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Mrs. Bottomley: As the hon. Gentleman is seeking to reassure the House of his commitment to maintaining high standards in public life, will he speak to the Secretary of State for Health, who has apparently not found time to see Dame Rennie Fritchie after her extremely critical report on the abuse of the appointments system in the health service? There has been the most disgraceful stuffing of NHS boards with Labour councillors, and that has been repeated with primary care trusts. There has been no response to the report and apparently Dame Rennie has not even been seen by the Secretary of State for Health.
Mr. Tipping: The sixth report of the Neill committee draws attention to public appointments. I have said that we shall respond within 18 working days. A factor that came out of the Fritchie report was that the numbers of women who have been appointed to trust boards, along with people from the black and Asian communities, have increased substantially. We should be proud of that.
Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk): The House knows that I am a member of the Neill committee. However, I do not propose to speak mainly in that capacity this evening. I have another interest to declare, because I think that I was one of the earliest special advisers, although that was not our title at that time. Way back in my youth in the early 1960s, I was a special assistant to Sir Alec Douglas-Home, when he was Prime Minister. There were two of us at No. 10. I hasten to add that we were paid by the Conservative party and not out of public funds.
Of course, I have had special advisers. Two distinguished special advisers who have made an admirable contribution are both in the Chamber. I recognise the value of special advisers, but their value is not the issue this evening. We all realise that special advisers have a role to play. I am not criticising the concept, and I think that the model contract brings the point out well. It states:
I heard the Leader of the House speaking on "The World This Weekend" yesterday. I understand why the Minister for the Cabinet Office cannot be here this evening, but I believe that the Leader of the House should have taken this debate. Certainly, when I was Leader of the House I would have done so. The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is a nice, decent man, but, with respect, he has floundered this evening, and it would have been proper for the debate to be taken by a Cabinet Minister. One wonders why it was not. Either the Government are attempting to spin down the issue--in which they will not succeed--or the Leader of the House is all too aware of how much substance there is to our charges.
Dr. Julian Lewis: I can enlighten my right hon. Friend, I think. The fact is that the Leader of the House was herself the target of a vicious campaign of leaking and briefing. Her own position was in jeopardy, and it was only when three Conservative Back-Bench Members--among whom I am proud to include myself--spoke up for her that the campaign finished.
When I listened to the Leader of the House yesterday, it struck me that she was commenting on the kind of issues that inevitably arise in the run-up to a general election. I was Leader of the House from 1990 to 1992 in the run-up to the general election, and I understand her point. However, we were extremely careful to distinguish between the work that civil servants should do and the
The Leader of the House seemed surprised yesterday that special advisers had become an issue of public debate. She has overlooked two points. First, everyone realises that news management is more important to the Government than policy. How things look matters more than what the Government do. Spin matters more than substance. so it is not surprising that that has become part of the public debate. What is surprising is that it did not happen earlier--I thought that that would happen last year.
The whole process of spinning has gone on for a long time and has been increasingly commented on, so the danger for the Government is that it has become a real issue. Spin is like a fire that has smouldered under the surface for a long time and which suddenly blazes out. The issue has been commented on so often and so many examples have been given that it has become a liability for the Government--and one that they will not easily shake off. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said, those who live by spin will fall by spin. The second reason for the issue's importance is that the numbers of special advisers have greatly increased, particularly at No. 10. I had misgivings about the way in which information officers were treated early in the Government's life. We never contemplated doing anything like that.
Mr. Ken Follett is not the only commentator; indeed, he has come rather late to the debate. It was fortuitous that his article appeared in The Observer on Sunday and it is revealing that he has come out in public. It fits my bonfire point that Labour Back-Bench Members are beginning to express misgivings that have existed for some time and that are now coming to the surface. Mr. Follett is not alone, and I cannot believe that all the stories about malicious remarks about colleagues are simply invented. We all know what the Lobby is like, and that its stories often have some substance.
My own admirable daily newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, contained its Commons diary on Friday, in which the political editor commented on the closure of the Press Gallery over the weekend because of air conditioning problems. He wrote:
Mr. Winnick: If there were any lobbying against Ministers in the way alleged by the right hon. Gentleman, I should be against it. I always have been against such briefing. May I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the role played by Bernard Ingham? Time and time again when a Minister was to be sacked, we knew beforehand. John Biffen is the best-known example, but there were many others, including a Foreign Secretary. When one considers what Ingham did, whatever Mr. Campbell may
Mr. MacGregor: I have read Bernard Ingham's autobiography, in which he makes it clear that he did not engage in that kind of activity. Indeed, he has been extremely robust in drawing a contrast between his behaviour and that of Mr. Alastair Campbell.
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster: The right hon. Gentleman obviously has enormous confidence in Mr. Ingham's denial. Bearing in mind that Mr. Campbell has also denied such action, and from a forensic point of view, does the right hon. Gentleman have even a shred of evidence for what he is suggesting? Does he have any concrete proof to support his comments?
Mr. MacGregor: I am not sure to which comments the hon. Gentleman is referring. I believe that leaking is taking place. Ex-Ministers are discussing it publicly. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said on the "Today" programme this morning that spin doctors and political advisers now have disproportionate influence and that too much goes through the sieve of the policy unit at No. 10. The burden of the hon. Gentleman's charge is precisely the sort of thing that I have talked about. Leaks are taking place.
No. 10 and Mr. Alastair Campbell deny that any of the leaks come from them. The Leader of the House said yesterday that leaks could have come from lower down the food chain. I think that she meant by that that they might have come from special advisers and their ilk. It is an important point. The role of special advisers has clearly changed since our Government were in power. None of our special advisers would have made comments about colleagues or spread mischief. Something is wrong in the Government's body politic.