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Mr. Kenneth Clarke: The Minister is showing his great adeptness at getting further and further away from the subject on which I was pressing him. May I bring him back to the Bill for a second in the course of his dissertation? Can he explain at this stage why the Government, who say that they are about to consult, reject the idea of legislation that would give the House any supervision over the code of conduct for—

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): Sixteen days.

Mr. Clarke: It is not only 16 days; the Government have been promising action on this for seven years, and the response has already been given to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Government have already said that they reject the case for legislating on the role of special advisers and their code of conduct; they prefer Orders in Council. May we have an argument in defence of that—assuming that it remains the Government's policy? It was stated only a few weeks ago.

Mr. Alexander: I fear that during his period away from the House, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not been able to keep up to date with the provisions and positions of the Government. As I told the House today, we are committed to introducing a draft civil service Bill. I myself, in my evidence before the Committee on Standards in Public Life, made it clear that we were looking for a succinct Bill that would place on a statutory footing not just the civil service code of conduct but the special advisers code of conduct—that addresses the specific point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made. None the less, he raises an important question—whether we are at this stage ready to legislate or whether, working on the explicit direction of the Public Administration Committee, we should recognise the need to build consensus on this matter. In that sense I make no apology whatever for introducing a draft Bill at this stage because I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides of the House would want the opportunity to contribute to the work that is under way on the Bill.

Brian White: It was no surprise that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) would not take an intervention from me to ask him for a definition of a civil servant, because in the evidence to the Committee no one person could agree on a definition. Does the Minister have a definition of a civil servant on which there would be consensus across the political spectrum?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is aware that this matter caused some interest in the Public

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Administration Committee. I suggest to him that the definition offered by a number of royal commissions in the past—

would be an interesting starting point not just for the Government but for the discussions that are taking place as part of the consultation.

However, in response to the substantive point made by my hon. Friend, it is important to recognise that on such matters of detail it is vital that there be a wide degree of consensus not just across the House but in the other place.

Mr. Clarke: The Minister has forgotten a statement of policy that he has already cleared, I suspect, giving a detailed response on special advisers which he just slipped away from. May I refer him to the Government's response to page 10 of the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, published in September 2003? I suspect that he was the Minister who cleared this statement:

That is the Government's policy position. The Minister will not even acknowledge that he is aware of it, let alone defend it—and he claims he is willing to go on and consult about the details.

Mr. Alexander: I am only too happy to clarify that point. One can of course refer on the face of a Bill to a code of conduct, which then finds expression outside the main piece of legislation. Enabling legislation has a long tradition of being able to do exactly that. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is dancing on the head of a pin in an attempt to cover the fact that the present Government have moved significantly by introducing not only the model contract for special advisers but the code of conduct for special advisers—two matters that did not trouble him during his 18 years in office.

As I was saying before I gave way to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White), the real matter of substance which explains the appearance of the right hon. and learned Gentleman today is the fact that the Conservatives feel a profound sense of grievance, and the reason why they are addressing themselves to such matters is not solely a concern for the fate of the civil service, but rather a concern for the fate of the Conservative party. In reality, this is part of a premeditated strategy by the Conservative party to encourage cynicism about politicians and public life in this country.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con) rose—

Mr. Alexander: I will give way in a minute or two.

That is why Conservative supporters have recently received a communication from the leader of the Conservative party, stating:

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This debate is just the latest move in a coldly cynical ploy by the Conservative party to grow cynicism, and it does the good reputation of the right hon. and learned Gentleman only harm that he should choose to play a leading role in the strategy being devised, no doubt, by Maurice Saatchi in Conservative central office.

The principles that underlie the Government's approach to civil service legislation are indeed long established. They are the importance of maintaining the impartiality and objectivity of the civil service; defence of the principle of appointment on merit on the basis of fair and open competition—the bedrock of our system of public administration for more than 150 years—and recognition that special advisers have a valuable role to play in our system of government. We will therefore introduce a draft civil service Bill in the course of this Parliament that reflects these principles.

Our civil service is world renowned. The Government uphold an absolute commitment to maintaining the political impartiality and integrity of the civil service. That has been our position since coming to office and it will remain our position in the years to come.

