Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Is the Minister aware that that self-same Cabinet Secretary, now retired, has just come out in favour of a Civil Service Act?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman, who is himself a former special adviser and so brings some expertise to our deliberations, is right in recognising that the noble Lord is in favour of a civil service Bill. He was in favour of a civil service Bill when he was Cabinet Secretary, so the suggestion that that is a revelation must be taken with a pinch of salt.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman moved on to talk about the role of special advisers in communication, the central charge being that it was somehow inappropriate and illegitimate for special advisers to speak to the media. I return to the words of Lord Wilson, again before the Neill Committee, on 15 July 1999, when he added a valuable perspective. He said:

21 Jan 2004 : Column 1344

Shona McIsaac: Twenty-three Tory Members were once special advisers. Does my hon. Friend think that they never gave any briefing of a political nature to the press or civil servants?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend anticipates my contribution to the debate. I shall be happy to look at the specifics of the Order in Council under which the special advisers under this Administration and those under the Conservative Administration operated in having discussions with civil servants.

However, the substance of the attack by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe was about the nature of the powers under which civil servants now operate, and in specific terms the role of special advisers in relation to those powers. Much was made of the role of Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell and the 1997 Order in Council allowing up to three special advisers in Downing Street to be appointed with executive powers.

Yet again I turn to Lord Wilson, whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman cited, apparently in defence of his own position. The noble Lord described the Order as

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman was confident enough to admit, it is important to look at the detail in these matters. The 1997 Order in Council simply removed the restriction confining advisers to giving advice to Ministers, which was not put in place until 1991. Not only was there a politically appointed chief of staff under the Conservatives between 1979 and 1985, but many Conservative special advisers who are now serving as Conservative Members operated under similar, if less clearly defined, arrangements when they were special advisers. In his long discussion of the role of the Powells and the "Poles" in British public life, the right hon. and learned Gentleman conveniently forgot to mention that point.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: With the greatest respect, that is a misquotation. Before 1991 there was not a code of practice. It was introduced in 1991. That, I think, was the point that Richard Wilson was making in the quotation that the Minister gave us. He is not, I trust, asserting that before 1992 any politically appointed special adviser had executive authority over a civil servant. Not only would the then Cabinet Secretaries have been outraged, but no Minister ever suggested it.

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for recognising that the rules were indeed changed at that point. It is for the Conservatives to justify the regime under which they—and indeed their special advisers—operated during that time.As I was saying, in his long discussion of the Powells and the "Poles" the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not address those particular facts.

The point about special advisers' powers has a contemporary relevance for the House, given the terms of the Bill. I was intrigued to examine the contents of the

21 Jan 2004 : Column 1345

Conservatives' Civil Service Bill, which includes provisions, in clause 5(3), that up to two special advisers with executive powers may be appointed to the Prime Minister's Office.

The House will be interested to know that the Conservative party's previous spokesman on these matters, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), who, regrettably, has left the Chamber, gave evidence on this exact matter to the Committee on Standards in Public Life:

I presume, therefore, on the basis of his own evidence, that the previous Conservative spokesman on this issue will shortly vote against the Bill of the current Conservative spokesman. Clearly, a week is a long time in Conservative policy making, as we discovered at Prime Minister's Questions on the issue of tuition fees.

As for the more substantive point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised about the role of apparatchiks in our public life, I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is not in the Chamber, because I know that this is a matter of long-standing concern to him. During the Conservative leadership contest of 1993 his campaign team, together with the First Division Association, condemned the way in which the special adviser to the person who was then Home Secretary, but is now the Leader of the Opposition, was working at the campaign headquarters of the then Prime Minister. When the special adviser to the now Leader of the Opposition was asked by a reporter why she was at the Major campaign HQ in the middle of the afternoon, she explained, "I have been getting in to the Home Office early and coming here in my lunch break." As the spokesman of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, Andrew Roberts, declared at the time:

As the Government have introduced both the code of conduct for special advisers and the model contract for special advisers, we will take no lectures from the Opposition on special advisers' probity in public life. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to discuss the need for civil service legislation in terms of ministerial propriety, so be it. He was kind enough to ventilate some of the sexual peccadilloes of his colleagues when he was serving in office. Let him explain more substantive matters. Let him explain the case for legislation with reference to the ministerial resignations of his erstwhile colleagues the former Member for Tatton, forced to resign and then humiliatingly defeated as the embodiment of Tory sleaze. Let him comment on the conduct of the former Member for Beaconsfield, forced to resign over cash for questions, and the former Member for South Thanet, whose special adviser was in the Chamber this afternoon—a Member who resigned to fight his libel action with the trusty shield of fair play.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to discuss the Bill in relation to probity in the direction of civil servants, which formed a central part of the charges

21 Jan 2004 : Column 1346

he laid before the Government today, let him begin by explaining the conduct of the Conservative Deputy Prime Minister who, when based in the Cabinet Office only months before the 1997 election, of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke, attempted to order civil servants to work on party political tasks, obliging the then Cabinet Secretary to deliver an unprecedented rebuff.

Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain the wider need for the Scott inquiry, the Downey inquiry and the Nolan inquiry during his 18 years in office. Let him explain why he feels that it fell to the present Government uniquely in their time in office to introduce and publish the ministerial code for the first time, to introduce the model contract for special advisers and to publish the code of conduct for special advisers.

The Government in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman served for 18 years did irreparable damage to the public life of this country. His speech ignored that. He ignored the fact that he has a past to account for, and that the British people held him to account in 1997.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Leaving aside the right hon. and learned Gentleman's past, he alleged that important decision-making meetings are not being minuted. That charge was also ventilated in the Financial Times last week by the journalist Sue Cameron. In what circumstances are decision-making meetings not minuted by civil servants?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Clearly, there are circumstances in which Ministers meet without a civil servant present—for example, within the precincts of the House, where decisions could well be taken between Divisions, with major matters of policy being determined with colleague Ministers. In that sense there is no iron law that in no circumstances must a decision ever be taken by a Minister without a civil servant being present. However, with the greatest respect for what I understand are his 34 years on the Front Bench, it was rather risible for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to suggest that the period of the Conservative Administration was somehow a model of collegiate Cabinet government.

Now that we have introduced some of the facts, let us try to deal with the substance of the charges that the right hon. and learned Gentleman laid before the House. In essence, he was arguing that there has been a grotesque abuse of power by the Labour party since it came to power in 1997. His real grievance is the enduring grievance of the entire Conservative party, I would suggest, which is about not the abuse of power but the loss of power by the Conservative party. The speech we heard was not as much a scrutiny of power held as a lament for power lost.

Conservative Members seem to feel that a massive injustice was perpetrated against the Conservative party on 1 May 1997. They seem to feel that Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell somehow stole the election from the Conservative party. They see two landslide defeats for the Conservatives as some kind of unfortunate temporary aberration, which will soon be undone. They do not even recognise the fact that the British people reached a clear-headed judgment on the

21 Jan 2004 : Column 1347

basis of policies implemented by the Conservative party, and that they are in danger of losing a third general election on exactly that basis.

The real reason why the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with so distinguished a career behind him, chose to address the House today on the matter of the Civil Service Bill is that actually, I fear, he may not be able to defend the Conservative party position—on Europe, for example, or indeed on the health service. He made admirable speeches—

Next Section

IndexHome Page