I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the Government’s management of the Civil Service; condemns the excessive increase in the Government’s spending on communications, advertising and marketing; further notes with alarm the increasing number of civil servants employed as press and communications officers despite the aims of the Gershon Review to reduce the administrative costs of Government; observes the increase in the number of political ministerial adviser appointees; further notes the creation of bodies and quangos which are unaccountable to the public; considers there to be widespread failures in the efficient implementation of Government policies by No. 10 Downing Street, Government departments and agencies; and calls on the Government to enshrine Civil Service independence in law in a Civil Service Act, bring in a strengthened Ministerial Code and a more transparent means of enforcing it, ask the Committee on Standards in Public Life to establish a code of conduct for the impartiality and accuracy of Government publications and advertising campaigns, and to take urgent steps to restore trust in the UK system of government by making it more efficient, transparent, accountable and effective.
I start by declaring the interests against my name in the Register of Members’ Interests.
The Tony Blair era of government became synonymous with spin. At the very outset of that Government back in 1997, there were huge increases in the number of special advisers; the figure more than doubled. Two special advisers in Downing street were given, completely without precedent, powers to give orders to conventional civil servants. In addition, a large number of departmental press secretaries who were already in place, and departmental heads of the information service who were permanent civil servants in the Government Information and Communication Service, were replaced with appointees who were more or less partisan.
At the time, eyebrows were raised and mildly controversial concerns were expressed, but after all, the Government were elected with a substantial majority and nothing that was done could be said to be illegal. However, it was nakedly a sharp turn away from the conventional approach of reliance on an impartial and professional civil service. That became the hallmark of the Blair era of government—the subordination of all considerations to the partisan political interests of the Labour party. In no Department was there a greater dedication to the cult of spin than in Her Majesty’s Treasury. We all remember—I do so vividly, as I was shadow Chancellor: one of many holders of that post—the notorious double-counted spending increases in the pre-Budget report of autumn 1998, in which spending increases for the whole comprehensive spending review period were conveniently added together to give a sum much greater than that which was being spent. That was the first indication that with the then Chancellor—now Prime Minister—it was wise to count the spoons carefully and decipher the fine print with a magnifying glass before deciding to rely on what he said.
Despite that history, it is fair to say that when the Prime Minister took office in the middle of last year, there was a sigh of relief that the first announcement of the age of change was that the era of spin was definitively over. Parliament, we were told, was to be told about things before the press and the media. Spin was consigned to history—a relic of the Blairite-Mandelsonist era of the past. The right hon. Gentleman said that
“one of my first acts as Prime Minister would be to restore power to Parliament in order to build the trust of the British people in our democracy.”
At the time, the soon to be elected deputy leader of the Labour party—now the Leader of the House—made an even more explicit promise:
“In future, under a Gordon Brown regime, we need to have no spin, no briefing, no secrets, and respect for Parliament”.
The right hon. and learned Lady’s final point about treating Parliament with respect and making statements to the House before the media was instantly more honoured in the breach than in the observance. We have worked out that on average, the media have been briefed about two announcements a week before they are made to Parliament. Often, announcements are not made to Parliament at all, even after the event.
What of the pledge to cut back on spin, and put the era of spin in the past? The simple truth is that there has been no reduction in the number of spin doctors and special advisers from the Blair era, or perhaps only a tiny one. The age of change turns out to be the age of no change. The publication of the White Book by the Central Office of Information, which was delayed until September last year to take account of the changes since the Prime Minister took over from Tony Blair, effectively shows that there has been no reduction at all. In fact, it took some time for the document to be published, and a number of questions from my right hon. Friends and me to elicit that information. Indeed, the Government’s answers, to specific questions, Department by Department, on the scale of the spin machine are a master-class in the spinning of information to give a false impression. They exclude, for example, the majority of communications personnel, limiting the numbers to the narrowest possible definition of “press officer”.
The White Book directory tells the full story of a Government spin machine that has spiralled out of control. Advertising costs have also spiralled. The Government have spent over £800 million on advertising in the past five years alone. The annual spend has quadrupled since Labour came to power. No doubt under the rigorous financial stewardship of the Prime Minister, assisted by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as his adviser for much of the time, it was spent immensely prudently. Is the advertising spend simply the overhang of the reckless Blairite era? No, because the figures clearly show that since the Prime Minister took over, the advertising spend has increased still further by four times the rate of inflation.
Taxpayers are entitled to ask whether they are getting a good return on the money that is being spent. Many Conservative council candidates who fought elections last week may think it was well spent, because the results were not bad for them. Even taxpayers who belong to, or support, the Labour party are asking that question because, after all, Labour’s electoral interests were clearly intended to benefit from those huge spends, including on advertising to promote the merits of neighbourhood policing in the middle of the local election campaign. That is a questionable use of taxpayers’ money in supposedly non-partisan information programmes.
The results of last week’s elections suggest that, from the Labour party’s point of view, it was a wretched use of money, because it led—I believe directly—to its worst position since the war; I do not mean the last war but the first world war. We have to go back a very long time indeed to the infancy of the Labour party to find a time when it did as badly as it did last week.
It is worth spending a little time looking at the Prime Minister’s explanation last weekend of what went wrong, because it bears directly on the substance of today’s motion. He said,
“I’ve spent too much time…looking at the detail of solving people’s problems.”
He also said,
“I’ve spent too little time thinking about how we can get our arguments across”.
He was saying that the Government were not doing enough spinning; they were spending their time earnestly looking over the fine detail of policy programmes to be absolutely sure that they had got them right. That was supposed to conjure up an image of an incredibly high-minded Prime Minister blundering around Downing street in the small hours of the morning, setting off security alarms while trying to unlock his office, because he was desperate to refine subsection (27)(a) of the bin charges Bill, or to rewrite paragraph 147 of his Chancellor’s Budget speech, or to work out with mathematical precision exactly why 42 days’ detention without charge was the right answer, rather than 40 or 44.
For somebody supposedly obsessed with substance, as the Prime Minister constantly tells us at the Dispatch Box, and the detail of “solving people’s problems”, he has not made a fantastically good fist of it. Abolishing the 10p tax rate was entirely his idea; indeed, it was his idea to create it in the first place. However, when it came to be implemented—
I will tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what it has to do with the debate. It is about allowing the Government’s emphasis and focus on spin from the outset to overcome the need to get the detailed management of policy implementation right. It becomes clear, and Ministers have had to admit, that that policy was not thought through. We find the Lord High Chancellor, as we understand he likes to be called, generously apologising for the mistakes that the Prime Minister had made.
