|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
30 Oct 2008 : Column 328WHcontinued
Mr. Tyrie: That is all ancient history now. There certainly were from a monetary perspective, although there are many angles to the issue. Let us move on, because this is not a debate about those issues, which may interest the two of us but not everybody else.
Listening to the Prime Ministers statement, in which he gave us an apparently bold set of initiatives on constitutional reform, I was immediately suspicious, not because the words seemed bad, but because of who was saying it. I had followed what he said about the economy and had seen the gap between what he appeared to announce and what he actually announced in many areas of tax and spending policy. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase did a tour of the TV and radio studios, describing those initiatives as Christmas, but I am afraid it turned out to be Christmas in a board school, or somewhere where few presents were around, because when we finally got, through Governance of Britain, the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill it was surprisingly thin on all these issues. I should say that, to me at any rate, it was unsurprisingly thin.
There are a couple of acid tests by which the Bill can be judged. First, if it were in place, would Parliament be better able to scrutinise the activity of the Executive? For example, would we have been able to have in place better ex post scrutiny of Iraq, even if not ex ante, and would we have been able to have the full inquiry, which many hon. Members who opposed the war feel is necessary? I cannot see much in those proposals that would have improved the scrutiny of the Iraq war, even if they had been in force at the time of the war. We must give Parliament and its Committees independenceand its Select Committees enough powerto be able to make those ex post inquiries themselves; they do not have it at the moment. They must be able to call for papers and officials, as American committees do, and they should, of course, have Chairmen who are independent and seen to be independent as a consequence of election by secret ballot of the whole House. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase is an independent-minded Chairman, which is why his Committee has functioned better than many, but we should not have to rely on people who adopt that degree of independence of mind.
The second acid test of the whole constitutional renewal package is whether the British public will trust and respect their system of government any more once the Bill is in force. After all, we are all agreed that there has been a decline in the level of trust. The Bill contains scarcely any measures that will do much on that score. There is a tiny bit here and there, including putting the Ponsonby rule on a statutory basis; the public will not know what that means, but at least wars will be slightly better scrutinised than they would have been.
Among the things that I would like to see is an end to the Prime Ministers almost exclusive control over patronage, because that enables the Prime Minister to wield such huge power. I am pleased that the democracy taskforce on which I sat, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), came out in favour of a wholly independent committee for the appointment of peerages, knighthoods and other honours and for a complete divorce of the appointment of honours for people whose job is to serve in the legislature.
An elected House of Lords, which I would prefer, would be a step forward. We should clean up party funding by putting a cap on all big donations by individual
donors and trade unions, for example. That is controversial for all parties, but I think that it has to be done. Perhaps we should consider some measures for direct engagement with the electorate, such as giving some teeth to petitioning and giving some place in the timetabling of our legislative programme for petitions.
If we had had any of the proposals that I have just mentioned, the trust issue would begin to be addressed a little. Has the report done much in that regard? I am afraid that I am not a strong supporter of it. There have been a lot of friendly words about it, but I did not find much in it that was exciting. Rather than go through it bit by bit, let me just illustrate why I feel that it is a little bit thin by mentioning a few things that need addressing and saying where I think it is off beam.
One of the worries that the report seeks to address is a bit of a non-worry: that politicians may try to politicise the role of appointing civil servants. That is not the main problem. The main problem is not that the civil service needs to be kept pure through the appointments mechanism, but that it may be bypassed from the heart of decision making within the machinery of government.
Certain clauses as drafted in either the first or second volume of the Constitutional Renewal BillI cannot remember whichsuggest that the civil service should give impartial advice to Ministers, but it should also say that Ministers should give due weight to that advice. In other words, they should have to show that they have at least listened to that advice and that civil servants had an opportunity to say their piece in front of the Minister, rather than being channelled and funnelled through intermediaries, such as advisers.
Hon. Members might say, What sort of remedy could there possibly be with such a clause? Freedom of information could help there and could establish whether the fact of advice, rather than its content, was ever received or looked at by a Minister. This Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, had a habit of getting into a huddle with a trusty fewan inner coreoften without the civil service being involved at all, when taking decisions in the Treasury. That has been a major source of disquiet, not only in the civil service but more widely in the financial and economic communities that have been affected by those decisions. It has been pernicious and, from what I can tell, he seems to have carried over the practice, to some degree, into No. 10.
All of what I am describing is a much more important abuse than tampering with appointments. A related abuse is the emergence of what has been called by one Cabinet Secretary the development of a parallel statemeaning special advisers and envoys. We have to clamp down on that. Taking envoys first, patronage has been extended to the appointment of Back Benchers, who are given envoy titles and expenses. We have had an envoy on forestry and on
Mr. Tyrie: Yes, and on just about everything I can think of. There are certainly quite a few of them. I am concerned about that, although I do not want to develop that theme in any detail.
