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A question arises that needs to be answered: why do this Government need to resort to so many more special advisers to do more or less the same job as was done under the previous Conservative Government? The example of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who is temporarily absent from
the Chamber, has not been followed at all: according to that example, officials, including special advisers, should see their role as giving the most accurate presentation of information and disclosing it in response to a question. Today, however, their role is often to prevent the disclosure of that information.
Greg Clark: The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he should be careful; he himself has experience of withholding information. He and I have been corresponding about whether, would you believe, it is reasonable for me to have sight of the Cabinet Offices staff magazine. That seems a fairly innocuous proposition: it might be useful for a team shadowing the Cabinet Office to know what is going on there, given the hopeful prospect that we might inherit it in due course. Imagine my astonishment when the Minister answered my parliamentary question by saying that it was not in the public interest for me to be given access to that magazine. I was generous to him and assumed that this was a mistake, so I wrote him a friendly note saying:
I am at a loss to understand why you wont let Members of Parliament see copies of the Cabinet Office staff magazine...Would you mind reconsidering?
or alternatively, treat this as a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
I fully expected to get a copy of the magazine through the post, but amazingly the Minister instructed his officials to go through the bureaucracy of denying permission for that. I have a two-page letter from the freedom of information team within the Cabinet Office saying that it will take not just the standard 20 working days but
an additional 20 days to take a decision on where the balance of public interest lies
in Members of Parliament seeing the Cabinet Office staff magazine. That is from a Minister who only last week told the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase that when it came to freedom of information,
I agree with Gus
that there is a big culture change that FOI brings. I think that overall it is a positive culture change for government.
There are important questions, and they are not motivated purely by political partisanship, as the Minister suggested in his reaction to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). In particular, the Government, having set out a course of freedom of information and greater impartiality through the White Paper, are failing to live up to the standards that apply in that document. For example, there is the question of waste. All of us, every day, receive mailbags full of ever-more-glossy, ever-more-expensively produced publications, often from quangos, all with advertising and public relations budgets. I am not saying that all money spent on advertising and public relations is
wasted, but there is a question of accountability. How are we to know that the vast sums of money being spent, especially by non-statutory bodies, are being spent in peoples best interests? Why, for example, has the Civil Aviation Authority paid in the past five years nearly £500,000 to one single PR company and £700,000 to another? Why has the Meat and Livestock Commission paid out £750,000 to a PR company? The East of England Development Agency has paid one single PR company £500,000. Many businesses instruct PR firms to influence Ministers, but Ministers are instructing PR firms to do their job of communicating with the electorate.
When it comes to incompetence, where to start? This is a Government who take more and more information from citizens and then proceed to lose it. The personal details of 25 million citizens were lost by Her Majestys Revenue and Customs when Ministers, including those present, knew that there was a systemic problem across government because it was reported to them in the July before the incident was reported. One of my constituents brought to my attention the fact that the online delivery team within the Legal Services Commission in the Ministry of Justice had won the 2007 civil service award for technology. The very next day after the prize was awarded, my constituent received an e-mail saying:
we are aware that a number of providers have had difficulties being able to sign into the new LSC online and as a result of this we have made the decision to close LSC online from Monday 19 November until further notice.
Why did one of my constituents receive a letter confirming an urgent gynaecological appointment? He was rather baffled by that, as he is a 65-year-old man. That just shows the degree of chaos and confusion in the way that information is held in the Department of Health. It is important that Ministers are held to account for the incompetent handling of the administration of government.
We heard some excellent speeches by right hon. and hon. Members. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who serves with great distinction, made a marvellous speech, with a sweep of history worthy of Melvyn Braggs programme, In Our Time, looking back to the origins of the current civil service settlement. The commendation of the 22 pages of the Northcote-Trevelyan report is a lesson to the Government and to the prospective Government on the benefits of economy as regards Government publications.
The hon. Gentleman said that in the previous Conservative Government, the question, Is he one of us? would be asked. I can envisage the same question being asked by the current Prime Minister. Indeed, I know from some of my friends and colleagues who have served in the Government in various Departments with which the Prime Minister has been associated that it is almost exactly one that passes his lips. If not expressed in quite such clear terms, it is certainly an assessment that is made. The hon. Gentleman is to be commended for the fact that we have the prospect of a civil service Bill, and I congratulate the Government on making that progress. It is very much down to the work of the hon. Gentlemans Committee, supported by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), and other Committee members over the years. The prospect of that Bill is a great step forward, and it is important that we proceed to scrutinise the legislation on a
cross-party basis. There is a precedent for that: the Charities Bill proceeded for the most part without political contention getting in the way of proper scrutiny or the achievement of a consensus on what should be a charity, and on how charities should be regulated. I hope that it will be possible to make similar progress on the civil service Bill.
The contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) reminds us of his distinguished career. He quoted with alarm what he regarded as a departure from the high standards that he enjoyed as Secretary of State. When his officials made a mistake on his behalf and caused him to say things that were inaccurate, he said that he was intemperate in his response. I have only ever seen my right hon. Friend in temperate mode; I cannot imagine the hinted fury that he pointed to. He made an important point about getting specialist skills into the civil service. It is important that there is such a contribution. I cannot understand why it is still relatively unusual for people to move backwards and forwards between the public sector, the third sector and government. We should address the question of why people should not regard themselves as doing particular jobs, and of why those sectors are in silos so that it is relatively unusual and remarkable when people move between them.
The hon. Member for Luton, North made a reasonable contribution. It was not reasonable in terms of its quality because its analysis of some of the drivers of centralisation was quite brilliant. He is right to say that we should avoid making the matter too personal and that we should not ascribe malign motives, but there was a plan. One of the great differences between the parties is that the Government had a deliberate plan to exercise central control over Governmentperhaps for the best of intentions. Perhaps it was the case that Ministers thought that by defining a template for how things should be run and making sure that it was implemented without any movement from it, they could achieve high standards. We were always sceptical of that approach. The hon. Gentleman described it as Leninist, and it involved controlling the related information as well as the plans. We were sceptical of that approach, and we can now see that it has not worked and that we should move away from it. The hon. Gentlemans insight into that process was extremely valuable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) talked about the longevity of Governments, and he made the point that we should not impugn each others motivations because it does decrease the standard of respect for all politicians. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) made a passionate contribution. I know that he is a committed member of the Select Committee, and he will be engaged in the scrutiny of the Bill, ensuring that we take a close interest in the passage of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) pointed out in his contribution some of the history of the use of special advisers. He made a point, on which we should reflect, about whether it would be useful discipline to restrict special advisers solely to comments on matters of policy rather than allowing them to brief the press.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I listened with great interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). He described the situation in which I was parachuted in during a ministerial reshuffle to be responsible for local government finance, specifically the poll tax, at nil notice. I recognise some of the situations that he described.
Would my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) confirm that there is a difference between our perception of the civil service as it operates in Whitehall and of the large number of civil servants who do straightforward administrative but absolutely vital jobs in every part of the country? They are formidable in their professionalism and paid far too little. They have great responsibilities in carrying out policies engineered in Whitehall, and we should not necessarily lump them all together.
Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the wider spread of civil servants. They include people who work in local government, and, as constituency Members of Parliament, we all know that they do tremendous work in dealing with some of our constituents problems.
We have debated the Governments management of the civil service. As the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, one of the ways in which the Government try to manage the civil service is through capability reviews, which they impose on all Whitehall Departments. One naturally assumed that the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for those reviews, should lead by example, especially when No. 10 Downing street is, and I quote
a management unit of the Cabinet Office.
When the questions verge on the impertinent, they go to the heart of the problems at No. 10. The first question may have given hope to the Minister for the Cabinet Offices brotherand perhaps even to him. The question asked:
have a leadership development/promotion process that is fair and transparent?
How do you manage the performance of everyoneby rewarding good performance and tackling poor performance?
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suspect that you share my dismay but not my surprise to learn that No. 10 Downing street falls down in the effectiveness of the processes to ensure that it benefits from competent leadership and roots out poor performance. The inspectors of the capability reviews concluded that that was an urgent development area for No. 10.
significant weaknesses in capability for future delivery that require urgent action.
is not well placed to tackle these weaknesses and needs significant additional action.
is not well placed to deliver improvement in the medium term.
The inspectors, who report to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, have reached the same conclusion that the electors of this country are reaching. The Government have trebled spending on spin and PR but cannot communicate a vision for the future. They have intruded into peoples lives far more than any British Government in history, yet display flagrant disregard for the security of the information that has been entrusted to them.
