Once of the pieces of evidence given to the Public Administration Committee from the civil
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service unions was that such a civil service Bill should apply to the whole civil service. Most of the talk today has been about the senior civil service, and the hon. Gentleman is continuing that. Does he think that a civil service Bill should apply to the whole civil service? If so, would he address that in the point that he is making?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I notice that he was in a minority of one on a number of important issues in the Select Committee, and it is an important part of the role of any Member that, if he dissents from his colleagues in a Select Committee or any other Committee, he can express his views. However, the draft Bill that the Select Committee has produced is a very good start; it makes that definition quite clear, and I am happy to abide by that advice. I hope that, in a minute, the Chairman of the Select Committee will be able to address the kind of logic and rationale behind its recommendations.
Of course the Select Committee is not the only part of this building that has been addressing the issue. My noble Friend Lord Lester has introduced his civil service Billthe Executive Powers and Civil Service Billand I understand that the intention is to consider it on Second Reading in the other place on 5 March. I summarise, but his Bill is designed to
"place under the authority of Parliament executive powers exercised by Ministers of the Crown by virtue of the royal prerogative; to make provision relating to the appointment and conduct of, and general duties relating to, civil servants and special advisers; to establish a procedure for the making of certain public appointments; and for connected purposes."
I see no reason why the draft Bill that is effectively before this House and the Bill that my noble Friend hopes will receive a Second Reading in the other place in March should not be considered together before a special joint Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny as quickly as possible. We could then really make progressnever mind all this business about holding yet more consultation. The Government are always consulting, but they use that as a very neat way to delay decisions. If they really wanted to make progress, they could do so now. I see no reason, after waiting seven years for the commitment in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to become a reality, why we should wait for yet more consultation beyond that which has already taken place.
On 16 January 2004, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, said of Ministers:
"My impression is that they believe we are doing something that is rather sensible and they have been very receptive to our plans."
If that is the impression that the hon. Gentleman received from the Government, he clearly was not given it by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, because his speech gave us the impression that parliamentary discussion of what should take place is the last thing in which he wants to be involved. He wants a long conversationout in a field, no doubtas far away from Parliament as possible. He wants to take the matter away from all the other controversy here. However, if we, as parliamentarians, do not have the opportunity to discuss the issue, given that a cross-party Select Committee has decided that it is time to move ahead, what is happening, for goodness' sake?
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I referred earlier to the extremely useful seminar on 29 October that was organised by the Select Committee. My only complaint was that it took place on my birthday, so I was rather busy with other matters and was not able to attend everything. At the seminar, Sir Andrew Turnbull said:
"The Government does not believe that the contribution of Special Advisers should be treated as a numerical issue. Rather than setting a limit the right response is to be transparent about numbers and about roles and responsibilities."
Those sound like weasel words, because as today's edition of The Independent
faithfully reports, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has discovered by posing parliamentary questions to the Government:
"The cost of the Government's spin operation has increased five-fold since Labour came to power . . . The communications budget in Whitehall has jumped from £575,000 in 1997 when Tony Blair entered Downing Street to £2.4 million this year."
A further fact in the article makes a significant contribution to our discussion:
"At least half of this year's budget of £2,458,000 will be spent on 'emergency communications', the Cabinet Office minister, Douglas Alexander, said."
What sort of emergencies do the Government anticipate in the current year to require such an increase?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the findings of the Phillis report, which says that disbanding the Government's information and communication services should be a priority?
We will all have to examine that report carefullythe right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe has already referred to it. It obliquely suggests that there should be more transparency in government, but it does not show that the Government are accountable to Parliament. They are not accountable to a group of journalistswhether or not briefings are online, on-screen or attributablebecause they are answerable to us.
I do not wish to prejudge the Hutton inquiry's conclusion, but it is self-evident from the evidence given to the inquiry that our mechanisms in Parliament to question what goes on in the subterranean intricacies of government and to find out what has been said by civil servants to special advisers and by special advisers to Ministersand all around that netare weak and inadequate. It took only a few days after the release of several of the e-mail communications that Lord Hutton was able to extract from the labyrinth of Whitehall to demonstrate that we parliamentarians, through all our various agencies to question Ministerswritten and oral parliamentary questions, Select Committees and all the restare not doing our job properly.