When it comes to the package of changes promised to buy off the Labour rebellion, spin has yet again trumped substance. Fourteen months after slipping abolition into the fine print of the Budget paperwork, the Government still cannot say what the effects of the package will be. We are told—off the record, of course—that the Chancellor has given a categoric pledge, but there is still, amazingly for such a supposedly substance-obsessed Government, no actual package in sight. Hence the pitiful sight of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on “Newsnight” last night fending off the most basic questions—will the changes be backdated, will all the losers be compensated—
I am happy to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. My argument is that this is a Government whose obsession with spin, whose removal of resources into the communications side of government, has fatally weakened their ability to formulate and deliver policy in practice.
My right hon. Friend is remiss in not bringing to the fore all the delivery units in No. 10, all the blue-sky thinking units and all the quasi-political systems that are superseding the civil service in the eyes of the Prime Minister and the political élite. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is unacceptable and a waste of taxpayers’ money, and that they are not accountable to anyone, least of all the House?
Those units are meant to be accountable to the Prime Minister, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster may want to comment on that when he speaks. The creation of all those central departments with hundreds of personnel in them was the result of the warfare going on between the Treasury and Downing street. Because the Chancellor, as he then was, was constantly building up the Treasury’s own resource to stamp his authority over the whole of domestic policy, Tony Blair was constantly trying to counter that by creating countervailing units at the centre of government. The result was that the whole thing spiralled out of control, and there are thousands at the centre of government who were not there before.
One of the things that I remember from the way the Government operated in the 1980s, when I was junior Minister, was that, as my right hon. and hon. Friends who were there at the time will remember, No. 10 operated with quite a strong grip over the way the Government worked, with a private office of half a dozen and a policy unit of 10. It did not need delivery units or huge numbers—[Interruption.] I hear the Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), talking about substance. We constantly hear complaints from the Government that we are not engaging on substance. I am concerned with exactly the issues of substance. The Government are so obsessed with spin that they are consistently getting the answers wrong on major issues of huge importance to the public.
Let us look at the proposal on capital gains tax in the Budget, announced with such certainty in the pre-Budget report. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor had rapidly to find the reverse gear when the detail turned out, once again, not to have been thought through. The same with the proposal on non-doms—another humiliating U-turn when the package fell apart. Screening for clostridium difficile in January—
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am simply attempting to illustrate the problems that have arisen and the complaint that we make about the Government’s approach—the way in which, on substantial issue after issue, spin trumps substance. They get the substance wrong. They are so obsessed with trying to get the spin and the presentation right, and doing it incompetently, that they get not only the substance wrong, but the presentation desperately wrong.
On so many issues, decisions have been taken not with a view to the substantive merits of the argument, but on 42 days, on the income tax changes, on non-doms, on capital gains tax, ineffectively to try to wrong-foot the Opposition, rather than get the answer right. Far too much time is spent badly on presentation, and not enough time is spent on getting the substance right. The Government press on, claiming that they are slaving away solving people’s problems, as the Prime Minister puts it, but that has nothing to do with the substantive need.
Instead of the sober, steady focus on solving problems, we have seen a Prime Minister in a panic, hiring ever more spin and PR advisers to join the Downing street spin cycle. The rate of recruitment makes Tony Blair look like Gandhi. Hot on the heels of Stephen Carter from Brunswick, we saw David Muir from WPP—to direct political strategy, we are told. A few days later Nick Stace was appointed to beef up, we were told, the communications team. Mark Flanagan was named the head of digital communications at No. 10. Nicola Burdett was brought in to avoid visual gaffes—definitely a full-time job. There is effectively a weekly column in PRWeek charting the weekly appointment of new recruits to Downing street.
Our contention is that in the face of the relentless focus on the spin machine, the morale of the civil service is at an all-time low. Its independence has been sapped by Ministers who have used it constantly to pursue their narrow partisan interests, rather than to solve the problems of the country.
Is it not a sign of the time and of the truth of the case that my right hon. Friend is making that these days, when one wants to find out what is going on in No. 10 Downing street, one does not look at the leaks to the political correspondents in the national press, but one looks for the exclusive stories that seem to come up in PRWeek? Does that not say it all? It is all in the public relations sphere now, not in the political correspondents’ sphere.
My hon. Friend is right. It makes one smile when one hears the Prime Minister criticising us for slick salesmanship. There is a certain amount of envy, I think, when he says that, because the salesmanship from him has not yet reached that pinnacle. No doubt with all those advisers coming in, it will. That indicates the direction in which the Government are going under the new Prime Minister. There is more emphasis on spin than there was before.
My right hon. Friend set out some of the people working in Downing street. No doubt some have appropriate jobs and some do not. Does he consider that it would be better if, at the beginning of a Parliament, Parliament approved whether those people should be working so that we could assess whether that was value for money?
It would be useful to have a little more scrutiny. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, one learns about the appointments only by careful perusal of PRWeek.
That brings me to the next point, which is the way in which the civil service currently operates. As I said, its morale is at an all-time low. Its independence has been sapped. We see a series of terrible disasters, with people’s personal data being lost, the result of a civil service relentlessly exploited by Ministers for partisan advantage, at the cost of focus on the basics of good, sound administration. We see the failure to legislate, despite all the promises, to put the civil service on a proper legal basis. Despite the publication four years ago of a draft Civil Service Bill, we are now told that no legislation is likely until next year.
The independence of the civil service is one of the jewels in our constitutional crown. Civil servants’ advice should always be sought. Everything that one hears about the way the Government operate suggests that frequently it is not sought, in case Ministers hear something that they do not like. It should always be sought, even when challenging. It should be respected, even when it is not taken. However, that, of course, would require Ministers who had a real sense of direction and purpose and who were competent and capable. At this stage, I can do no better than quote the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), who said:
“Our people are abandoning us, we’re sinking fast and no amount of hand-wringing and promises of ‘listening and learning’ will change that.”
