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3.8 pm

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): One of my reasons for producing a minority report has been confirmed by the tenor of the debate. I did not believe that it was possible to achieve consensus on such an important subject in the current climate, and the debate has confirmed my worst fears. Four years ago, I suspect that we could have reached agreement—perhaps even mine—but I am not sure that we can do so in a post-Hutton climate. I am not surprised that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) would not take an intervention from me. I would have asked him to define "civil servant", which is the question that I asked my hon. Friend the Minister. The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) has just admitted that the Committee could not agree a consistent and acceptable definition of "civil servant" for the Bill and that we fell back on what everybody accepts was a fudge by referring the matter to the Royal Commission.

A civil service Bill is often proposed to protect the impartiality of the civil service. We have heard comments about special advisers and references have been made to the Phillis report, which followed the Public Administration Committee's report on the Jo Moore–Martin Sixsmith affair. It would be a mistake to use the Phillis report to justify the civil service Bill. Statute will be important at some point, but we must achieve consensus first. The present draft Bill does not take into account some of the problems with the detail.

The other issue, which has been articulated by some Conservative Members, is the increased politicisation of the civil service. In taking evidence for the draft Bill and for other reports, the Public Administration Committee and the Wicks committee both concluded that special advisers are good and that they prevent the politicisation of the civil service.

I was amused that the key point raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe was abolition of the Order in Council, because the Bill retains the Order in Council for two or three people.

Mr. Heald: We would have liked to go much further on some of the issues, but we accept that the Committee produced its draft Bill as a basis on which to form a consensus on what we can do now. We are supporting the Bill in the hope that we can garner support from both sides of the House in order to put legislation that does good things on the statute book.

Brian White: And I thought the Opposition were supporting the Bill to try to embarrass the Government—how silly of me.

When we took evidence, the civil service unions discussed applying the Bill not only to a few senior civil servants, but to the whole civil service. One of the draft Bill's failings is that it concentrates on top civil servants. The civil service has changed over the past 20 years, with privatisation and outsourcing. Two people can do exactly the same job—for example, one of them works in the Inland Revenue and the other works for EDS—but one of them is a civil servant and the other is not.

Last Thursday, a case was referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. The person referred to was a board member of a non-departmental public body. In

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the short debate, she was referred to as a civil servant. People who work for the board are civil servants, but what about non-executive board members? Until one month ago, 500 people who worked happily in the Department of Trade and Industry were called civil servants. Today, they do exactly the same jobs but are no longer civil servants because they work for Ofcom. One minute people are civil servants and the next minute they are not, and it may be that the reverse can happen.

In the Bill, the responsibilities and interests of an immigration official are regarded as somehow exactly the same as those of a permanent secretary. Again, those issues have not been thought through. The draft Bill assumes that all civil servants have somehow got common interests. To widen the point, plenty of other public service employees, whether they work in the NHS or in other non-departmental or next step agencies, are not classified as civil servants. If we cannot reach a definition of "civil servant" or of core values, it will be a real problem. If we were to widen the scope to public sector workers—there is a strong case for doing so—my argument would not hold up.

I shall take the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) at face value and accept that the Conservatives are pushing for legislation.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that one thing that has been achieved today is that the Government have now agreed to introduce a Bill in this Session of Parliament. That is a major step forward.

Brian White: The Government's position has always been that they would introduce their Bill after the Committee had produced its draft Bill. One of the advantages of the Committee's work is that it has brought forward the Government's response.

The principal claim made—we heard it again today from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe—was that a new Act would somehow respect the impartiality of the civil service, but nobody ever defines impartiality. We also talk about independence. I do not know anybody who is independent, but I know people who have a point of view different from mine. What is impartiality? I remember John Hoskyns complaining in the early 1980s that it appeared that civil servants existed to maintain the balance between extreme policies from left and right, and that officials were given the right to define and defend what they saw as the centre ground. He did not think that that was right then, and I do not think it is right now.

Civil servants are not meant to be impartial: they are meant to be partial and serve the Government of the day, irrespective of which party formed the Government and their own political views. It is nonsense to have a debate about impartiality instead of a mature debate about the role of civil servants.

Tony Wright: Perhaps it would assist my hon. Friend if I suggested that civil servants are required to be impartial in their partiality.

Brian White: A civil servant could not have put it better. My hon. Friend earlier referred to the permanent

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Government and the elected Government, and that is a real issue. Last year I introduced a private Member's Bill on sustainable energy. It made progress through the House, with some difficulty, and the support of the relevant Minister was critical. Halfway through its progress, there was a reshuffle. The advice of the civil servants was not that the negotiations should continue from the point where the previous Minister left and the new one came in, but that they should go right back to the original advice that the civil servants gave to the Minister at the beginning of the process—and that was to oppose the Bill. Luckily the new Minister understood his brief and my Bill became an Act, but a civil service Bill would entrench the differences between the elected Government and the permanent Government. Such issues can and must be resolved before we legislate.

