Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.2 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). He may recall that it was my question at Prime Minister's questions in the previous Parliament that prompted the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) to set up the Nolan inquiry. My question was

3 Jul 2000 : Column 108

For all that, I believe that the Nolan committee and now the Neill committee have done the House and the country a great service. They have shone the searchlight of inquiry into the far reaches of Whitehall and Westminster to good effect.

Spinning may be considered a political disease by the professionals, but in the eyes of the public, the besetting sin of politicians is hypocrisy. We have all found that in our dealings with our constituents. Conservative spokesmen this evening are probably too young to recall that great spinner--the godfather of spinning--Bernard Ingham, but I well recall the occasions when he spun so effectively, as has been mentioned, about Ministers who had fallen out of favour with his mistress, the right hon. Member for Finchley, as she then was. When he referred to the then Leader of the House as being a semi-detached member of the Cabinet, sure enough, very soon afterwards he was completely detached.

In that connection, I was amused to see that Baroness Thatcher was warning us today about the danger of spin doctors and soundbites. It sounds very much like Queen Boadicea giving a lecture on road safety.

Special advisers, politicisation in the civil service and negative briefing are not the monopoly of the new Government. Indeed, I read in The Daily Telegraph this morning:

That is from The Daily Telegraph, which many of us regard as the house magazine of the Conservative party.

In that great work on the civil service, "Yes, Minister", Jim Hacker once memorably observed that the British Government had the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a Rolls-Royce. The Government have responded to the sixth report of the Neill committee with brakes rather than an accelerator. We urgently need to know the Government's intentions, especially as we anticipate that legislation will be necessary and, as the spinners constantly remind us, we may not have a full Session after this year's Queen's Speech.

Much emphasis has been placed on the number and cost of special advisers. Surely the most important question is not their number or their cost, but their actions. The debate is especially relevant in that context. As Lord Neill's committee made clear, there is a strong case for limiting the numbers and the cost. However, as the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who was a member of the committee emphasised, their function in the body politic is more important and raises wider issues.

In the past, political advisers existed largely to stop Ministers going native and to prevent them, once they were ensconced as head of a Department, from being drained of every drop of radicalism from the right or the left. However, that role has been subtly reversed. Today, a special adviser exists not to prevent a Minister from becoming too dogged by the Department's agenda, but to ensure that he remains on message about the party agenda

3 Jul 2000 : Column 109

and to make sure that other Members of Parliament follow the same agenda. Outwith the usual competitive system for appointments, special advisers find themselves acting as intermediaries between members of the party and members of the Government. There has been a sea change in their role since it was first invented.

Before the last general election, there was an agreement between the two Opposition parties that we urgently needed a civil service Act to underpin the political neutrality of the civil service. I am delighted that chapter 5--a well argued chapter--of the Neill report reverts to that, and that recommendation 17 makes it explicit. I shall not refer to the chapter in detail, but it contains an explicit commitment by the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to a civil service Act. I hope that, later this evening, we shall hear when such legislation will be introduced.

While in opposition, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) stated in a debate on 2 November 1995:

I am not sure whether his successors or his Department have followed his advice. He continued:

The Labour party was worried about the politicisation of the civil service under the Conservative party. So were we. We remain worried; we have good cause. Now that the Labour party is in power, the story has changed. In May 1997, the new Government reworked the model contract for special advisers, but Parliament was not informed. A major change was made, but nothing was said about it.

In July 1996, the model letter of appointment for special advisers obliged them not to

That might appear a flimsy protection of the public interest.

However, in May 1997, it was clearly felt to be too rigorous for the new Government and it was watered down and effectively taken out. A new clause was put in, giving special advisers a specific role in the briefing of Members of Parliament. The justification for that role appears in paragraph (iii) of schedule 1 (part I) of the contract which my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), an avid watcher of special advisers, refers to as the control freak clause. It states:

That watered down the previous advice and made it clear that special advisers now have a direct role in ensuring that party members in this House and, no doubt, the other place, toe the party line.

3 Jul 2000 : Column 110

The degree of briefing that these people undertake, examples of which have been quoted this evening, has, of course, been considerable. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath has done some useful analysis of briefings by special advisers. He has obtained, for example, a briefing from the Department for Education and Employment which included details of the Government's Green Paper on teachers and suggested rebuttals of the Opposition's attacks on that policy. That is not just promoting the Government, but suggesting how to respond to the Opposition: if that is not political, nothing is.

My hon. Friend put questions to Ministers on those written briefings, but he was simply fobbed off with an answer which stated:

That is a subjective reply, if ever there was one. My hon. Friend was also told:

Such records should be held and should be publicly available.

Despite the fact that the DFEE briefing given to my hon. Friend was clearly numbered and dated, and referred to similar documents and where to get hold of further copies, we need a real freedom of information Act and we need it fast. Other Departments seem to suggest that they do not have such information to hand. Perception is sometimes as important, if not more important, than reality. Inevitably, we are given the impression that, by stealth, the taxpayer is funding more and more party political work. The number of special advisers is significant but, as I said earlier, their role, surely, is important too.

Civil servants' role and neutrality is under attack from other directions. Included in that attack is the growing number of taskforces, to which the Neill committee referred and which are completely unelected bodies, set up to discuss particular issues. They may include civil servants from many Departments, but they also include so-called outside experts. Common to all is a lack of guidelines, context and accountability. Again, the Neill committee's recommendations deserve a clear and positive response from the Government.

Similarly, there has been an explosion in the number of secondments from private sector companies to Departments. Surely, that should be monitored and governed by clearer guidelines. I feel uneasy when I see how many companies have been negotiating large contracts with Departments and, at the same time, placing staff with those Departments--a potential conflict of interest, if ever there was one.

Next Section

IndexHome Page