The Government are now rotten and directionless, led by a losing Prime Minister, and they have lost their authority to govern. The sooner the Prime Minister summons up the bottle to call an election, the sooner the public will get the chance to vote for the change that they so earnestly seek and so richly deserve.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“commends the Government’s measures to protect the impartiality of the Civil Service, in particular through its decision to legislate for the core principles and values of the Civil Service; believes that this decision builds on previous improvements, including an enhanced role for the Civil Service Commissioners, the publication of a code of conduct for special advisers and an updated code of conduct for civil servants; welcomes the improvements in efficiency of the Civil Service, which have allowed its size to be reduced in line with the Gershon recommendations; further welcomes the Government’s continuing commitment to effective public information campaigns; supports the other steps to strengthen the accountability of government, including a new Ministerial Code and a new independent adviser on Ministerial interests, as well as pre-appointment hearings for key public appointments; and believes that all these measures contribute to a more efficient, transparent, accountable and effective government to better serve the people of this country.”
The speech made by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) has left me somewhat speechless. I want to put this in the kindest terms, but he has been shadow Chancellor, shadow Foreign Secretary and chairman of his party; one is tempted to ask, “Has it really come to this?” He and his party want to try to make this House a more serious place, yet he has come here and brought out a few recycled press cuttings that have very little to do with the debate. I hoped that he would talk about the civil service legislation that we are planning in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, and give us some suggestions about how the Bill might change. If he wants to raise the standard of debate in this country and the House, he will have to do better than he just did.
The first extraordinary thing about the right hon. Gentleman’s speech is that he seems to be unbriefed about the central fact underlying this debate—that is, that we are legislating for a civil service Bill as part of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.
It has been 155 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report; and the right hon. Gentleman was part of the Government who had 18 years to legislate for a civil service Bill. If he had known that we were legislating for a such a Bill, he would have been the first to criticise us if we had not allowed proper scrutiny.
I am looking forward to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, and I am pleased to see him in his place. I am also looking forward to the contribution of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who is a former special adviser and thinks deeply about these matters—which is more than can be said for my opposite number.
The context for this debate is that we recognise that Parliament needs more power to hold the Executive to account. That is why we are legislating to limit the royal prerogative on war powers, treaties, the role of Ministers in appointments and the management of the civil service—as I say, an act first promised 155 years ago. That is why we are opening up public appointments, including nominees for the chair of the Statistics Board and other important public appointments, to scrutiny by the House. That is why, for the first time, we legislated for the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and why we are establishing the UK Statistics Authority, which is independent of the Government.
I am a member of the Public Administration Committee under the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). One of the intensely frustrating things during my six and a half years in Parliament has been that we had to write our own civil service Bill, which was drawn up with the advice of a lot of former Cabinet Secretaries. Does the Minister agree that that Bill is in principle the right way to go? Will he incorporate a lot of that Bill into the legislation? It is a good Bill and will protect the civil service for the next 150 years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am sorry that I missed him when I was discussing the Bill with the Public Administration Committee last week; he was no doubt elsewhere. He will be pleased to know that we have published a draft Bill, which is going into pre-legislative scrutiny. I will be interested in his comments and those of hon. Members throughout the House. In reply to a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, I said that we wanted to invite comments on the Bill. We are open to suggestions about ways in which it can be improved.
I had hoped that we could have a constructive debate today, and that is why it is so disappointing that the right hon. Member for Horsham came forward with a bunch of recycled allegations. He complained about Government information campaigns and their cost. Let me tell him what the three most expensive Government advertising campaigns were on: road safety, Army and Territorial Army recruitment, and anti-smoking. Is he seriously suggesting that he would cut any of those? I assume that he would not. His motion calls for a stronger ministerial code; we have just introduced one with a new independent adviser on ministerial interests. I have to bring him up to date on that as well.
Instead of carping from the sidelines, the Opposition should engage seriously in the opportunity to legislate for the impartiality of the civil service. That is precisely what we are doing.
The Minister will know that Short money, which has increased dramatically since Labour came to power in 1997, is spent on employing an awful lot of people, who to all intents and purposes are special advisers for Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend think that they should be ruled by a code of conduct, as Government special advisers are?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. In an act of generosity, the Government have significantly increased the money that goes to the Opposition as Short money. As I understand it, there is no accounting for that money and how it is spent. That issue is certainly worth considering.
I turn now to the substance of the Bill and civil service impartiality. It is important, and I am interested in Members’ views on this. During the sitting of the Public Administration Committee that I attended last week, the Cabinet Secretary said:
“the challenge for Parliament is to…keep it very focused and allow the civil service the flexibility to meet what will be the challenges”
of the future. We have drafted the Bill with such considerations in mind.
The Bill establishes that Parliament, not the royal prerogative, provides the basis for the work of the civil service. That is an important change; currently, the civil service is governed by the use of that prerogative. The Bill guarantees recruitment to the civil service on merit through fair and open competition, with the independent civil service commission upholding the process through its recruitment principles. The Bill will also incorporate the rule, set out for the first time in June 2006 in the new civil service code, that the civil service commissioners can take a complaint or concern directly from a civil servant about an issue under the code. The Bill strengthens transparency: it requires a code of conduct for the civil service to be published and laid before both Houses of Parliament.
Yes, and that is why we repealed it. The first act of the new Prime Minister was to repeal that Order in Council. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Member for Horsham referred to special advisers, and that brings me to my next point. I should declare an interest, because I am a former special adviser. However, it is not a small club.
Indeed, there are more former special advisers who are Conservative MPs than there are women Conservative MPs. No doubt the party will try to make amends for that at the next general election, but we shall do all we can to stop it.
What is interesting about the old system governing special advisers is that there was no code of conduct, no transparency and no annual statement about their numbers, costs or work.
First, there was full transparency in the role of advisers, and, secondly, the decision by the Labour Government to start issuing such details was squeezed out of them only after I and a number of others had pressed them vigorously for several years, and the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, finally agreed to provide some of the basic information being demanded.
It cannot be the case both that this information was always provided and that it arose only after several years of pressing by the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to him for pressing us to provide the information, and I take credit for the fact that we are doing so.
The nub of the issue is this: do 70 or so special advisers in government overwhelm the work of 500,000 civil servants across Britain? In this regard I rely on, among others, Lord Wilson, the former Cabinet Secretary, who said in his evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life:
“I do not think the senior civil service of 3,700 people is in danger of being swamped by 70 special advisers. That is not what is happening and I do not see it as a creeping politicization.”
