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House of Lords

Wednesday, 15th October 1997.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

Nigel Simeon, Lord Bishop of Wakefield--Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Norwich and the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

Lord Newby

Richard Mark Newby, Esquire, OBE, having been created Baron Newby, of Rothwell in the County of West Yorkshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Harris of Greenwich and the Lord Thomson of Monifieth.

Lord Hardy of Wath

Peter Hardy, Esquire, having been created Baron Hardy of Wath, of Wath upon Dearne in the County of South Yorkshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Kirkhill and the Lord Merlyn-Rees.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

Robert Hughes, Esquire, having been created Baron Hughes of Woodside, of Woodside in the City of Aberdeen, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Kirkhill and the Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Government Information Service: Staffing

3.10 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many of the senior information officers in government departments have resigned, or have been asked to relinquish their posts or to move to other appointments, since 1st May.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, taken literally, the phrase "senior information officer", mentioned in the noble Lord's Question, means an officer in the information service of the grade of senior executive officer. Since 1st May no such officers have been asked to relinquish their posts or to move to other appointments.

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However, I assume that the noble Lord means his Question to be interpreted more widely. Since 1st May, vacancies have arisen for heads of information at the Scottish Office, the Department of Social Security, the Treasury, the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office. The jobs will be filled either by existing civil servants or through open competition organised and run by the Civil Service. They will continue to be Civil Service posts and their holders will be subject to the conventions which successive governments have applied to the Government Information Service.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that full Answer. However, is he aware that more than a month ago The Times Whitehall editor reported the departures of the heads of the information divisions in the four departments which the noble Lord mentioned, since when there have been two more? That makes a total of six in less than five months. Is not that very unusual? Why has it been necessary for the Head of the Government Information Service to state, according to The Times, that some tactics deployed by Labour Party spin doctors would not be used by civil servants?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's first question, it has been the case under successive governments that where there is a lack of chemistry between the Secretary of State and the Head of Information, that Head of Information will move. That has happened under both Conservative and Labour governments.

As regards the noble Lord's second question, there has been no change in the role of or instructions to the Government Information Service. Indeed, the note published in the guidance to the work of the Government Information Service, which was published in July this year, is virtually identical to the document published in 1992, except that it is shorter and clearer.

Lord Hayhoe: My Lords, how often has the lack of chemistry, to which the noble Lord referred, occurred under this Government, leading to a change, and how often did it occur during the five years of the previous government?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is a detailed question to which the noble Lord would not expect a statistical reply. However, perhaps I may give an example of the lack of chemistry. The noble Lord may care to look at the memoirs of Sir Bernard Ingham in which he records how he was summarily removed from the post of Head of Information at the Department of Employment when the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, returned from Northern Ireland with his own press officer.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, the Minister will no doubt be aware that a senior source--presumably one of the Government's spin doctors--was quoted in the media as saying:

    "You could say that they are going to be sent to spin school. Most of them know how newspapers work, they just don't know how to make them work for them".

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Does that have any bearing on the departure of so many information officers? Furthermore, how does it relate to the maintenance of impartiality and political neutrality within the Civil Service?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Earl has no justification in assuming anything about what he calls "a senior source". There is no change in the position of the Government Information Service. Indeed, he may well know that there has been correspondence between the Minister without Portfolio, the Cabinet Secretary and the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists. Ministers are meeting representatives of the institution tomorrow in order to discuss the matter further. However, there has been and there will be no change in the role of the professional Government Information Service.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, will the Minister join me in welcoming the interest in maintaining the impartiality of the British Civil Service, particularly in the light of the behaviour of Mr. Heseltine, who tried to recruit civil servants to work for the Conservative Party before the previous general election?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I did not rise to the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, to give many examples of previous practice. However, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is right, and I could give many examples of malpractice if I were to succumb to that temptation.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, is the Minister aware that what is not entirely clear to him is clear to almost everyone else to whom I have spoken: this is a case of playing politics with the Civil Service? It is also a problem relating to the egos of senior Members of the Cabinet. Can the noble Lord confirm that Mr. George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, complained that he was one of the least known politicians in the country, which is why the information division in his department has been reorganised; that Mr. Frank Dobson has bawled out his team for their failures; and that Miss Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, has been dismayed by the lack of back-up at weekends?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the statement which the noble Lord made in introducing his question is mere asseveration and is not worthy of response. As regards other Ministers and Heads of Information, the contracts between the Heads of Information and their departments are a personal matter between them and the department and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on them in detail in their absence and without their permission.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that during the period of Conservative government between 1979 and 1992 the then Prime Minister, who changed scores if not hundreds of civil

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servants, always asked the question "Are they one of us?"? Is not that really playing politics with the Civil Service, as opposed to the few minor changes that have taken place here?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend's question sounds all too likely.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does the Minister agree that slick manipulation in handling news and the media is not to be encouraged, should not be an attribute in the public service and should not be expected of its senior members?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in those terms, yes, I agree with the noble Lord. However, I have yet to be convinced that there is evidence of slick manipulation. The Government have a duty to explain their policies and initiatives to those who are affected by them. I believe that they are doing so with the valued assistance of the Government Information Service.

City Centre and Out-of-town Shopping Centres

3.17 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their policy on city centre shopping and the development of large out-of-town shopping centres.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Government's policy is to promote new retail and other development in existing centres. In our response to the House of Commons Environment Committee report on shopping centres, which was published on 31st July, we reaffirmed our support for Planning Policy Guidance Note 6 on town centres, which sets out the Government's policy in more detail. Out-of-centre sites should be considered only if more central sites are not available.

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