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Government Powers (Limitation) Bill

Volume 401: debated on Friday 14 March 2003

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Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

1.57 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Solicitor-General and, above all, to Her Majesty, to whom I express profuse thanks for providing consent for the introduction of this Bill. I believe that it warrants a Second Reading, and I hope that the House will give it its dutiful and sympathetic consideration today.

The essential purpose of the Bill is
"to amend the law in relation to the permitted number of Ministers of the Crown; to limit the powers of Ministers to make certain appointments; to make provision with respect to the parliamentary scrutiny of European Union proposals and other subordinate legislation; and for connected purposes."
The background to its introduction can be simply stated. The power of modern British Governments has grown, is growing, and according to current trends will continue to grow. There is a widespread anxiety across the political spectrum that the power of Governments should be diminished or constrained, and that the tendency of Ministers to abuse the powers that they currently enjoy has grown to an unacceptable degree.

I am specifically concerned to refer, in the time available, to a number of important matters in respect of which Government power needs to be circumscribed: first, in respect of the appointment of Ministers; secondly, in respect of the appointment of special advisers; thirdly, in the context of appointments to non-departmental public bodies; fourthly, in relation to appointments to taskforces; and fifthly, in relation to the scrutiny of European Union legislation by the ordinary mechanism of the statutory instrument.

Let me deal first with the size of the Government. The Bill, which I commend to the House, would impose a limit on the number of Ministers of the Crown. Under the terms of my Bill, that limit would be 82 Ministers, with a maximum of 63 Ministers of State or Under-Secretaries of State. To give context and meaning to our deliberations, it is important to emphasise that the current Government comprise 116 Ministers—34 in excess of my generous limit. I invite the House to consider whether it really believes or supposes that the public are persuaded that a larger Government, more decision making and an increased number of Ministers have made, are making, or will make for better government.

Perhaps they at least guarantee a minimum of support for the Prime Minister in the Lobbies.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but dare I say it is of a partisan character that I am not inclined to replicate today? This is a serious, solemn and sober measure that I commend to the House. Of course, today the Prime Minister has relatively few friends and a great many enemies, and although not all his enemies are in the Cabinet, a good many undoubtedly are.

I want to focus on the wider picture. I genuinely believe that whether a Labour or a Conservative Government are in office, the tendency to the aggrandisement of Government has been very marked for a lengthy period, and that tendency now needs to be decisively arrested and reversed.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will touch in passing on the size of what we in this place call the payroll, which, as he knows, is a device whereby the Government seek to swell their own ranks in the Westminster and Whitehall context. It involves not only Ministers, but Whips, who must not be forgotten, and Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who have been much in the news recently and who all seem to be on the point of resignation over Iraq, as well as chauffeur-driven cars, private offices and all the other accoutrements of ministerial office. Will he comment on the pernicious effect of all that on the Parliament-Government relationship?

I, too, am concerned about that relationship. The essence of that concern is that increasing the size of Government, putting more people on the payroll and constraining the capacity of individual legislators to express their personal opinions deprives the public of the authentic representative and independent-minded House of Commons, which, in a modern democracy, they ought to be able to depend on and enjoy. That is one of the reasons why I want a smaller Government and a greater independent-minded capacity to scrutinise.

I have talked about the appointment of Ministers and stated my belief that their number should be reduced. I am also extremely concerned about the massive and exponential growth in the number of special advisers, from 38 in the last year of the Conservative Government to no fewer than 81 in 2001. The cost of those special advisers to the taxpayer, who is obliged to finance those arrangements, rose in that period from £1.8 million a year to no less than £4.4 million a year. My Bill is designed to check and constrain that trend.

I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that all special advisers are redundant. Does he not agree that at least two have been of value? Edmund Burke was special adviser to Rockingham—and was not my hon. Friend special adviser to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) when she was Secretary of State for National Heritage?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, both for his historical exegesis and for reminding the House of the relatively modest contribution that I made to the capacity of Government when John Major was Prime Minister. I did indeed serve as a special adviser. However, the way in which the role of special adviser has developed has been profoundly damaging. I say, without any hesitation or apology to the House, that when I served as a special adviser to the Heritage Secretary and, before that, to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I did not suppose for one moment that I had the right to countermand the professional judgment of members of the permanent civil service. I recognised that my role was to be an additional and alternative source of principally political advice to my ministerial boss. It was not for me to interfere in the professional, impartial and politically neutral—but competent—discharge of press relations work. The situation has changed in recent times, but although a code of conduct for special advisers was issued in July 2001, it is still far from satisfactory.