Given that large numbers of civil servants are supposed to be told what to do by very small numbers of Ministers, a simple comparison between the number of special advisers and the number of civil servants does not take us very far. What matters is the amount of influence that those special advisers have. Will the Minister accept the fact—and it is a fact—that during the final years of the Conservative Administration most Ministries had only two special advisers; a few of the lesser Ministries, if I dare describe them in that way, had only one; and only one Ministry, namely the Treasury, had three? How does that compare with the current situation?
The current norm is that most Cabinet Ministers, including me, have two special advisers. I do not think that that is an excessive number, but we can probably debate that.
Another important aspect of this debate is that special advisers are not a threat to the impartiality of the civil service—in fact, they help to protect its impartiality because they can do political things that it would not be right for civil servants to do. That is why the Cabinet Secretary said at the Public Administration Committee last week
“this point about good special advisers being good for the civil service is really important”.
I say to the House, in all genuineness, that on special advisers and on other aspects of the Bill, we look forward to detailed scrutiny by this House, and even perhaps to some constructive suggestions.
I am sorry for that flippancy, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Does the Minister agree that the time has come to put the Prime Minister’s office on a statutory footing as well, because many of the people we are talking about come under the Prime Minister’s direct auspices? At the moment, the Cabinet Office is just a function of government where people come and go more frequently than in any other Department. Has not the time come to ensure that we understand exactly how that part works?
I think that we do understand how it works. I am not sure what putting it on a statutory footing would mean. The hon. Gentleman may be proposing a Prime Minister’s Department; I do not think that that would be the right thing to do.
Let me deal with some of the other allegations made by the right hon. Member for Horsham. He has this figure of 3,000 spin doctors in Whitehall, which he trots out every so often when he has nothing better to do. The true number of press officers is less than a fifth of that number. The rest, listed in what has become the infamous White Book, include those providing information to the public through publications, websites and campaigns to do with issues such as road safety, public health and smoking.
The right hon. Gentleman did not raise the issue of quangos, which was sensible of him, because—I do not want to rub salt into the wound—after he lost his seat in 1992 he was appointed to a quango in 1994—[Interruption.] Unpaid, he says. Presumably, if he is worried about the accountability of quangos, he was worried about his own appointment. However, it will interest him to know that there are fewer quangos than there were in 1997.
I was disappointed by the right hon. Gentleman’s failure to talk about what we are doing as regards the civil service Bill and other aspects of constitutional reform. The other disappointing aspect of his remarks was that he seemed to subscribe to what I would call a “golden age” view of the civil service. His remarks implied that we need only preserve the civil service in aspic—somewhere around the 1960s or 1970s, I guess—and all will be okay. I must be honest with him about this. I do not hold to that view, not because I think we should breach the impartiality of the civil service—quite the opposite; that is why we are legislating for an impartial civil service—but because the challenges faced by a modern Government and civil service are enormous, and that is why the civil service needs to evolve.
My right hon. Friend—other Ministers do the same—referred to the past as if it is wrong because it is the past. Some things from the past were good, if not perfect. We should not dispense with things that were valuable in the past and might be useful today.
I agree with my hon. Friend to a certain extent.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean by the golden age-ism to which I referred; I am certainly not accusing my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) of that. Hayden Phillips, a former permanent secretary, has written about how, as a junior civil servant in the Home Office in the 1960s, he was told by his division head not to visit a police force to discuss policy as
“it will prevent you from being properly detached”.
In a way, that illustrates one of the challenges for the civil service, which is to have greater awareness of delivery. A 2004 survey found that 60 per cent. of senior civil servants described their background as policy making, compared with just 25 per cent. in delivery. The current Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, is trying to put more of an emphasis on delivery among senior, and indeed junior, civil servants so that they do not spend time just on policy in Whitehall but go out to see what is happening on the ground. That is incredibly important. The first challenge that the civil service needs to rise to is that of civil servants having experience of delivery.
The second challenge is to do more to reflect the face of Britain. There has been progress in recent years on the number of women and ethnic minorities in the civil service, but it is still not good enough—the numbers are still too low. The proportion of senior civil servants who are from minority ethnic backgrounds has doubled since 1997, but it is still too low. The proportion of women has doubled, but it is still too low. I gather that the proportion of new permanent secretaries who went to state schools has doubled, but that is probably still too low as well. Labour Members think that there is further to go and that this is an important challenge for the civil service if it is to recruit the most talented, regardless of background.
I have always been amazed by the French system, where sometimes quite senior fast-track civil servants go into business, then back into the civil service, and then back out into business again. Does the Minister think that there is an argument for more flexibility in our system to provide broader experience of the real world?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes an important point. That should apply not only to business but to the voluntary sector—the third sector. I am struck by the number of civil servants who work with me and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who is the Minister for the Third Sector, with backgrounds not just in government. Some of them come from the Big Lottery Fund, some from the third sector itself, and some have experience in the private sector. All that contributes to a more dynamic and innovative civil service.
The French situation, in which civil servants who see themselves as part of the state go into business, get some experience and come back to serve the state better, is very different from one in which people whose basic loyalty is to business come to the state sector to help business to make more money. That is much more like the situation in Britain, particularly under the recent Blair Government.
I am told that I do not agree with him—I am sorry.
If we are to have people in government who are making policy for business or for the voluntary sector, it is important for them to have experience of what it is really like to run a business or to be in the voluntary sector. There are many different ways in which that can be done. Senior civil servants can spend more time on the ground, gaining direct experience of different organisations, or people may come into the civil service with knowledge of those sectors.
One of the reasons there is great value in bringing private and voluntary sector people into the civil service, and in giving civil servants an opportunity to go out and come back in, is that the private and voluntary sectors tend to move much faster. They can be much more responsive to local conditions and situations and not so hidebound in their approach. Sometimes I feel that civil servants, as much as they might want to be helpful, can put roadblocks in the way of progress.
I could never possibly suggest that, but I take my hon. Friend’s point. Innovation and an ability to take risks are the big challenges facing the civil service. I borrow something once said by the leader of the Conservative party about an end to Punch and Judy politics. If we are honest, part of the barrier to civil servants, Ministers and others taking risks is the sort of political and media climate in which we live. That is not to blame the media, but we need a more risk-taking culture throughout the public sector. Some things will go wrong as a result, but we would have more innovation and more things that went right and we would make a real difference to people’s lives. I do not have a holy grail solution to that problem, but it is a challenge for all of us.
We have further to go. There is an important challenge for the civil service, if it is to recruit the most talented regardless of background. We have set up board-level diversity champions throughout Whitehall to help to make that happen, and put in place a number of other measures to encourage diversity.
