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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, on raising this issue. I greatly appreciated the thoughtful way in which he and the other noble Lords involved in this short debate approached the matter. I was particularly charmed by the way in which all noble Lords made it plain that they have form on this issue. I am not sure that I have form—or perhaps, going back to my local government days, I have. I was always accused of being a master of spin in my own locality, so that is on the record too. I also take this opportunity to congratulate Bob Phillis on the occasion of his knighthood in the Birthday Honours List. I believe we all agree that it is well deserved.

I was intrigued by, and interested in, the comments of all three noble Lords who participated in the discussion. They covered the same area to a large
 
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extent, although there were some disagreements. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, took a rather more positive view of the Phillis review and report, and the noble Lords, Lord Wakeham and Lord Cope, said that it was a useful document and a valuable guide to behaviour. I believe we all agree with that.

This is a helpful opportunity for me to summarise the Government's position with regard to our plans for government communications, and I shall take my time to do just that. It is worth reminding ourselves that communicating with the public is one of the Government's most essential tasks. There have been criticisms about the level of government spend, but we are massive organisationally. We have the ability to make tremendous impact upon public life, on people's happiness, their wealth, sorrow and opportunities. A government who are dedicated to improving the opportunities for all have an important job to do to explain their policies, decisions and actions and to ensure that we have an informed public who understand their rights, responsibilities and liabilities. I doubt whether there is much difference between any of the political parties about that responsibility of government.

It is hardly a new set of responsibilities. In preparing for this debate I asked my advisers to look at the origins of public information campaigns. I was told that one of the first of those was carried out in 1876 by the Post Office, which in those days was a government department. It was charged at that time with telling the public about government saving schemes, life assurance and annuities. That was one of the first examples they could find of a protracted government information campaign.

During the 20th century, under the twin influences of conflict and a diversifying news media, the government's means of communicating with the public became more structured. More recently, the public's expectations have changed. They are no longer simply content to be told what the Government have decided; they want to be consulted, listened to and informed about policies and decisions which may in some way affect their lives, their families, those close to them, their communities and what they do. That is an important point.

I am sure that there would be agreement that successive governments have in their different ways strived for more effective ways of communicating with the public. It is an issue that both the Select Committee on Public Administration and the Committee on Standards in Public Life have reviewed recently. Both were especially concerned to maintain the political impartiality of government, a matter which all noble Lords who have spoken were particularly seized of, and it is right that that should be the case. The Select Committee on Public Administration also focused on the need to join up communications across departments and integrate them more effectively into policy making and policy delivery. The last report from that Select Committee on the issue called for a radical external review of government communications. The Government responded to this positively by commissioning the Phillis review.
 
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Under the chairmanship of Bob Phillis, the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group plc, the review team carried out what has been recognised as a very thorough examination of all the issues. It published its interim report last August and a final report in January this year. We are grateful to that review team for its work and the way in which it considered the issues. The Government have already taken steps to address the review's key recommendations. That underpins the Government's commitment to improve our methods of communication with the public.

As we all know, one of the most important recommendations of the Phillis review was the creation of a new Permanent Secretary for Government Communications. Howell James has now been appointed to the post. He will be head of the profession responsible for the strategy, co-ordination and effectiveness of government communication across Whitehall. He will also be responsible for increasing the professionalism and capability of government communicators. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, acknowledged that that was long overdue and much needed, particularly in terms of training. I do not see that as a centralising measure. Indeed, the objective is to ensure effective communication from all government departments. The relationship between the Minister and the head of communications within each department will obviously be very important. However, I am sure that most Members of your Lordships' House would agree that co-ordination and drawing together the threads of government is an important role too.

Howell James will take up his post in the summer. He will focus on the redefinition of the role and scope of government communications to ensure that we are communicating with the public in the widest possible way. That includes increasing two-way communications to help improve policy-making and the delivery of public services. It also involves more communication with the public at a local level, one that matters to them, and more direct communication, especially through the electronic media.