Let us take a look at advisers. The argument is that they somehow enable civil servants to stay pure, and that if a Minister wants to do something a little political
he can call in his adviser and the civil servants can keep their hands clean, but that was never really the problem. Ministers need civil servants who are close to them. The danger is that advisers may become influential enough to drive a wedge between civil servants and Ministers, which is what seems to have happened. I think Lord Wilson said that they have become a substitute civil service, and Lord Turnbull used a similar phrase. A substitute civil service is not healthy.
There has been a huge increase in the number of advisers, and I regret that John Major increased them from around 20 to around 40. When I was a special adviser, there were fewer than 20. We met occasionally with Prime Minister Thatcher, who made it clear that there were far too many of us, and that if any of us misbehaved, by which she meant involving ourselves directly in public politics, she would have our heads on a platter before tea time, or possibly earlier. The number of advisers then rose from 40 to 80, where it has remained, more or less. Friends from the civil service say that having advisers in such key jobs has changed the character of the civil service and the way that it functions at the heart of Whitehall quite a lot.
The predominantly policy role that most of us played when I was a special adviser seems to have been supplanted by a role of spin, which has been extensively examined and confirmed in memoirs. Advisers have often become more powerful than Ministers. The hon. Member for Luton, North made a point about education policy, and he was right on the button. That is exactly what has happened in a wide number of areas. Such advisers deliver speeches, write articles in newspapers, and represent Britain at meetings abroad. Twenty years ago, those functions would have been considered inconceivable for special advisers.
Alongside that, for a long time under Tony Blair, there was a takeover of No. 10 by advisers, and there probably still is. The then Prime Minister congratulated Alastair Campbell on doing a good job of attacking the Conservative party, and he did so at the Dispatch Box. That was not a sensible thing to say, and it is not sensible for an adviser to spend his time doing that. I certainly hope that, if we appoint advisers, they will not consider that to be their role. I worry that there may be a steady deterioration, and that as advisers come in, as they will after the next election or the following oneI expect that it will be the next one, judging by the pollsthey will think that that is part of their role. They will have seen what the present incumbents are doing, and think that it is all right. We must change that culture, reverse it and get advisers back to having a much more limited role, and carrying it out properly.
What I have described is clearly politicisation of the civil service. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase said that that is not happening, and that he did not know what evidence there was to support that, but the evidence is overwhelming from the memoirs and leaks that we have had so far about what has gone on during the past 10 or 11 years.
I am trying to agree with the hon. Gentleman as much as I can, but I cannot agree with everything he says. He often cites people such as Lord Wilson, but we have talked endlessly to him, and to other former Cabinet
Secretaries and permanent secretaries. To a man and a woman, they say that there may be problems with having special advisers in the system, but also that they bring huge advantages, not least in ensuring the civil servants are not asked to do things that are inappropriate. They provide protection for the civil service, and no one has been more emphatic in asserting that than Lord Wilson.
Mr. Tyrie: I completely agree, and those were some of the functions that I undertookfor example, producing a first draft of a party conference speech, with which civil servants would not want to be involved. They may have been prepared to check some facts, but they would not have wanted to get too close to the writing process.
My point, which I have not yet been able to communicate to the hon. Gentleman, is that such legitimate functions as part of a largely policy role for advisers are a long way from what has been going on at the heart of government, where a large number of advisers have directly assumed many of the functions of Ministers. The hon. Member for Luton, North gave an example from education, and such examples are legion. There is clear evidence of advisers writing articles, making speeches and travelling abroad to represent Britain in meetings, and that is quite new in our system of government. Such activities should be brought to an end.
Mr. Tyrie: I give way first to the hon. Member for Pendle.
Mr. Prentice: I think that I am going to say something helpful to my friend, the Chairman of the Committee. When Lord Butler came before usthe hon. Gentleman will have the report in front of himmy friend, the Chairman, suggested to him that
having more special advisers, for example, by itself does not cause a difficulty.
Lord Butler, the former Cabinet Secretary, said, No. In response to a second question from the Chairman, Lord Butler said:
I have always been in favour of special advisers; they add a great deal.
Mr. Tyrie: I totally agree, and I do not know how the hon. Gentleman is managing to suggest that I disagree with that.
I think that there is a point at which the number of advisers alters the character of Whitehall, and 80 is far too many. Incidentally, other former Cabinet Secretaries and senior civil servants would not agree with Lord Butler if he suggested that 80 is a reasonable number. I certainly agree with Lord Butlers suggestion that advisers can and do play a useful role. The question is: what role, and have we allowed advisers to overstep the mark?
I am trying to forge a constructive consensus. It seems to me that there is unanimity that the central issue is not numbers. Almost everyone agrees with that. If special advisers are good, there is a case for having more of them; if they are bad, there is a case for having fewer of them. On the whole, they seem to be good, so a
reasonable number is required. That is logical, but surely the key issue, which I think the hon. Gentleman agrees with, is to be clear about what they should do and what they should not do. That is the issue, and that is precisely what we have said in our draft Bill and in our commentary on the Governments proposals.