My third point about civil service reform and making the service more open is the idea, already referred to, of outsiders coming in. I am not romanticising that idea or saying that everyone who comes from the private sector or elsewhere will be better than current permanent civil servants—absolutely not—but it is a healthy thing that the proportion of the senior civil service recruited from outside has increased by a quarter over the past four years, from 18 to 23 per cent. That is one of the three big challenges for the civil service.
I pay tribute to the Cabinet Secretary, who has launched, in the face of some natural scepticism, capability reviews looking at the capabilities of Departments. I see that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) is raising his eyebrows. It is right to introduce those reviews because they will help to improve the quality of administration in our country. The process will always give ammunition for an irresponsible Opposition, but that is just one of those things. It is the right thing to do and it will improve the quality of policy making in this country.
I have tried to describe our approach to the issues. We want to embed an impartial civil service. Our approach is part of a continuing programme of constitutional reform and—notwithstanding the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Horsham—this Government, under the current Prime Minister, have a lot to be proud of with regard to what we are doing on constitutional renewal. The Constitutional Renewal Bill will make a difference to the way we are governed. For example, the innovation of pre-appointment scrutiny is a major departure for this House. A significant number of public appointments—I am in discussion with the Liaison Committee about the precise number—where a Minister decides on an individual will go before a Select Committee before they are confirmed so that testimony can be given, and the House will be able to report on that process. I hope that the House will use that responsibility wisely, because it is a big departure for our system of government to have the Executive held to account in this way, but it is the right thing to do. Many of the people we are talking about, from the Information Commissioner to the commissioner for public appointments play a significant role in holding the Executive to account on a whole range of appointments and in acting on behalf of the public.
We have a good programme of constitutional reform, but we do not want to preserve the civil service in aspic. It needs to evolve on the bedrock of impartiality. I end by saying to the right hon. Member for Horsham that, despite his speech, I hope he will engage seriously with our programme of constitutional renewal, including the civil service Bill. I say with all sincerity that we will take any constructive suggestions from him or his colleagues on how that Bill can be improved. We will continue to modernise and strengthen the civil service so that it can meet the priorities of the people of this country.
I have to admit to a surreal moment: when the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) was speaking, I wondered whether I was in the right debate on the right day.
We are willing to support the motion because at its heart is a further urging of the Government to introduce a civil service Bill that will enshrine in statute the impartiality of the civil service. It is obviously not a subject that has set the House on fire, as we can see from the attendance today. I suspect, however, that is not because of a lack of interest in the topic, but because the issue has been ongoing for so long that resilience concerning the hope of a civil service Bill has been worn down by repeated false pregnancies. All three major parties included a promise of a civil service Bill in their 1997 manifestos. Extensive discussions took place in 2001 and 2002, and there were two forms of draft Bill in 2004. There is great hope that we will finally see a Bill next year, but I hope that we shall hear some conviction on the part of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and that there will not be a rerun of our experiences.
I do not think that it really takes seven years to draft appropriate language for a civil service Bill. Call me a cynic, but it seems to me that it was most convenient for the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, not to have that sort of legislation on the statute book, so the issue drifted through discussion and consultation without getting anywhere. I believe that the willingness to introduce legislation now is meant to be part of the Brown fightback—but I am not fussy. If we can get decent legislation, I do not care what the motive for it is. It is just important that we get good-quality legislation to enshrine and protect the civil service, and to make sure that it remains respected and effective in the future. However we get that, I will be pleased.
I have to say, however, that it must be a good Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), when looking at the early drafts, used the phrase “nibbling at the edges”. There is an awful lot of work left to do on the Bill, and I congratulate the Public Administration Committee on taking on much of the challenge of scrutinising, questioning, monitoring and improving the quality of what we hope will be legislation in the not-too-distant future. We are left with a number of questions, which the House would like the Secretary of State to answer. I am struggling to understand why the Civil Service Commission should not be appointed and removable by Parliament, instead of being appointed by the Government. I believe that the Public Administration Committee has made a similar recommendation, and such a change would be the best guarantor of political neutrality. It would also be significant in stemming the constant tipping away of power from Parliament to Government. It would be an important step towards an appropriate rebalance.
There are all sorts of lesser questions. Why should the commission not be able to initiate its own inquiries into breaches of the code of conduct? It strikes me as most peculiar that one should need the Government’s permission to undertake an investigation of the Government. The issue of recruitment on the basis of merit was mentioned. That is obviously crucial, but should not the same standards apply to promotion or movement within the civil service? It is beyond me why that was not included. We heard quite a discussion on the issue of seconded staff a few moments ago, and on the various ways in which such secondment takes place.
I think that the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) touched on the general issue, especially with short-term secondments, of what mechanisms are in place to ensure that the public service ethos remains dominant when people are brought in from a business culture, which is very different. I am not saying that one cannot learn from the other, or that exchange is not beneficial. However, on 10 November 2005, Lord Butler of Brockwell told the Public Administration Committee that that sort of transfer of people
“needs to be accompanied by safeguards”
against business ethics damaging civil service ethics. I have yet to perceive that sort of understanding in the draft legislation.
The hon. Lady mentioned ethics. I would not call myself a Platonist, but I refer to Plato from time to time. He clearly perceived a hierarchy of ethics, from those in government to those in the civil service to those in business. Does she agree that the ethics of public service should be seen to be above those of business, even though they can learn from each other?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not subscribe to the notion that one is a scumbag if one has spent one’s life in business, and a wunderkind if one has done so in public service. However, having been part of both worlds, I am conscious of the differences in culture. It is not necessarily an easy transition from one to the other. I believe that the business community can be tempted to perceive the process of secondment not as a strategy to help public service perform better but as an easier route to influencing and shaping. That might apply not to the individuals but to the companies from which they are seconded. I do not claim that that necessarily happens, but we should consider the possibility when we manage the process.
Earlier, I mentioned promotion and movement in the civil service through merit and open competition. I struggle to understand why that should not form the basis of every appointment that is not of a special adviser, instead of excluding several posts. I hope that the Minister for the Cabinet Office will tackle that. Seventy is the figure that constantly floats around for the number of special advisers. That venerable journal PRWeek, which has dominated the debate, reported on 24 April that hordes of senior Labour special advisers were said to be passing their CVs to head-hunters and recruitment consultants amid concern that their stock was falling. Perhaps the number will fall below 70. However, that number of people, with a great deal of influence and power, can have an impact on the behaviour of several thousand. It is silly to suggest that 70 people cannot overwhelm the civil service.
