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House of Lords

Wednesday, 13 December 2006.

The House met at three o’clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Inquiries: Ministerial Evidence

Baroness Miller of Hendon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the requirements of the Ministerial Code apply to Ministers giving evidence to committees of inquiry, whether at home or overseas.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he please comment on the appropriateness of the Prime Minister giving evidence to a United States Iraq group, the Baker group, on past actions of this Government and what he considers future actions should be regarding Iraq? This was done at a time when the Prime Minister has adamantly refused to hold such an inquiry in Britain.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it seemed entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister to give such evidence, which I thought was testament to his openness of approach.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I think it is testament to the Prime Minister’s openness of approach and the openness in general of this Government to questions relating to Iraq. The Prime Minister made himself very clear in explaining our nation’s position and his position in particular.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, does the Minister consider that the Prime Minister’s openness was demonstrated by his unwillingness to make any report to Parliament, and hardly any report to the public, on the outcome of his talks with President Bush on that inquiry?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that the Prime Minister acted entirely properly and with great care in what is obviously a delicate situation. It is absolutely the case that the Prime Minister acted entirely properly and he has been very clear in explaining his policy and position on this issue.

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Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that there have been four parliamentary or judicial inquiries into different aspects of the war in Iraq?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I can confirm that. There has been the ISC report, the Foreign Affairs Committee report and the Butler and Hutton inquiries and reports. As the Prime Minister explained on many occasions, he has been extremely willing to debate our past, present and future policy in Iraq.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, has the convention, which used to be in force, whereby government policy was announced, first, in Parliament and then to the greater, wider public, here and overseas, been abandoned?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: No, my Lords, of course it has not been abandoned. The Prime Minister was making plain our policy position. He was making his views and the Government’s views known to a foreign jurisdiction and legislature. It is testament to the Prime Minister’s openness on these issues and his desire further to consider and debate these matters publicly. He has done the nation a great service.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, if the Prime Minister has been so very open, why have the Government not yet acceded to the request that there should be a debate on Iraq in the Commons?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am making it plain that there have been a number of debates. I am sure that there will continue to be debates on Iraq, not just in the Commons but, of course, in your Lordships’ House.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, surely the question is whether the Prime Minister disclosed to a foreign legislature information about the Government’s policy towards Iraq which he had not already disclosed to our Parliament. If he did so, he was surely acting improperly.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not think there is any suggestion that the Prime Minister disclosed anything during his video-link interview—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Wait for it—it is always a gem when it comes. But if the noble Lord is worried about this matter, he can study the transcript of the video-link evidence that the Prime Minister gave. The No. 10 website reference is: www.pm.gov.uk/output/page10421.asp. If the noble Lord was unable to follow that and cares to take the time to stroll down to the House Library, he will find a copy of the transcript there as well.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords—

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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we have just had a Conservative speaker, so it probably is the turn of the other side.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the Baker commission is about the way forward in Iraq. What Members of this House, Members of the House of Commons and people in the country generally would like is a similar commission here to see the way ahead for this country in Iraq. Is it not possible to set up such a commission?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the Iraq Study Group, which is part of the United States Institute of Peace—a body independent of the American Government—is looking at future policy options. No doubt there is much to debate in that field and it will be the subject of continuing debate. There will continue to be debates in your Lordships' House and in another place on the subject. It is important that we continue that debate and the Prime Minister is making an important contribution towards it.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords—

Lord Trimble: My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I hate to say it, but we have not heard from the Cross Benches yet.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, with the greatest respect, the noble Lord is wrong.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I am sorry to have caused such discord, but I merely wanted to observe that it is rather strange that people should be worrying about evidence given to the Baker inquiry when the clear implication from the Statement made yesterday by the Defence Secretary is that Baker will be left on the shelf.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on that, but I agree with the noble Lord that it is entirely proper that there should be public debate about these issues. That should come as no surprise to your Lordships' House.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Lawson of Blaby: Thank you, my Lords. Is the Minister’s assurance a little while ago that the Prime Minister said nothing of interest to the Baker inquiry acceptable? I have the highest regard for Jim Baker, with whom I worked very closely and harmoniously for many years when I was Chancellor

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and he was Treasury Secretary in the United States. Nevertheless, does the Minister not accept that many people in this country feel that the Prime Minister’s consistent, poodle-like approach to the United States and the United States Government is demeaning and embarrassing and not in this country's interest?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that the Prime Minister said some things of considerable interest to the Baker inquiry, but I cannot accept what the noble Lord said about our Government’s approach to issues involving the US Administration.

Special Advisers: Select Committees

3.08 pm

Lord Sheldon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Cabinet Office guidance Departmental Evidence and Response to Select Committees makes it clear that where a Select Committee indicates that it wishes to take evidence from a particular named official, including special advisers, the presumption should be that Ministers will agree to meet such a request. The guidance also makes it clear that the final decision on who is best placed to represent the Minister rests with the Minister concerned.

Lord Sheldon: Yes, my Lords, but should it not rest also with the civil servant concerned, who can be asked by the departmental committee to appear before it? Will my noble friend acknowledge that after the Government asserted or claimed year after year that a draft Civil Service Bill would be introduced, it is now clear that that commitment has been abandoned? In the absence of such a Bill, which is much to be deplored, will my noble friend ensure that special advisers may give oral evidence to Select Committees at least to determine the role that they play in practice rather than in theory?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I should make it clear, as the guidance does, that the position of special advisers is the same as that for permanent civil servants. There is no prohibition on special advisers appearing before Select Committees. But ultimately the decision should be for Ministers because they are, after all, accountable to Parliament. When civil servants give evidence to Select Committees they do so on behalf of their Ministers and under their directions, not on their own account.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, is the Minister aware that special advisers in his Government have, according to Parliamentary Answers that I have recently received, had “numerous unminuted meetings” with Anschutz and other foreign casino operators bidding for casino licences?