The Government do not only lose confidential data from millions of people, and have not only lost all credibility for their promise to cut waste or end the culture of spin, but have lost their way, lost the trust of their core supporters, lost the control of their local government heartlands and lost the London mayoralty. They are led by a Prime Minister who has increasingly lost the plotall that is left for them to do is lose the general election.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): I have listened with great interest to the important points made during this afternoons debate. Unfortunately, it began extraordinarily badly with a contribution from the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) that was irrelevant in content, tawdry in style and persuaded no Conservative Back Benchers, let alone us, to vote for the motion. It ended with the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) talking about spin and waste, which describes his badly used 17 minutes.
I begin by doing what I hope that all hon. Members would supportpaying tribute to the professionalism and dedication of our civil service. I want to place on record my gratitude and admiration for the hugely diverse range of activities that civil servants throughout the country undertake, day in, day out, with great professionalism and commitment.
The United Kingdom civil service is deservedly internationally renowned for its high standards. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, the key is to ensure that we maintain and build on those standards as the service evolves to meet the challenges ahead.
Several speakers have taken us on a history tour, beginning with establishing the basis for our civil service more than 150 years ago in the Northcote-Trevelyan report. It was good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on such good form this afternoon. He made a thoughtful and serious contribution, which asked the core question about the relationship between the civil service and the politicians who are elected to govern the country. He discussed the dilemmas that that creates and how we move forward. Many members of the Public Administration Committee, which my hon. Friend chairs, spoke about a draft civil service Bill. The principles set out in the Northcote-Trevelyan reporta politically impartial permanent civil service, recruited on the basis of merit through fair and open competitionendure and continue to underpin the
service as we know it today. They still form the bedrock of the civil service, even in a profoundly different environment from that in which they were first written. Let me assure the House that the Government are fully committed to maintaining and upholding those principles for the civil service of the future.
Indeed, our actions speak louder than our words in that regard. The provisions of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which Opposition Members seem to have forgotten was published on 25 March, place the core values of the civil serviceintegrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivityin statute. My hon. Friend said that we should not make the provisions over-elaborate, but ensure that the civil service is ruled through Parliament, not through the royal prerogative, and that we do the right thing on the right lines. That is exactly what we are doing. The Bill will be taken through a process of pre-legislative scrutiny involving a Joint Committee of both Houses over the next few months. The Bill also provides for a statutory civil service commission tasked with upholding the key principle of recruitment to the civil service on merit, through fair and open competition. The new commission will be established as an Executive non-departmental public body, which will underline its independence as a guardian of that fundamental principle.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) used the word honour in talking about people who work for the civil service. That word is not in the Billthe other words that I mentioned arebut I certainly understand and recognise the spirit that he described. I did not recognise his analysis of the Leninisation that he described, but if there has been a revolution since 1997, it has been in our ability to create full employment and in lifting 600,000 children and 1 million pensioners out of poverty. That is the kind of revolution that this country has been pleased to see over the past 10 years.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) asked a couple of questions about pre-appointment hearings. Let me remind the House that we are introducing pre-appointment hearings to enable Select Committees to take evidence from candidates for key posts. The final decision will remain with the appointing Minister, but they will take into consideration the Committees views before deciding whether to proceed with an appointment.
The hon. Lady asked why the civil service commissioners will not be appointed by Parliament. Under our proposals for increased parliamentary scrutiny of public appointments, the first civil service commissioner will be put forward for pre-appointment scrutiny by the relevant Select Committee. She also asked whether senior appointments to non-departmental public bodies, or quangos, should be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by Parliament. I am glad to tell her that we agree with her. We are committed to increasing democratic scrutiny of a range of senior appointments to the boards of non-departmental public bodies. We are currently working with the Liaison Committee to agree a final list of posts that will be suitable for such pre-appointment hearings, which we hope to publish shortly.
The draft Constitutional Renewal Bill contains a number of other reforms, which will underpin and uphold the impartiality of the civil service. The Bill makes provision for a code of conduct for civil servants
and a code of conduct for special advisers, and for copies of those codes to be laid before Parliament. The Bill also makes provision for a report on special adviser numbers and costs, and for the report to be laid before Parliament. We have heard a lot of talk about special advisers, mainly from the Opposition, but I want to remind hon. Members that in his evidence to the Public Administration Committee on civil service legislation only last week, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus ODonnell, was clear that, with the numbers that we have currently74 special advisers from a total of 500,000 civil servicepoliticisation is
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