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30 Oct 2008 : Column 322WH—continued

The reconfiguration of Whitehall, which my friend the Member for Cannock Chase mentioned, is an absolute disgrace. It is a disgrace how Prime Ministers can, on a whim, completely reconfigure Whitehall. It was a scandal that the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Woolf, found out about the creation of the Ministry of Justice
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from reading The Sunday Telegraph—absolutely scandalous. And someone, somewhere decided to get rid of the office of Lord Chancellor, until they looked at it in detail and figured that it was not as easy as that, so we still have a Lord Chancellor, except that he sits in the House of Commons, perversely.

There are any number of examples of departmental reorganisations going off at half-cock. We had the famous example, again a few years ago, when the Department of Trade and Industry, which is now of course the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, was going to become the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry. A plaque went up outside the building in Victoria street, but later that day, it was taken down and the Government did not go ahead with the name change. We need to do something about that. The Committee made recommendations, not in this report but in another, about Whitehall configurations. If they are major enough, Parliament should vote on them. It happens in our sister democracy in Canada. Major Ottawa reorganisations have to be approved by the Ottawa Parliament, and we ought to do that, too.

The Prime Minister ought to give some consideration to the number of Ministers who move around without getting their head around their brief. The whole process is totally capricious anyway. I know so many good Ministers who leave the Government and it is a total mystery to me, and probably to them, why they were sacked.

The former Home Secretary, the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), famously said that his former Department was not fit for purpose. He is a real bruiser; he says it as it is. I was looking at his ministerial record on his website, however, and in 1997-98, he was a Defence Minister; in 1998-99, he was a Transport Minister—vroom, vroom—and from 1999 to 2001, he was the Secretary of State for Scotland. In 2001-02, he went over the Irish sea as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; in 2002-03, he went back to London as party chair and Minister without portfolio, so that he could extend his tentacles wherever they go. In 2003, he was Leader of the House—I remember him still, pugnacious at the Dispatch Box—and from 2003 to 2005, he was the Secretary of State for Health. In 2005-06, he was Secretary of State for Defence, and then in 2006-07, with all that experience of home affairs behind him, he was made Secretary of State for the Home Department, and he said that it was not fit for purpose, and he knows about that.

There is an issue about how long people stay in ministerial positions and ministerial training. I give the Government 10 out of 10, or nine out of 10 for starting to address the problem of training Ministers. I have probably said too much, but I had to get some of those things off my chest. This is a good report, and I am glad that the Government have moved at least some way towards addressing the concerns that we have flagged up.

3.52 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. It is an even greater and more long-term pleasure to be a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration,
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which is absolutely splendid. We have heard some of its members speaking today. In my view, it is the most interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile work that I have done while I have been in Parliament for the past 11 or so years. We have heard four splendid speeches, most of which I agree with, but I have my own take on many of the issues. I hope that my hon. Friends who are members of the Public Administration Committee will forgive me, as they will have heard my views before, but I want to put them on the record in a Westminster Hall debate.

In an intervention earlier, I mentioned checks and balances and the importance of ensuring that we preserve those checks and balances in our democracy. We do not have a written constitution as in America, where there is a separation and balance of powers, and our electoral system does not have proportional representation, which gives immense power to Parliaments because Parliaments have to assemble Governments from various parties. Even before the Governments of Thatcher and Blair, we had what was described as an elective dictatorship, because once a party gets power, the Prime Minister has enormous power of patronage, and control of a party and the Government in every sense, so checks and balances are important.

Historically, one of the checks and balances that we have had is the independent and impartial civil service. We tried to get the best possible minds, those committed to public service, into the civil service. Even when I was a student at university, some 40 or more years ago, there was talk about non-civil servants moving into the civil service, and having an exchange with the commercial world outside. Even at that time I felt uncomfortable about it. I have always felt that there is a distinct set of values involved in being a public servant, compared with being a market trader in the City or making money for McDonald’s. Those jobs are no doubt worthy in their own way, but they are different.

I agree with every single word said by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker). I hope that my support for him will not damage his future political advancement—me being a socialist of the left. Nevertheless, I agreed with everything he said and I think that on these matters we agree with each other. We have had checks and balances, and progressively, all opposition to the centre has been stripped away. It was stripped away in the civil service and even in the universities, and certainly within my party. A number of hon. Members have asked me how I got through the net—I was elected in 1997—and I have said, “What net is this?” I have even had people who, when they have heard me speak, have moved their chair away from me, because they are uncomfortable with my views, which do not always accord with the new Labour religion. So, even within parties, there has been resistance to having a range of views.

