|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
That is a slightly different perspective from the alarm bells that are sometimes rung in the media and are reinforced by comments during the course of lively political debate to suggest that everything to do with public life is held in low regard by the nation. Some of those bodies have attracted very little criticism of their work. We have scarcely heard a critical mention in this debate, which gave an opportunity for critical voices to be heard. Who does not think that the Civil Service Commissioners set good standards on recruitment by which the Civil Service goes about its tasks? They audit compliance by departments and agencies against those standards. They publish a recruitment code that interprets the principle of selection to the Civil Service on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. They also hear appeals from home civil servants under the Civil Service Code that cannot be resolved through internal departmental procedures.
The Civil Service Commissioners are chaired by Janet Paraskeva, whose predecessor as First Civil Service Commissioner was the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. No one is suggesting that their work has not been up to standard. They have been operating on that basis for over 150 years. During that period, it has been necessary for their role to evolve and keep pace with changing times. For example, the new Civil Service Code, issued in June 2006, allows the Civil Service Commissioners to hear a complaint under the code directly from a civil servant. In addition, the selection panels for the most senior appointments to the Civil Service are now chaired by a Civil Service Commissioner. They show ability and an element of flexibility, to which I will return later in relation to other committees. The Civil Service Commissioners have had an excellent record in those terms.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, mentioned the question of a Civil Service Bill, which did not feature as the most fundamental part of the debate. There is considerable public interest in that, and there is interest in this House. I am not in a position today to make a statement about a Civil Service Bill, but a statement will be made in due course. Criticisms have been expressed about the necessity for a Civil Service Bill. The issues that have been raised in consultation on the Bill, which has been in the public domain for some time, have resulted in action already within the framework of government. There is already an annual report to Parliament on special adviser numbers, costs and responsibilities. One of the prompts behind the concept of the Civil Service Bill is the inclusion of the responsibilities of special advisers. Updated codes of conduct for Ministers and special advisers were published in July 2005. Induction programmes for new Ministers and special advisers, so that their roles are clarified and the boundaries and responsibilities are clearly defined, take place already. There is consultation with the main Opposition party leaders on the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner and the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It is contended that the Bill becoming an Act has been overlong in the waiting as far as some noble Lords are concerned. The Government are aware of some significant issues, and we have ensured that appropriate action has been taken within the framework of government.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments also seems to have occasioned limited comment today. I am not sure whether it is meant to be in the statutory framework that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is suggesting, but I presume that it is. The strength of the regulatory system for making public appointments was commented on by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which praised the arrangements. It commented on:
The successful development of a culture which recognises the importance of appointment on merit ... The broad ... acceptance by appointing authorities of the Commissioner for Public Appointments authority as custodian of the Code of Practice on Public Appointments; and ... The commitment of most appointing authorities to running proportionate operations, strong on process, but that clear outcomesexcellent appointments contributing to public service delivery and carrying the confidence of both ministers and the general publicare important too.
The existing arrangements have been commented on by the very committee that has been the main focal point of discussion and debate in this House today and in recent consideration; the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, indicated that that body would benefit if it had been established in statute. First, does anyone doubt its independence? Whatever one says about the period of tenure of Sir Alistair Grahamand it has been true of his predecessors, toodoes anyone think that he was in anything other than a category entirely independent from Government? I have heard it said today that he was a thorn in the side of the Government from time to time and challenged them. Objectively, that is certainly the case. What does that establish? It establishes his independence.
Secondly, I very much respect the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on the importance of flexibility and the ability of a committee such as this to address the significant issues of the moment, which, if it were in statute, could not even begin to address issues that were not within its terms of reference until an Act of Parliament had been amended. Given that the committee would need to look at issues of high controversy, can one think of the process by which such a Bill would go through Parliament? All noble Lords are experienced enough to appreciate that that Bill would have a fairly stormy passage, it certainly would not be swift in its execution and achievement and it would lose precisely the features that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, identified, in terms of the past practice of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
I have been questioned by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, on the continuation of the committee. Let me put this into contextand I am somewhat surprised that the Opposition do not recognise the significance of that context. On one side, the Government are being pressed to recognise that a Select Committee in the other place has been engaged on these issues for a considerable period. It rightly expects its recommendations to be taken seriously and the noble Lord enjoined me to give an assurance that the Government would look at its recommendations with due care and attention and take them seriously. I give that commitment. That committee is due to report shortly.
