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The point is that the system was deliberately left as an untidy remnant, as an earnest of the intention to pursue full reform. It was meant to be an irritant, and it
was deliberately and explicitly left in place as such by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, to hold the Government's feet to the fire and ultimately make them deliver reform of the House of Lords. Parliament is entitled to treat it as a breach of good faith for the Government now to come along, without any justification or any serious case for the steps taken in the Bill being necessary, and remove the impetus on a Government to persist in pursuing long-term reform. The House is entitled to resent that.
I wish to say a little about part 1, which deals with the civil service and is effectively the first half of the Bill. We welcome it, and it is long overdue. The system that has existed for so long-a civil service that is independent and impartial, and to which an incoming Government cannot make wholesale, sweeping changes in personnel-is a great strength of this country. There has been a debate going on throughout my political lifetime, and I suspect for a long time before, about whether we should change that and introduce scope for much more appointment, along the lines of the American system. There, the senior echelons are removed and appointed by an incoming Administration. We do not believe that we should do that, because the system is capable of being made to work extremely well.
We are pleased that the Bill will entrench the duty of impartiality, and we accept and support the case that has been made that the existence of special advisers, who are now desirably to be controlled by a code protected by statute, provides civil servants with a protection against their impartiality being eroded by Ministers. However, if we are to put into statute an obligation on civil servants to be impartial, there should ideally be a symmetrical requirement on Ministers to respect that impartiality.
There were ripples of unease at the weekend when The Sunday Times reported that Lord Mandelson had sent a letter around Whitehall that appeared-I would always want to give the noble Lord the benefit of the doubt-to suggest that he was urging the civil servants who form the Government's communications operation to deploy what are effectively Labour party slogans in the sensitive period in the run-up to a general election. That would risk abusing civil service impartiality and it is right that the head of the civil service should treat very seriously any attempt to erode it. Governments will always test those boundaries-that is kind of in the nature of things-but it is important that the Cabinet Secretary, who is the head of the civil service, is robust in resisting it. If the Bill goes through before the general election, as we hope it will, there will be some statutory reinforcement of his role in protecting that impartiality.
It is important that we understand what is meant by this concept of impartiality. It obviously does not mean independence in the sense of civil servants being empowered to do what on earth they like. The obligation of impartiality is to deliver what the lawful Government of the day lawfully set out as their policies. It is important that Ministers listen to officials' advice. They should seek it confidently, and be willing to challenge and interrogate it. They are not obliged to take it, but they should always seek it and hear it.
I recently spoke about the episode in the life of this Government when the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, sought to introduce his
tax credits scheme. It is now well attested that officials in the Treasury and the Inland Revenue advised very strongly that his proposal could not be administered without risk of fraud, and almost more importantly, of very serious error. He persisted and said, "I don't care. This is my policy. You're the civil servants, you go and deliver it." He ignored the advice. The result was a system that has caused immense distress and human misery to hundreds of thousands of hard-working people on low incomes, who suddenly found themselves traumatised-that is not an exaggeration-when they received demands from the Revenue to repay several thousand pounds in overpaid tax credits.
Those hard-working people had done their best to do the right thing. That episode was the result of a Minister-an arrogant Minister, I would say-not listening to the advice that he was given by civil servants, who were not being political but were simply giving impartial advice about the effects of implementing a particular policy in a particular way.
Michael Fabricant: Does my right hon. Friend not illustrate the difficult balance that Ministers must strike? They quite rightly want to drive through Government policy, but at the same time they must listen to civil servants' impartial advice and to special advisers, who quite rightly will have the ideology of their party in mind, but not perhaps the practicality of implementation. That is why it is important that Ministers have the ability to make good judgments, which is difficult when they are given such contradictory advice.
Mr. Maude: My hon. Friend makes a good point. On the tax credits episode, the special adviser in the Treasury, who was notoriously the intermediary between the Chancellor and Treasury officials, is now Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. He was described on the radio yesterday by his hon. Friend-that may be the wrong way to put it-the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) as a "bit of a bully". When pushed, he said, "Well, actually, he is a bully", not being inclined to wrap things up. That sort of arrogant approach is, "No, we know best, don't bother us with these pettifogging details about how to implement this, just go and do it." The consequence has been a lot of misery for many hard-working people and families on low incomes.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) referred to the article that appeared in The Times on Friday, which seemed to suggest, in a rather hysterical way, that we had secret plans-even though I had announced them, admittedly in the obscurity of the Conservative party conference, 10 days previously-that amounted to a politicisation of the civil service. That is absolutely not what our proposals would involve. I was heartened to say that the report of what I was apparently proposing received the endorsement of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), a notable blogger, who published in his blog on Friday a post headlined, "In praise of Francis Maude". I found that most encouraging-these days one welcomes praise and support from wherever they come. The hon. Gentleman is in a position to know as he was until recently a Minister in the Cabinet Office with responsibility for civil service matters.
