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Susan Kramer: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not subscribe to the notion that one is a scumbag if one has spent one’s life in business, and a wunderkind if one has done so in public service.
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However, having been part of both worlds, I am conscious of the differences in culture. It is not necessarily an easy transition from one to the other. I believe that the business community can be tempted to perceive the process of secondment not as a strategy to help public service perform better but as an easier route to influencing and shaping. That might apply not to the individuals but to the companies from which they are seconded. I do not claim that that necessarily happens, but we should consider the possibility when we manage the process.

Earlier, I mentioned promotion and movement in the civil service through merit and open competition. I struggle to understand why that should not form the basis of every appointment that is not of a special adviser, instead of excluding several posts. I hope that the Minister for the Cabinet Office will tackle that. Seventy is the figure that constantly floats around for the number of special advisers. That venerable journal PRWeek, which has dominated the debate, reported on 24 April that hordes of senior Labour special advisers were said to be passing their CVs to head-hunters and recruitment consultants amid concern that their stock was falling. Perhaps the number will fall below 70. However, that number of people, with a great deal of influence and power, can have an impact on the behaviour of several thousand. It is silly to suggest that 70 people cannot overwhelm the civil service.

What limit should we set? Why is not there a cap or some negotiated mechanism for limiting the number? If 70 is fine, is 700 fine, or is that ridiculous? Should the number be 100? Whatever it should be, having some sort of cap would give Parliament and the public confidence that special advisers were used on an “as needed” basis to execute the Government’s mission, and were limited to such roles.

Although the Minister for the Cabinet Office implied that special advisers had no line management responsibility, the draft Bill does not specify that. It would therefore be good to include the prohibition of line management on the face of the Bill. Of course special advisers can commission work, and many people perceive that, if it is misused, as a form of line management. I fully accept that the Government do not intend to include a provision to repeat the Order in Council that enabled Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell to be appointed with special executive powers. However, taking that a stage further to ensure that there is no loophole for commissioning to spill over would be useful.

So far, I have considered the civil service largely in the abstract. However, those of us who have been involved in the battle over Heathrow are worried about the creeping loss of neutrality in the civil service. The hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), through her diligent pursuit of freedom of information requests, has exposed an incredible amount of integration and co-operation between BAA and the Department for Transport in presenting what is supposedly an impartial consultation to the people of south-west London on an issue about which people care enormously. There is a genuine sense that, in its determination to pursue a Government objective, the civil service suspended its independent judgment and allowed itself to be overridden by BAA’s preferences and biases.

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Some hon. Members will remember that in 2002, my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) requested information from the Government about disabled people in hospital, and was told that it was unavailable. Through the Data Protection Act 1998, he obtained a draft answer, which made it clear that the information was available and that he had been given an incorrect response. The Government apologised to the Speaker and to my hon. Friend for that, but the House and the Public Administration Committee had to pursue them before that could be achieved. Frankly, hon. Members will not go through that sort of exercise. We must ensure that the responsiveness is there from the beginning.

To speak personally and poignantly, I lost several acquaintances on 11 September 2001—and I will never get beyond the behaviour of special adviser Jo Moore, who said:

That conveys a genuine warning, which underscores the importance of getting the Bill right. Jo Moore was in a running battle with the civil service elements of the press office in her Department, in an arena where one would have thought that such a clash of values should never occur.

The Conservatives do not get off lightly. For all their claims that there was a golden age under a Conservative Government, the Thatcher era sowed the seeds. On 24 May 2007, Lord Lipsey, a widely respected Labour peer, who spent many years in the civil service said:

In many ways, Blair and Campbell were the true heirs of Thatcher and Ingham.

I was only on the sidelines of politics at the time, but many of us remember Jeremy Paxman’s questioning of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), when he was Home Secretary, about whether he had improperly overruled Derek Lewis, the director general of the Prison Service. There is, therefore, no clean slate.