Also, we are in a unique position. Whether this House has suddenly become so delicate about democratic affairs that it will eschew any discussion about what is happening at the other end, I am not sure. It did not have such reservations yesterday, although that was a different matter. We should not ignore the fact that this country is in a unique situation in which a Prime Minister has announced that he is giving up his position within a certain time frame, leading to the expectation that there will be a change of Prime Minister in the next few months. Suggesting that that does not impact at all on a body such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life while a Select Committee is evaluating the work of that body and others is engaging in an element of naivety. Of course, we expect that the Government will look at the recommendations of that committee
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1794
Like other chairmen of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair is leaving after three years in office. Is there therefore anything surprising or particularly sinister in his term of office coming to an end at this stage?
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is a cause of great concern that, unlike his two predecessors, the term of office of Sir Alistair has not been extended to cover the interim period before a successor has been appointed and that that appears to be an attempt by the Government to punish him for the outspoken manner in which he has conducted his chairmanship?
Lord Davies of Oldham: No, my Lords, that is not the case at all and his very able deputy is carrying on the work of the committee. The simple fact of the matter is that Sir Alistairs term came to an end, as the terms of all previous chairmen have, and he has been asked to resign to complete his term on that basis. The suspicion would be valid if we were not in the unique situation that I have just described; namely, that we have an important report from the Select Committee in another place on these very issues and we expect the Government to consider that report with great seriousness. I refute the concept that there has been some improper activity on the part of the Government as far as Sir Alistair is concerned. What is quite clear from the letters that have been exchanged between him and the Cabinet Secretary is how much his work on the committee has been appreciated over these past three years.
I come to the final points that I want to make on these matters. In expressing a constructive proposal on how these committees could be enhanced in public life, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has stimulated a debate that has produced conflicting opinions. All noble Lords who have contributed to the debate have helped to flesh out these issues and I am grateful to those who have served on particular committees for identifying their experiences.
We have to put this matter in context. Britain does not have public life, public administration or a Civil Service that set low standardsvery far from it. It is to Britain that a large number of people come to attend our National School of Government in order to understand how Administrations can be runfree, fair, proper, to standards of probity and with the absence of corruption. The bodies which are the subject of this debate play their part in the vital role of setting and upholding those standards across the nation.
While recognising the constructive criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, we should also recognise that we do not want to lose the virtues of the past, nor should be succumb to a crude populism that suggests that public life is held in low regard, that standards are declining rapidly and that the nation is ill-served. Far from itwe should have confidence in the institutions that we have.
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I see from the Clock that I have slightly less than an hour in which to respond. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I would put the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, slightly differently, and say that the emphasis has been on quality rather than quantity. Sometimes a short debate can be more productive than a long one and, as the Minister said, it has been especially valuable to hear from noble Lords with experience of one or more of the bodies that we are discussing. That has shown the value of debates such as this.
I take many of the points that have been made. I especially agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, on a Civil Service Act; there is general agreement from everyone on the quality of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as evidenced by its latest annual report. However, it will be no surprise that I agree with the theory of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, rather than that of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, concerning the remit of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and what flows from that. Once the committee starts to look into the role of political parties, that puts it beyond simple answerability to the Prime Minister.
I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said about not seeing this as a perfect solution. It is merely a means to an end, and it is important to get the means themselves absolutely right. I take his point: one would have to devise the statutes so that, in effect, flexibility was written into them. As I mentioned earlier, it is merely a starting point and there is then a question of how the powers are used.
I am grateful for the Ministers reply. He offered us some insight into the Governments thinking, which appears to be, We cant see what the problem is. He is right to say that the standards maintained in this country are comparatively high, but some of the other surveys commissioned by the Committee on Standards in Public Life show a less rosy picture than he indicated in respect of particular actors in this country. The fact that we achieve higher standards than elsewhere is no basis for complacency. We should strive for the best, not simply to be above average.
The Ministers other argument concerned perception. I rather enjoyed listening to it because he effectively destroyed the whole case put forward by the Government for the Constitutional Reform Act. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, will remember, the Governments argument was: We cant prove that there is any perception that the Law Lords are not independent but we perceive theres a perception; therefore, we need to move them out of the House of Lords. So the logic of the argument advanced by the Minister is that the Government should now introduce a Bill to repeal the Constitutional Reform Act. I am sure that we look forward to that.
As I said, this has been a valuable debate. There is a case for looking at the role of these bodies to see whether they should be on a statutory basis and whether some, rather than all, of them should be on a statutory basis. We need to pursue that and I may well
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1796
The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, earlier today, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, by means of a Written Ministerial Statement in another place, announced machinery of government changes in relation to counterterrorism. Alongside, but not contingent on, that announcement, he also announced the creation of a new departmentthe Ministry of Justice.
