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7 May 2008 : Column 725

When it comes to the package of changes promised to buy off the Labour rebellion, spin has yet again trumped substance. Fourteen months after slipping abolition into the fine print of the Budget paperwork, the Government still cannot say what the effects of the package will be. We are told—off the record, of course—that the Chancellor has given a categoric pledge, but there is still, amazingly for such a supposedly substance-obsessed Government, no actual package in sight. Hence the pitiful sight of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on “Newsnight” last night fending off the most basic questions—will the changes be backdated, will all the losers be compensated—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Will the right hon. Gentleman relate his comments to the words of the motion tabled by the Leader of the Opposition?

Mr. Maude: I am happy to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. My argument is that this is a Government whose obsession with spin, whose removal of resources into the communications side of government, has fatally weakened their ability to formulate and deliver policy in practice.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): My right hon. Friend is remiss in not bringing to the fore all the delivery units in No. 10, all the blue-sky thinking units and all the quasi-political systems that are superseding the civil service in the eyes of the Prime Minister and the political élite. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is unacceptable and a waste of taxpayers’ money, and that they are not accountable to anyone, least of all the House?

Mr. Maude: Those units are meant to be accountable to the Prime Minister, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster may want to comment on that when he speaks. The creation of all those central departments with hundreds of personnel in them was the result of the warfare going on between the Treasury and Downing street. Because the Chancellor, as he then was, was constantly building up the Treasury’s own resource to stamp his authority over the whole of domestic policy, Tony Blair was constantly trying to counter that by creating countervailing units at the centre of government. The result was that the whole thing spiralled out of control, and there are thousands at the centre of government who were not there before.

One of the things that I remember from the way the Government operated in the 1980s, when I was junior Minister, was that, as my right hon. and hon. Friends who were there at the time will remember, No. 10 operated with quite a strong grip over the way the Government worked, with a private office of half a dozen and a policy unit of 10. It did not need delivery units or huge numbers— [Interruption.] I hear the Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), talking about substance. We constantly hear complaints from the Government that we are not engaging on substance. I am concerned with exactly the issues of substance. The Government are so obsessed with spin that they are consistently getting the answers wrong on major issues of huge importance to the public.

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Let us look at the proposal on capital gains tax in the Budget, announced with such certainty in the pre-Budget report. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor had rapidly to find the reverse gear when the detail turned out, once again, not to have been thought through. The same with the proposal on non-doms—another humiliating U-turn when the package fell apart. Screening for clostridium difficile in January—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman has made his point. May I remind him again of the substance of his motion?

Mr. Maude: Madam Deputy Speaker, I am simply attempting to illustrate the problems that have arisen and the complaint that we make about the Government’s approach—the way in which, on substantial issue after issue, spin trumps substance. They get the substance wrong. They are so obsessed with trying to get the spin and the presentation right, and doing it incompetently, that they get not only the substance wrong, but the presentation desperately wrong.

On so many issues, decisions have been taken not with a view to the substantive merits of the argument, but on 42 days, on the income tax changes, on non-doms, on capital gains tax, ineffectively to try to wrong-foot the Opposition, rather than get the answer right. Far too much time is spent badly on presentation, and not enough time is spent on getting the substance right. The Government press on, claiming that they are slaving away solving people’s problems, as the Prime Minister puts it, but that has nothing to do with the substantive need.

Instead of the sober, steady focus on solving problems, we have seen a Prime Minister in a panic, hiring ever more spin and PR advisers to join the Downing street spin cycle. The rate of recruitment makes Tony Blair look like Gandhi. Hot on the heels of Stephen Carter from Brunswick, we saw David Muir from WPP—to direct political strategy, we are told. A few days later Nick Stace was appointed to beef up, we were told, the communications team. Mark Flanagan was named the head of digital communications at No. 10. Nicola Burdett was brought in to avoid visual gaffes—definitely a full-time job. There is effectively a weekly column in PRWeek charting the weekly appointment of new recruits to Downing street.