The motion refers to quangos, and although I personally agree with its language, it took me aback for a moment, because when it comes to the pot calling the kettle black, the Tory policy of establishing an NHS board—the mother of all quangos—to be responsible for commissioning NHS services, allocating NHS resources and delivering objectives to improve outcomes for patients, is extraordinary. I therefore hope that the language in the motion will be incorporated over into Tory policy.

A call for senior appointments to quangos to be subject to scrutiny by the relevant Commons Select Committee is missing from the motion and the draft Bill. That is an especially important element to returning to parliamentary control and giving the public confidence in the impartiality and objectivity of the services that are delivered to them.

Some people think that our focus on the impartiality of the civil service is a little piece of nonsense. Indeed, there is envy of the US system, which is openly
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politicised and where the winner takes the spoils, as it were. However, having lived for many years in the United States, I think that those people have completely missed the checks and balances that are an inherent part of the US system between the judiciary, the Executive and the legislature, which mean that an entirely different set of issues are confronted. In our parliamentary system, not having the impartiality of the civil service carefully enshrined in law would totally upset the balance of power. If we ever wanted to guarantee the potential for a presidential Prime Minister, that would do it.

Let me close by saying that it is about time that the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854, which established the principle of a permanent, independent and politically neutral civil service, found its way on to the statute book. More than 150 years is probably a long enough gestation period for any piece of legislation.

2.31 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): When I saw the motion, I thought how extraordinary it was. I have seen some motions here over the years, but in terms of being a dog’s dinner, this is one is quite distinctive. Then I heard the speech that the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) made, and to the dog’s dinner was added a dog’s breakfast. We are in a fantasy land in this debate, where the only thing that the Government are not being blamed for is the fact that it rained on bank holiday Monday. I therefore hope that I shall not do the Opposition a disservice by saying that I want to take some aspects of the debate seriously.

I like the references to the Northcote-Trevelyan report, because they give me a chance to quote it again. If ever there was a model of a Government report, it was that report of 1854, by Stafford Northcote and Charles Trevelyan. It is a splendid report in a number of ways. It has only 22 pages and is written in crisp, clear English: what a model for us to return to in today’s White Papers and similar documents. The report says some wonderful things and describes the civil service in its unreformed condition. I am afraid that the following quotation is irresistible, which is why I am unable to resist quoting it:

Hon. Members can see why I described that quotation as irresistible, but it is also a reminder of how reforming the civil service formed a part of that great reforming movement in the 19th century. The great Peter Hennessy has talked about

and so it was.

The civil service was reformed for two reasons. One was that it was inefficient—we should not forget that the drive to make the state service more efficient was at the heart of the Northcote-Trevelyan agenda—and the other was that it was corrupt and run by patronage. Those twin objectives of rooting out corruption and making the civil service more effective have always been the twin drivers for reform of the service, and so they should remain.

There are two truisms about the way in which the civil service is usually discussed these days. One is that Oppositions always say that the civil service is being corrupted by the Government of the day. One can go back over the years and find source after source showing that. The second truism is that Governments of the day, particularly those of a radical and reforming disposition, express a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the civil service’s ability to perform as they want it to.

In the modern period, the issue was perhaps first discussed by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, as it then was, under the previous Conservative Government. The Committee produced a report in 1994 arguing the case for civil service legislation, but also said—this is relevant to the repeated arguments about politicisation—that the

Those of us who remember that period, to which the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) referred, will remember that the arguments of the day were entirely about whether the Thatcherite “one of us” culture was corrupting the essential independence and impartiality of the civil service. The arrival of Mrs. Thatcher saw the retirement of a raft of permanent secretaries, who were replaced by people who were thought to be “one of us”. Because that Government were in power for a long time, the assumption was that if someone wanted to progress inside the service, being “one of us” was a considerable advantage. Some of that criticism was unfair, but it reflected the aspirations of a Government to make the civil service work better than it had done.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I am not expert in this field, but I am a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that people who reached the top posts in their Department as permanent under-secretaries were appointed on the basis of a partisan belief that they were “one of us”. In order even to have been contenders for the top post, they would surely have had to have had distinguished careers in the civil service, to get the second level.

