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Departmental Appointments

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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If he will make a statement on the Government's policy in respect of appointments to the press and information departments of Government Departments. [15091]

All appointments to the permanent civil service—including those in press and information divisions—are made on the basis of merit through fair and open competition.

If that blameless description is true, and if there really is no politicisation of press and information appointments, as is widely reported, will the

hon. Gentleman explain why no fewer than eight senior civil servants in press and information departments have suddenly found an overwhelming desire to spend more time with their families?

First, the figure is seven, not eight. There are a variety of reasons for such changes. Bernard Ingham, in his memoirs, points out that, when Viscount Whitelaw returned from Northern Ireland, he was out of a job because Viscount Whitelaw brought his own press officer with him. It is a matter of public record that the chief press officer and the Minister without Portfolio have endorsed the impartiality of the press officer service within the civil service. That has been the case in the past, is the case at present and will remain the case in future.

Is not it rather rich of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to complain about the Government in this respect when the Conservative party was responsible for pumping tens of millions of pounds into Government propaganda campaigns which masqueraded as Government information?

However much the Conservative party pumped into propaganda when they were in government, they signally failed on I May. The Labour party made it abundantly clear before the election that it would be an integral part of a Labour Government's modus operandi to present their case effectively and impartially. Not only is it necessary for the Government to do that: it is their responsibility.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that seven press officers—:that is, about one third of the leading press officers in Government Departments—have found it impossible to work with the directives being issued to them by their Ministers makes it absolutely plain that what we are seeing is the politicisation by the Labour party of the civil service?

Needless to say, I completely reject that allegation; more important, so did Sir Robin Butler when he appeared before the Select Committee. It is perfectly in order that there should be staffing changes in press offices as elsewhere with the advent of a new Government. Indeed, without divulging the particulars of individual cases, there was a variety of reasons why people chose at that time to vacate their job in a Department.