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It is important not only that we legislate through a civil service Bill but that Parliament should move to secure more influence over the way Governments conduct their business. Suspicions about the Government—not only because of the activities of the
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previous Prime Minister, when Orders in Council were moved to give Alastair Campbell control over press officers, but because of the way business in this House is guillotined so that we often cannot fully discuss Bills and many other matters—lead us to wonder what happens behind the closed doors of Ministries. There is a concern out there.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), mentioned trust. If we keep impugning each others’ motives in politics, it is no wonder that the great British public start questioning our motives on issues from expenses to everything else. That downgrades the political process, so we have to be extremely careful. Trust is a commodity. Part of the Government’s problem is that if one promises a referendum and does not deliver on it, people might impugn their motives on other issues. Trust is very important in terms of what the Government do.

The public see a Government who are spending an awful lot on advertising. No doubt, as the Minister says, some very worthy things are advertised, such as road safety, but there is a question mark over whether there is a political objective for all these things—but perhaps that is because of the sceptical times in which we live.

We have heard that there are 70 advisers. I do not have too much of a problem with advisers, and if we look at most other systems—particularly the American one—we see that we have very few advisers compared with most Governments. They play an important role that allows civil servants to be totally neutral. A lot of the political advisory roles allow links with party political organisations and so on. It depends on their role and whether it involves developing policy or spinning.

Our concern in the Conservative party, after the history of the past few years, is that rather too many people deal with the media and rather too few deal with blue-skies thinking, policy issues and those important matters to do with delivering a particular governmental agenda. The special adviser budget has gone up from just under £2 million to at least £6 million. The number of press officers in some Departments has gone up tremendously, too.

I have the privilege of serving on the Health Committee. I note that the number of press officers in the Department of Health has gone up from 15 to 26. Why are so many needed? Occasionally, nasty bugs come along and kill people, so somebody might be needed to put out information then, but the Government have been lauding the amount spent on the NHS and one wonders whether increasing the number of press officers is necessarily the best use of resources.

I believe that the US and some other Parliaments have better systems than ours. I am not concerned about the number of advisers, but there should be parliamentary scrutiny of who they are, what their role is and whether they are qualified to fulfil it. Parliament should assert itself so that it can see who is being appointed to the various Ministries. There ought to be much more scrutiny by the House.

The change of Prime Minister gives us an opportunity to revisit some of those matters. The Government have made a number of announcements, and I hope that they continue in the direction that they are going. Given the history, we are a little sceptical. A
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very important point was made earlier about the need for the parties to find some common ground: any civil service Bill must have the broadest possible support, as its provisions must be sustained and retained for many years ahead.

3.41 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am pleased to be called to speak in this interesting and wide-ranging debate. I have an admission to make, because I hankered after being a special adviser when I was a researcher here 15 or 16 years ago. The daily grind of casework was not for the special adviser: I imagined leaping into the ministerial Jaguar and jetting off to some exotic and exciting meeting. Given the transport that Ministers now get, I have to admit that the notion of leaping into the Toyota Prius does not generate quite the same excitement.

I accept that special advisers do a very important job but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), I am slightly concerned—not overly so, as there are much bigger things to worry about—by the fact that at departmental level their numbers have doubled over the past 12 years from about 34 to 68. They all do much better financially now, as the budget has risen from £1.4 million in 1994-95 to nearly £6 million now.

However, my problem with special advisers is that I think that the House already has some fairly special advisers: they are known as Members of Parliament. Too often, we are bypassed by our political masters in their smart limousines and ivory towers, who tend to seek advice from outside experts and gurus. The Executive are increasingly powerful, with many highly paid supporters and hangers on—I do not want to sound pejorative, as many do an excellent job—while Parliament is seen as a rather tedious nuisance that needs to be managed but not listened to. To some degree, the growth in the numbers of special advisers has paralleled the erosion of Parliament in our society, and the strengthening of the Executive.

I have some questions about special advisers. Are they very special? Who are they? We may have some idea of who they are, but often we do not know where they come from or what they have done to qualify them for their important and highly paid positions.

How do members of Parliament get to know these special advisers? After all, they are paid for out of the public purse. We are told that they have hugely important and influential jobs, and that they have the ear of Ministers, Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and all sorts of powerful people, yet we in the House of Commons very rarely get to meet them. Indeed, the closest I get to those special advisers is when we on the Public Administration Committee are interviewing Ministers. Behind them sit shadowy figures who pass notes to the Ministers and whisper in their ears.

I say to the Minister—and to my party’s Front Benchers, as I am sure that we will be in power very soon—that I, as a Back Bencher, would like to meet these special advisers and get to know them. Perhaps there could be a system whereby they came before a Select Committee. We do not want to be hostile to those fine young men and women—or some of them might even be middle-aged. We would just like to
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introduce ourselves and give them the chance to introduce themselves to us, so that we can have a more fruitful and open relationship.

