|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The political class--not just here but across the world--is far more adept than ever before at controlling political communication. If politicians can control the news, they will do so. That is, in a sense, their job in life. It is the job of the media to stop them controlling the news. Two dangerous developments are occurring. First, there is the idea that we must all speak with one voice. We have a political class that is more control-minded than ever before--I talk not in a party sense but across the board, as all politicians want to control the news, and technology helps them. Secondly, the ability to translate that idea into day-to-day politics is far more developed than ever before. The effect is to close down political debate; to create a suffocatingly narrow area within which genuine political debate can take place.
If one puts together the two abdications--if I may call them that--of the political class from open political debate, which is a feature of modern life, and of the media from the real pursuit of issues, beating, playing and overcoming the spin, I am afraid that one has the atrophy of political life. That is the real condition of politics in Britain today. That is where political debate is going. We should be concerned not with silly arguments about who briefed what against whom, but with what is happening to the quality and character of our political life owing to such developments. If the Opposition were at all serious, that is the issue on which they would be challenging the Government. I am sorry; that was a diversion and a distraction.
There is a history to all this. As I sought to remind the House earlier, the previous Government refused even to send the issue of party funding to the Nolan committee. It was the previous Government who, when presented with the first report of the Nolan committee on the ministerial code and the role of the Prime Minister, rejected it. It was a good try of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), but the question was not one of waiting for another Government to come along. The fact is that the Government of the day produced a detailed response to Nolan and specifically would not accept it. One cannot blame the Prime Minister of the day, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon. Who would accept that they had to take responsibility for such stuff going on around them?
Mr. Winnick: My hon. Friend made mention of consultancies and the rest, but does he accept that the Nolan committee, as it became known, was appointed by the Prime Minister only as a result of cash for questions? Although I accept a great deal of what my hon. Friend has said about the media and triviality, tribute should be paid, as I said in debate in 1994, to The Sunday Times. Although the paper suffered tremendous criticism for the way in which it tried to trap Members on the tabling of questions for money, it is extremely unlikely that the Nolan committee would ever have been appointed but for its series of articles. Therefore, I have always paid tribute to The Sunday Times in that respect.
Tony Wright: I very much agree. I regret that serious investigative journalism is much diminished these days in the pursuit of the other material that I have described. That is part of the abbreviation, the attenuation of public life that we are seeing.
I do not want to detain the House very much longer, but I want to say a word about the issues raised in the Opposition motion arising from the Neill report. The special advisers issue is an interesting one. It is of course fertile territory for such exchanges, but it must be recorded that Neill has conducted the only extensive inquiry into the matter. Having considered the matter, the Neill committee thought that special advisers were in
Tony Wright: We are all going to agree about that. The hon. Gentleman invites me to point out that his evidence to the Neill committee on the matter of special advisers sharply contrasts with the evidence given by the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). On the key issue of who should pay for certain categories of advisers, Lord Neill preferred the right hon. Gentleman's evidence.
Mr. Tyrie: I am sorry to delay the House, but as a matter of record, I made four recommendations to the Neill committee. Three became three of the Neill report's main recommendations and the fourth, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is now beginning to be widely discussed by people questioning Alistair Campbell's behaviour. If he is exclusively to do party political work, perhaps his salary should be paid from Labour party funds.
Perhaps the more revealing comment during the inquiry came from the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, who, when asked whether the number of special advisers was damaging the civil service, as the motion claims, and whether there was politicisation of it, said:
The Neill inquiry was important. The committee has made some important recommendations on a new code for advisers--to which I hope the Government will respond positively--and on numbers. Parliament should have an opportunity to decide, broadly speaking, on the numbers.
I want to say a word about the code, a subject that has surfaced during the debate and in which I have taken an interest over the years. There are a number of questions to be asked about the ministerial code, and I am not entirely sure that the Neill committee got it quite right. There are questions about who the ministerial code belongs to. I am not persuaded that the Prime Minister should have it in his back pocket as an informal rule book. I would be happier if the code belonged to the House of Commons and fitted into a larger framework of parliamentary accountability, but I may not be able to persuade the Government of that.
That is not a satisfactory position. The Cabinet Secretary said to Neill, "It is not my job to find out what went wrong. I am not that kind of investigating officer." Permanent secretaries have said to Neill, "It is not our job to find out whether our Ministers have been in breach of the terms of the code." Whose job is it to go and find out, so that we can have some real assurance that there has been a proper investigation, and so that Parliament will know what happens? The Government need to think carefully about that.
A further question is where the buck stops. I referred earlier to the recommendation in the first Nolan committee report, which basically stated that under the terms of the code, given its ownership and its status, the buck must clearly stop with the Prime Minister. That was not accepted by the previous Government. It has been stated again in rather different language in the sixth report from the committee, and the Government must now accept it. If the code is to be a prime ministerial document, there is no avoiding the fact that there must be prime ministerial responsibility for deciding whether breaches of the code have occurred.
If we could detach ourselves from the happy exchanges during the debate, there are some serious issues to consider. There is need for eternal vigilance on these matters. The fundamental issues are important. It is essential to ensure that the boundary lines are properly transparent and are properly policed between the different elements of the system. I do not for a second underestimate the importance of that.
There are challenges for all of us. If I may say so, the challenge for the Opposition in tabling such a motion is to show a certain amount of what might be called constructive humility. They have a past to account for. Collectively, they did great damage to British public life over an important period, and I hope that now, in a constructive way, they might seek to help us to rebuild it.
On our side, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said, we came in with a challenge and a promise. We said that we would develop a new kind of politics and that there was to be a new kind of trust. A huge responsibility comes with saying that, and we have to make sure daily that we discharge it. Anything that departs from that is a derogation from the promise that we made to the electorate three years ago.