The Phillis review made recommendations on ministerial input into the appointment of civil servants. The accusation is that Ministers threaten the impartiality of the civil service by the way in which they appoint their staff. The Phillis review recommended the retention of the status quo. That means that for an external appointment a panel recommends a single candidate to the Minister, who has a veto but no choice, and for an internal appointment Ministers are given a choice between two or three candidates. Is it really suggested that when faced with a choice of candidates, a Minister would suddenly lose all sense, disregard considerations of efficiency and appoint someone who was unfit for the position? Someone earlier mentioned the Leader of the Opposition, and his example destroys that whole argument. It is important to achieve a balance on this issue, and some of the claims that are made do not hold water when one looks at the facts.

The civil service has changed over the years. We now have devolved Assemblies and much more interaction internationally, because of globalisation. In addition to those complexities, jobs are moved in and out of the civil service, as I have already mentioned, and the advice given to many civil servants is to gain more experience in the private sector. The draft Bill fundamentally tackles none of those issues. Any measure that the Government present on the subject needs to deal with them.

Let me deal with the commissioners. The Bill that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the Public Administration Committee support aims to put civil service commissioners' powers on a statutory footing. I am worried about the way in which the powers are defined. In her evidence to the Public Administration Committee, Baroness Pashar, the First Civil Service Commissioner, declared that the

I have no problem with that, but she also argued that legislation

The commissioners were worried that the core values of the service were vulnerable to change

However, the First Civil Service Commissioner believed that there should be no parliamentary debate until she took action. Her view was that parliamentary debate

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and inquiry should take place after the review of the civil service commissioners' annual report. Baroness Pashar said that

We cannot have it both ways. Do we genuinely want to shift scrutiny from Parliament to a non- elected commission, without prior parliamentary consideration?

My fundamental objection was to the commissioners' statement that they would happily intervene to sort out a minor personality clash in a ministerial office when in no circumstances would they get involved when the clerical staff in the Department for Work and Pensions were routinely sacked after 51 weeks to get round employment law. The commissioners referred only to people at the top end and did not care about the majority of civil servants and public sector workers. That is a fundamental flaw in the way in which the commission acts. If we intend to sort out the whole civil service, I hope that Government will consider the commissioners' powers.

Let me consider the codes of conduct. Existing codes and their merits have not been properly analysed for effectiveness or recognition by civil servants. The civil service commissioners' annual report and the ninth report of the Wicks committee acknowledge that awareness of the civil service code is low and that much needs to be done to promote it as a "living document". If the problem is recognition, it will remain whether the code stays as it is or becomes a statutory beast.

Much has been said about special advisers so I shall not speak about them in detail. Every committee that has examined the matter recommended that special advisers should remain and emphasised the need for their existence to advise Ministers. However, there is a danger in having a statutory code for special advisers because it will give them rights in employment law. They currently do not have them because they are mere appendages to their Ministers. If people believe that there is a problem with special advisers, giving them more rights is not the best way in which to progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) covered part 2 of the Bill in his excellent speech. Other hon. Members have drawn attention to the Phillis review on recruitment and training. Phillis made several findings, especially that it is

Too often, the fear of politicisation, not genuine politicisation, causes the problem. I therefore hope that the Government will take on board the sensible Phillis recommendations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, who chairs the Public Administration Committee, referred to the Committee's visit to Canada where substantial reforms are taking place. They are far more relevant than the narrow, limited Bill that we are considering. They are geared to giving more powers to the Canadian House of Commons and ensuring that Parliament has effective control over the civil service and Ministers. My hon. Friends on the Front Bench will probably not wish to know that Canada has a new

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system for classifying a three-line Whip. It is used merely for votes of confidence and a limited number of matters that are fundamentally important to the Government.

The way in which civil servants relate to Parliament in Canada is being reformed. Canada is a Westminster-style Parliament, from which we can learn several lessons. The key lessons are transparency and operating much more openly in a way that delivers the public services that people want.

If we are serious about improving the civil service, we should follow the route that I outlined. To do that, we need a mature debate. That brings me back to my reasons for believing that there is a problem. I do not believe that the current media climate allows for a serious and mature debate about the subject. I hope that I am wrong, but I believe that I am right. The Bill does not take account of the current political climate. Any new measure that is introduced will either be so anodyne that it is worthless or used simply for political bunfighting.

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