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Lord McNally: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for his initiative in putting this matter on the Order Paper. As he rightly says, he has form on these matters and therefore his comments are to be taken seriously. I thought that we might perhaps have a love-in about the Phillis report but, from what he said, that will clearly not be the case. I take a more positive view of its recommendations. I take on board what is said about the over-centralising nature of No. 10, but a reading of the report suggests that other aspects of Phillis counteract that.

It is not my habit to quote Daily Telegraph editorials, but today's editorial talks of the public being alienated by,

Phillis talks of,

Where I start to depart from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, is that I do not think the fault lies entirely with the Government—a great deal lies with the Government but the media have motes in their own eye
 
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so far as this is concerned. Wherever we attribute blame, alienation and mistrust are damaging weaknesses for a democracy that must be addressed.

Lord Phillis—I am giving him even more honours—rather, Sir Bob Phillis answers one of the tests of a good servant to a government. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, was reputed by Mrs Thatcher to come up with solutions and not just with problems, there are solutions in the Phillis report that deserve better consideration.

Spin did not begin with new Labour. However, the bruising experience of the 1992 defeat and the lessons learnt, particularly from the Democrats who had themselves learnt the hard way after the Dukakis debacle in the United States, produced an over-aggressive approach to government communications that was also influenced by a mistrust of a Civil Service machine that had been in the hands of the Conservatives for 18 years—a mistrust that I consider was misplaced. However, that lack of confidence, and a desire to deliver the project via a more powerful No. 10 policy unit and a better co-ordinated and "on message" media exercise in joined-up government, was what started all this.

In retrospect, it is clear that far too much power was given to Alastair Campbell. As he himself has now admitted while "treading the boards" round the country, the carrying into government of the opposition style of press tactics was a mistake. I refer to the abuse of position on the part of special advisers—the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, referred to the Jo Moore case—the collapse in morale in the Government Information Service, and some questionable use of public funds; that is, the Government annual report and the upsurge in government advertising prior to the 2001 election.

I turn to the Phillis solutions. I believe that there are doubts about the creation of the new post of permanent secretary for government communications. It is slightly odd that, having separated the roles that Campbell occupied of both political and government spin doctor, and in finding someone to reinvigorate the Civil Service side of the act, a former Conservative appointment, Howell James, was selected. It is fair to say that he went through the most rigorous of appointment procedures undertaken by the Civil Service Commission. One must accept its judgment that he was the best man for the job. The job is a tough one. The Phillis report recommends:

I agree with that. There needs to be better training of civil servants in communications, better use of outside expertise and more use, as Phillis mentions, of the practice of both the Foreign Office and the Treasury of bringing civil servants in from other disciplines to give them experience in their news departments. However, that can be done only if it is underpinned by other
 
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action. That is the real test of the Government. There must be a Civil Service Act to underpin any strengthening of the role of the Civil Service communications sector.

There must be a robust implementation of freedom of information. One of the core recommendations of Phillis is that the Government should carry through their commitment to freedom of information. I made my next point to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, the other day. I wonder whether the Government are embarking on a real programme of training in a new spirit of open government. One of the most damning phrases in the Phillis report is that "the culture of secrecy" is alive and well seven years into this Government's term of office, when they were supposedly elected in 1997 to remove that culture of secrecy.

I am not as relaxed about the lobby system as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. I consider that it is corrupt and corrupting. The sooner it can be removed, the better. I refer to the findings or non-findings of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, regarding the impact of Campbell's aggressive spin on news organisations. However, one point that emerged from the Hutton report which was a real plus was that he showed that government could reveal large amounts of information directly to the public and the media and let people make up their own minds about it.

Another recommendation of the Phillis report that is worthy of consideration relates to an independent statutory statistical body. CP Scott said:

and he was right.

I still believe in the merit of the special adviser system. It has been well tested. I declare my own special interest in that I served as a special adviser more than a quarter of a century ago. Few mistakes and misjudgments have been made, and most civil servants find that it is a plus to have a political adviser within a department.

As I say, we must accept that the media have responsibility regarding the damaging failure of trust. People as varied as Martin Kettle of the Guardian, John Lloyd writing yesterday in the Observer, and Professor Steve Barnett have all drawn attention to something that Phillis calls for; namely,

A parallel recommendation was made by the Puttnam committee, on which I served. Yet certainly most of our popular media, rather than reporting news, initiate predetermined campaigns that distort and preselect news. One has only to consider the u-turn on the European referendum or the treatment of asylum seekers to appreciate how that is exercised.

I would hope that as well as journalists taking responsibility for higher standards of journalism and the Government resisting any further concentrations of media power—perhaps the test of that will be the fate of the Daily Telegraph—the Prime Minister might recapture some of his old radical spirit. Would it not
 
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be radical if, in the next few weeks, he took time to recommit his Government to an effective Freedom of Information Act and give a pledge that a Civil Service Bill will be in the Queen's Speech? I am not as pessimistic as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, about the recipe proposed in the Phillis report. The Government have a problem of credibility, but, to use a phrase that is popular at the moment, his report provides a road map back to respectability and the Government should take it.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, by drawing attention to the Phillis report, my noble friend Lord Wakeham has done the House, and members of the public who notice such things, a service. His experience in government as Leader of both Houses, which is a rare feat, as Chief Whip in another place and his experience since leaving government as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, give him a special insight into these issues. I take seriously his warning of the dangers to Cabinet government and Parliament's place in our constitution.