The Bill must be all about the Government's accountability to Parliament. The blurred distinctions that have undermined the reputation of political impartiality in the civil service and the independent integrity of individual civil servants are serious. The Minister used the expression "Crown servant", but that is an anachronism. In a parliamentary democracy, we should refer to such people as servants of the Crown in Parliament. We have said for hundreds of years that the constitution of the United Kingdom is based on the
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concept of the Crown in Parliament, so it is crucial that the matter be brought back into the parliamentary arena.
We do not want more conversations and consultations. The Select Committee has produced a draft Bill as the basis for a discussion, so we should get on with that. There must be statutory protection for civil servants now. There must be statutory delineation of the differing roles to which the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe referred. The Minister's inadequate response did not give me cause for encouragement that the Government will make progress on the issue, and if we hear from the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, I hope that he will give us hard evidence of his optimism that the Government will move forward. We need a draft Bill so that Parliament can get on with the job.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
(Lab): I am delighted that the House has this opportunity to discuss the draft civil service Bill that was recently produced by the Public Administration Committee, which I have the privilege to Chair. It is the first time, certainly in the modern era, that a House of Commons Committee has produced its own Bill, and the first time that an Opposition have used such a Bill as the basis of an Opposition day debate. I shall assume that they are doing so in the spirit of constructive support and not simply because it offers a convenient opportunity to embarrass the Government. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) gave a virtuoso performance. Every time that he speaks, he must notice a surge of pleasure and relief among Labour Members because his party was congenitally unable to elect him as its leader. My assumption about that is still just about intact.
The draft Bill was produced on a cross-party basis after a long process of consultation. It is not a partisan measure, and deserves not to be treated in a partisan manner, but I accept that that is a particular challenge for the Housethe Groucho Marx song, "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It", probably provides the most concise summary of how we usually conduct oppositional politics in the House. On this occasion, I hope that both sides of the House will want to try to construct a consensus on the proposal. The subject is not, and should not be, party political, because it is essentially a matter of public interest.
It is appropriate that we are discussing the proposal now because it is almost exactly 150 years since the great Victorian reformers, Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan, produced their historic report on civil service reform, which was designed to sweep away patronage and install a meritocratic public service in its place. The report is a model of racy radicalism, and their description of the character of the unreformed civil service is still worth recalling. They say:
"Admission into the Civil Service is indeed eagerly sought after, but it is for the unambitious, and the indolent or incapable, that it is chiefly desired. Those whose abilities do not warrant an expectation that they will succeed in the open professions, where they must encounter the competition of their contemporaries, and those whom indolence of temperament, or physical infirmities unfit for active exertions, are placed in the Civil Service, where they may obtain an honourable livelihood with little labour, and
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with no risk; where their success depends upon their simply avoiding any flagrant misconduct, and attending with moderate regularity to routine duties; and in which they are secured against the ordinary consequences of old age, or failing health, by an arrangement which provides them with the means of supporting themselves after they have become incapacitated."
The institution that the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms created has served this country well. The civil service enshrines a tradition of public service that has been a model of its kind. It embodies principles that we take for granted, but should not. Just this week we had the report of the independent reviewagain, recommended by the Public Administration Committeeset up to consider the Government Information and Communication Services. It is revealing that in its search for the solid ground on which to build, amid a collapse of trust in Governments, politicians and the media, the review group turned to the tradition of an impartial civil service. Indeed, it said:
"The tradition of Civil Service impartiality is a key bulwark on which to rebuild trust, and steps need to be taken to preserve and reinforce it".
The proposal for a civil service Bill also builds on that tradition. It is unfinished business from Northcote-Trevelyan, made more urgent by the many recent changes to the civil service and the machinery of government. Let me answer the charge that the proposed Bill would prevent such changes or that those of us who support it have somehow fallen victim to the mandarin's embrace. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing in what is proposed that prevents change, development and evolution in the civil service, and of a radical kind. That is already happening and it will continue. This is not a civil service protection Bill. Propriety and performance both matter. They were central to Northcote-Trevelyan and they should be central to our discussions on the civil service now.