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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I welcome the government amendment. The Minister has done much to reassure the House by introducing it. I contemplated voting against it and supporting the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, but I am delighted that she has decided not to press it tonight.

I act on the basis that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The problem with Wales arises because of devolution. It seems to me that the Welsh Assembly would like the proposed phrase to be kept in because it wishes to use OFFA to do something that the Government have assured us that OFFA will not be used to do—to pursue wider issues, namely the economic ones. I do not want to venture into the merits of integration of different departments or institutions, as did my noble friend Lord Roberts, who spelt that out very clearly. That is clearly a matter for the Welsh Assembly. But it is also a matter for the Government and for this House, that legislation introduced on one basis should be used for another purpose when we have been specifically assured by the Government that that will not be the case.

The Minister has been extremely helpful and positive throughout the consideration of the Bill, and I recognise that she is between a rock and a hard place, because she cannot tell the Welsh Assembly what to do. We shall accept the government amendments and come back to the matter at a later stage. That is probably the best position to be in, for it gives the people in Wales time to reflect on what they are doing and the Minister time to extricate herself from between the rock and the hard place.

I support the government amendments and support the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, in her decision not to press her amendment to a Division. However, I put the Minister on notice that the issue is not off the agenda; it is clearly there, for the reasons that I have given.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that I am not clear where we got to with her amendment, so perhaps she and I should have a conversation about it at the end of this stage of the Bill to ensure that the issues that she raised are covered.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked whether "must" overrides the duty not to interfere with academic freedom. Not at all—I can be very clear on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, made some very important points, as ever. I do not have the specific answers, as I am sure he will not be surprised to hear, but I shall endeavour to get responses to his questions between now and Third Reading so that he can make his decisions on the basis of that information.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, were both concerned that the Welsh Assembly had put
 
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the amendments forward. That is right; it was the Assembly that asked specifically for this differential. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, rightly said, that is the nature of devolution.

I hope that my noble friend Lady Warwick will be reassured that the membership of the group led by Professor Rees considering the future includes representatives of Higher Education Wales, which represents the interests of the sector. As I said before, there is no question of the Assembly passing regulations under this clause without due consideration. It has a duty to consult and propose subordinate legislation with significant cost.

There are different issues in Wales, which the National Assembly, as a democratically elected body with responsibility for higher education, wishes to put forward. Between now and Third Reading, I am sure that there will be the opportunity to discuss these issues and to get the kind of responses that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in particular, wanted. I have been put on notice by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, with the support of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth.

Earl Russell: My Lords, can the Minister say something on the question of "and" or "or"?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Not easily, my Lords. We had some of these debates in Committee, and it is probably better, if the House and the noble Earl will permit it, that I write to him on that matter. I would take too much of the House's time at this point.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response. I get the impression that she was quite sympathetic to my little "and" instead of an "or". We need to discuss the matter further. The amendment has clearly stirred up a hornets' nest in devolution terms, and we shall return to it on Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 34, as an amendment to Amendment No. 33, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Amendment No. 33 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 34A not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 35 to 37 not moved.]

Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 38 and 39:

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving the Motion I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before twenty minutes to nine o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
 
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Government Communications

Lord Wakeham rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take following the independent review of government communications.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I ought to declare an interest as for a number of years I was the Minister responsible for the co-ordination and development of government policy and, as such, had some ministerial responsibility for the Government Information Service. In addition, as I suspect most noble Lords will know, I was the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission for seven and half years.

My Question has in a way been answered by the Leader of the House in her Written Statement of 19 January. I found that answer unsatisfactory and I am grateful for this opportunity to raise some of those concerns. Any government information service has the difficult task of serving the Government of the day, but not serving the political party in power, and to do this with all impartiality and integrity. That is the Civil Service tradition. This is sometimes irritating to Ministers—it was to me from time to time—but it is essential.

The Government Information Service, in serving the government of the day impartially and with integrity, comes in for a great deal of criticism, which is misplaced. It has a negative as well as a positive job to do: stopping Ministers acting outside the rules and conventions; for example, issuing party political press notices through the government machine or spending public money on publicity, not to inform people about their rights and obligations arising from government actions, but for party political advantage. This is why Parliament should look critically at the Government's emergence as the second largest advertiser, at something approaching £200 million per year.