The review committee was chaired by Bob Phillis. I echo the congratulations on his well-earned knighthood in the Birthday Honours. The committee was set up to help to help the Government get out of the mess following the Jo Moore affair—or, if one prefers, the Martin Sixsmith affair, or the DTLR crisis, or whatever one might wish to call it. That was not an isolated, freak affair, it was a particular example of what can go wrong when spin doctors and other special advisers get out of hand.

Two trends have occurred since my noble friend and I were Ministers—a massive centralisation of power and detailed control by No. 10 and a massive shift from reliance by Ministers on civil servants to reliance on special, that is to say, political, advisers. I am not against special advisers. Like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I was one myself—in my case, over 30 years ago—but I had no responsibility for media relations and it is not a healthy development that so many special advisers are now appointed primarily with such responsibilities. The report emphasises the reasons for that.

The centralisation of decision-making—presidential style government—and the enormous numbers and influence of special advisers has led to worse decisions and has damaged trust. One reason for those decisions becoming worse is that presentation has been given too big a role by comparison with the substance of a decision. Like my noble friend, I believe that centralisation has devalued the role of Cabinet Ministers and hence Cabinet government. It has also devalued Parliament.

I am disappointed that the report, while it contains hints in such a direction, was not more forthright about the desirability of decisions being made known to Parliament first. When I was first involved in such matters, there used to be huge inquiries when there was a so-called leak. But now we take leaks in our stride. There are leaks first thing every morning on the "Today" programme. Even the Budget is leaked to the
 
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"Today" programme, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. As my noble friend said, briefings should normally be made by Ministers and should normally be made to Parliament, not constantly spun in advance. We should try to return to that position in the interests of our constitution. The centralisation of communications is an element in the centralisation of government and my noble friend made some excellent points about the dangers of that.

The review has to be seen against the wider background. It reviews the issue arising out of a particular example of trust breaking down between the Government, the media and the public. That trust has been damaged many times, before and since and, after all, the electorate has recently demonstrated its view of how much it trusts government. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, the fierceness of media competition is partly to blame, but those organisations respond to government actions. It is the Government that to a large degree provide the ammunition with which the media operate.

It is important that that trust between government and the public is redeveloped. That should particularly be the case in the event that we found ourselves having to respond to a 9/11-type situation. If the Government cannot be believed about the reasons for going to war, will they be believed in an emergency? Ministers say that they do not wish to talk about threats and what to do about them in case people panic. But the British are not a panicky nation and we want to feel that the various possibilities, which everyone realises exist and which from time to time Ministers confirm exist, have been thought through as much as possible, although we all recognise that no-one can prepare for them completely, and that the responses have been though through.

However, those matters are not central to this report and I wish to make some particular points. Regarding the role of special advisers, there is a devastating account on page 10 of what has gone wrong. It says:

a point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. That paragraph, in itself, is a key to what has gone wrong and what requires to be put right. I think that special advisers, and particularly those with responsibilities for talking to the media, need to be reined in. Recommendation 7 makes some suggestions. I would have been happier with stronger wording, but the analysis is excellent.

Next, as my noble friend said, it is a mistake to try to pretend that briefings will all be on the record. That will be a pretence, and I do not believe that it will happen quite like that. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, may not like it but the lobby will exist, formally or informally, and I think that, in general terms, it is much better that it should do so formally. I do not necessarily mean that everything about the system is perfect, but I believe it is better that it exists formally.
 
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Another part of the report struck me very forcefully—indeed, it shocked me. Recommendation 9.2 on page 25 states:

that is, statistical data—

What shocked me was the use of the word "if". I do not think that Ministers should use statistical information, which is due to be given out according to clear timetables set out in other recommendations, in speeches or in argument ahead of publication. Like everyone else, they should wait for it to be published. I do not object to Ministers being given advance information of statistics in confidence in a limited area—other recommendations deal with that—so that they are in a position to comment when the statistics are released. Clearly, that is an important part of day-to-day management in government. But I do not think that they should be able to choose to release a statistic in advance if they feel like it, even in the circumstances of Recommendation 9.2.

Incidentally, the report goes on to state:

The fact is that, if Ministers came under the same rules as now apply to company directors, their treatment of statistics would have to be very different from what has been the case. From some of the wording, one might also think that that should be so even if that recommendation were carried out. However, I do not believe that Ministers should anticipate the regular issue of statistical services for any purpose.

Nevertheless, as a whole, we should be grateful for the report, grateful for the analysis that it contains and grateful for many of its recommendations. Like my noble friend, I think that it is wrong in some, potentially damaging, ways but it is also a very useful guide to thought on all these matters. I hope that the Government will respond, but I urge them to treat the recommendations with caution and to study the points made by my noble friend Lord Wakeham.


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