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Brian White: Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the central charges against the civil service is that it has been policy led rather than results led, and that the delivery part of the civil service has lagged behind?

Tony Wright: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The demands of delivery have posed a challenge for the civil service in modern times. Governments are right to want to make the machine's delivery ever better. My argument is that that imperative for better delivery—what I call performance—is not in any sense in conflict with propriety considerations. Both are important and we should be able to secure both. I would argue that the facts of change make it even more imperative to define the framework of principle within which it takes place, and to do so through Parliament. That is the heart of what is proposed in the Bill.

It is time for the civil service to cease to be the creature of law that is made by the prerogative and to become the creature of law that is made by Parliament. That constitutional proposition is at the centre of the proposal for civil service legislation. A Government who will be remembered for their constitutional reforms need not be hesitant in embracing this one. The civil service has a duty to serve the duly elected Government of the day, but it is not the property of that Government; it should belong to Parliament on behalf of the people, which is what the Bill proposes.

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The Bill's approach to particular issues flows from that underlying proposition: a civil service commission should have extended powers of oversight of key principles and practices, and should be set up by Parliament and report to it; codes for civil servants and special advisers should be presented to Parliament and approved by it; the number of special advisers that a Government want should also be approved by Parliament; and the key boundary lines within the Government should be identified and properly patrolled. Having done that, it should be possible to have far more sensible discussion about some matters than has been the case recently.

Having established a framework, we can discuss what should be contained within it. For example, let us have no more silly attacks on special advisers, who in the Daily Mail lexicon of political abuse have come to rank somewhere between asylum seekers and paedophiles. Let us have no Dutch auction to determine precisely how many there should be. They are not new. Indeed, the other day I came across a reference to special advisers in Barbara Castle's diaries for the 1970s, when she was having one of her constant battles with officials in her Department. She wrote:

From all the evidence received by my Committee and the Wicks committee, it is clear that special advisers are thought to contribute to good government.

There is a serious debate to be had about the extent of political appointees in government in this country. We sit at one end of the international spectrum on that. The other day I was introduced to the Australian Cabinet secretary, who turned out to be a political appointee. In Canada, which the Committee visited recently, it turned out that the people we call permanent secretaries, whom they call deputy ministers, are also political appointments. A mature democracy should be able to have a grown-up discussion about the proper relationship between the elected Government and the permanent Government, without the cry of politicisation always going up to prevent that debate from taking place. The proposed Bill expresses no view on those matters, except to say that Parliament must be involved in the consideration of them.

I said that what is proposed is unfinished business from the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853. Let me remind the House of the concluding paragraph of that report in which they say:

Finally, they say:

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Those few clauses that were argued for 150 years ago are what we now propose—to anchor the civil service in Parliament. An impressive coalition has been assembled around that proposition which now needs to be acted on: the civil service commissioners, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the civil service unions, at least one Committee of this House, distinguished former senior civil servants and an array of informed commentators. Indeed, the Government should be added to the list as they have indicated their support in principle and have undertaken to produce their own draft Bill. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that that will happen "in this Session" after seeing the Bill produced by the Committee.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Did the hon. Gentleman notice that in the Minister's peroration, he changed that statement to "in this Parliament"? We shall certainly be pressing him further on that.

Tony Wright: I did notice that. I thought that that reference was a slip of the tongue. I am sure my hon. Friend will take the earliest opportunity to revert to his original form of words.

Mr. Alexander: I am more than happy to clarify what I said. I have always understood that this Session of Parliament is within the bounds of this Parliament. In that sense, I can assure my hon. Friend that the commitment I gave at the Dispatch Box stands and that the draft Bill will be produced within this parliamentary Session.

Tony Wright: I am delighted by what the Minister has said, and I am glad that the Bill that we have produced has kick-started the process.

The Government have the opportunity to be the first to enshrine key governing principles in legislation. That will have huge symbolic and practical importance, and it will make a major contribution to strengthening the public trust in our political system that we all recognise is so important.

This issue is a huge challenge for Parliament and, indeed, for all the political parties. Those who have supported the proposed Bill have done so on the basis that it could be an agreed measure, free from the normal party dog-fight, and I hope that that is the spirit in which the Opposition support it today and in which the Government will respond. In fact, it is a condition of the measure's success.

Mr. Tyler: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the terms in which he is speaking in support of his Bill. I put on record the fact that my colleagues and I support his aim of making the process non-partisan, which is why we did not table an amendment, but signed the motion tabled by Conservative spokespeople.

Tony Wright: I am grateful for that. The signs so far are not unpromising, so I hope that we can proceed on that basis.

As this is an Opposition motion, let me take the Opposition back to when they were in government. I do so not to make a partisan point but to remind the House how important it is to proceed on an agreed basis if we are serious about introducing the measure.

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In its fifth report of the 1993–94 Session, the then Treasury and Civil Service Committee produced an important report on the civil service. It recommended, among other things, that there should be a civil service Act, for much the same reasons as are being advanced here. The Government at the time were not persuaded; indeed, they gave evidence to the Committee opposing the proposition. They said that such an Act would be "incredibly difficult to draft". However, in a debate in the House on 23 March 1995, following the publication of the Committee's report, the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, now Lord Hunt, said:

He went on:

When, just a few weeks later, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster gave evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, he said, on the same issue:

That was sensible then, and it is sensible now.

That is how we secured the civil service code; it is how we can now secure a civil service Bill. We now have a draft Bill that was not incredibly difficult to produce, although it took some care, and commands wide support. I invite the Government and the Opposition to work together to complete this piece of unfinished constitutional business.

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