Dr. Wright: To support what I am saying, let me simply quote one history of the civil service, which says:

That is quite fairly put and reflects the approach of a radical and reforming Administration.

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Dr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way again. With respect, even that quotation does not sound like a description of party political partisanship, but a description of an attitude of mind, based on whether someone is a proactive or a reactive person. The hon. Gentleman will have to make a stronger case to suggest that we are talking about party political politicisation, in the context of such high appointments to the professional ranks of the civil service.

Dr. Wright: I tried to put the matter as fairly as I could, rather than in a partisan way. I was trying to explain that there has been a standing temptation on the part of Governments who feel a desire to shake up the system to get people in place who will enable them to do so. That was true of the Thatcher period and it was true of the Blair period, too. It is interesting that similar charges were levied in each period about the consequences of that. If we scrape away those charges and go beyond the political exchanges in those periods, the question is: was something happening to make the civil service politicised? Are politicians behaving in relation to the civil service in ways that are improper and disturbing its tradition of neutrality, independence and impartiality?

Kelvin Hopkins: I want to follow up on the two interventions made by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). During the Thatcher era, there was a serious philosophical, ideological change; was it not possible for someone in government to determine which side of that ideological divide a civil servant might reside? Could not they make sure, with a wink and a nod, that people on the Thatcherite side of that divide would be promoted and that those who had lingering attachments to social democracy would be marginalised?

Dr. Wright: That is an interesting observation. I was trying to argue that although such charges are made for political reasons in each period of government, they do not stand up when tested against the question whether the character of the civil service is being fundamentally altered by what is happening.

The Select Committee on Public Administration, which I have the honour to chair, considered this issue in some detail just a year ago. We produced a report called “Politics and Administration: Ministers and Civil Servants”, which examined the politicisation charges made over the years. It is worth quoting a paragraph that sums up the evidence that we received. We said that:

That is an accurate summary, and shows why the general charge of politicisation, whether under Conservative or Labour Governments, simply is not sustainable.

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In any serious discussion on this issue, it is worth discussing the appropriate balance between the political element in government and the permanent element. It is worth having that discussion here and in any comparable political system, and there would be different answers for the different systems, all of which claim to uphold the principles of democratic politics. I remember being introduced to the Australian Cabinet Secretary, some years ago, and discovering that he was a political appointee. In Canada—another Commonwealth country—the permanent secretaries, whom they call deputy ministers, are all political appointees.

What is the correct balance between the political and permanent bureaucratic elements of government? That question can be answered in a variety of ways, and is always open to dispute. Internationally, we are at an extreme end of that spectrum, with our small element of political appointment within government. Given the arguments about this issue that we have had in this country over the years, one would think that we were right at the other end of the spectrum. Extraordinary attention has been paid to the appointment of special advisers over the years, but there is minute political involvement in government here.

To return to my comments about radical reforming Governments sometimes revisiting the issue, the case is sometimes made for changing the balance fundamentally. That argument was put forward by Sir John Hoskyns, who ran Mrs. Thatcher’s policy unit for the first three years of her Conservative Government. He was an interesting man—one of Mrs. Thatcher’s business men and can-do people whom she brought in. He spent a year working out exactly how Britain was governed and what the problems were with that method, and put his findings in a diagram. When Mrs. Thatcher was shown the diagram—she was a chemist, as we know—she said that it looked exactly like the plan of a chemical plant.

John Hoskyns was impatient about the balance between the political and civil service elements, and wanted to change it. After he left that job, he said:

He went on to say:

I did not give that quote simply to make a political point, to damn that political period or to revisit matters that provide a political opportunity. There is a perfectly proper argument to be had about the balance between the political element in government and the permanent civil service element. All political systems have that discussion, as we do. We allow exemptions to appointment on merit through secondments and short-term contracts, and we could have a grown-up discussion about such matters if we wanted to.

In recommending a civil service Bill in 1854, Northcote and Trevelyan said in their report:

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