Not at the moment.

My Bill calls for Select Committee approval of ministerial and special adviser appointments. The whole Jo Moore saga showed the extent to which the Government have been corrupted at their roots by improper and untoward behaviour on the part of people who have not the slightest understanding of, let alone respect for, the traditions of impartiality and neutrality of the professional civil service. I could willingly dilate on that point for several minutes, if not hours, but I sense that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is waiting—with eager anticipation, bated breath and beads of sweat upon his brow—to intervene.

Not entirely! I wanted to back up the hon. Gentleman and ask whether he agrees that the most pernicious element of the arrangements for special advisers was seen when one of the first things that the Prime Minister did on coming to power in 1997 was to give two special advisers—Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell—executive power over civil servants. Is not such an arrangement simply indefensible?

It was utterly improper that that should happen, just as it was wholly inappropriate for the Prime Minister—

I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (motion to sit in private): —The House proceeded to a Division.

I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you clarify whether there is any rule of thumb, standard or precedent for the amount of time that the Chair expects to elapse during a Division before the Chair asks the Serjeant or the Deputy Serjeant to investigate? I understand that last week at an equivalent time on Friday about 16 minutes was allowed to elapse before the Deputy Serjeant appeared in the Lobby. Perhaps you can help us in this matter for now and for the future.

It is a matter of common sense that the House wishes to proceed with its business in an orderly way. The normal time for the conduct of a Division is around 12 minutes. On a day when one surmises that relatively few Members are present, it should not take longer than that. The House should proceed on a sensible basis—it should not take longer than 12 minutes for a Division to be completed.

The House having divided: Ayes 0, Noes 19.

Division No. 114]

[2:07 pm


Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Andrew Dismore and

Ann Keen


Allan, RichardGrieve, Dominic
Baker, NormanHoban, Mark (Fareham)
Bercow, JohnHolmes, Paul
Calton, Mrs PatsyHoram, John (Orpington)
Fallon, MichaelJenkin, Bernard
Field, Mark (Cities of London & Westminster)Lilley, rh Peter
Maclean, rh David
Forth, rh EricWiggin, Bill
Francois, Mark
Gidley, Sandra

Tellers for the Noes:

Gillan, Mrs Cheryl

Mr. John Heppell and

Gray, James (N Wilts)

Dr. Phyllis Starkey

Question accordingly negatived.

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given the legitimate concern of all right hon. and hon. Members about the esteem or lack of it in which the House is held by the wider public, and in light of the fact that this country could be on the brink of a declaration of war, are you aware of any precedent for an hon. Member—in this case, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—seeking to deny the right of another hon. Member to develop the argument in support of a Bill to circumscribe Government powers, through a piece of jocular parliamentary game playing?

I seek your guidance on that important matter, the more so, I must add in parenthesis, in light of the fact that my mother has the singular misfortune to be the hon. Gentleman's constituent.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The matter is worse than my hon. Friend has described. I am sure that I witnessed Government Whips seeking to prevent or dissuade Government Members from entering the Lobbies, a matter which surely must be proven beyond doubt by the fact that although the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) sought to exclude the public from our deliberations through his spurious motion a moment ago, you have declared that there were no votes in favour of his motion, not even his own. On the basis of what Government Back Benchers, in collusion with Whips and indeed Ministers, have just done in this House of Commons, surely the House is left hovering on the edge of disrepute. Is there nothing that can be done to prevent this sort of abuse?

Order. I think that I can probably deal with this.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will not expect me to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every event that has occurred in the Chamber and in the Division Lobbies in past years, but I think that I can safely say that what has happened is not without precedent. With regard to what may happen outside the Chamber in terms of persuading right hon. and hon. Members whether and how to vote, there has been a multitude of precedents for such encouragement. We should now proceed.