1.46 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I shall return to the Minister's speech later. It was a very thin speech, but in contrast the very robust speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was a most exciting occasion and we warmly welcome him back to the Front Bench. We look forward to his contributions from the Front Bench on Iraq, on Europe and on other issues with which we often find ourselves in agreement with him. His performance this afternoon entirely justified the comment that he is a veritable giant amongst pygmies. Let us have more giants and fewer pygmies on the Front Bench in future.

It is a great occasion when we can welcome yet more repenting sinners in the House. The Conservative Government never admitted the need for legislation clearly defining the role of civil servants, protecting their integrity from party political interference and delineating the clearly different role of political special advisers. It is great to have them on our side, even if it has taken them seven years to reach this position since the Labour party and Liberal Democrats came to that conclusion in spring 1997, as has been said, in the so-called Cook-Maclennan accord.

Of course, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe and his new leader have what I think in the Home Office would be called previous form in the whole issue of the integrity of the civil service. I refer to the note produced by Sir Robin Mountfield in April 2002, based on his experience in the Cabinet Office, which he headlined, "Politicisation and the Civil Service". He referred specifically to the vital issue of public appointments, which have not yet had sufficient attention in the debate this afternoon. I think we must all agree that it is critical for the integrity of our civil service that the public appointments process is full of the natural independence that we would require for those who take an important role in an independent civil service. Sir Robin said:

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The point about that was precisely that the inadequacy of the arrangements before that incident led to that invidious situation. I must again suggest, therefore, that the problem is not new: it was there during the Conservative Government's regime and, by coincidence, it was the right hon. and learned Gentleman who found himself in that precise position.

Indeed, that episode was referred to time and again in the evidence to the Select Committee. For example, on 13 November 2003, Mr. Jonathan Baume, the general secretary of the First Division Association, said:

The appointments issue is critical to the legislation that we are now considering and to the integrity of the civil service. There were more references to that episode and the inadequate situation that arose at that period, during the Conservative Government's administration of this country, at the seminar hosted by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and his Committee in October.

It is certainly not for me, because I have no ministerial experience, to say whether there was ever a golden age. I doubt it. I suspect that, gradually over the years, this process has inevitably made the position of the civil service more and more difficult. The integrity and independence of the civil service are things to which every Member of Parliament should pay particular attention. However, it is also important to recognise that that slow evolution has been the subject of concern in the civil service as well as among parliamentarians. I refer particularly to the comments of those who have had the honour—if it is an honour—and certainly the very onerous duty of heading the professional civil service. For example, in evidence to the Wicks committee, which has already been referred to, the then Sir Richard Wilson said:

that special advisers may only advise—

The tone of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's contribution this afternoon is an acceptance that improvisation is not enough. The situation in which we find ourselves today, seven years into a new

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Government, proves the value of the much more sensible approach that was agreed between the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties in 1997—in the light of the experience of the Conservative Government, not in that of the period since this Government came to power. We should therefore consider the Select Committee's proposals on their merits, based on the experience not just since May 1997, but from the period going right back through the 1990s and 1980s to which that very important evidence refers.

I turn now to the Wicks committee report. A very good case is made throughout the Wicks committee's ninth report for clear delineation and clear designation of the differing roles of career civil servants and political advisers. We need not just watch those wonderful "Yes Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" programmes to recognise that the differing role, the delineation between those roles and the extent to which Ministers rely on different advice from those two sources are of extreme importance.

I particularly want to draw attention to the advice that has been given through the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the Wicks committee—as well as the Select Committee, on the need to get some simple definition on paper, so I come to the code of practice. It is true that a number of people have suggested that the code of practice, under Order in Council, is sufficient to deal with the problem. Frankly, I do not think that that stands up to examination. It does not stand up to examination by those who have considered the issue from an independent point of view—whether in giving evidence to the Wicks committee, the Wicks committee itself or our own Select Committee. It is clear from the advice that we are given on all sides that those at the very highest level of the civil service are themselves now persuaded of the need to do what is proposed.

Again, I turn to the evidence given by the then Sir Richard Wilson. At paragraph 7.28 of the Wicks committee report, he said:

We need to have something written down in black and white, in statute, agreed by Parliament. Similarly, in evidence to the Wicks committee, Sir Andrew Turnbull—it would be fair to say that he has been converted to this view—said:

this is critical—

the civil service code. He continued:

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