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30 Oct 2008 : Column 334WH—continued

The one area where the Constitutional Renewal Bill, a piece of draft legislation, was substantive was on the civil service Act. All these issues relate to that proposed Act and, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase has pointed out, that is the one area where the Government
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seem determined to kick the whole issue into the long grass, rather than actually introduce the measure. However, we might be fortunate and the Minister might give us a timetable for when we will get it on to the statute book.

I have been talking almost exclusively about the changes that will be made in relation to politicians, but I shall make one point on the reform of the civil service itself. There are many proponents of splitting the role of advisers to distinguish political advisers from non-political technical advisers. If we are going to have advisers, Ministers should find the best people, appoint them to the job and not worry about any of the other issues. However, it is important that we have a civil service that is flexible enough to absorb people from other careers and walks of life—not on the basis of secondment for a few years, but on the basis that the civil service is not the type of institution where people are simply recruited at 22, or 23 to do 37 or 42 years of service. The civil service is an institution that should recruit from all age groups. If we are to go down that road, as most other large institutions have done, including big private sector institutions, there will have to be quite a big change in the way in which people are paid and how their pensions are organised. Such changes would mean a breach of the “same pay for same work” principle.

When I worked on privatisation, groups of high-powered, highly-paid people came in from the City and gave us good advice on how to handle things. After three hours in an alien culture, one could almost see them breathing a sigh of relief as they staggered out of the Treasury along the linoleum, which we had in the days before we put down a cheap carpet, on the way to the door to get into a cab and go back to the City. Even if it had cost a lot of money, what we really needed was to have a couple of those guys full-time for a year or two in-house. The Government have moved some way in that direction, but we need more progress to be made on that.

We must also consider the highly controversial issue of pensions. MPs should themselves act as a beacon in relation to pensions. How long can we as MPs continue with the final salary scheme in its current structure, even the funded scheme? We cannot carry on like this indefinitely and I am pleased that the democracy taskforce, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, came out in favour of the need to reform MPs’ pensions and stated that, over time, the final salary scheme should be brought to an end. I am not articulating the particular type of reform that needs to be put through, but reform of MPs’ pensions will act as a beacon for reform of civil service pensions. Why is that so important? It is important because if a civil servant has been in the service for 10 or 15 years and is on a final salary scheme, the incentive to stay is extremely strong—it is a lock-in. Until we reform pensions quite fundamentally, we will find it very difficult to get the flow in and out, the exchange between the civil service and other careers and walks of life, that I think all of us believe would make the civil service even healthier than it is now.

There is already some two-way flow. An example of that is Jeremy Heywood, whom I used to work with in the Treasury many years ago and who is back right at the centre of things. However, on the whole, such people are exceptions, right at the top; they are not the rule.

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The Select Committee’s report is interesting, but it is interesting as much for the things that it has missed out or failed to be robust enough about as it is for the things on which it has been firm and given a clear view. I hope that we will move towards better reform of this whole area of our constitution than we have seen so far. I am confident that an incoming Conservative Government will do what is required, or will do much more of what is required, but in the meantime I hope that the Government will press on vigorously with getting us to a civil service Act, which I have supported ever since I saw what was going on with advisers. After a year or two in Parliament, I came to the conclusion that such an Act was necessary. I started arguing for one in the Public Administration Committee and I have been arguing for one ever since.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase was not a supporter when I first put those ideas forward. He did not want an investigation into the role of advisers and the need for a civil service Act to protect us from it, but he is now a firm advocate of that. I am very pleased to find that he is aboard and is now a strong a supporter of it.

Dr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman tests my patience. I have noticed in the past that his ability to reinvent history, as well as claiming authorship of anything that has ever happened, is simply extraordinary. First, he was completely wrong when he described my position on freedom of information. The idea that I said that all policy advice had to be covered is complete nonsense. The idea that I was ever not in favour of a civil service Act is nonsense. The idea that I did not want an inquiry into something is nonsense. I do not know why he goes on saying those things.

Mr. Tyrie: I think the hon. Gentleman protests a little too much. I have not made any allegations of the type that he has suggested. On the first, he is absolutely right to say that he was prepared to put in some limits in relation to policy advice, but he also wanted some scrutiny of it under freedom of information and I resisted that. I am surprised that he is so sensitive about that. I cannot remember all the ones that he has just mentioned. On a civil service Act and an investigation into the role of advisers, is he really sure that he did not oppose such an investigation in the run-up to the 2001 election?

Dr. Wright: I am absolutely positive that I have taken the lead in ensuring that our Committee, over the years, has interrogated the issue of special advisers ad nauseam. There is no issue about special advisers that we have not reported on. We have produced endless reports on the matter. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman, when he sees an opportunity to have some agreement and solidarity on an issue, simply does not take it, instead of making these niggling disagreements all the time.