It is important to stress that we are not talking about giving Ministers the uninhibited right to hire and fire civil servants. That would be in conflict with the provisions
and protections that will rightly be put in place by the Bill, but Ministers who are rightly accountable to this House for the conduct of their Departments must have the ability to ensure that their policies are delivered. This is not about hiring and firing officials, but about building on a broadly beneficial innovation that this Government introduced-the departmental boards. These did not exist when the Conservatives were last in government, and have since been introduced by this Government. It is a pity, however, if-as in most cases-these boards are attended only by officials. Some are or have been chaired by Ministers, and we think that that is the right approach, because by bringing together politicians and officials they provide an opportunity to create a genuine collective leadership that can be really powerful in giving direction, purpose and energy to a Department. The boards have non-executive members, but at present some 90 per cent. of departmental and public sector board members come from a public sector background. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is a missed opportunity to bring in non-executive board members with serious experience in running big commercial organisations. Such people would be able to transfer their skills and experience to interrogate proposals and check up on their implementability.
We have said that, in extremis, we would expect non-executive members of a departmental board to be able to recommend to the head of the civil service and the Prime Minister that a permanent secretary who was an obstacle to delivery of the Department's objectives should be removed. Without such a last resort power, the proposal would be seen to be window dressing, and the kind of people who could deliver great benefits for the taxpayer and the users of public services by improving their efficiency and quality would not be attracted to make that contribution.
Mr. Straw: I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman with care on this issue. I have not done a statistical analysis, but in the Foreign Office there were two non-executive directors, both drawn from the private sector and both very good. I am sure that, whatever the rubric said, had they thought that the permanent secretary, or indeed the Foreign Secretary, of the day was beyond the pale-which was in fact the opposite of the case-they would have told the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary. I have also seen people with wider public sector experience who have been just as good. Surely the crucial point is not to take an ideological view. We need to look at the qualities that people can bring to these jobs, their independence of mind and their experience.
Mr. Maude: I agree with much of that, and I am delighted to have the Lord Chancellor's endorsement of our general approach. It is most heartening and encouraging. I accept that many of the non-executive board members are independent and have lots of experience, and that their presence is very beneficial. I certainly would not say for a second that we should not have people with a public sector background on these departmental boards or public body boards. There are many benefits to be had from that.
This is a time of great financial constraint, however, and it will be imperative for the Government dramatically to sharpen up their financial management. That constraint will definitely apply, whichever party wins the next election, and the Government will have to ensure that
the taxpayers' scarce pounds are translated into the best possible public service. It would be a great wasted opportunity, therefore, not to recruit to those boards people who are used to driving change through big private sector organisations. At the moment, to a limited extent, that happens, but it could be much enhanced.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): We have heard many serious and thoughtful speeches that have treated our constitutional affairs with the dignity and respect that they deserve. The right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) made such a speech. I was particularly interested in his comments about the civil service, most of which we on the Labour Benches agree with. Sadly, the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was not one of those serious and thoughtful speeches-my regret is sincere, because I have great respect for the hon. and learned Gentleman. I suggest to him that abuse is no substitute for argument, and his memory no substitute for the facts.
Mr. Grieve: The Minister said earlier that I was wrong about the national anthem, but in fact I was spot on. Lord Goldsmith, who was asked by the Prime Minister to carry out a review of Britishness, recommended that we might wish to change our national anthem. In one clause of the review, he said that he felt that one of the verses from the 18th century might be regarded by the Scots as offensive. [Interruption.] Indeed, it might! It is all there. The Minister challenged me on that point, but I got my facts right.