I have one more important question about special advisers. When they leave Government, where do they go? We need to know. Do they go off into the private sector, never to be heard of again, and do wonderful things and create large profits for shareholders, much though my friend the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) might dislike that? I am pulling his leg gently. Or are they parachuted into quangos, where they do their former masters’ bidding?

Kelvin Hopkins: As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, a number of former special advisers are parachuted on to our Front Bench.

Mr. Walker: The question is whether they do a useful job there. I will leave my colleague to answer that question in his own good time. We parliamentarians have a right to know what influence special advisers wield after they leave Government and cease serving Ministers. Of course they have every right to earn a fruitful living in whatever field they choose, but we should keep a close eye on them to ensure that they are not wielding undue influence in an area directly connected with Government.

Moving on to the civil service, I do not want Members in this place to be too po-faced about the idea that promotion is based on merit. Could we honestly look our constituents in the face and say that promotion of a Member of Parliament to the Front Bench is based on merit in all circumstances and cases? Of course in many circumstances and cases it is, but other factors come into play, too. It is the same in political parties, in business and, I am sure, in the civil service. However, we have to be sure that recruitment is based on merit, and that we are getting the very best people into our civil service, regardless of their race, creed, colour or sex. We must make sure that the civil service remains an attractive place in which to build a fruitful and constructive career in public service. Like the hon. Member for Luton, North, I think that public service is a noble thing; that is why we in this place are in public service.

Civil servants must be free to engage constructively with, and to criticise, the politicians for whom they work. I listened closely to the “Yes Minister” stories told by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). I found it rather refreshing that he could have that sort of engagement with civil servants, and that they could look him in the eye—he is quite a fearsome chap—and say, “I’m sorry, Secretary of State; you’re wrong on this, and I’m right, and I’m executing my duty to the public by providing this information.” It is hugely refreshing that that happened 15 years ago; I hope that it still happens today, and if it does not, we must make sure that it does. We want strong, self-confident, robust civil servants who put public duty before all else, and who do not fear for their jobs or careers if they disagree with a Minister or point out the error of his ways.

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the powers and qualities that our civil servants should have. Should there not also be a range of views within our civil service, so that civil servants can debate with each other?

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Mr. Walker: There should of course be a range of views within our civil service. The hon. Gentleman brings me on to my closing point. I do not want to rake up the issue of the 22p, the 20p and the 10p tax rates, but it was interesting to hear the Secretary of State for Justice say on the radio that the best brains had got it wrong. That was an intriguing statement, because I do not think that the best brains in our civil service did get it wrong.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the permanent secretary to the Treasury, Nick Macpherson, said as much to the Public Accounts Committee. He said a thorough analysis had been conducted, including what he called a distributional analysis of all the effects before the decision was made.

Mr. Walker: Absolutely. The Secretary of State for Justice chose his words carefully when he said that the best brains had got it wrong, because civil servants clearly explained the ramifications, and the fact that about 5.3 million people would be worse off. However, a political decision was made to go ahead and change the tax rates. We as politicians must be careful to stand up and accept responsibility when we get it wrong. We must make it clear to the public that the decision was ours as politicians alone, and it was a political decision. The Public Accounts Committee must make it clear that civil servants were entirely impartial in their analysis, and that it was a political decision to go ahead and change the tax rates. With those few, rambling thoughts, I will close with a final statement. Civil servants have to be careful how they conduct themselves at every level. I become very nervous when I see Ministers and Prime Ministers being applauded in and out of public office; that does civil servants no favours.

deferred division

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I now have to announce the result of a deferred Division on the Question relating to the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill (Money).

The Ayes were 267, the Noes were 196, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division List is published at the end of today’s debates.]

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Civil Service

Question again proposed, That the original words stand part of the Question.

3.51 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Because I was elected on 1 May 1997, which could be described as the mirror image for the Conservative party of the significance of 1 May 2008 for the Government, my experience of direct dealings with civil servants is limited to two periods in my life: first, when I was an academic researcher delving into the civil service archives for the period covering the end of the second world war and the start of the cold war; and, secondly, when I was deputy director of the Conservative research department. Happily, my duties included shining a spotlight on Leninists in the Labour party, helpfully acknowledged in the entertaining speech by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins).

From the first experience, I concluded that the civil service has, in fact, always been highly political—but not party political. That is one of the two themes that I wish to develop. From the latter experience, I can throw some light on the questions asked by my exuberant hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) about where special advisers come from, and, indeed, where they go—or at least, what happened in the closing years of the Thatcher Administration. We are discussing the perpetual problem of the balance between professional expertise and mandated political leadership. Many years ago, long before “Yes Minister” made the notion of Ministers having to be house-trained by their civil servants almost a byword of popular humour, I remember reading an essay by the late Tony Crosland, in which he spelt out why Minister, were often ineffective in government, or at least, why their policies differed so little from those of their predecessors. He explained that even the most intelligent Minister, on taking up a new position, could probably expect to take a year to 18 months before gaining command of their brief. Within another year or 18 months, they might be moved on to another job.

