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Tony Wright: To avoid confusion, would the right hon. Gentleman say exactly where he comes from on this matter? The Opposition motion states that the Opposition

but the Neill committee inquiry and report explicitly repudiated that view. Is the right hon. Gentleman making a party speech, or does he claim to speak on behalf of the Neill Committee, which said something completely opposite to what he is saying?

Mr. MacGregor: I made it clear when I began, and shall do so again later when I refer to the Neill recommendations, that I am speaking mainly on my own observations of the situation as someone who has been involved in these matters for a long time. The Government are damaging themselves greatly by allowing the type of activity to which I have referred to continue. Often, I suspect, it is being conducted by special advisers.

There have also been many mutterings from civil servants about the way in which special advisers have increased their role in private offices and similar areas, and I think that that is highly dangerous. We limited the role of special advisers. As anyone who had special advisers will know, ministerial meetings would be

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attended by at least five or six civil servants and only one special adviser. It seems that the balance may have switched the other way.

Mr. Bercow: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that under the previous Government, it was not merely that special advisers were not encouraged to brief against Ministers in other Departments, but that such activity was specifically prohibited? I recall that on day one as a special adviser to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), she made it clear to me--quite rightly--that no such activity would be tolerated.

Mr. MacGregor: I shall come to that point later, but I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) would have said exactly the same. I can say with confidence that we did not do what this Government have done.

Why are the Government doing it? It is part of the climate of spin. Either advisers are being tipped off by Ministers to do a hatchet job for them, or they have an inflated idea of their own importance, fed by flattering encounters with journalists.

Mr. Kemp: I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern about the need for democratic accountability among special advisers. Is he aware, however, that an inquiry was held two years ago into special advisers? The Select Committee on Public Administration invited Mr. Alastair Campbell to sit before it for five hours of tough questioning. I recall that the hon. Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) led the questioning, asking everything possible. There was not a scintilla of truth to the accusations, and no evidence that Mr. Campbell or any other special adviser had briefed against anyone. That was democratic accountability in action. Few other Parliaments in the world operate in that way. That happened less than two years ago, and no evidence was produced that people had behaved improperly in any way.

Mr. MacGregor: The stories have not gone away--nor has the flavour or the smell. Now, it is very often Members on the Government Benches and Government supporters who complain about the Government's approach and activity.

The Neill committee's recommendations on special advisers will help by providing a framework to put the role of special advisers on a proper basis. However, they do not get to the heart of the problem to which I referred. Although desirable in themselves, the recommendations do not address the concerns currently being expressed about the Government's methods and priorities. That is a matter for Ministers--especially the Prime Minister--to deal with, but, clearly, that is not happening.

I am disappointed that the Government have not already acted; I look forward to what will be said in a few days time, but I cannot understand why they have not acted on limiting the number of special advisers. The Neill committee recommended that such provisions might be incorporated in a civil service Act. I fully accept that such a measure would take time; that is why the

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committee also recommended that, in the interim, the House could introduce a statutory instrument. If the House could vote on the matter, that would be the way to proceed. That is exactly how the issue of special advisers has been dealt with in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, where there are statutory limits on their numbers.

The Government could at least deal with the Neill recommendations. Perhaps that would help to overcome the feeling that they do not want to face up to the problem, because they cannot control the numbers.

The sixth report contains other important recommendations--for example, on the procedure in seriously contested cases in the House. That is probably the matter that the Parliamentary Secretary had in mind when he said that it raised big issues. The proposal has been well thought through--with much support in the House and elsewhere--as a way of achieving natural justice for Members who find themselves in such situations.

There are important recommendations on the composition of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, and on a change in the advocacy rules to enable Members who have a direct interest in a matter, but who know what they are talking about, to initiate debates and propose amendments. I cannot understand why we do not implement that quickly; it would greatly help the proceedings of the House. The recommendations on a civil service Act and on the sponsorship of Government activities are also important.

It is a pity that the response to the report will not come out until the end of July. I hope that the Government will not dribble it out on the last day before the summer recess so that we do not have a chance to consider it. I hope that it will be published well before Parliament rises and that there will be quick action on the recommendations. The matter should not be allowed to drag on; the recommendations are widely supported.

Tonight's debate is, above all, about the manner in which the Government conduct their business--the way in which they have allowed this tremendous feeling of conflict to take root, with a concentration on spin rather than on policies. I warn the Government that the issue will not go away; they have not tackled it quickly enough.

8.33 pm

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I declare an interest in that the Select Committee on Public Administration, which I have the honour to Chair, is currently considering the issues of special advisers and the ministerial code. We hope to say something useful to the House on those matters in due course.

I take the House back a brief six years to 25 October 1994. I remember that day vividly. I sat on the Opposition Benches, watching John Major--a Prime Minister who was beleaguered--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman should know how to refer to another hon. Member.

Tony Wright: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was beleaguered and under siege. Each day brought a new revelation. It was the high point of the age of sleaze.

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We could hardly believe many of the revelations; it was so extraordinary that people could behave in such a way--bringing themselves, the House and the whole of public life into disrepute. Worst of all was the fact that we got used to such things; they became so routine and casual that they ceased to astonish us. They ceased to outrage us. We expected them to happen and they did.

That is why the right hon. Gentleman had to announce, in extremis--under pressure--the establishment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. That evening, I stood in the taxi queue downstairs, listening to the conversation among a group of Conservative Members of Parliament. One of them said, nodding his head darkly, "This is a bad day. It will cause us nothing but trouble because this will not go away." That was the point.

The right hon. Gentleman's action was brave and necessary, because public life was being rocked. The most important fact was that the committee was set up not as a short, sharp fix in order to get over one day's, or one week's, bad news, but on a standing basis so that it would continue to report to this House--as it were, constantly delivering bad news and challenging the House to do something about it.

Mrs. Laing: In the light of what the hon. Gentleman says, is he paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) for his decency and honesty in taking that action?

Tony Wright: I frequently pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman. In a moment or two, I may well do so again, because he was the first Prime Minister to publish the ministerial code. I think he was embarrassed--who would not be?--by what was going on around him. I think he was embarrassed by his party, and in considerable distress that the behaviour of members of his party had brought both the party and public life into disrepute.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I do not contest the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but does he acknowledge that, at that time, as at present, there were more than 650 Members of the House? If he were to add up the scandals, he would find that only a small number of people were involved. It is not fair of the hon. Gentleman to try to smear an entire political party for the sins of a few--especially as many current Members from that party were not Members of the House at the time.

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