My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has this morning in another place made an Oral Statement. With your Lordships permission, I shall repeat that Statement in full. Following that, again with your Lordships permission, I shall make a statement to this House providing further details of the machinery of government changes, particularly in relation to the new Ministry of Justice. First, the Home Office Statement is as follows:Since the end of the Cold War, we have faced new challenges, especially from mass migration and international terrorism. As Home Secretary, it has been my responsibility to ensure that we have a response up to the challenge of the age. That is why I have pursued challenging reform programmes across all aspects of the Home Office. We have made changes to NOMS and will build 8,000 more prison places; we are rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the victim; we are beginning the rollout of neighbourhood policing; and we are launching the respect agenda to tackle anti-social behaviour. In addition, we are making changes to ensure the fair and effective management of immigration, and are moving IND towards agency status. In addition, following the alleged terrorist plot last August, the Prime Minister asked me to conduct a review of counterterrorism. Arising out of that review, the Prime Minister has today announced machinery of government changes. These changes will lead to a step-change in the management of the terrorist threat, and there will be other changes to create a coherent ministerial committee system to ensure better joint working and engage with the struggle for ideas and values. We will also establish a new unit, the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, in the Home Office. No responsibility will be taken away from leading government departments. There will be no changes of responsibility for agencies. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will retain its responsibilities, the Department for Communities and Local Government will remain in the lead on the prevention
The creation of a Ministry of Justice is an importantindeed, a landmarkmoment in the development of our public services and our justice system. From 9 May, the new Ministry of Justice will bring together Her Majestys Courts Service, the National Offender Management Service, the Office for Criminal Justice Reform, the Tribunals Service and the current responsibilities of the Department for Constitutional Affairs under one Secretary of State in the Lord Chancellor. It will work for a world-class justice system that has protecting the public, reducing reoffending and delivering sense in sentencing at the heart of everything it does. In addition, it will continue to work for a properly resourced and effective civil and family justice system.
The Ministry of Justice will improve the ability of the justice system to serve the public, whether they are victims or witnesses in a criminal case, or whether they are using the family or civil courts or the Tribunals Service. It will also become responsible for sentencing policy, criminal law, criminal procedure and penal policycurrently the responsibilities of the Home Office.
The need for a strong and independent judiciary is fundamental to any criminal justice system. The Ministry of Justice will further strengthen the already strong relationship between the judiciary and the Executive set out in the concordat, which describes the roles and responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor and the judiciary. The Lord Chief Justice has stated that he does not object in principle to the creation of a Ministry of Justice, provided that there are appropriate safeguards to ensure a properly resourced justice system. We share that desire and will work with him to achieve it.
The Ministry of Justice will work closely with the Attorney-Generals office and the Home Office to ensure that the Government maintain, develop and build on the reduction in levels of crime and the increase in the number of offences brought to justice in the past 10 years. As I said, it will also continue to have policy responsibility for civil and family justice, as well as key elements of constitutional and rights-based policy, such as data protection, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act.
The Ministry of Justice will begin operating on 9 May 2007. The Government are committed to ensuring that change is handled well and with the minimum of fuss and disruption. Departments will work closely together to ensure that processes and organisational changes improve delivery.
The delivery of these reforms represents a challenge, but the professionalism and commitment of prison and probation officers, court staff, tribunal staff and all those working in the new ministry and across the justice system will ensure that we make the most of this opportunity.
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will forgive me for not subjecting the text of his Statement to an intimate analysis but I received a copy of it only as I made my way towards the Chamber.
I am sure that it is no fault of the noble and learned Lord that this Statement has been made to your Lordships on the afternoon of our last days work before the Easter break. The Statement raises vital matters about the nations security; I am thinking not just of crime but of terrorism. It would have been much better if we could have had a thorough debate about the division of these responsibilities before a final decision was made by the Government. This underlines the importance of a full review of the relationship between Parliament and the exercise by government of the royal prerogative. In my submission, it is most unsatisfactory that these matters were not thoroughly debated before a final decision was made.
The origin of these proposals, in my submission, arises from the events of January 2007. Your Lordships will recall them well. There was a fiasco over some 27,500 British nationals who had been convicted of crimes abroad but whose convictions had not been recorded domestically. Their records were left sitting in the Home Office without being transferred to the police national computer. That was a straightforward example of administrative incompetence. Perhaps, to distract our attention from a matter manifestly concerned with ministerial responsibility, the right honourable gentleman, the Home Secretary, responded by demanding a radical restructuring of the Home Office.
It is very hard to escape the conclusion that running the Home Office is simply too difficult a task for the current Home Secretary. Indeed, by comparison with previous Home Secretaries, he has got off lightly. In addition to the present responsibilities, Home Secretaries used to be responsible for charities, gambling, broadcasting, civil defence, the fire service, and even human rights.
One has to look at the Statement in the context of the history of events from earlier this year. Nothing in the Statement gives us any confidence that anything will be done about the litany of mistakes and administrative errors made by the Home Office. What
29 Mar 2007 : Column 1799
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|