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Mr. White: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a perennial criticism of the civil service is that it has not been aware of what happens in industry, and secondments are a way of dealing with that fundamental criticism, which has endured for a long time?
Mr. Tyler: That question remains open. Is there a hotline or an inner track from those companies to Minister's decision-making roles? Giving advice is one thing; being in on the decision-making process is another. At the very least, guidelines should be publicly available, be seen by this House and be considered by the Public Administration Committee to ensure that the position is clear and does not involve a conflict of interest.
I come to the issue of propaganda, which again has featured in the debate. The Liberal Democrats are concerned about the extent to which civil servants are under pressure to politicise their work. It is an old story; it did not start on 1 May 1997. There was evidence enough under the previous Government, but sadly there is plenty of new evidence that there is a new problem.
The Government information and communication service, headed by the chief press secretary Mr. Alastair Campbell, spent £126 million in 1998-99 alone publicising the Government. It issues press releases and maintains Government departmental websites. Since 1997, it has spent £634,000 on press releases and £4.8 million a year on websites. Again, the rules that are supposed to prevent such activities from being "polemical" have clearly failed. They are simply impossible to police.
The increase in press releases since the Labour Government came to power is huge. There are 40 per cent. more than in 1996, and 80 per cent. more than in the previous mid-term year: 1995. The working guide for government information officers says that all Government publicity should be
Press releases issued by the Government do not always abide by that code. For example, a press release about the new deal, which was numbered DFEE 550/98 and issued on 26 November 1998, attacked political opponents. It was headlined "Smith Slams Cynical Fabrication of New Deal Figures." That was specifically about the Opposition. It was not about Government policy. Some press releases
Perhaps the prime example of party having undue influence is the No. 10 website. I do not know whether you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are a frequent visitor, but I can tell you that it has a number of "manifesto commitments" under the heading, "Facts." My colleagues have researched some of those "facts" and found them to be misleading.
No one who visits the Prime Minister's website can be under any illusion about its primary purpose. It exists to build the image of the Prime Minister, but what do the rules state? They state that it is okay to build the image of a Minister so long as that is a by-product of the Government's publicity operation.
I turn to partisan research. In the past, civil servants would vet parliamentary questions and refuse to handle any that seemed to be simply about Opposition policies, and rightly so. The Labour party has its own resources and researchers to carry out such research. However, in October 1999, Richard Foster, chief executive of the Employment Service, costed the Tory policy of making the jobless sign on once a day for his Labour ministerial masters. That seems to be in gross conflict with all the indications that we have been given, not only by the Cabinet Secretary, but throughout the history of the civil service. Today, it seems that civil servants are expected not only to evaluate Government policies, but to help the Government to attack Opposition policies and discredit them.
Such politicisation is compounded by the increasing number of gagging clauses that Departments place on the research that they commission. During this Session, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has asked Ministers a series questions about research. He found that 12 out of 15 Ministers included the power to veto publication in their contracts with academics and that 13 out of 16 required academics to ask the civil service for permission to discuss the research with the media, often in perpetuity and not merely at the time of publication--a gagging clause if ever there was one. The implication is that, although the taxpayer foots the bill, if the research outcome is disagreeable to the party in power, it may be indefinitely suppressed.
The same is true of the opinion polls carried out by the Government. Two thirds of the poll results paid for from the public purse, for which the House gives appropriate funding, never see the light of day. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath has questioned the Government on that issue over many months and has exposed the extent to which the results are simply kept secret. The Cabinet Office has produced guidelines requiring Departments to make the results publicly available, but so far very few have done so. However, we live in hope, and it will be interesting to see the results of the polling that has taken place since the general election. That shows how important it is to have a really comprehensive freedom of information Act.
Accountability through Ministers to Parliament
Selection and promotion on merit, and