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Dr. Julian Lewis: Given that large numbers of civil servants are supposed to be told what to do by very small numbers of Ministers, a simple comparison between the number of special advisers and the number of civil servants does not take us very far. What matters is the amount of influence that those special advisers have. Will the Minister accept the fact—and it is a fact—that during the final years of the Conservative Administration most Ministries had only two special advisers; a few of the lesser Ministries, if I dare describe them in that way, had only one; and only one Ministry, namely the Treasury, had three? How does that compare with the current situation?

Edward Miliband: The current norm is that most Cabinet Ministers, including me, have two special advisers. I do not think that that is an excessive number, but we can probably debate that.

Another important aspect of this debate is that special advisers are not a threat to the impartiality of the civil service—in fact, they help to protect its impartiality because they can do political things that it would not be right for civil servants to do. That is why the Cabinet Secretary said at the Public Administration Committee last week

I say to the House, in all genuineness, that on special advisers and on other aspects of the Bill, we look forward to detailed scrutiny by this House, and even perhaps to some constructive suggestions.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger rose—

Edward Miliband: Perhaps a constructive suggestion is coming.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I call Hugo Swire.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: He might be Ian Liddell-Grainger in his spare time, Madam Deputy Speaker. [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Could we have debate conducted in the usual manner?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I am sorry for that flippancy, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Does the Minister agree that the time has come to put the Prime Minister’s office on a statutory footing as well, because many of the people we are talking about come under the Prime Minister’s direct auspices? At the moment, the Cabinet Office is just a function of government where people come and go more frequently than in any other Department. Has not the time come to ensure that we understand exactly how that part works?

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Edward Miliband: I think that we do understand how it works. I am not sure what putting it on a statutory footing would mean. The hon. Gentleman may be proposing a Prime Minister’s Department; I do not think that that would be the right thing to do.

Let me deal with some of the other allegations made by the right hon. Member for Horsham. He has this figure of 3,000 spin doctors in Whitehall, which he trots out every so often when he has nothing better to do. The true number of press officers is less than a fifth of that number. The rest, listed in what has become the infamous White Book, include those providing information to the public through publications, websites and campaigns to do with issues such as road safety, public health and smoking.

The right hon. Gentleman did not raise the issue of quangos, which was sensible of him, because—I do not want to rub salt into the wound—after he lost his seat in 1992 he was appointed to a quango in 1994— [ Interruption. ] Unpaid, he says. Presumably, if he is worried about the accountability of quangos, he was worried about his own appointment. However, it will interest him to know that there are fewer quangos than there were in 1997.

I was disappointed by the right hon. Gentleman’s failure to talk about what we are doing as regards the civil service Bill and other aspects of constitutional reform. The other disappointing aspect of his remarks was that he seemed to subscribe to what I would call a “golden age” view of the civil service. His remarks implied that we need only preserve the civil service in aspic—somewhere around the 1960s or 1970s, I guess—and all will be okay. I must be honest with him about this. I do not hold to that view, not because I think we should breach the impartiality of the civil service—quite the opposite; that is why we are legislating for an impartial civil service—but because the challenges faced by a modern Government and civil service are enormous, and that is why the civil service needs to evolve.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab) rose—

Edward Miliband: I give way to another distinguished member of the Public Administration Committee.

Kelvin Hopkins: My right hon. Friend—other Ministers do the same—referred to the past as if it is wrong because it is the past. Some things from the past were good, if not perfect. We should not dispense with things that were valuable in the past and might be useful today.

Edward Miliband: I agree with my hon. Friend to a certain extent.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean by the golden age-ism to which I referred; I am certainly not accusing my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) of that. Hayden Phillips, a former permanent secretary, has written about how, as a junior civil servant in the Home Office in the 1960s, he was told by his division head not to visit a police force to discuss policy as

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In a way, that illustrates one of the challenges for the civil service, which is to have greater awareness of delivery. A 2004 survey found that 60 per cent. of senior civil servants described their background as policy making, compared with just 25 per cent. in delivery. The current Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, is trying to put more of an emphasis on delivery among senior, and indeed junior, civil servants so that they do not spend time just on policy in Whitehall but go out to see what is happening on the ground. That is incredibly important. The first challenge that the civil service needs to rise to is that of civil servants having experience of delivery.

