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Universal Funded Pensions

Mr. Peter Lilley accordingly presented a Bill to require people to save for a guaranteed pension sufficient to avoid reliance on means-tested benefit: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 October, and to be printed [Bill 41].

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Opposition Day

[3rd Allotted Day]

Case for a Civil Service Bill

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.40 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): I beg to move,

It is a pleasure to make a guest appearance at the Dispatch Box, which I have encountered in the past. It is always an honour to represent one's party on the Front Bench, and I am grateful to my old friend the Leader of the Opposition for inviting me back to speak on this particular subject, about which I feel strongly, and which it is extremely suitable for the House to take on at the present time. I suppose that it could be said that my right hon. and learned Friend is hoping that I shall practise for the role of an elder statesman, because this is an elder-statesman-type subject, which addresses the problem of the British constitution—which is being interfered with, and not being interfered with very successfully—and the style of our public life and trust in its integrity, about which, as hon. Members of all parties realise, many among our electorate feel acutely.

The subject is suitable for me, as a former Minister and former Opposition spokesman, because I have seen an astonishing degree of support for the proposals in the Bill that we commend to the House. The Bill was proposed by an all-party Select Committee, the Public Administration Committee, on which there was only one dissenting voice. I hope that its Labour Chairman will catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker. I assume that it is supported by the Liberal Democrats; they have always supported the principle behind it. It is certainly supported by the Conservative party, and, with the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend the leader of the party, I will repeat our commitment to it. It is supported by leading civil servants and by successive chairmen of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The appeal of the Bill seems to be overwhelming, with the great and the good of every political complexion supporting it. That is hardly surprising, given that its purpose is to entrench the core values of the civil service; to give clear powers and responsibilities to the Civil Service Commission; to defend the integrity and independence of the civil service; and to set limits on the number of special advisers, stipulate what they cannot do, and allow Parliament to have a say on it. Even the Government will say that they support the ideas in the Bill in principle. We are having this debate because they have been saying it for so long, doing so little about it, and acting in such contradiction of the principles in the Bill, that we all realise that they are speaking with forked tongue.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke: We shall see with what tongue the hon. Gentleman speaks.

Mr. Dismore: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has so far failed to mention part 2 of the Bill, which is

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couched in identical terms to the ten-minute Bill that I introduced yesterday. He claims that his hon. Friends all support the Bill that he advocates, yet 21 of them voted against my Bill. Will he urge those who seem to have changed their minds between the original tabling of the Bill that he advocates and that of mine yesterday to change their minds again and to support my Bill on its Second Reading on 30 January? Or can he explain why there is a difference of view?

Mr. Clarke: I was present in the House yesterday. I did not vote against the hon. Gentleman's Bill, nor did I vote in favour of it—he appeared to have more than adequate support—but I assure him that I was in favour of his being given leave to introduce it. He is obviously going to vote with the Opposition today given that, as he says, the terms of his Bill are replicated in the Bill that we are commending. I have to say, however, that his Bill represents the least important part of our Bill, which perhaps shows that although he has the courage of an independent Back Bencher, he has only a bit of it, as he fastened on the one point that, as most members of the Select Committee would agree, is not at the heart of the matter.

I have read statements made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who will open the debate for the Government. I know that the Government will say that they support the impartiality and integrity of the civil service and that they undertake to make some progress towards consultation and so on, but they have been saying that for more than seven years.

We are pressing the point because, despite their protestations, the Government have politicised the civil service as never before. Party political control over the formulation of policy is steadily developing, and party political control over the presentation of policy has become almost absolute.

It is no coincidence that we are considering the matter on the eve of the report by the Hutton inquiry. In no way will I attempt to prejudge the outcome: I am genuinely waiting to hear what Lord Justice Hutton has to say about the matter that he was asked to address—the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly. However, the evidence given to the Hutton inquiry throws such a light on the way in which decisions were reached and the relationship between the non-elected, non-accountable powerful figures whom the Prime Minister has brought into No. 10 and the civil servants who should have shared public responsibility for the matter that today is the day for the Government to be driven away from saying, "We will consult. We agree in principle." Action is required if we are to win back the public's confidence in our political and public service system.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Clarke: I give way to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), who can tell me whether he is indeed the Chairman of the Committee whose draft Bill we are commending.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Yes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has the right person, and it is a joy to see him back on the Front Bench.

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Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman reverts to old Front-Bench habits and just for the sake of fairness and illumination, will he remind the House that the old Treasury and Civil Service Committee proposed a similar Bill in 1994 and that the Government of the day, in which he was a Minister, did nothing about it?

Mr. Clarke: I quite agree. Before I become more partisan—I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will become partisan—I appeal to hon. Members such as him because important issues are involved. There are a large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who agree and who can take an interest in these matters over and above ordinary party politics. There are Labour members of the Public Administration Committee who have been pressing for a civil service Bill for a considerable time. There are Members on the Labour Benches who agree with me about the need for parliamentary reform and strengthened parliamentary control over the Executive. They are people who should take the matter seriously and add to the pressure on the Government. The issue matters to us all, whichever political party we represent. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that none of us can remember a time when public regard and respect for politics and public trust in the public service has been so low. The case for a civil service Bill has been building up since it was first put before the last election.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that before the last election, the Conservative Government had its own troubles, when the Opposition were pressing us on various matters and invented the word "sleaze" and when I was dogged by the problems caused by the sexual adventures of some of my colleagues and the financial adventures of one or two Back Benchers. We were accused of most things, but we were not accused of politicising the civil service, which is what has happened now. We respected convention when conflict entered our relations with our civil servants, and we did not use public money for party political propaganda. We had half as many special advisers as the current Government. None of our special advisers had authority over members of the civil service, and there was no question of anything interfering with the civil service's right to give impartial and frank advice. Frankly, I knew perfectly well that some of the best civil servants with whom I worked had never voted Conservative and would never vote Conservative, but I respected the professionalism with which they gave their advice, and the public respected their integrity when they were able to see the factual explanation and defence of Government policy to the public.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman back to his duties. He said that he always treated the civil servants who gave him advice with the utmost respect. Did he therefore condone what the current Leader of the Opposition did when he dismissed Derek Lewis as head of the Prison Service?

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