The Government have recently taken a significant step forward in joining up its web presence to make information more accessible, as Phillis recommended, with the recent launch of the Directgov website. The Government have also accepted and begun to make changes to the way in which Number 10 Downing Street operates. The Phillis recommendations were quite clear about the operation of government communications at the centre. The Prime Minister's special adviser on communications no longer has executive powers, a matter that was objected to. The Prime Minister's official spokesperson, a civil servant who conducts the lobby briefings, will report to the Permanent Secretary. The Government also remain committed to the long-standing principle reflected in the ministerial code that, wherever possible, announcements of government policy should be made in Parliament, as noble Lords have argued in the context of this debate.

The other issue raised this evening is the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. I think that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was
 
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suggesting that we should have a government recommitment to an FOI policy. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the major part of the Freedom of Information Act comes into effect in January of next year. That will allow the Government to demonstrate their commitment to openness and transparency, which is part of effective communication with the public. People will have the right to be told if information is held on them and to see it; they will get real, important information about the issues that affect them. This openness will encourage greater participation in democratic life and help to build confidence in public institutions.

I thought that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, on that point were important. I was grateful that he too shares that objective. It needs to be fostered and developed across parties to ensure that we rebuild that trust and take steps to counter an apparent disengagement, which many people have commented on in the past few days.

A great deal of work is going on to ensure that departments are fully prepared for the Freedom of Information Act. The Phillis review's recommendations will be carefully taken into account as part of the implementation process.

The central contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, was his concern about the centrally controlled press machine. I take issue with his description of the role; it was by implication an attack on the role of the new Permanent Secretary. The role is to redefine government communications. In essence, that is a much more strategic role. It is not about managing news; it is about improving communications with the public. Individual Ministers will remain—exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, wants—individually responsible for their departments. As I said earlier, joined-up government requires a more strategic approach to communications. That needs to take into account the importance of getting messages right so that the public understand what government are about, what they are trying to achieve, what their objectives are and what that means for them.

The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, forcibly made the point that briefings should be carried out by Ministers, not officials, and that they should be conducted directly in Parliament. By and large that happens. Government remain strongly committed to the long-standing principle reflected in the ministerial code, that wherever possible in the first instance announcements should be made to Parliament.

It is agreed that more Ministers should host lobby briefings and that those should be open and televised. The Government are discussing with the relevant public authorities, including Parliament and the parliamentary lobby, how best to pursue that particular proposal.

I have dealt with the issues relating to the freedom of information and our commitment towards it. It is a strong commitment and an important statement in legislation. We were the first government to introduce freedom of legislation in this country. I think that we should take more credit on that issue than perhaps we have been given to date.
 
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The noble Lord, Lord McNally, never misses the opportunity to criticise government spend and the relationship between that spend and the electoral cycle. It is worth reminding ourselves that that spend has to be properly audited. The National Audit Office specifically undertook a review at the request of the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. It concluded that rules of propriety had been followed and advice and propriety was a significant part of advice provided by the Central Office of Information.

Government spend on advertising includes campaigns that I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will find entirely laudable. Examples include recruitment to the Armed Forces or the Police Service; encouragement for people to take up places in higher education or become nurses; for more doctors to work within the National Health Service; or to ensure effective promotion of literacy training, energy efficiency or a constant stream of blood donors. All those are at the core of what the Government promote through our spend on advertising. As I said earlier, given the size of the Government, it is hardly surprising that the budget is as it is and that it has increased over the years. All of that takes place within the rules and is conducted with propriety.

My time has almost ended. I simply restate that we as a Government are working hard to improve how we deliver on one of our most essential tasks: communicating with the public. The Government agree with the independent Phillis review that we must communicate with the public in the widest possible way. The appointment of a new Permanent Secretary for Government Communications is a first and important step in taking that work forward to develop a communications service that better meets the needs and demands of today's environment. I am confident that we will meet that challenge.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for introducing this debate. It is important and we should continue it, because it reflects well on how the Government work.


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