The other issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is of civil servants being bypassed and their advice not being taken. That is covered by another recommendation in our commentary on the draft civil service Bill. I am sure that he is an assiduous reader of such documents and knows that.
Mr. Tyrie: The hon. Gentleman and I are still like ships passing in the night, despite his best efforts to forge consensus. What he is missing is that having a large number of advisers changes the culture at the heart of Whitehall. Small numbers of advisers may keep their heads down, knowing that if they overstep the markthe Prime Minister will have approved each appointment, as used to occur during the Thatcher yearsthey will be out on their ear. Their relationship is different from that of the civil service, and of advisers who are brought in to be pretty much the doorkeeper to a Minister, which is what many current advisers and those of the past 10 years have been.
When I was a member of the hon. Gentlemans Committeeit may have been immediately before he was the Chairmanwe had before us Lord Butler, who was then Cabinet Secretary. He did his best to defend the Orders in Council that he gave for Jonathan Powell to effectively take over No. 10. He tried to pretend that the existing structure was exactly the same and that Jonathan Powell was a bolt-on extra who provided added value. I asked Lord Butler where Jonathan Powell sat in the room and he said, Well, he sits at a desk in the private secretarys office. I said, Yes, but which desk? Of course, I happened to know the geography of the room quite well, and he said, Well, the desk in the top left-hand corner. I said, Thats the desk always occupied by the principal private secretary who runs No. 10. So he has displaced that person. Indeed, that is the doorkeeper positiongeographically and in every other wayand it is right by the door to the Cabinet room. Lord Butler said, Yes. I then asked him whether he thought the geography of a room ever played a role in deciding where power lies and, quietly, he nodded his agreement. That is what is meant by a takeover of the roles formerly played by special advisers, which is certainly what went on during the Blair years.
Mr. Tyrie: Several hon. Members want to intervene. I shall allow the hon. Member for Luton, North to do so and then the Minister.
I am interested that several hon. Members have suggested that civil servants were quite happy about special advisers. Lord Wilson was the permanent secretary at the former Department of Energy, I think, in Tony Benns time. At that time, Tony Benn was one of the first to have a kitchen Cabinet of two or three special advisers: Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell. He used to meet them at 8.30 am before meeting the permanent secretary at 9 am, and the civil servants used to be enraged by that. Did civil servants still object to
special advisers if they did not give instruction in any sense to the civil servants, but just provided advice to the Minister before seeing the permanent secretary?
Mr. Tyrie: I shall come on to Cabinets in a moment. The hon. Gentleman is right to implyat least I think he was implyingthat perhaps the civil service always grumbles whenever there is any innovation of that type. We both cite Cabinet Secretaries as being for and against our various arguments, but we should not necessarily allow them to have a veto on all thinking about the subject. The hon. Gentleman has described Tony Benns methods of taking advice from those two advisers and that seems a thoroughly sensible and reasonable way for him to have gone about his business.
Mr. Watson: The hon. Gentleman is an acknowledged historian on the location of desks in Downing street. I reassure him that, if his judgment of the impartiality of the civil service is based on the matter of location, the current Prime Ministers personal private secretarys desk is no more than 10 ft away from that of the Prime Minister. Has he read the code of conduct for special advisers that was rewritten in November of last year? It states
No special adviser can authorise expenditure, exercise line management supervision over permanent civil servants, or discharge any statutory powers.
Mr. Tyrie: That is a good description of the things that advisers certainly should not do. Of course, that is exactly what they were empowered to do by the dispensation of the Orders in Council that were granted in 1997 by Lord Butler to the incoming Blair Administration. He now regrets that decision and the Government have belatedly reversed it. The Minister is right: the Government have started to act on some of these matters themselves, but that does not excuse the fact that we have had a decade of considerable awkwardness, during which time unacceptable relationships and methods of doing business have developed.
I want to talk about the Cabinet system. The changes in No. 10 under Tony Blair led not only to the growth of presidentialismsomeone else mentioned that word earlierbut to the growth of what was really a Cabinet to the Prime Minister. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer did much the same with the growth of a kitchen Cabinet in No. 11. That was a profound mistake. It did a great deal of damage to the civil service, led to widespread demoralisation and impeded and eroded the likelihood of high-quality advice getting to Ministers.
I very much regret that the report seems unable to come to a clear view about all this; in fact, conclusion number 25 states:
We remain neutral on whether a formal cabinet system would be a useful innovation.
After the experiences of the past decade, I would have thought that it was blindingly obvious that it would be appalling for the British culture of the civil service to try so radical a step, and I strongly oppose it. On the contrary, we should make it clearand I hope that my party willthat Cabinet systems are not for us or our political culture.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|