What limit should we set? Why is not there a cap or some negotiated mechanism for limiting the number? If 70 is fine, is 700 fine, or is that ridiculous? Should the number be 100? Whatever it should be, having some sort of cap would give Parliament and the public confidence that special advisers were used on an “as needed” basis to execute the Government’s mission, and were limited to such roles.
Although the Minister for the Cabinet Office implied that special advisers had no line management responsibility, the draft Bill does not specify that. It would therefore be good to include the prohibition of line management on the face of the Bill. Of course special advisers can commission work, and many people perceive that, if it is misused, as a form of line management. I fully accept that the Government do not intend to include a provision to repeat the Order in Council that enabled Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell to be appointed with special executive powers. However, taking that a stage further to ensure that there is no loophole for commissioning to spill over would be useful.
So far, I have considered the civil service largely in the abstract. However, those of us who have been involved in the battle over Heathrow are worried about the creeping loss of neutrality in the civil service. The hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), through her diligent pursuit of freedom of information requests, has exposed an incredible amount of integration and co-operation between BAA and the Department for Transport in presenting what is supposedly an impartial consultation to the people of south-west London on an issue about which people care enormously. There is a genuine sense that, in its determination to pursue a Government objective, the civil service suspended its independent judgment and allowed itself to be overridden by BAA’s preferences and biases.
Some hon. Members will remember that in 2002, my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) requested information from the Government about disabled people in hospital, and was told that it was unavailable. Through the Data Protection Act 1998, he obtained a draft answer, which made it clear that the information was available and that he had been given an incorrect response. The Government apologised to the Speaker and to my hon. Friend for that, but the House and the Public Administration Committee had to pursue them before that could be achieved. Frankly, hon. Members will not go through that sort of exercise. We must ensure that the responsiveness is there from the beginning.
To speak personally and poignantly, I lost several acquaintances on 11 September 2001—and I will never get beyond the behaviour of special adviser Jo Moore, who said:
“It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”
That conveys a genuine warning, which underscores the importance of getting the Bill right. Jo Moore was in a running battle with the civil service elements of the press office in her Department, in an arena where one would have thought that such a clash of values should never occur.
The Conservatives do not get off lightly. For all their claims that there was a golden age under a Conservative Government, the Thatcher era sowed the seeds. On 24 May 2007, Lord Lipsey, a widely respected Labour peer, who spent many years in the civil service said:
“The present generation of civil servants grew up in the Thatcher years, when the question, ‘Is he one of us?’ resounded around Whitehall, and giving your opinion fully and frankly could be a barrier to advancement.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 May 2007; Vol. 692, c. 772.]
In many ways, Blair and Campbell were the true heirs of Thatcher and Ingham.
I was only on the sidelines of politics at the time, but many of us remember Jeremy Paxman’s questioning of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), when he was Home Secretary, about whether he had improperly overruled Derek Lewis, the director general of the Prison Service. There is, therefore, no clean slate.
The motion refers to quangos, and although I personally agree with its language, it took me aback for a moment, because when it comes to the pot calling the kettle black, the Tory policy of establishing an NHS board—the mother of all quangos—to be responsible for commissioning NHS services, allocating NHS resources and delivering objectives to improve outcomes for patients, is extraordinary. I therefore hope that the language in the motion will be incorporated over into Tory policy.
A call for senior appointments to quangos to be subject to scrutiny by the relevant Commons Select Committee is missing from the motion and the draft Bill. That is an especially important element to returning to parliamentary control and giving the public confidence in the impartiality and objectivity of the services that are delivered to them.
Some people think that our focus on the impartiality of the civil service is a little piece of nonsense. Indeed, there is envy of the US system, which is openly politicised and where the winner takes the spoils, as it were. However, having lived for many years in the United States, I think that those people have completely missed the checks and balances that are an inherent part of the US system between the judiciary, the Executive and the legislature, which mean that an entirely different set of issues are confronted. In our parliamentary system, not having the impartiality of the civil service carefully enshrined in law would totally upset the balance of power. If we ever wanted to guarantee the potential for a presidential Prime Minister, that would do it.
Let me close by saying that it is about time that the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854, which established the principle of a permanent, independent and politically neutral civil service, found its way on to the statute book. More than 150 years is probably a long enough gestation period for any piece of legislation.
When I saw the motion, I thought how extraordinary it was. I have seen some motions here over the years, but in terms of being a dog’s dinner, this is one is quite distinctive. Then I heard the speech that the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) made, and to the dog’s dinner was added a dog’s breakfast. We are in a fantasy land in this debate, where the only thing that the Government are not being blamed for is the fact that it rained on bank holiday Monday. I therefore hope that I shall not do the Opposition a disservice by saying that I want to take some aspects of the debate seriously.
I like the references to the Northcote-Trevelyan report, because they give me a chance to quote it again. If ever there was a model of a Government report, it was that report of 1854, by Stafford Northcote and Charles Trevelyan. It is a splendid report in a number of ways. It has only 22 pages and is written in crisp, clear English: what a model for us to return to in today’s White Papers and similar documents. The report says some wonderful things and describes the civil service in its unreformed condition. I am afraid that the following quotation is irresistible, which is why I am unable to resist quoting it:
“Admission into the Civil Service is indeed eagerly sought after, but it is for the unambitious, and the indolent or incapable, that it is chiefly desired. Those whose abilities do not warrant an expectation that they will succeed in the open professions, where they must encounter the competition of their contemporaries, and those whom indolence of temperament, or physical infirmities unfit for active exertions, are placed in the Civil Service, where they may obtain an honourable livelihood with little labour, and with no risk; where their success depends upon their simply avoiding any flagrant misconduct, and attending with moderate regularity to routine duties; and in which they are secured against the ordinary consequences of old age, or failing health, by an arrangement which provides them with the means of supporting themselves after they have become incapacitated.”
Hon. Members can see why I described that quotation as irresistible, but it is also a reminder of how reforming the civil service formed a part of that great reforming movement in the 19th century. The great Peter Hennessy has talked about
“the greatest single governing gift of the nineteenth to the twentieth century: a politically disinterested and permanent Civil Service with core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next”—
and so it was.
