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Shona McIsaac rose—

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry not to give way to the hon. Lady—I have not been singling her out in that regard.

One reason for timely action is that if by chance, and rather to my surprise, the Prime Minister does not survive the next fortnight—although it is not for me to speculate whether he will—he will obviously be replaced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If there is any chance of that happening and we want to protect the integrity of the civil service, we had better act quickly. Do not get me wrong: the Chancellor is an honourable man but he is the political control freak to end all control freaks. Most of his former Cabinet colleagues say that it is bad enough working with him, but working for him will be impossible. He is the man who made the Red Books incomprehensible. He is the man who has altogether taken over the presentation of policy. His presentation of the public finances exceeds the ambitions of any creative accountant in obfuscating the true position and putting everything off balance sheet as much as possible.

When the Chancellor first reached the Treasury, his approach to things was probably the worst in the Government. He would scarcely talk to the departmental officials waiting to serve him. For about the first six months, policy was made in the Park lane hotel room of his then colleague, in the company of Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan. It was difficult enough for the Treasury to discover what the economic policy of the Government was—the Cabinet had no chance whatever, but at least they saw him each day while he was making it.

If the Chancellor ever got the supreme job, we should not entertain the idea that he would dream of relinquishing the present style of party political control to the absolute degree. He works harder than the Prime

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Minister. He has more knowledge of detail. No Minister in any part of Whitehall would be safe from his political apparatchiks seeking control, so we had better act first.

The Bill is straightforward. I do not see how anyone can argue against it in principle. It strengthens the civil service commissioners, gives civil servants who feel aggrieved a right of appeal and gives the civil service commission the power to investigate complaints. It entrenches the principle of selection on merit in the civil service and the duty of civil servants to give fearless and impartial advice.

The key thing about the Bill is that it will strengthen parliamentary oversight of the whole system, which is what the Government most dislike about the Select Committee's proposals—that Parliament would have a say in what special advisers can and cannot do, and that it would have a say in the protection of the impartiality of the civil service. I am glad to say that the Conservatives are committed to doing that, which is why I am honoured to speak for my party at the Dispatch Box. We shall not do as the Government did—commit ourselves to the measure in opposition and fail to carry it out for our first seven years in government.

We are prepared to subject ourselves to the constraints at this stage. I have the authority of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition to say that he would legislate to scrap the Order in Council system, that he would reduce the number of special advisers from its present level and that he would not seek to give special advisers executive authority over civil servants.

In our case, we are prepared to enact that promise now, because those constraints—proper constitutional behaviour and regard for the standards in public life that our people expect of all parties in government—are ones that we are prepared to vote for now. The only people blocking progress are the Government, who will try to procrastinate and will, I suspect, turn down the offer of every other element in the House that would enable them to endorse standards that they claim to defend but that they have actually done more to damage during their period of office so far than any Government of modern times.

1.24 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I am sure that both sides of the House will welcome the return of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) to the Dispatch Box for what he described as a guest appearance, after almost seven years when he could not be persuaded back into the shadow Cabinet of the past two leaders of the Conservative party—or, indeed, of its present leader.

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Instead, along with past leaders of the party— the former right hon. Member for Huntingdon and the right hon. Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—he has accepted a place on the newly established Conservative party advisory council. So if hon. Members want advice on how to lose their home, their job and an election, they now know to whom to turn.

On the basis of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's contribution to the debate today, I have the impression that he has been enjoying himself on the after-dinner circuit since his departure from government, so how fascinating to see that he was finally tempted back to the Dispatch Box to discuss the case for a civil service Bill. That is fascinating indeed, given that during his time as Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Minister of State for Health, Paymaster General, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Education and Science, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, not once did the Conservative party or the Government of whom he was a member legislate for a civil service Bill.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Alexander: No. I will give way in due course.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe made some specific points about the report of the Select Committee on Public Administration, and made claims about the politicisation of the role of special advisers. He even upheld the Thatcher Administration as a model of Cabinet government. I shall endeavour to address each of those points during my remarks.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would seek consensus before making more partisan points, so I shall set the context for the debate before following his lead. The Opposition motion's demand for civil service legislation is made against the background that over two centuries we have seen three major reforms of the civil service: the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853; the Haldane report of 1918 and the Fulton report of 1968.

By any reckoning, each was a major milestone in the history of the civil service, but there has never before been a civil service Act. Indeed, as the present Cabinet Secretary stated last year,

The civil service Bill will, I believe, rank alongside those past reforms, so what is in the Bill matters much more than the simple fact of having a Bill.

Last September, when the Government published our response to the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we committed ourselves to publishing a draft civil service Bill for consultation once we had received the Public Administration Committee's proposals for legislation. Under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), the Committee produced a draft Bill and published it on 5 January. So we have had 16 days: the Opposition had 18 years.

The Public Administration Committee has wisely and consistently recognised the need to seek to build consensus around such a piece of landmark legislation.

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That is why its report of 5 January—unlike the express terms of the Opposition motion—recommended that the Government should publish a draft Bill in the current Session of Parliament to allow for appropriate consultation. I am happy to give the Chairman of the Select Committee that undertaking today: the Government will publish a draft Bill in the current Session of Parliament.

The Government are of course mindful that both Houses will take a close interest in the draft Bill. It is an important constitutional matter and there will be full consultation with both Houses. However, detailed decisions about the form of that consultation have yet to be taken.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Obviously, one of the organisations to be consulted will be the First Division Association. Is the Minister aware that the association has complained constantly about the bullying and harassment of civil servants by the Government? Does he agree that the case of Ms Weleminsky is an example that should be looked at? What are his comments on that case?

Mr. Alexander: There is a matter before the Standards and Privileges Committee. I shall be delighted to rehearse the views of the First Division Association in relation to special advisers. It will not make comfortable listening for the hon. Gentleman.

I turn first to special advisers, a question which took up a considerable part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's contribution. He started by making claims with regard to numbers of civil servants. He said that they had doubled under this Government; he failed to mention that they had doubled under the previous, Conservative Government. It is perhaps more interesting to bear in mind the comments of the previous Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, now Lord Wilson of Dinton, in his evidence in July 1999 to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. He said:

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