It was Robin Cook, speaking at the Hansard Society, who said that one of the problems within the Labour party has been that our leader is now elected by the mass of the party, so MPs do not have control of the leader and the leader has much more power within Parliament than he or she had before. Instead of having to appoint a range of views from within the party, and having a Cabinet ranging from Roy Jenkins to Tony Benn, from Denis Healey to Barbara Castle, he or she can now appoint hon. Members in their own image, and resist all pressure from those who disagree with them.
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That is what has happened. There are many splendid MPs on the Labour side who would, in any normal Government, be in Government, but they are not because they occasionally take a dissenting view and they represent opinions that are slightly different from those of the leadership. That is deeply unhealthy in our democracy.

We have heard today some speeches from colleagues, and the tour de force came from my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). He is a man of immense talent who, because his views do not accord with the leadership view on some matters, is being passed over for advancement. That is a loss to the country and a loss to our party, although I do not want to sound flattering. There are others. Some hon. Members have chosen not to seek advancement, and that is their choice. I know that the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) could have been a Minister, but I know personally that he chose not to take that route. His chairmanship of the Committee is one of the best things that I have seen in Parliament while I have been here. He does not always agree with members of the Committee and we sometimes have robust debates, but as a Chairman he is splendid and it is not surprising that none of us has resigned from the Committee, because we value our membership so much.

In any democracy, we have to build into all our institutions differing voices. In the civil service we have to do that, too. When I was a student, I was told by one of my economics lecturers, who said that he had worked in the Treasury, that in the Treasury there was a range of views—there were Keynesians and people who took different views. Whenever there was a change of economic policy there was always somebody around who would take over and put the new policy into effect. The 1967 devaluation, for example: there were those who resisted it and those who knew it had to happen, but they could bring out something that they had prepared earlier and present it as a policy that worked straight afterwards. Some of us, like me, were urging devaluation; others were resisting it; nevertheless, there were people there. Had that been the case at the time of our entrance into the exchange rate mechanism, we may not have had the disaster that followed, which led directly to the destruction of the Conservative Government at the 1997 election. That collapse of the ERM in 1992 was the major factor in undermining and destroying that Conservative Government.

When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson insisted on having a private office of civil servants who all agreed with him—people who were, as Mrs. Thatcher used to say, “one of us”. He wanted all his civil servants to be like himself and in line, getting his ducks in line politically, so that they all were supporting the ERM strategy. He did not want people who would ask, “Are you sure this is right? Are you sure we can sustain a parity of 3 Deutschmarks to the pound? Do you not think it possible that the money markets may destroy the pound at some point?”

Mr. Tyrie: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could cite any evidence for that. I was in the Treasury at the time, as—dare I mention it?—the special adviser to Nigel Lawson, and what the hon. Gentleman is describing is quite alien to anything that I recall.

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Kelvin Hopkins: I defer to the hon. Gentleman’s greater knowledge of such matters, but that is what I have read and what has been reported. I understood that that was the position.

In my own small world, I insist that people challenge what I say and correct me if I am wrong. I want people to tell me if I get something wrong. It would be healthy if Ministers did that, and if the civil service held a range of views. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle spoke about disastrous party political decisions. The greatest catastrophe of all is what has happened recently with the financial markets, the banks and the housing market. It will haunt us for years, if not decades, to come. I have written every month for the past 10 years in an obscure left-wing journal that the policy was disastrous, mistaken and misguided. Of course, nobody took much notice, apart from the small group of people who share my view, but it turned out that we were right.

Indeed, if we had accepted what seemed to be an extreme policy of the Labour party 30 years ago—to take the banks and financial institutions into public ownership—we would not be in the present situation. The institutions would have been publicly accountable, and that kind of debacle would not have been allowed. My key point is that we ought to build critical voices into everything we do, to ensure that we get things right. My hon. Friend said that, as well.

The situation has been very unhealthy in the past few years, but I would like to think that things are changing now. We had a big debate in the Committee about the role of special advisers. If they are interposed between the civil service—or, indeed, Ministers—and the leader and his Downing street team, that is deeply unhealthy. I have used the term “Leninisation” many times to describe having people who, in effect, act as political commissars and control things throughout the Government. That view may seem extreme and some might challenge it, but I believe that it is now accepted.

I would like to think that the present Prime Minister is making changes. There are fewer special advisers. I believe that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who has done a great deal on the White Paper on constitutional change, has recognised that, as well. Having to one side special advisers who advise Ministers is fine, but having special advisers who directly instruct senior civil servants and, indeed, Ministers is not.

We had the situation of Baroness Morris, who obviously resigned as Secretary of State for Education because she was not in charge of education policy. A special adviser in Downing street was controlling education policy and she was being bypassed, so she thought, “What is the point of being the Secretary of State if I do not have any say on policy?” Subsequently, of course, that special adviser became a Minister in the Department, but such a situation is not healthy in politics or in government.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. Is it his view that the number of special advisers should be limited, or that their role should be formally limited?

