sentence that suits the Government's purpose, and to ignore all qualifications and additions.
Special advisers cost £1.8 million in 1997, and they cost £4.3 million now. Running No. 10 Downing street cost £3.4 million before the election, and costs £5.9 million now. The Government are setting up the knowledge network--dubbed the Ministry of Truth in Whitehall--at a cost of £240,000 and rising. The research and information unit has eight staff, and no one knows what they do. The strategic communications unit used to have six staff, but now Mr. Alastair Campbell is its operational head and it has 11.
I know that Mr. Campbell cannot answer back in the House of Commons, but that does not matter as everyone knows that he will be answering back in unattributable briefings. However, spin and Mr. Campbell himself have become the story--and there, as Mr. Charles Whelan will tell him, lies the danger.
Ken Follett attacked the Labour spin machine and the Prime Minister's responsibility in particular. He was right in the most important thing that he said: he noted that the main problem was not who said what, but that the Prime Minister was responsible for what was happening and had not stopped it. The reason for that is that he cannot; he knows no other way.
The Labour Government have no purpose other than power. They are more concerned with who is up and who is down than with what they are achieving. They applaud spin over substance. They need to cut the numbers of special advisers.
We have a commitment to differentiate specialist advisers from political advisers, and to ensure that those specialist advisers are appointed according to Nolan rules. The Government will not do that. We will cut the number of political advisers close to the level inherited by this Government at the general election, which means that we will virtually halve the present total. We will restore clear boundaries between the political function in government and the civil service functions that should properly be impartial and disinterested.
That is the challenge to the Government in this debate. Why have they failed to make any response to the Neill committee on its important recommendations? Will they respond now? Will they understand the importance of the problem, and act on it? The Government have not understood that, and I know that they will not. This is a Government who have lived by spin, and now will die by it.
At the outset, I wish to make it clear that the Government value the work of the Neill committee highly. We strongly supported the establishment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in October 1994, which took place amid deep disquiet at the conduct of some Conservative Members. Labour's 1997 manifesto promised to clear up politics and to rebuild the bond of trust between the British people and the Government.
We said that we would clean up politics. Our system of government is centralised, ineffective and bureaucratic. There is unquestionably a national crisis of confidence in our political system. An early decision in November 1997 was to extend the remit of the Neill committee's work to review issues relating to the funding of political parties, and to make recommendations as to any changes in the present arrangements.
The Committee's sixth report, "Reinforcing Standards", is a review of its first report. We therefore welcome Lord Neill's statement that there is now less cause for concern about standards in public life than when the affair about cash for questions led to the Committee being set up in 1994.