The second challenge is to do more to reflect the face of Britain. There has been progress in recent years on the number of women and ethnic minorities in the civil service, but it is still not good enough—the numbers are still too low. The proportion of senior civil servants who are from minority ethnic backgrounds has doubled since 1997, but it is still too low. The proportion of women has doubled, but it is still too low. I gather that the proportion of new permanent secretaries who went to state schools has doubled, but that is probably still too low as well. Labour Members think that there is further to go and that this is an important challenge for the civil service if it is to recruit the most talented, regardless of background.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I have always been amazed by the French system, where sometimes quite senior fast-track civil servants go into business, then back into the civil service, and then back out into business again. Does the Minister think that there is an argument for more flexibility in our system to provide broader experience of the real world?

Edward Miliband: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes an important point. That should apply not only to business but to the voluntary sector—the third sector. I am struck by the number of civil servants who work with me and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who is the Minister for the Third Sector, with backgrounds not just in government. Some of them come from the Big Lottery Fund, some from the third sector itself, and some have experience in the private sector. All that contributes to a more dynamic and innovative civil service.

Kelvin Hopkins: The French situation, in which civil servants who see themselves as part of the state go into business, get some experience and come back to serve the state better, is very different from one in which people whose basic loyalty is to business come to the state sector to help business to make more money. That is much more like the situation in Britain, particularly under the recent Blair Government.

Edward Miliband: I am trying to work out whether I agree with my hon. Friend.

Chris Bryant: You don’t.

Edward Miliband: I am told that I do not agree with him—I am sorry.

If we are to have people in government who are making policy for business or for the voluntary sector, it is important for them to have experience of what it is
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really like to run a business or to be in the voluntary sector. There are many different ways in which that can be done. Senior civil servants can spend more time on the ground, gaining direct experience of different organisations, or people may come into the civil service with knowledge of those sectors.

Chris Bryant: One of the reasons there is great value in bringing private and voluntary sector people into the civil service, and in giving civil servants an opportunity to go out and come back in, is that the private and voluntary sectors tend to move much faster. They can be much more responsive to local conditions and situations and not so hidebound in their approach. Sometimes I feel that civil servants, as much as they might want to be helpful, can put roadblocks in the way of progress.

Edward Miliband: I could never possibly suggest that, but I take my hon. Friend’s point. Innovation and an ability to take risks are the big challenges facing the civil service. I borrow something once said by the leader of the Conservative party about an end to Punch and Judy politics. If we are honest, part of the barrier to civil servants, Ministers and others taking risks is the sort of political and media climate in which we live. That is not to blame the media, but we need a more risk-taking culture throughout the public sector. Some things will go wrong as a result, but we would have more innovation and more things that went right and we would make a real difference to people’s lives. I do not have a holy grail solution to that problem, but it is a challenge for all of us.

We have further to go. There is an important challenge for the civil service, if it is to recruit the most talented regardless of background. We have set up board-level diversity champions throughout Whitehall to help to make that happen, and put in place a number of other measures to encourage diversity.

My third point about civil service reform and making the service more open is the idea, already referred to, of outsiders coming in. I am not romanticising that idea or saying that everyone who comes from the private sector or elsewhere will be better than current permanent civil servants—absolutely not—but it is a healthy thing that the proportion of the senior civil service recruited from outside has increased by a quarter over the past four years, from 18 to 23 per cent. That is one of the three big challenges for the civil service.

I pay tribute to the Cabinet Secretary, who has launched, in the face of some natural scepticism, capability reviews looking at the capabilities of Departments. I see that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) is raising his eyebrows. It is right to introduce those reviews because they will help to improve the quality of administration in our country. The process will always give ammunition for an irresponsible Opposition, but that is just one of those things. It is the right thing to do and it will improve the quality of policy making in this country.