Kelvin Hopkins: It is the role that is key. Numbers are neither here nor there. In a sense, everybody ought to have a special adviser, but after one has taken the
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advice, they should deal with the civil servants. Special advisers should not come between the leader and the civil servants, or give direct instructions to civil servants to ensure that a line is followed.

I think that the situation is changing now. I would like to think that the present Prime Minister has recognised the problem. I had a welcome report yesterday from a fellow member of my party who said that the Prime Minister has recently been asking civil servants for their views. Apparently, that shocked quite a few civil servants. When a group of them were first asked for their opinion, they sat in silence. They did not know what to say because they were so used to taking instructions rather than giving views. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it was reported to me as being genuine by someone who has worked inside Downing street, and I would like to think that it is the case.

It is not so much that civil servants have been politicised or selectively appointed because of their politics, but that there has been a tendency to change the political culture from the very bottom. I believe that that started with Mrs. Thatcher. If someone wants to bring about a revolution, they have to start at the bottom and work upwards.

For example, Keynesian economics was considered out of fashion in universities. If one goes back to Mrs. Thatcher’s time, the Cambridge department of applied economics used to make forecasts of the economy and get it right time and again. The group that got nought out of 10 for its forecasts was the London Business School, but Mrs. Thatcher withdrew funding from the Cambridge department and took all her advice from the business school.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said that it was not a question of being right but of being in fashion. The economic fashion for neo-liberalism started a long time ago, and even in universities one could not find people who taught Keynesian economics, yet Keynes is suddenly acknowledged as having been right. Many of the remedies that he would have proposed are now being considered. Keynes, of course, is dismissed as an extremist who talked nonsense, but apparently Bertrand Russell used to defer to him because he was intimidated by his intelligence, so he was not daft.

I am not saying that Keynes was always right, but his was a counter-voice. We should have people with different economic views debating the future so that we can test ideas to destruction before they are put into practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle said that in his speech.

We have to challenge the whole culture. We have to develop a genuine debate about politics within parties—parties are a vital part of our constitution, and part of our pluralistic world, too—within the civil service and within the universities. People must not be viewed as on or off message, or as one of us or not one of us. Those authoritarian undertones have to go.

In future, we must have a much more open debate about policy, and we must listen to some of the voices that have been regarded as dissident or out of fashion. The civil service is still relatively safe compared with some of our other institutions. I believe that my party is
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much less healthy than the civil service, but I would like to think that it will improve considerably in future years. I could speak at greater length, but I think that I have said more than enough.

4.7 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): First, I apologise to you, Mr. Jones, and to everybody else who has been here throughout the debate. I had to slip away and miss some of the proceedings to attend a meeting of west Sussex MPs to discuss a crisis in the delivery of hospital care that affects a hospital in my constituency.

I very much enjoyed listening to the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). I always do, and I agreed with a great deal that was said, some of which I therefore shall not repeat.

However, I take issue with the point about Nigel Lawson’s selection of advisers to ensure that he had around him people who always agreed with him. I do not recognise that at all. As I think almost anybody who knows him or knew him at that time would confirm, the one thing he liked was a good intellectual scrap. He used to spend most of his time trying to find people with whom he could have a good argument. I am running through in my mind the people who he had around him at the time. For example, he had in charge of supply-side policy—the epicentre of what became known as the Thatcherite revolution—Denis Healey’s former principal private secretary. He had in place a deputy chief economic adviser who strongly disagreed with the central tenets of the exchange rate mechanism policy—that was an open secret—and in meetings that I attended gave dissenting views.

Nigel Lawson’s view, which is the correct one for all Ministers, was that it was important to get the best people around him and to get the best out of them, and to create an ethos in the civil service that instilled enough trust to enable robust discussions to take place in complete confidentiality.

Incidentally, that is why when the Select Committee discussed the Bill that became the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I disagreed with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who was the Chairman at that time as well, on one area. I felt that policy discussions should remain wholly outside the remit of the Act, and I still believe that.

I felt part of that civil service ethos. I was much more a policy adviser than a political adviser, which is what special advisers seem to be these days. I did some political work, but I knew what my job was. As the Lord Chancellor said recently, when describing his time as a special adviser when giving evidence, “It was my job to keep my head down.” I certainly did that and he seems to have done so when he was a special adviser. I am sad that that attitude has been lost with some of the current incumbents.

Kelvin Hopkins: I think that the hon. Gentleman has answered my question. I was going to ask whether there were any serious heavyweight voices saying that the ERM strategy was going to be a disaster and should not be entered into.

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