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House of Lords

Monday, 3rd November 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Civil Service: Draft Bill

Lord Sheldon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, as the Wicks committee recommends, the draft Bill on the Civil Service will receive pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, in their response to the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Government made it clear that they are committed to publishing a draft Bill as a basis for further consultation. The Government recognise that there will be wide interest in both Houses on this important constitutional issue. There will be full consultation with both Houses, but the exact mechanism for consultation has yet to be decided.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. However, is he aware that last Wednesday, at a conference which I attended, Sir Andrew Turnbull, the head of the Home Civil Service, replying to Sir Nigel Wicks, said that we might not even have a Civil Service Act, since it had to compete with other legislative priorities? But it is the Civil Service which enables the Government to function, and there must be some urgency to get it right. Is my noble friend aware that any failure to give this reasonable priority may give rise to suggestions that the Government do not really want a Civil Service Act?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is a matter of public record that we have agreed that we will await the publication by the Select Committee on Public Administration of its draft Bill and that the Government will produce a draft Bill for consultation with both Houses of Parliament. Obviously, it would be wrong of me to give an assurance from the Dispatch Box regarding when there will be space in the Government's programme for such a Bill. However, the Government are committed to ensuring that there is a draft Bill for full consultation.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, in the past the Government have said that the status and functions of special advisers would be dealt with in a Civil Service Bill. It is high time that such a Bill came forward and their functions were made clear.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I repeat that we are of course committed to providing the opportunity for full consultation on the content of the Bill. No doubt that

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is one of the subjects on which we shall require further consultation. Obviously, we are listening and we can hear that there are many calls for such an issue to be dealt with in the Bill.

Lord Peston: My Lords, while entirely accepting that my noble friend cannot commit the Government to anything in the Queen's Speech at this point, does he accept that many of us strongly believe, as my noble friend Lord Sheldon pointed out, that this is a matter of some urgency, especially given what we have learned from the Hutton inquiry about the current state of the Civil Service? I should have thought this really needs dealing with in the near future.

Secondly, my noble friend Lord Sheldon is entirely right and would receive enormous support for his proposal that a Joint Committee of both Houses should subject any such possible legislation to pre-legislative scrutiny.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that pre-legislative scrutiny is appropriate in this case, and that is what we are committed to seeing. We await the Public Administration Select Committee's publication of its draft Bill. We will look at it very closely and consider bringing forward our own draft Bill so that we can have consultation on those subjects that noble Lords feel are so urgent, a view with which I entirely agree.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we remove from their record the constitutional machinery of government reforms which were agreed with the Liberal Democrats before they came to office, the Government's record of constitutional reform would be truly appalling? Does he further agree that the urgency of Civil Service reform and the common sense of the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, would make a radical Government reply, "Yes, sir, and we would like you to chair such a committee"?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I think I agree with the noble Lord when he said that the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, had a great deal of common sense. However, I am not sure that I can agree with much else that he has said this afternoon.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if the result of the widespread consultation showed that the proposals in the draft Bill, or something akin to them, were regarded as both necessary and urgent, the Government would also feel obligated to regard them as being necessary and urgent?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I would be foolish if I did not agree with the noble Lord that there is a head of steam building up behind—

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, may I ask the Minister please to face this way when he is speaking, because we cannot hear what he says when he politely turns round to speak to the questioner?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness; I did not mean her, or the Benches in front, any discourtesy.

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There is a head of steam building up behind this. We recognise the urgency of the issue. We want to get it right and we want to consult. Of course the matters that the noble Lord raised with regard to a Civil Service Bill are very important.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate the irony that his noble friend Lord Sheldon said in his supplementary question that it was the Civil Service which enabled the Government to function, whereas many of us have had the impression that when anything went right, it was Ministers who took the credit?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that all governments like to claim they have got things right when things go right.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, our Benches support the concept of a Civil Service Bill, as the Minister knows, and also that of a Joint Committee on pre-legislative scrutiny. Is he aware that the Government give the impression, and have done so continuously in debates on this subject, that they do not want the Bill and intend to do very little about following up the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, about a Joint Committee? Why have they given that impression?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, excuse me if I am wrong, but I recall that there was a rather barren period of 18 years when this issue was not on the agenda at all. I have made it plain, as I know previous responses from the Government Benches have done, that we accept the case in principle for legislation. I will go on repeating that because I believe it to be the case, and it is the case.

Electricity Supply

2.42 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied that there are adequate arrangements in place to deal with any deficiency in the supply of electricity that may occur in the coming winter.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as previously indicated to the House, in its recent report on winter operations, National Grid Transco said that it would like a bigger "safety cushion" of generation if the most onerous conditions occur together. National Grid, as systems operator, is best placed to make that assessment. Since the report was published, the safety cushion has grown, as generators have returned mothballed plant and are making plans to return more. Arrangements are in place to deal with shortages of supply and those are regularly tested.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, unusually, I can say that there is some comfort to be had from that

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Answer. Is the system still in being that the grid used to run, with systematic load-shedding and voltage reductions when it became necessary? Has it recently been tested to discover whether it would be reliable if were used again?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am in danger of giving reassurance to the noble Lord twice in the space of a few minutes, which is some new kind of record from these Benches. I assure him that the system is tested regularly, not least because there have been one or two incidents of breakdown of supplies in the past couple of months, of which noble Lords will be aware. Those breakdowns resulted not from shortage of capacity but from technical problems, which are being investigated. A thorough investigation is taking place, and the Minister has asked to see the reports.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, does the Minister recall that when the electricity supply industry was nationalised under the CEGB, the winter margin of capacity was 35 per cent? When the industry was privatised under the previous government and the electricity pool set up, it was of the order of 27 per cent. Now, it is said to be of the order of 17 per cent, which, allowing for outages, could come down to 13 per cent. Is that not a dangerously low level at which to enter the winter?

Furthermore, with the likely withdrawal of nuclear and coal-fired stations within the next few years, will not the gap seriously widen? What are the Government's plans to fill the capacity gap?

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