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In the 1974 Labour Government, when I advised Roy Jenkins, as Home Secretary, on gambling regulation among other things, if I had been caught holding meetings with foreign casino operators I would have been sacked on the spot. Now that standards of conduct have changed and special advisers are clearly acting as surrogate Ministers, why are Select Committees not allowed to scrutinise their activities as a matter of course?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord’s supposition that special advisers are acting as surrogate Ministers. As I made clear a moment ago, they act on behalf of their Ministers and under their direction, not on their own account. They are ultimately accountable to Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, while it may be perfectly acceptable for political advisers to give evidence to Select Committees, is it in order for them to attack the political integrity of democratically elected Members of Parliament? When they do so, as was reported in the Sunday Times last weekend over the McBride affair, should they not simply be sacked?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not make it a practice to comment on articles that have appeared in newspapers, even newspapers as well disposed as and with the integrity of the Sunday Times.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Oakeshott I declare an interest as a former special adviser to Roy Jenkins. Is the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, correct in surmising that the Government have abandoned their manifesto commitment and the commitment made in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to introduce a Civil Service Bill? Has that been abandoned, and, if so, why?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for confessing his membership of an elite group of former special advisers, which greatly enlightens our House. As to the noble Lord’s comments about the Civil Service Bill, manifesto commitments and the Cook-Maclennan accord, I think that this Government have made a great deal of progress on matters that have been raised as part of the more general debate on the Civil Service Bill. We have tried to ensure that we have made progress on issues of interest and importance that have been generally covered in that debate. So for the first time we have in the Civil Service Code the right for Civil Service commissioners to consider taking direct complaints or concerns from civil servants about issues under the code. We have also made it very plain who special advisers are, how much they are paid, how many there are, what rank they are and so on. We have a reputation for transparency as a Government and it is important for us to make progress in implementing those things that are possible to implement without necessarily having recourse to legislation.

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Lord De Mauley: My Lords, when are the Government going to bring forward a Civil Service Bill?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, like all these issues with legislation, they have to take their place and time, and it is for the Government to determine that. As the noble Lord will know, we have not listed a Civil Service Bill in this current round of legislation.

Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: My Lords, as the person who did all the work on the Civil Service Bill as shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster between 1995 and 1997, I know that many people on this side of the House are as interested as colleagues from all around the Chamber in why the Bill has not yet been introduced. I gave undertakings to all the Civil Service unions and others who had participated in our policy framework that this would be done if time was found within the first Parliament of the Labour Government. We are now in the second Parliament—

Noble Lords: Third!

Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: My Lords, forgive me. We are now in the third Parliament and there is still no Civil Service Bill. Who is sitting on the job?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not know that people are sitting on this particular job, but as noble Lords who are familiar with this issue will have observed in the past, I have to answer for the Government on it. We consulted on the Bill and are still considering the representations that were made. In the mean time, we bring forward measures that give effect to important issues which were raised during that debate.

Gambling: Casinos

3.16 pm

Lord Lee of Trafford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government have established the Casino Advisory Panel to advise them on the areas where the one regional, eight large and eight small casinos permitted by the Gambling Act should be located. The panel, which is operating entirely independently of government, is on track to make its recommendations at the end of January 2007.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Will he confirm that the Casino Advisory Panel’s report will be published, that it will make a specific recommendation on the super casino and that the Government will accept that recommendation? Do the Government appreciate that Blackpool was first in the field and is the obvious

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choice, and that if Blackpool fails to get the super or regional casino, its future is very limited and meltdown is likely?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord accepts as his premise that the Casino Advisory Panel will operate independently and, therefore, he cannot expect me to affirm from this Dispatch Box the virtues of Blackpool in this competition, in which there are a number of competitors. However, he is reflecting the fact that Blackpool made a strong case early on. He will have to wait and see.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, what will be the pace of activity after the panel declares its report?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as ever, activity will take place adroitly and with dispatch. The noble Lord will recognise that those who have bid for the casinos have a great deal of work to do. When a decision is taken at the end of January, they will expect to be empowered to take appropriate action, but the House will recognise that any action in this area must first come before both Houses in the form of a statutory instrument, because it is for Parliament to decide whether the independent advisory panel and the Secretary of State have acted wisely.

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister a relatively simple question. Are there any considerations other than purely economic ones in allowing super casinos at all?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate will recognise that the Gambling Act contains enhanced restrictions and controls over the availability of gambling to vulnerable sections of the community, particularly children. The stimulus towards the development of casinos is that many areas that require regeneration may be able to make a case that a casino will bring in substantial and much needed resources. That is an important motivation for the bids.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I note the Minister’s optimism over dispatch, let alone adroitness, but the Casino Advisory Panel has come under intense scrutiny and its decision will come under even greater scrutiny. Has the Minister considered that, when the decision is made, there will be a litigation nightmare, especially over the criteria—the social impact criterion in particular—by which the panel will have judged the winner? What impact on the timetable will that have? This matter will surely not be closed for a considerable time.

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