Our contention is that in the face of the relentless focus on the spin machine, the morale of the civil service is at an all-time low. Its independence has been sapped by Ministers who have used it constantly to pursue their narrow partisan interests, rather than to solve the problems of the country.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Is it not a sign of the time and of the truth of the case that my right hon. Friend is making that these days, when one wants to find out what is going on in No. 10 Downing street, one does not look at the leaks to the political correspondents in the national press, but one looks for the exclusive stories that seem to come up in PRWeek? Does that not say it all? It is all in the public relations sphere now, not in the political correspondents’ sphere.

Mr. Maude: My hon. Friend is right. It makes one smile when one hears the Prime Minister criticising us for slick salesmanship. There is a certain amount of
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envy, I think, when he says that, because the salesmanship from him has not yet reached that pinnacle. No doubt with all those advisers coming in, it will. That indicates the direction in which the Government are going under the new Prime Minister. There is more emphasis on spin than there was before.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): My right hon. Friend set out some of the people working in Downing street. No doubt some have appropriate jobs and some do not. Does he consider that it would be better if, at the beginning of a Parliament, Parliament approved whether those people should be working so that we could assess whether that was value for money?

Mr. Maude: It would be useful to have a little more scrutiny. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, one learns about the appointments only by careful perusal of PRWeek.

That brings me to the next point, which is the way in which the civil service currently operates. As I said, its morale is at an all-time low. Its independence has been sapped. We see a series of terrible disasters, with people’s personal data being lost, the result of a civil service relentlessly exploited by Ministers for partisan advantage, at the cost of focus on the basics of good, sound administration. We see the failure to legislate, despite all the promises, to put the civil service on a proper legal basis. Despite the publication four years ago of a draft Civil Service Bill, we are now told that no legislation is likely until next year.

The independence of the civil service is one of the jewels in our constitutional crown. Civil servants’ advice should always be sought. Everything that one hears about the way the Government operate suggests that frequently it is not sought, in case Ministers hear something that they do not like. It should always be sought, even when challenging. It should be respected, even when it is not taken. However, that, of course, would require Ministers who had a real sense of direction and purpose and who were competent and capable. At this stage, I can do no better than quote the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), who said:

The Government are now rotten and directionless, led by a losing Prime Minister, and they have lost their authority to govern. The sooner the Prime Minister summons up the bottle to call an election, the sooner the public will get the chance to vote for the change that they so earnestly seek and so richly deserve.

1.50 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The speech made by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) has left me somewhat speechless. I want to put this in the kindest terms, but he has been shadow Chancellor, shadow Foreign Secretary and chairman of his party; one is tempted to ask, “Has it really come to this?” He and his party want to try to make this House a more serious place, yet he has come here and brought out a few recycled press cuttings that have very little to do with the debate. I hoped that he would talk about the civil service legislation that we are planning in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, and give us some suggestions about how the Bill might change. If he wants to raise the standard of debate in this country and the House, he will have to do better than he just did.

The first extraordinary thing about the right hon. Gentleman’s speech is that he seems to be unbriefed about the central fact underlying this debate—that is, that we are legislating for a civil service Bill as part of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

Mr. Maude: The Government are not legislating.

Edward Miliband: The right hon. Gentleman says that we are not legislating, but pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill is beginning.

Mr. Maude: It was a draft Bill four years ago.

Edward Miliband: It has been 155 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report; and the right hon. Gentleman was part of the Government who had 18 years to legislate for a civil service Bill. If he had known that we were legislating for a such a Bill, he would have been the first to criticise us if we had not allowed proper scrutiny.

I am looking forward to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, and I am pleased to see him in his place. I am also looking forward to the contribution of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who is a former special adviser and thinks deeply about these matters—which is more than can be said for my opposite number.

The context for this debate is that we recognise that Parliament needs more power to hold the Executive to account. That is why we are legislating to limit the royal prerogative on war powers, treaties, the role of Ministers in appointments and the management of the civil service—as I say, an act first promised 155 years ago. That is why we are opening up public appointments, including nominees for the chair of the Statistics Board and other important public appointments, to scrutiny by the House. That is why, for the first time, we legislated for the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and why we are establishing the UK Statistics Authority, which is independent of the Government.