Mr. Tyrie: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that these are niggling disagreements. All I am trying to do is to demonstrate that I have been arguing for these sorts of reform for a long time.

Dr. Wright: No, the hon. Gentleman is not doing that; he is claiming unique authorship—he does this all the time—of a set of proposals. Yes, he may have had a role in those over the years, but so did a lot of other people. It is a very disagreeable habit.

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Mr. Tyrie: The hon. Gentleman seems to be getting very over-excited about a number of relatively minor remarks that I have made. I regret to say that my recollection and his seem a long way apart, but he has asked that we end on a note of agreement—absolutely. I agree with his enthusiasm for a civil service Act. I hope that between us we can push one through and that in time he will also come round to the view that a cap on numbers, as well as a definition of roles, will be required to tackle the special adviser problem.

4.45 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I congratulate the Select Committee and especially its Chairman, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on the report. Obviously, it has to be viewed as one in a continuum of reports, the crown jewel of which was almost certainly the draft Civil Service Bill. The Government seem to have squeaked this debate in—I thank them for it—just in time before announcements in the Queen’s Speech in a sense make this debate redundant. We hope that we will then get to the meat and drink of the reforms that we all want and to a civil service Act.

I am conscious that, of all the Members in this room, I am the least expert. Consequently, and looking at the number of minutes that have gone by on the clock, I shall try to keep my comments brief. I hope that that will not be interpreted as a sign of inadequacy. It is helped by the fact that either the heating is off or the air conditioning has been turned on behind me. In any case, let me try to keep this simple.

I was struck by an early comment in the report:

I have referred to that comment because much of the tension that generates the type of debate that we have had today comes from the difficulty in the relationship between Parliament and the Government as the Executive and the fact that they have moved farther apart over the years. We have a sense that parliamentary government does not function in the way in which it did. Many people have talked about checks and balances and the shift towards something that is much more presidential in style and content. That creates an underlying tension and difficulty in relation to the role that the civil service plays and where its loyalties lie. We must sort out a great deal of that, to have clarity on how the civil service needs to respond and the roles that it performs, and I hope that we will do so.

We have also seen the increasing engagement of the Government in people’s daily lives. That has brought to the fore the issue of implementation in a way that it never was in the past. Hon. Members have talked of some of the fairly stark failures of implementation. The tax credits system was driven by a concept of social justice that we would probably all have signed up to, but it was a complete impracticality in terms of delivery. I will not go through the entire list of failures, but we see them constantly repeated. As a legislature, we have not resolved how we deal with that at the point of legislation: so many debates are now curtailed so early, before fundamental issues have been addressed thoroughly.

I do not think that we can say that this is all down to Ministers and that the legislature can be separated from implementation. It is part of an ongoing strand from
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strategy through to the practicalities of delivery on the ground. We have to rethink how we deal with that in the House, or we will constantly get legislation where we decide commonly that the principle makes sense but where its application in practice causes great anguish and does not serve the goals that we originally identified.

I agree with the comments on the constantly revolving door of Ministers. We have a Swiss army knife approach to people—one day they are hooking out stones from a horse’s hoof and the next they are taking the cork out of a bottle. Given the complexity of legislation and the complexity of Government activity in today’s world, we must deal with all those issues.

We should consider this matter from the perspective of the public. The public are deeply proud of and committed to the notion of an independent civil service whose members are appointed on merit and through open competition. Whether or not we think that adjustments are permissible here and there, we must be conscious always that that is not the mandate that the public have given us and not their expectation. The service is part of the core British constitution, political life and democratic structure and it must be protected.

The fact that the public are highly suspicious of whether independence still continues, or whether it continues as it should, is something of which we should take serious note. We need a civil service Act, among other measures, to ensure that accountability and transparency are in place, that there is clarity over roles and that we are not constantly saying that perception will never match reality. We need a process that is transparent enough for people to have clarity in their perceptions.

I also believe that the public are not particularly interested in working out who is responsible if there is a fiasco—is it the Minister, or is it a senior civil servant? They always want the Minister, the political person, even if he or she is not directly responsible for the implementation of the policy, to stand up and say, “The buck stops here.” We have lost that sense of honour, and the ability to resign. I use the Lord Mandelson example in a different way: resignation is not necessarily the end of a career.

People seem to believe that resignation is a deep and permanent stain upon the character and a failure, but I think that the public want political individuals to stand up and take responsibility when something goes wrong on the train. It may be appropriate also for civil servants to stand up and take responsibility. However, we cannot get out of the obligation that we take on when standing for election. Whether with strategy or implementation, if something is a Government action, the buck stops at the topmost desk.

The Committee’s report also discussed the Institute for Public Policy Research report on what I would call quangoisation. I find it a worrying drift. I have increasingly noticed the notion—for example, in Conservative party policy on the health service—that we can create a much more segregated system, in which Ministers decide policy and some sort of commission is set up to be responsible for implementation. I am highly suspicious of that.