The civil service was reformed for two reasons. One was that it was inefficient—we should not forget that the drive to make the state service more efficient was at the heart of the Northcote-Trevelyan agenda—and the other was that it was corrupt and run by patronage. Those twin objectives of rooting out corruption and making the civil service more effective have always been the twin drivers for reform of the service, and so they should remain.
There are two truisms about the way in which the civil service is usually discussed these days. One is that Oppositions always say that the civil service is being corrupted by the Government of the day. One can go back over the years and find source after source showing that. The second truism is that Governments of the day, particularly those of a radical and reforming disposition, express a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the civil service’s ability to perform as they want it to.
In the modern period, the issue was perhaps first discussed by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, as it then was, under the previous Conservative Government. The Committee produced a report in 1994 arguing the case for civil service legislation, but also said—this is relevant to the repeated arguments about politicisation—that the
“election of a fourth successive Conservative Government has given rise to concern about whether prolonged rule by one party might call into question the preservation of a politically impartial civil service”.
Those of us who remember that period, to which the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) referred, will remember that the arguments of the day were entirely about whether the Thatcherite “one of us” culture was corrupting the essential independence and impartiality of the civil service. The arrival of Mrs. Thatcher saw the retirement of a raft of permanent secretaries, who were replaced by people who were thought to be “one of us”. Because that Government were in power for a long time, the assumption was that if someone wanted to progress inside the service, being “one of us” was a considerable advantage. Some of that criticism was unfair, but it reflected the aspirations of a Government to make the civil service work better than it had done.
I am not expert in this field, but I am a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that people who reached the top posts in their Department as permanent under-secretaries were appointed on the basis of a partisan belief that they were “one of us”. In order even to have been contenders for the top post, they would surely have had to have had distinguished careers in the civil service, to get the second level.
To support what I am saying, let me simply quote one history of the civil service, which says:
“The Whitehall grapevine had it that the vital question being asked about the potential appointees was ‘Is he one of us?’. This was taken to imply a commitment to the can-do ethos of Thatcherism rather than any obvious affiliation to the Conservative Party”.
That is quite fairly put and reflects the approach of a radical and reforming Administration.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way again. With respect, even that quotation does not sound like a description of party political partisanship, but a description of an attitude of mind, based on whether someone is a proactive or a reactive person. The hon. Gentleman will have to make a stronger case to suggest that we are talking about party political politicisation, in the context of such high appointments to the professional ranks of the civil service.
I tried to put the matter as fairly as I could, rather than in a partisan way. I was trying to explain that there has been a standing temptation on the part of Governments who feel a desire to shake up the system to get people in place who will enable them to do so. That was true of the Thatcher period and it was true of the Blair period, too. It is interesting that similar charges were levied in each period about the consequences of that. If we scrape away those charges and go beyond the political exchanges in those periods, the question is: was something happening to make the civil service politicised? Are politicians behaving in relation to the civil service in ways that are improper and disturbing its tradition of neutrality, independence and impartiality?
I want to follow up on the two interventions made by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). During the Thatcher era, there was a serious philosophical, ideological change; was it not possible for someone in government to determine which side of that ideological divide a civil servant might reside? Could not they make sure, with a wink and a nod, that people on the Thatcherite side of that divide would be promoted and that those who had lingering attachments to social democracy would be marginalised?
That is an interesting observation. I was trying to argue that although such charges are made for political reasons in each period of government, they do not stand up when tested against the question whether the character of the civil service is being fundamentally altered by what is happening.
The Select Committee on Public Administration, which I have the honour to chair, considered this issue in some detail just a year ago. We produced a report called “Politics and Administration: Ministers and Civil Servants”, which examined the politicisation charges made over the years. It is worth quoting a paragraph that sums up the evidence that we received. We said that:
“despite the regular accusations of politicisation, Britain clearly remains singularly unpoliticised. External appointments to the senior civil service are regulated by the Civil Service Commissioners, and no witnesses suggested ministers were able to exercise significant powers of patronage. Although ministers are able to make political appointments to special adviser posts, there was broad agreement that the scale of political appointments was so small, in relation to the size of the civil service, that it did not undermine principles set out by the 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report and, in significant respects, protected them. Moreover, in relation to appointments to public bodies, the role of ministers has actually been reduced by recent changes.”
That is an accurate summary, and shows why the general charge of politicisation, whether under Conservative or Labour Governments, simply is not sustainable.
In any serious discussion on this issue, it is worth discussing the appropriate balance between the political element in government and the permanent element. It is worth having that discussion here and in any comparable political system, and there would be different answers for the different systems, all of which claim to uphold the principles of democratic politics. I remember being introduced to the Australian Cabinet Secretary, some years ago, and discovering that he was a political appointee. In Canada—another Commonwealth country—the permanent secretaries, whom they call deputy ministers, are all political appointees.
What is the correct balance between the political and permanent bureaucratic elements of government? That question can be answered in a variety of ways, and is always open to dispute. Internationally, we are at an extreme end of that spectrum, with our small element of political appointment within government. Given the arguments about this issue that we have had in this country over the years, one would think that we were right at the other end of the spectrum. Extraordinary attention has been paid to the appointment of special advisers over the years, but there is minute political involvement in government here.
To return to my comments about radical reforming Governments sometimes revisiting the issue, the case is sometimes made for changing the balance fundamentally. That argument was put forward by Sir John Hoskyns, who ran Mrs. Thatcher’s policy unit for the first three years of her Conservative Government. He was an interesting man—one of Mrs. Thatcher’s business men and can-do people whom she brought in. He spent a year working out exactly how Britain was governed and what the problems were with that method, and put his findings in a diagram. When Mrs. Thatcher was shown the diagram—she was a chemist, as we know—she said that it looked exactly like the plan of a chemical plant.
John Hoskyns was impatient about the balance between the political and civil service elements, and wanted to change it. After he left that job, he said:
“If a country’s problems require radical remedies, you need a radical government. But how can you have a radical government without radically-minded officials?”
He went on to say:
“We need to replace a large number of senior civil servants with politically appointed officials on contract, at proper market rates, so that experienced, top-quality people would be available.”
I did not give that quote simply to make a political point, to damn that political period or to revisit matters that provide a political opportunity. There is a perfectly proper argument to be had about the balance between the political element in government and the permanent civil service element. All political systems have that discussion, as we do. We allow exemptions to appointment on merit through secondments and short-term contracts, and we could have a grown-up discussion about such matters if we wanted to.