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Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I am a member of the Public Administration Committee under the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). One of the intensely frustrating things during my six and a half years in Parliament has been that we had to write our own civil service Bill, which was drawn up with the advice of a lot of former Cabinet Secretaries. Does the Minister agree that that Bill is in principle the right way to go? Will he incorporate a lot of that Bill into the legislation? It is a good Bill and will protect the civil service for the next 150 years.

Edward Miliband: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am sorry that I missed him when I was discussing the Bill with the Public Administration Committee last week; he was no doubt elsewhere. He will be pleased to know that we have published a draft Bill, which is going into pre-legislative scrutiny. I will be interested in his comments and those of hon. Members throughout the House. In reply to a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, I said that we wanted to invite comments on the Bill. We are open to suggestions about ways in which it can be improved.

I had hoped that we could have a constructive debate today, and that is why it is so disappointing that the right hon. Member for Horsham came forward with a bunch of recycled allegations. He complained about Government information campaigns and their cost. Let me tell him what the three most expensive Government advertising campaigns were on: road safety, Army and Territorial Army recruitment, and anti-smoking. Is he seriously suggesting that he would cut any of those? I assume that he would not. His motion calls for a stronger ministerial code; we have just introduced one with a new independent adviser on ministerial interests. I have to bring him up to date on that as well.

Instead of carping from the sidelines, the Opposition should engage seriously in the opportunity to legislate for the impartiality of the civil service. That is precisely what we are doing.

Chris Bryant: The Minister will know that Short money, which has increased dramatically since Labour came to power in 1997, is spent on employing an awful lot of people, who to all intents and purposes are special advisers for Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend think that they should be ruled by a code of conduct, as Government special advisers are?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend has made an important point. In an act of generosity, the Government have significantly increased the money that goes to the Opposition as Short money. As I understand it, there is no accounting for that money and how it is spent. That issue is certainly worth considering.

I turn now to the substance of the Bill and civil service impartiality. It is important, and I am interested in Members’ views on this. During the sitting of the Public Administration Committee that I attended last week, the Cabinet Secretary said:

of the future. We have drafted the Bill with such considerations in mind.

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The Bill establishes that Parliament, not the royal prerogative, provides the basis for the work of the civil service. That is an important change; currently, the civil service is governed by the use of that prerogative. The Bill guarantees recruitment to the civil service on merit through fair and open competition, with the independent civil service commission upholding the process through its recruitment principles. The Bill will also incorporate the rule, set out for the first time in June 2006 in the new civil service code, that the civil service commissioners can take a complaint or concern directly from a civil servant about an issue under the code. The Bill strengthens transparency: it requires a code of conduct for the civil service to be published and laid before both Houses of Parliament.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): In retrospect, does the Minister think it was a mistake for the incoming Labour Government to give special advisers authority over civil servants through an Order in Council?

Edward Miliband: Yes, and that is why we repealed it. The first act of the new Prime Minister was to repeal that Order in Council. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Member for Horsham referred to special advisers, and that brings me to my next point. I should declare an interest, because I am a former special adviser. However, it is not a small club.

Chris Bryant: There is one over there.

Edward Miliband: There is not only one; by my count, 20 Conservative Members are former special advisers.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Shame!

Edward Miliband: Indeed, there are more former special advisers who are Conservative MPs than there are women Conservative MPs. No doubt the party will try to make amends for that at the next general election, but we shall do all we can to stop it.

What is interesting about the old system governing special advisers is that there was no code of conduct, no transparency and no annual statement about their numbers, costs or work.

Mr. Tyrie: First, there was full transparency in the role of advisers, and, secondly, the decision by the Labour Government to start issuing such details was squeezed out of them only after I and a number of others had pressed them vigorously for several years, and the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, finally agreed to provide some of the basic information being demanded.

Edward Miliband: It cannot be the case both that this information was always provided and that it arose only after several years of pressing by the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to him for pressing us to provide the information, and I take credit for the fact that we are doing so.

The nub of the issue is this: do 70 or so special advisers in government overwhelm the work of 500,000 civil servants across Britain? In this regard I rely on,
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among others, Lord Wilson, the former Cabinet Secretary, who said in his evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life:

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