The problem that Ministers faced, of not having sufficient expertise, has in large measure been addressed by the appointment of special advisers, and I am going to sing their praises in a moment or two. First, however, I want to refer to the period in which I delved into the archives for the period 1942 to 1947, during which Government Departments were trying to work out what the British empire—as it still just about was at that stage—would have to defend itself against when the second world war was over.

Huge arguments erupted between the Foreign Office, which believed that the Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1941 onwards—the treaty was signed in 1942—should be the cornerstone of our post-war foreign policy, and the chiefs of staff and their advisers, who believed that the Soviet Union would probably be the greatest potential military threat facing this country. What struck me at the time was that an argument was raging, effectively, between two Departments of civil servants, and how little the Ministers, let alone the Prime Minister, were involved in the process.

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The debate was highly political, but it was not party political. It therefore occurred to me that perhaps the real power in the land lay more with the professional civil servant and the professional expert, rather than with the political leader. I do not think anyone under any Government would dispute that a good civil servant is one with strong opinions about the political issues of the day, who will argue those opinions on their merits, provided that they do not allow themselves unduly to be swayed by party political considerations.

The reverse of that coin is that if a Minister comes into office without a high degree of preliminary expertise, he or she will be somewhat adrift, because at the point at which the Minister wishes to take party political considerations into account, the civil servant, if he or she is doing the job properly, will rightly turn round to the Minister and say, “I really can’t advise you on that, Minister. I am not party political and this is a party political matter.”

When I was working in the Conservative research department, I used to see a career progression, almost. We would have our individual desk officers, as we still do today, shadowing each Department of state. The young people working at those desks would develop considerable expertise. When they had done that for a few years, and because we were in government, they would be able to apply for, and more often than not get, jobs as special advisers. As I said in an earlier intervention, it was felt quite adequate to have two special advisers in most Departments, one sitting more or less at the right hand of the Secretary of State, and the other being available to the middle-ranking and junior Ministers.

I thought that that was a thoroughly good thing, because it meant that the Minister had someone to whom he or she could turn for advice when party political matters were relevant, and it was a way in which the political party to which the Minister belonged could have a direct channel to the Minister, without being bogged down or prevented from reaching the Minister by the serried ranks of party politically neutral civil servants in between. I thought that that was a good system, and I believe to this day that it is a good system, but we do not require many people to fulfil that role.

On the contrary, the fact that there was just one special adviser for each Cabinet Minister and one more for the rest was a very good thing, because it meant that there was no dithering about who to consult, there was a direct channel of communication, and the Minister had someone on whom to rely to consider the political implications—someone whose time was not taken up with numerous other duties such as an elected politician inevitably must perform, and someone who was party political and also an expert in the field. Such special advisers went on, in many cases, to become Conservative MPs, including the present Leader of the Opposition—and a jolly good thing too.

But there is a different sort of special adviser out there today. That sort of special adviser is not a confidant for a Minister, not a channel of communication for the party, and certainly not someone doing blue-skies thinking—or perhaps red-dawn thinking for the present Government. It is someone whose job it is to go out there and distort the news, or at least massage the news, for the benefit of relationships with reporters. When my
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hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) winds up, I will be interested to hear how he reacts to this suggestion: that when a Conservative Government next come to power, party political appointees should only be special advisers and no longer be press officers. They would do precisely what their name implies: give special advice, not spin.

4 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): This has been a debate of light and shade. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) captured some of the crucial aspects of the debate. On the one hand, we are debating the future of the civil service—the successor to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of 150-plus years ago. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, at the same time it falls to the Opposition to expose, and hold the Government to account for, some of the excesses that we see in the current arrangement. It is not entirely surprising that the speeches today have covered the different aspects of that.

It is also not surprising, in a week when Ministers have been called on to the airwaves to give the best possible gloss on the Government’s difficulties—our side have had to do that in the past—that the question of presentation and spin has been applied to the administration of the Government and those charged with carrying that out. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the Minister for the Cabinet Office has come back; he has done great service over the weekend, doing his “Comical Ali” bit and presenting the best possible gloss on the Government’s experiences. Incidentally, I noticed that the Cabinet Office website changed mysteriously on 29 April, two days before the local elections. It said, in bold type, that the No. 1 priority for the Minister was now supporting the Prime Minister. It comes to a pretty pass when the Prime Minister needs to give instructions to his colleagues through their job descriptions.

Today’s debate has been about three things: spin, waste and incompetence. That is a serious matter. [Interruption.] Ministers may laugh, but the noble Lord Butler’s report for the “Better Government” initiative pointed to precisely those criticisms and suggested that they should be addressed seriously. We would not expect such words as “spin”, “waste” and “incompetence” to be associated with the British civil service, yet this Government have brought the service to such a situation that those words are the subject of debate.

I was a special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry; I declare that interest. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, in those days there was only one; now there are three special advisers at the successor Department, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Contrary to what the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, John Major limited the number of special advisers to 38; there are now 68 across the Government.

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