When I talk to the electorate, they say that when things go wrong they want to remove the bloody bastards. They do not want to have the political leadership saying, “It’s not my problem. I set the policy, but it was badly handled,” or “How it was handled is not my responsibility but that of the commission.”

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We have seen something similar in local government. I can give only small examples, but a Conservative administration in the borough of Richmond essentially set up a commission to provide grants to voluntary services. That was handy, because whenever a charity complained, councillors could put up their hands and say, “We only set the strategy. If you’ve got a complaint, go to the commission.” That structure, that separation, has been ended because people refused to live with it. They wanted an accountable person making such decisions. The direction of quangoisation is dangerous—comfortable, perhaps, but unacceptable to the public.

The question of special advisers has occupied a great part of our debate. I understand the argument that numbers do not matter, but there is a point at which they start to tell their own story. When we get large numbers, roles inevitably start changing. It seems to me that numbers raise questions, even if they are not necessarily a stigma in themselves. When numbers shift significantly, it shows that the structure is changing. However, I agree with those who say that the power is given to the special adviser—it is the role.

When I talk to senior members of the civil service—they are obviously off-the-record conversations—I feel that there is a great sense of tension among them about the role of special advisers. There is real concern about how the territory is divided. Comments do not come in clear packages, with one being simply a piece of advice and another being an instruction. Life is much more complex. Conversations and meetings are far more complex. That is another reason why we need a civil service Act. We also need a good governance code to show that we cannot consider everything in silos. We need to see how the packages merge together. That is why such a code is so appealing.

I shall stop speaking now and let those hon. Members who have much more to say continue the debate. However, this is only the beginning; I look forward to the legislation coming forward. Only then will we be able to get to the meat and drink of the matter.

4.55 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Like the Minister, my alternative entertainment this afternoon was with my children—they too are on half-term holiday—but I cannot think why I thought that it would have been more fun than this debate.

We have had a good old-fashioned spat, which has raised blood pressures. We had sparkling contributions from Labour Back Benchers. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) is always interesting, and he had a lot to get off his chest. He gave the Opposition yet another good example of how to duff up the Government. The welcome spirit of Robin Cook was introduced to the debate by the hon. Members for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Pendle in that marvellous line that good scrutiny is good government.

The debate has also been proof that it is impossible to avoid Lord Mandelson these days. We have to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) for introducing the good Lord Mandelson and the ghastly image of him smiling benignly—or smirking, depending on one’s political viewpoint—as the adoring
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civil servants strew palm leaves before him as he re-enters his Department. It is a terrible image, and I am trying to get rid of it myself.

I congratulate the Committee on its report. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), its Chairman, enjoys an outstanding reputation. The report is clearly rooted in a robust process of consultation, with impressive witnesses. As we would expect, it is well argued. However, it did not impress my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), and I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) described as anodyne.

The Committee Chairman may feel that some punches have been pulled, but the most conclusive and clear recommendation—the main one—is to press the Government to deliver a civil service Act. I also congratulate the Committee on its persistence. It has been a long journey, but it seems that it may deliver a result—against what appears to be considerable Government resistance. We spoke earlier about the delay in the Government’s response to the report, but that is just one symptom of a wider process of apparent foot dragging. I am sure that the Minister will have something to say on that subject.

As a relatively new Member of Parliament—I have been only three years in this place—some of my most rewarding experiences have been in my work on the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. It is therefore a particular pleasure to see a Select Committee apparently get a result. We should all feel good about that.

I turn to the specific question of whether we are seeing a trend towards the dangerous politicisation of the civil service. With your indulgence, Mr. Jones, I shall put this in a wider context, which I believe is necessary. That context is the erosion of public confidence in the way in which we are governed, which is gnawing away at the vitality of our democracy. We should be concerned about that.

I look at the problem through the prism of my constituency experience. People recognise that there has been change in the style of government. It may have started under a previous Administration—a subject that is open to debate—but people believe that that change has accelerated since 1997. People talk about a presidential approach to government. Prime Minister Blair’s outgoing chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, described it as Napoleonic. Similar concerns underlie that sort of language, and they also centre on the short-cutting of due process in policy and decision making.

The hon. Member for Pendle must surely be right that that change was crystallised most clearly in our going to war in Iraq. Out in our constituencies, that is why people’s concerns over how we are being governed continue to be crystallised. The reality is that, during the years of that and arguably the present Administration, some of the key words that people conjure up are stamped in our memories. I include names such as David Kelly, Alastair Campbell, the Hutton report, the Butler report and phrases such as “A good day to bury bad news”, sofa government and the culture of spin. Those phrases have entered into the lexicon. They have a resonance way beyond the House, and we should be concerned about that.

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