I have tried to describe our approach to the issues. We want to embed an impartial civil service. Our approach is part of a continuing programme of constitutional reform and—notwithstanding the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Horsham—this Government, under the current Prime Minister, have a lot to be proud
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of with regard to what we are doing on constitutional renewal. The Constitutional Renewal Bill will make a difference to the way we are governed. For example, the innovation of pre-appointment scrutiny is a major departure for this House. A significant number of public appointments—I am in discussion with the Liaison Committee about the precise number—where a Minister decides on an individual will go before a Select Committee before they are confirmed so that testimony can be given, and the House will be able to report on that process. I hope that the House will use that responsibility wisely, because it is a big departure for our system of government to have the Executive held to account in this way, but it is the right thing to do. Many of the people we are talking about, from the Information Commissioner to the commissioner for public appointments play a significant role in holding the Executive to account on a whole range of appointments and in acting on behalf of the public.

We have a good programme of constitutional reform, but we do not want to preserve the civil service in aspic. It needs to evolve on the bedrock of impartiality. I end by saying to the right hon. Member for Horsham that, despite his speech, I hope he will engage seriously with our programme of constitutional renewal, including the civil service Bill. I say with all sincerity that we will take any constructive suggestions from him or his colleagues on how that Bill can be improved. We will continue to modernise and strengthen the civil service so that it can meet the priorities of the people of this country.

2.15 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I have to admit to a surreal moment: when the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) was speaking, I wondered whether I was in the right debate on the right day.

We are willing to support the motion because at its heart is a further urging of the Government to introduce a civil service Bill that will enshrine in statute the impartiality of the civil service. It is obviously not a subject that has set the House on fire, as we can see from the attendance today. I suspect, however, that is not because of a lack of interest in the topic, but because the issue has been ongoing for so long that resilience concerning the hope of a civil service Bill has been worn down by repeated false pregnancies. All three major parties included a promise of a civil service Bill in their 1997 manifestos. Extensive discussions took place in 2001 and 2002, and there were two forms of draft Bill in 2004. There is great hope that we will finally see a Bill next year, but I hope that we shall hear some conviction on the part of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and that there will not be a rerun of our experiences.

I do not think that it really takes seven years to draft appropriate language for a civil service Bill. Call me a cynic, but it seems to me that it was most convenient for the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, not to have that sort of legislation on the statute book, so the issue drifted through discussion and consultation without getting anywhere. I believe that the willingness to introduce legislation now is meant to be part of the
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Brown fightback—but I am not fussy. If we can get decent legislation, I do not care what the motive for it is. It is just important that we get good-quality legislation to enshrine and protect the civil service, and to make sure that it remains respected and effective in the future. However we get that, I will be pleased.

I have to say, however, that it must be a good Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), when looking at the early drafts, used the phrase “nibbling at the edges”. There is an awful lot of work left to do on the Bill, and I congratulate the Public Administration Committee on taking on much of the challenge of scrutinising, questioning, monitoring and improving the quality of what we hope will be legislation in the not-too-distant future. We are left with a number of questions, which the House would like the Secretary of State to answer. I am struggling to understand why the Civil Service Commission should not be appointed and removable by Parliament, instead of being appointed by the Government. I believe that the Public Administration Committee has made a similar recommendation, and such a change would be the best guarantor of political neutrality. It would also be significant in stemming the constant tipping away of power from Parliament to Government. It would be an important step towards an appropriate rebalance.

There are all sorts of lesser questions. Why should the commission not be able to initiate its own inquiries into breaches of the code of conduct? It strikes me as most peculiar that one should need the Government’s permission to undertake an investigation of the Government. The issue of recruitment on the basis of merit was mentioned. That is obviously crucial, but should not the same standards apply to promotion or movement within the civil service? It is beyond me why that was not included. We heard quite a discussion on the issue of seconded staff a few moments ago, and on the various ways in which such secondment takes place.

I think that the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) touched on the general issue, especially with short-term secondments, of what mechanisms are in place to ensure that the public service ethos remains dominant when people are brought in from a business culture, which is very different. I am not saying that one cannot learn from the other, or that exchange is not beneficial. However, on 10 November 2005, Lord Butler of Brockwell told the Public Administration Committee that that sort of transfer of people

against business ethics damaging civil service ethics. I have yet to perceive that sort of understanding in the draft legislation.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Lady mentioned ethics. I would not call myself a Platonist, but I refer to Plato from time to time. He clearly perceived a hierarchy of ethics, from those in government to those in the civil service to those in business. Does she agree that the ethics of public service should be seen to be above those of business, even though they can learn from each other?

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