Mr. Wills: It was out of great respect for the hon. and learned Gentleman that I tried to persuade him not to intervene on me on this point. Had he remained seated, he would have heard what those facts are. He said-I think Hansard will bear this out-that the Prime Minister, not Lord Goldsmith, made those comments. Had the hon. and learned Gentleman done a little more research in the interim, he would have discovered that Lord Goldsmith, when he made those comments, was not a member of the Government. I ask the hon. and learned Gentlemen to listen to what No. 10 Downing street said, because he could have found it out just as well as I did before he made his speech. This is precisely what I meant. At the time of the review, Downing street said:
"This does not reflect the Government's views. We are proud of our national anthem and the traditions it represents".
Mr. Wills: I have already made the point that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield fundamentally misrepresented what the Prime Minister said on that subject. He could have checked it out, but he did not. Lord Goldsmith was reflecting views that were given to his independent commission.
Mr. Wills: No, I will not give way yet. I will give way many times, but-[Hon. Members: "You've only just started."] I have indeed only just started and I will give way many times, but I want to address a fundamental point. We heard several times from Conservative Members, starting with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, that the Bill was a mouse-I think that "a modest Bill" is the phrase that the Conservative Whips put out and which was repeated many times. The substance- [ Interruption. ] I am only reflecting what Opposition Members said.
Mr. Wills: No, I will not give way, because I want to address the point, if I may. I will give way to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) and then to the hon. Gentleman when I have gone through this list, but first I would like them to listen to some facts, because facts were sadly absent from the speech that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield gave. He spoke about 12 issues on which the Prime Minister made pledges in July 2007. Let me run through them.
The first is the power of the Executive to declare war. The draft Commons resolution on the processes for the deployment of armed forces has been the subject of extensive discussion. It has been prepared and will be presented shortly. On the power to request the Dissolution of Parliament, the Modernisation Committee is conducting an inquiry into Dissolution and recall, and quite rightly so. The Government proposed to the Committee in March 2008 that when the Prime Minister proposes the Dissolution of Parliament, he would have to have a vote on that in the House before it could go ahead, so there has been progress on that too.
On the power over the recall of Parliament, the Modernisation Committee-the correct place for this to be considered-is also conducting an inquiry. The power of the Executive to ratify international treaties without a decision by Parliament is dealt with in the Bill. On the power to make key public appointments without effective scrutiny, measures on that have already been introduced. Proposals on the power to restrict parliamentary oversight of our intelligence services were debated and approved in their entirety by the Commons on 17 July 2008. Proposals for an appointment procedure similar to that adopted by the Commons were also approved by the Lords without debate on 13 November 2008.
On the power to choose bishops, the Government have removed the Prime Minister from the process. There are proposals in the Bill on the power exercised in
the appointment of judges. On the power to direct prosecutors in individual criminal cases, the Attorney-General has decided not to make key prosecution decisions in individual criminal cases except if the law of national security requires it. Powers over the civil services are dealt with in the Bill. On the Executive powers to determine the rules governing entitlement to passports, the Government have decided in principle that we will introduce comprehensive legislation on the procedures for issuing passports after an extensive consultation. Draft legislation will be published before that consultation.
David Howarth: There is a new meaning of "more or less" in there somewhere, because the provisions on the Attorney-General, for example, are not in the Bill and the document on the prerogative powers basically says, "It's all fine now." However, I want to return to the points that the right hon. Gentleman made to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield about the national anthem. He did not answer the hon. and learned Gentleman's other point, about the fundamental debate about the national motto. Did that debate come to any conclusion? I thought at one stage that the national motto should be "Mustn't grumble."
Mr. Wills: I am saddened to see the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished lawyer and an intelligent man, falling into the same trap of getting his research from the Daily Mail. It has never been part of Government policy to introduce a national motto. The Government have committed to seeing whether we should have a statement of values, and we will do so through a series of deliberative events where the British people will decide. The party that the hon. Member for Cambridge represents is in favour of having such deliberative events and of a constitutional convention based on exactly the same deliberative principles in relation to the statement of values. I shall return to this matter later, because the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield mentioned a letter of mine earlier, and I want to share it with the House.
Mr. Wills: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), then to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, then to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).
Mr. Timpson: May I take the Minister back to his suggestion that the term "modest Bill" had come from the Whips? I would like him to reconsider his position on that. He is welcome to look at my notes, which are in my own handwriting, and which contain the word "modest". On this occasion, I am going to take credit for that description, rather than the Whips.
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