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9.25 pm

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I see from the course of the debate that my campaign for briefer speeches is unlikely to succeed. I shall pursue it unilaterally.

More than any other Member of the House, I was elected on an issue of public trust. Public trust matters to me, as it does to all other Members, and the reputation of the House has improved marginally--maybe even substantially--over that which it had in the previous Parliament. That is due partly to Members themselves, who are being more careful to avoid conflicts of interest, and partly to the machinery set in place. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, in his place. He has done great

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work, as has the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards herself. I very much regret the whispering campaign against her.

Members of the House signed on to a set of rules, and they are beginning to realise how stringent those rules are, but it is much better to be criticised for being too zealous in applying them than for being lax. Does that mean that the spectre of corruption has gone away and that public trust is completely restored? Of course not. The beast is out there, lurking somewhere beyond the nets and harpoons of the parliamentary policing system. It lies down there at the other end of this great building on issues of party funding and honours. Peerages have been and are being bought, as are knighthoods. We must get to grips with that and hope that we do so when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill comes back to us.

I do not expect widespread support when I say that the power of the parties has increased and is increasing, but ought to be diminished. That is what I believe, however, and special advisers are a relevant issue: by all means, let the parties have their placemen and placewomen in ministerial offices if they must and if that improves their liaison, but I cannot see any reason why they should be paid for from the public purse. They should be paid for by the parties.

Shortly after being elected, I attended one of those meetings of the supposedly great and good--academics and politicians from both sides of the Atlantic--on precisely the issue of how to increase public trust. I put forward the heretical notion that behaving better was one way for us to achieve that. There was a sharp intake of breath around the table and an American Congressman in trouble with his state police and press over an issue of corruption said, "Sir, they will nickel and dime you to death." Well, so far they have not.

So far, we are doing better, but we have to improve what we are doing to curb the power of the parties. I have to tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the parties are not as popular in the nation at large as they think they are or think they should be. We need the parties to make government work, but let them not overreach themselves. I believe that they are overreaching themselves on the issue of special advisers.

9.28 pm

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): I have listened to the speeches of Conservative Members with considerable interest and one theme that has emerged is that before 1 May 1997, special advisers were paragons of rectitude and that they have since become subverters of democracy. On that subject, I can do no better than quote Sir Bernard Ingham, who, talking of special advisers, said that

As he was talking about his time in government, I hope that that does not reflect badly on some of the former special advisers on the Opposition Benches. All I shall say on spinning--I hate the term--is that in my experience, those who spin are likely to become dizzy. It is not a practice that I would recommend.

I have some experience in this matter as a former special adviser, as do other Members, and I would be the first to acknowledge that there is a serious debate to be had about the role of special advisers in government. As other Members have said, the Government have been open about the work of advisers and I am genuinely sorry

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that instead of engaging in the serious debate to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) referred, the Opposition have chosen to create an atmosphere of dark intrigue, which I must tell the House is far from what I remember in my job at the Department for Education and Employment, which I did for two years.

The two key questions concern legitimacy and influence. I think that the House agrees that special advisers are legitimate, not least because of how long they have been in existence but also because it is recognised that Ministers need a particular type of support. That has been acknowledged by the Neill committee, the 1968 Fulton committee, the 1976 Expenditure Committee and the 1985-86 Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. That Select Committee report said:

That is certainly how I recall my time at the Department for Education and Employment.

Reference has been made to whether special advisers should be paid for out of public funds. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) touched on that a moment ago. I see no problem with it, given that they help the Government to do their job more effectively. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Neill committee endorsed that view and said that it could see no reason why special advisers should not continue to be paid out of public funds.

The point has been made forcefully that Short money is used to employ the equivalent of special advisers on the Opposition Benches. That is unquestionably the case, so I see nothing wrong with that system.

Mr. Bercow: In the light of what the hon. Gentleman says about the means by which special advisers are paid, does he believe that it is acceptable for a serving special adviser to speak at a party political gathering? It was not the normal practice under the previous Government; regrettably, it has become so under this one.

Mr. Benn: As I recollect my contract of employment, it said specifically that I was not to take part in party political conferences. That should be pursued in all cases.

The central question is whether special advisers undermine the impartiality of the civil service. All the evidence is that that is not the case, because their existence helps to protect that impartiality by acknowledging that Ministers require particular forms of support and advice, which they need from a distinct source. The code of practice that has been published specifically recognises that.

There is a considerable volume of work in a modern Government Department. Government is more complex than ever, and because of their background and expertise, special advisers, who have--or at least should have-- a unique knowledge of the governing party's background, history and policies, are able to give advice which it would be wrong to expect a civil servant to give. They have a different perspective, which is why they have a different status. I genuinely believe that that is no different now from how it was under the previous Government.

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I see with interest that Professor Anthony King, remarking on the status of special advisers, said that they were

I had not come across that expression before. If I was ever the dog of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment--I thought that somebody else had that job--I tried to fetch and carry diligently; if I growled, I did so with discretion; and if I barked, I never ever did so in public.

More seriously, advisers also help officials to do their job. I was interested to see that, in its evidence to the Neill committee, the First Division Association specifically acknowledged that that was so.

Let me deal with the central question of the charges of wrongdoing, which appear to be the substance of this debate. Having said early on in his speech that he would back up his charges, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) miserably failed to do so. Where is the evidence of corrosive influence? As others have said, if such evidence exists, why was it not submitted to the Neill committee? More important, why did the Neill committee comment so favourably on the role that special advisers perform? Why did Sir Richard Wilson, in answer to specific questions when giving evidence to the Neill committee, say, first, that he could see no evidence of abuse and, secondly, that he was not concerned about politicisation?

On the subject of briefing the press, Sir Richard Wilson told the committee:

It is important that that is put on the record.

My final point concerns the question of influence. Ultimately, it is for Ministers to decide whose advice they wish to take in reaching decisions, with the understanding that they will then take the consequences. In other words, the buck stops with Ministers, not with their special advisers. Special advisers should never become the story in themselves, because that makes it much more difficult for them to do the job that they are supposed to do. I have no problems whatever with the Neill committee recommendations in relation to special advisers.

Much of the debate this evening has been hot air about advisers. It has been a substitute for a debate about the nature and practice of our political process. I very much endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. In the courts of days gone by, if one wanted to criticise the king but did not have the guts to do so, one said that he was badly advised. If the Opposition are unhappy about the Government's policies, they should say so directly. If the Opposition did their job more effectively, they would not be so obsessed with special advisers.

No Government can survive on spin, and that includes this Government. This Government will succeed because of their achievements. They have a lot to be proud of. They have achieved a great deal and have much yet to do. I believe that that is what the public also think, and I suspect that that is what rankles with the Opposition so much.

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9.35 pm

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