The report refers to a three-way failure in the breakdown in trust between the Government and politicians, the media and the general public. I do not accept this. It was due to a failure by this Government and their special advisers to maintain that proper balance, and to the outcry at the excess of spin, that Phillis committee was set up in the first place. The Moore affair was only one of many examples, but this is not the time or place to rehearse the press management of the past seven years for one could perhaps go on all night.

However, whatever the problems that caused the setting up of the Phillis committee, I doubt very much whether its report is the answer. A lot of the report is unexceptional, and some of it is welcome, but I fear motherhood and apple pie come to mind for much of it. It is the central conclusions of the report that need challenging.

I am in favour of the presentation of issues being taken into account at an earlier stage in policy development, but in my opinion, this is best done by strong communications people in departments and not by a centrally controlled press machine.
 
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The report is somewhat sparing about the lobby, and quite simply wrong to advocate only on the record briefing. The fact is that the lobby is not, and should not be, a creature of government. It is an association of journalists for journalists. There will always be a lobby or association of journalists working at Westminster, whatever it is called, and it will continue to meet. The existence of the lobby will always be of greater help to those representing smaller news outlets than to those representing the larger ones. How the Government react to the lobby is a matter for them but I suspect they will find it much to their benefit to continue to use it. Indeed, in my view, a certain amount of unattributable briefing is essential to get a proper understanding of policy. On the record briefings are likely always to be far too cautious. The larger organs will always be treated somewhat differently by the Government and will get their favoured briefings whatever the Phillis report says.

Phillis's attachment to on the record briefing is, I fear, politically correct nonsense. The prime rule should be that governments should have on the record press briefings or press conferences when they have something to say or they should, through unattributable twice-daily briefings of the lobby, give journalists an opportunity to seek reaction on the events of the day. It is interesting that, in putting the No. 10 spokesman on the record at lobby briefings, this Government have insisted on not identifying the spokesman by name and the media have acquiesced with that. It is even more interesting that the broadcasters have not insisted on being able to record the briefings with microphones and cameras. I wonder why. But I am clear that no civil servant or political adviser paid by the public purse should do twice-a-day briefings that are fully on the record and broadcast and remain a civil servant or in receipt of public remuneration. Such briefings should be done by a Minister.

But here we come up against a constitutional point. Parliament would rightly soon object, or should rightly object, to this usurping of its constitutional role of holding the executive to account. I am all in favour of on the record briefings where there is something to say, but they should be given by Ministers and they should mostly be given by Ministers to Parliament.

However, the most serious aspect of this report is the constitutional one. It is an acknowledgement that this Government's centralising tendencies are acceptable, and so undermine our traditional constitutional position. Under our system of Cabinet government, the Prime Minister is primus inter pares and power is spread among members of the Cabinet. It is not for No. 10 to usurp the proper role and position of members of the Cabinet, which would be the result of a centrally controlled press machine. Individual Ministers are responsible for their own departments' policies, actions and staff, and the staff owe their first allegiance to their Minister, and not to the Prime Minister, the No. 10 Press Secretary, the Director of Communications or whatever he is called.
 
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The report's endorsement of its earlier conclusion for a strong central communications structure takes centralisation as desirable and a move to a more presidential style of government as acceptable. It is, I fear, another illustration of the Phillis report's alarming ignorance of the constitutional position in our parliamentary democracy. I for one would not accept this Phillis theory of centralisation if I was a Minister and member of the Cabinet and I am surprised that members of Mr Blair's Cabinet are prepared to do so. Perhaps they are not. I have my doubts whether Gordon Brown has bought into it.

I suspect that the Phillis theory of centralised communications stems from what the committee would describe as a rational analysis of the purpose of government communications: the need for a single, consistent government voice. But British government is not, and never has been, about selling soap flakes or popcorn. It is about a Cabinet system of collective decision-making and parliamentary accountability. That is inevitably a less tidy and controlled system than the centralisers would like. But that is what our constitution is about: the dispersal of power, not its centralisation in the hands of presidential Prime Ministers and their obsessive spin doctors.

It is not my task to blame Bob Phillis and his colleagues who gave their time to serve on the committee. Indeed, on this occasion I warmly congratulate him on the knighthood that he was awarded in the recent honours list. He is a very distinguished man and does a very good job well, even if I do not think much of his report. My purpose was to point out a serious manifestation of the undermining of our constitutional arrangements in this country and a weakening of Cabinet government and parliamentary democracy that started in 1997 and is doing great damage. That is the real mischief of the Phillis report.


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