19 Oct 1999 : Column 929

House of Lords

Tuesday, 19th October 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

Kenneth John Woolmer, Esquire, having been created Baron Woolmer of Leeds, of Leeds in the County of West Yorkshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Baroness Gould of Potternewton and the Lord Paul, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Lord Goldsmith

Peter Henry Goldsmith, QC, having been created Baron Goldsmith, of Allerton in the County of Merseyside, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Williams of Mostyn and the Lord Steyn.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before the commencement of business, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to visit the Netherlands to make a speech at the University of Leiden on Friday 22nd October when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

Civil Servants: Memoirs

2.49 p.m.

Lord Chadlington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What limitations are placed on public servants in respect of publishing accounts of their time working for Ministers.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, serving civil servants are not permitted to publish personal memoirs reflecting their experience in government. Retired civil servants must seek the permission of the head of their former department and the head of the Home Civil Service before publishing such memoirs, in accordance with their continuing duties of confidentiality owed to the Crown as their former employer.

Lord Chadlington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful response. I am sure he is aware that the total number of special advisers, paid for at the taxpayers' expense, has risen by some 50 per cent compared with the previous administration, to close

19 Oct 1999 : Column 930

on 70 people. There are three times the previous number in Downing Street--a total of 22. What constraints are placed on those people regarding the confidential information they receive, whether they are paid for by the Government or the party, in the course of doing their job?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton : My Lords, the rules I have described in relation to civil servants also apply to special advisers, who are themselves civil servants. Those rules are incorporated into their contract of employment.

Lord Renton: My Lords, has there not been a great increase in breaches of the Official Secrets Act in recent years? What steps do the Government propose to take, if any, to deal with that problem?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is unlikely that there has been a great increase in breaches of the Official Secrets Act. I do not know what the position was before 1st May 1997, but I am sure there is not a substantial number of breaches at present.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, taking into account the extraordinary increase in the number of special advisers, can the Minister say whether they are subject to the Official Secrets Act, to the sanctions and obligations of that Act, as are public servants?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I can confirm that they are subject not only to the terms of the Official Secrets Act but also to the same terms and conditions of employment as ordinary civil servants. Special advisers are indeed civil servants. In relation to the publishing of memoirs, they would be covered by precisely the same rubric that I set out originally.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, is there a minimum time bar after retirement within which civil servants are not permitted to publish their memoirs?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, there is no specific time bar, but every retired civil servant who wishes to publish memoirs must seek the permission of the head of his or her former department and of the head of the Home Civil Service.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, when they cease to be special advisers, what happens to them? Are they put on to some unwilling department?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton : My Lords, they are put in the House of Lords.

Lord McNally: My Lords, can the Minister clarify whether his reply affects the marketability of my memoirs, “McNally and Callaghan, the Glory Years", as I have some distinct memories of the role of Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn that I should not like lost to history?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, here is living proof of the answer I gave a few moments ago!

19 Oct 1999 : Column 931

I believe that the noble Lord predated the present arrangements in relation to special advisers. If and in so far as he was covered by the existing rules, he would have to go through the same process as I have described, through the head of his former department and the head of the Home Civil Service.

Lord Puttnam: My Lords, does the Minister agree that as we approach the 21st century, it is just possible that we suffer from not enough special advisers rather than too many?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the Government's special advisers perform an extremely important and effective service.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, is it not true that the reason why there has been such an increase in the number of special advisers is that Ministers do not trust the advice they receive from the Civil Service? Furthermore, having reminded us of the increase in the number of special advisers now serving in Whitehall, will the noble and learned Lord tell the House what has been the increase in the total salary package since the period of office of the previous government?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the reply to the first question is a most emphatic “No". The special advisers are in a position to assist Ministers to work in co-operation with the Civil Service. Both the Civil Service and the Government regard the present arrangements as very satisfactory and they work happily together. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord on the second question.

Earl Jellicoe: My Lords, may I point out to the noble and learned Lord that his replies on the whole have been, to my surprise, broadly satisfactory?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Earl is surprised.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, will the Minister please place in the Library a copy of the letter that he is to write to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I shall certainly do so.

European Union: Trade and Jurisdiction

2.54 p.m.

Lord Razzall asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will seek amendments to the revised convention on jurisdiction to ensure both that e-commerce in the European Union fully benefits from the single market and that consumers can obtain adequate cross-border redress.

19 Oct 1999 : Column 932

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, a draft proposal has been put forward by the European Commission to convert the revised convention to a regulation which says that a consumer who sues a trader can have the case heard in a court of the country where he lives if the trader has used a website to reach consumers. That seems to go further than the revised convention, and my department is consulting industry and consumers on what position we should take on this new development.

We are extremely keen to see e-commerce flourish in the EU, and with that in mind we shall seek in any representations we make to give consumers confidence and to minimise the cost to business.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am gratified that Her Majesty's Government have seized the problem. Will the Minister accept that, unless some change is made to the convention, the requirement to comply with the laws of a large number of European countries will place an unbearable burden in particular on small and medium-sized enterprises?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the issue here is that we have to balance giving confidence to the consumer with not burdening business with costs. Those issues are almost in contradiction, so we must get the balance right.

I should point out that this is a question of jurisdiction and not a question of law. Therefore, the problem of having to deal with a whole series of laws does not arise in this case.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that one reason why more goods are not sold on the Web Europe-wide is the restrictive practice of manufacturers of allowing their warranties and guarantees to operate only within the country where the goods are sold? Is that type of big problem being tackled by the European Union?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, that is an entirely different question. The issue of where warranties and guarantees apply is presumably related to where the goods are sold.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page