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Civil Service

Volume 194: debated on Monday 1 July 1991

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Book Manuscripts (Vetting)

36.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service how many manuscripts of books have been submitted for vetting by the head of the civil service in the last two years; and if he will list the authors.

In the past two years 10 authors have submitted manuscripts to the head of the home civil service under the guidelines of the Radcliffe report. Those whose books have so far been published include the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey); my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie); my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler); Lord Young of Graffham; Sir Alec Cairncross; Sir Bernard Ingham and Mr. Edmund Dell. Three others have submitted manuscripts but have not yet had their books published.

There are quite a few literary gems there.

Is not the vetting procedure a bit of a nonsense? It has far more to do with preventing potential Government embarrassment than with protecting national security. Most ministerial memoirs—although not, of course, the book by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)—are selective, impenetrable and tedious.

Would it not be far better if we scrapped the whole procedure and adopted a free system, so that everyone could be given the truth? I doubt whether, when the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) writes her memoirs—no doubt they will be called "We Did It Our Way", or something of the kind—we shall read the truth about the Belgrano or Westland. Why do we not get away from all this rubbish? Ministers rarely tell us the truth in retrospect.

I am sure that the whole House will await the memoirs of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) with eager interest. I hope, however, that he will show rather more loyalty to his Front-Bench colleagues than did Barbara Castle. According to her memoirs, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was ticked off by Lord Callaghan for serving the Prime Minister and not the whole Cabinet. Apparently, Lord Callaghan said:

"Another of Harold's failures is that he has done nothing to reform the Civil Service, and merely comforted himself by surrounding himself with comics like Gerald Kaufman."
I assume that, whether or not he submits his memoirs to the Radcliffe committee rules, the hon. Gentleman will be rather more loyal to the shadow Foreign Secretary.

Will my right hon. Friend be candid enough to admit that the vetting procedure is becoming a charade, partly because civil service vetters are incapable of distinguishing between security and embarrassment and partly because there are no sanctions against those who defy the suggestions of the vetting office? Is he aware that at least one ministerial author, whose memoirs will be published shortly, has taken no notice of the cuts that were suggested? Will he be taken off to the Tower of London when the book is published?

My hon. Friend well knows that there are no sanctions, but I must disagree with him: the system, which is voluntary, has worked well. Sir Bernard Ingham submitted his memoirs to the Cabinet Secretary and made all the changes that the Radcliffe rules require. It is better to have a voluntary system than a compulsory one, and by and large it works reasonably well.

Is the Minister aware that the Prime Minister has prohibited the publication of the evidence that I submitted to the Select Committee on Members' Interests, which contained the instructions that Mr. Callaghan gave Ministers about private financial interests? I have heard today from the Chairman of the Select Committee that, for that reason, he will not publish my evidence. Is he aware that, in the circumstances, I intend to publish it myself?

I am interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that. Whether his decision is right, and whether he can justify it to himself, it follows in the tradition that he has followed in the past. In his memoirs Against the Tide", he said:

"when my civil servants turn up with a letter to undermine another Minister, I tear it up‖That's more than can be said of other Ministers."
I think that he is probably following the same path of slightly idiosyncratic rebellion that he followed when he was a Minister in the Labour Cabinet.

Next Steps Agencies

37.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what improvements in customer service have been brought about by the creation of next steps agencies.

Improving the quality of customer service is one of the prime aims of next steps, and agencies are given targets for that. To quote but two of the many examples, the Meteorological Office's "Weather Initiative" provided umbrella retailers and manufacturers with advance information on the likelihood of last week's rain so that they could plan their production and distribution accordingly. The Driver Standards Agency has reduced waiting times for driving tests, and in order to promote road safety, examiners will now explain faults made by learners.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's reply. Does he agree that the next steps agencies will help to improve service to all consumers?

I have no doubt that one of the main purposes of the next steps agencies is to give greater customer satisfaction, which will be achieved only by providing better service.

Does the Minister believe that one of the improvements in customer services as a result of setting up the agencies should be that applicants for income support should automatically be assessed for any other grant or benefit that may be available to them?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been over this before. As I said, it is for the Secretary of State involved and the agency's chief executive to set the performance targets that he expects the chief executive to meet. If the hon. Gentleman would like to take this matter up with the Secretary of State for Social Security and the chief executive of the agency, I am sure that they will carefully consider his suggestion.

European Community Institutions

38.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what steps he is taking to increase the number of United Kingdom secondees to European Community institutions.

My Department has been spearheading a drive to increase the number of United Kingdom secondees to the European Community institutions. Since April 1990, the number of United Kingdom secondees has increased from 63 to more than 100.

That increase is highly welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of secondees and their seniority play a vital role in ensuring that the United Kingdom's interests are well represented at the formulation of policy in EC institutions?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. Secondments to the EC are an effective way of increasing our influence in the institutions. When secondees return to Whitehall, they bring back valuable experience which will be helpful in their Departments' dealings with the EC.

Disabled People

39.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service when he last met representatives of the civil service trade unions to discuss opportunities for people with disabilities.

I meet representatives of the civil service trade unions from time to time to discuss a variety of issues. They have not raised opportunities for people with disabilities with me, but my staff have regular meetings with them on this issue and keep me informed of progress.

Does the Minister agree that people with disabilities have a great deal to offer in many places, including the civil service? Many have acquired considerable skills in tackling their disabilities, which means that they would be of great benefit operating fully in the civil service. If there is anywhere that should provide open access and should not be biased against disabled people, it is the civil service.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will be pleased to know that my staff have, for example, arranged exhibitions of special equipment in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff that will help employ those with disabilities. The civil service employs 7,900 disabled staff —a slightly higher percentage of registered disabled people than in the work force generally.

Press Secretaries

40.

To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what is the number of press secretaries currently working for Her Majesty's Government.

There are only two posts in Whitehall which carry the title press secretary. These are in the Prime Minister's Office and the Treasury. In addition, there are eight with the title director of information, one chief of public relations and 10 heads of information in other Whitehall Departments.

In view of the challenge of explaining Majorism to the multitude, does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is enough?

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be able to explain his policies to the admiring British public without the need for any press secretary.