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3.26 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I have little time, so I shall be brief. I apologise for my absence at the beginning of the debate—I was detained elsewhere. However, I heard much of the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and I was here in time for the splendid speech, with which I concurred entirely, of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee.

I strongly support the Committee's conclusions and its recommendations for a civil service Bill. I am a fairly new member and when I first joined, I did not realise that it was a serious issue. As the debates went on and we interviewed more and more people, it become obvious that it was important for our constitution. I have been a student of constitutional matters and politics all my life—indeed, I have also been a teacher of that subject—and I believe that a civil service Bill is fundamental to the future of our democracy.

The rot set in when Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister and wanted people to be "one of us". She—wittingly or unwittingly—politicised our constitution. When she was opposed to matters, she made fundamental reforms, weakening the trade unions, local government and so on because she wanted her way. We have a strong, centralised and secretive system of government and it is important to have strong countervailing forces. I mean that in the sense not of being oppositionist but of being a sounding board and providing a different view from time to time. The independent, professional civil service is important to our constitution in that respect.

We interviewed many people, including Sir Andrew Turnbull and Sir Nigel Wicks. I agreed entirely with Sir Nigel Wicks but was uncomfortable with some of Sir Andrew Turnbull's comments. The latter appeared to be the Government's representative in the civil service rather than the civil servants' representative to the Government. It is important to retain the independence of the civil service.

When I speak to my political colleagues, even at Back-Bench level, I like people to tell me the truth and say what is right and what is wrong. I do not want people

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who just do what I say because they are employed by me. I have 2.2 staff, who are my personal political advisers, and they tell me what they believe. I ask them to check everything I write or say to find out whether I am talking nonsense. It is important that the civil service has a similar role.

I asked Sir Nigel whether it was right for civil servants sometimes to tell a Minister, "I am sorry, but you have that wrong." If the top layer of the civil service becomes politicised to the extent that the job of those civil servants no longer serves as a force to question Ministers, but to carry out those Ministers' will and, indeed, that of Downing street, and if those Ministers are insulated from any countervailing views, then government becomes very unhealthy. In the end, Governments can make mistakes and there is a danger of ending up with not only undemocratic, but bad government.

The pluralist nature of British society is of fundamental importance. I spent much of my life working in the trade union movement, and I saw it greatly weakened during my time. That was a retrograde step, because trade unions not only fulfil a democratic role in representing millions of ordinary workers and offering a legitimate collective view, but are necessary for our constitution and help to ensure that questioning and countervailing argument is brought forward from time to time. The same is true of local government, which I believe to be an essential part of our constitution. If we weaken it and make it the lickspittle and lackey of central Government, it will not be healthy for our democracy.

Independent and strong political parties that finance themselves are also important. I am unhappy with the idea of the state financing them because he who pays the piper calls the tune. I want my party to be told what to do not just by the Government, but by the membership, collectively and individually. That should apply to other parties, too. When we have elections, we hear alternative views from which people can choose. If parties are state financed, one could see them gradually coalescing into the centre, and we could lose the political choice that is so vital for our democracy.

As I said, our country has a strong central Government and a relatively weak—too weak, I believe—Parliament. I am a member of several Scandinavian all-party groups and the Scandinavians often tell us that our constitution is different from theirs: they have a strong Parliament and a weak Government; we have a strong Government and weak Parliament. I believe that our Parliament should be stronger in relation to the Executive, irrespective of what party controls the Government. It would be healthier to have a stronger Parliament than we currently have and I hope that the civil service Bill will act as another essential component of our pluralistic democracy. Civil servants should have the independence and opportunity to tell Ministers that certain policies are right or wrong.

I end with a few brief comments on political advisers. Some 25 years ago I was friendly with the private office of Tony Benn. I knew the political advisers well; one of them was his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my lifelong and good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore).

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Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell were two other advisers. The system worked well because they acted as personal advisers to Tony Benn when he was Secretary of State for Energy. They did not act as an insulating layer between the civil servant and the Secretary of State: they spoke in his left ear and the civil servants spoke in his right one. They had different views, which was healthy. In the end the civil servants would say that they disagreed with the political advisers, but Tony Benn did not have political advisers speaking in both ears. I am sure that Tony Benn, a politician with whom I find much agreement, would say that it is healthy to have a strong independent civil service, even if it is made up of the awkward squad of Sir Humphreys. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

I look forward to the Government introducing strong legislation, which will establish the civil service as a strong independent professional force. It should continue in the traditions of Northcote-Trevelyan, and make our democracy and our Government much healthier for the long-term future.

3.32 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): We have had an excellent debate. A range of views has been expressed, but the overwhelming sense of the debate has been support for the work of the Public Administration Committee and the Bill that it has produced.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), the Chairman of the Select Committee, started by asking for a discussion of the issues on as much of a non-party political basis as possible. Both sides of the House would agree that that is what we have had. The Opposition motion offers none of the abuse and criticism of the Government that such motions often contain. It merely calls on the Government to introduce "a Civil Service Bill". I even remained hopeful after reading the Government amendment, which said that they would introduce a draft Bill and which, in turn, contains very little abuse.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—[Hon. Members: "Where is he?"] he will be back—opened the debate in his inimitable style. What a treat it was to see him back on the Front Bench. [Hon. Members: "Not for long."] He was described by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) as a giant. I entirely agree, but it was a bit discourteous of the hon. Gentleman to say that the rest of us were pygmies. The more substantial Front-Bench Members would not go along with that.

The speech by the Minister for the Cabinet Office was good in parts, and he finally admitted that the draft Bill would be published in this Session rather than in this Parliament, but there was something of the feel of the firm slap of consultation about it. I remembered that he was the Minister who introduced the notion of the big conversation: my hope was that the conversation would not be very long.

The Minister said that the Government have been in possession of the draft Bill for only 16 days, but that was slightly disingenuous. The Government have promised to maintain the civil service's political impartiality, and to introduce reform to ensure it, since the Labour party agreement with the Liberal Democrat party in 1996. The

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Labour manifestos of 1997 and 2001 contained that pledge, which was also in the document "Ambitions for Britain?", on which all present Labour Members were elected.

Mr. Alexander indicated dissent.

Mr. Heald: If the Minister wants to intervene, I should be only happy to allow him to. As long ago as 2 May 2002, the Deputy Prime Minister made clear his support for a civil service Bill. He said:

Almost everyone here agrees that there should be new civil service legislation, but what have the Government been doing for the past two years? It is not good enough for the Minister to say that the Government have had the draft proposals for only 16 days. Surely he and his officials should have been working on their proposals for a draft Bill. We are not talking about a huge number of clauses. The draft Bill produced by the Public Administration Committee is not long. At the very least, the Minister should be able to give us a firm timetable for the introduction of a Bill by the Government, which can be enshrined in law in this Session.

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