In recommending a civil service Bill in 1854, Northcote and Trevelyan said in their report:
“a few clauses would accomplish all that is proposed”
They were right. My Committee has always taken the view that we do not want an over-elaborate Bill. We want one that is as simple as possible and that tries to set some of the constitutional boundary lines in statute. We want a move from a rule by prerogative to one of Parliament and statute. That is what we want to do, and it is has been quite a job getting such a Bill. It has been much promised, but not delivered, and we have been frustrated by that.
In 2004, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Northcote-Trevelyan report, we published our own Bill. I think that it was the first time in modern parliamentary history that a Select Committee had published its own Bill to show what could be done. That approach has borne fruit, because the Government then produced a draft Bill and have now produced a serious proposal to legislate with the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.
There will be reasons to ask the Government to strengthen the Bill in a variety of ways—the hon. Member for Richmond Park helpfully mentioned some of them. I think that our Committee and the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which is going to consider the Bill, will say that the Government are on the right lines. Indeed, they are doing the right thing and are on the right lines.
I shall end with one observation on the process. I have been considering this matter over the years to see why it has taken so long to get to this point. It is easy to attack previous Governments for inertia, but I particularly wanted to explore why the last Conservative Government decided not to legislate, despite the recommendation of the former Treasury and Civil Service Committee that they should. Discussions in that period show that the people inside the Government who were responsible for the matter were anxious, and for good reason. They did not want to disturb the essential constitutional position of the civil service and did not want to legislate in a way that would ossify the service. However, there was also a political consideration. They did not want to start down that path if it meant that the proposal simply became a matter for political dispute. It was thought that if the civil service were brought into the political arena and if agreement could not be reached, that would do more harm than good.
David Hunt, now Lord Hunt, who was leading for the Conservative Government at the time, said, in evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee on 14 June 1995:
“I would not want to start the process without a clear indication from all sectors of the House that in fact we would not see the civil service become a party political football in terms of the amendments being proposed and put forward.”
That was a very proper worry.
Having discussed this issue with all kinds of people over the years, and having taken evidence from former senior civil servants and former Cabinet Secretaries, I have found that they all express the same worry: can we legislate on the civil service without it becoming an opportunity to have a political dispute about the civil service? If not, they felt that it would be better not to do anything at all. That is a profound consideration.
Sometimes, we in this House like to say, between ourselves, that we think that this should be a matter for consensus. However, having watched the protestations of commitment to consensus over the years, I have to report that that breaks down at the first whiff of political opportunity. That is the way our system is; that is how we do it. If we see the opportunity to score a political goal or to make a political point, we take it, even if we are notionally committed to a consensus approach.
This is a huge test for us. It is unfinished constitutional business. We all know that it needs to be done. We know that we would like to put the civil service into statute and to draw some constitutional lines in the sand. The question is whether we can collectively do that without it becoming a political football.
The motion today refers, as such things always do, to restoring trust in the political system. Our record on that could make one quite pessimistic. The truth is that, for the past 15 years, we have had an auction on trust and distrust in this country. In a sense, we started it. We quickly realised that making allegations against the Major Government brought huge political dividends. If we look at the figures, we see that it was then—in the 1990s—that trust really started to go down, and it has never recovered since. We piled in making all kinds of allegations about the sleazy character of Conservative politicians; then, after 1997, the Conservatives decided that, in order to equalise the balance, they had to make similar charges against us. The effect has been to pull us all down. The reputation in which we are all held has declined immeasurably during that period. In the short term, such activity might seem like good politics, but I can assure the House that it is really bad for the reputation of public life in this country.
The challenge for us now is to do something about that, but, as David Hunt said all those years ago, we can succeed only if there is genuine consensus in the House and determination on all sides to create a good, coherent civil service Bill that will last.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) in addressing these matters. He interestingly went back into history and paid tribute to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. In many ways that might be right, as far as the integrity of the civil service is concerned, but I would advise him to read a forthcoming work on the subject that puts a wholly different complexion on whether those reforms were beneficial for the efficiency of the civil service. It is written by a civil servant—a gentleman called Mike Coolican—who advised me when I was at the then Department of Social Security and, no doubt, my Labour successors in due course. I urge the hon. Gentleman to put that on his reading list.
I should like to put the hon. Gentleman right on the impression that he might have created—even though I do not think it was his intention to do so—that there was a degree of politicisation in the selection of permanent secretaries under the Thatcher Administration. That was not my experience. I remember when I first got my foot on the lowest rung of the ladder and became a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister responsible for local government—indeed, the Minister responsible for the abolition of Ken Livingstone, the Inner London Education Authority and all that sort of thing.
The Bill to achieve those changes was introduced by the Government, and Mrs. Thatcher was very much in favour of it. It was a key centrepiece of the Government’s Administration. The official in charge of it made it absolutely clear to Ministers that he thought that it was a barmy idea, that it was wrong in principle, and that it would be damaging in practice. None the less, it was his job as a civil servant to tell us how to achieve our aims in the least damaging and most effective way. As a result, he caught the attention of Ministers, who found him all the more effective because they knew that, rather than soft-soaping them, he was telling them how a bad Bill could be made less bad. He rapidly became permanent secretary, over the heads of his rivals in the then Department of the Environment. That was how it worked. Mrs. Thatcher liked people who answered back and who told her the truth. I suspect that there might be a difference between that attitude and those that pertain nowadays. There was certainly no party political import at that time.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) on raising this extremely important issue. The integrity of the civil service is a pearl of great price, and anyone who has lived or worked in a country that does not have an impartial civil service will recognise just how valuable it is. The possession of an information service within the civil service that is dedicated to honesty and integrity is also of immense importance to the operation of democracy. The accountability of Ministers to Parliament, and of civil servants to Ministers, is central to the working of parliamentary democracy.
All those things are now under threat—or have been threatened—under this new Labour Government. Even the fact that the Government are introducing this legislation is a recognition of the fact that there is grave concern about these issues, and that the Government are trying to respond to that, perhaps in good faith, and trying to reverse those things that have been put under threat over the past 10 years. This is unique to new Labour. Historically, the Labour party and Labour Governments have been respectful of the conventions and traditions that uphold the civil service and the integrity of its management.
The other night, I was browsing through Roy Hattersley’s admirable autobiography, “Who Goes Home?” in which he refers to his experience ahead of, I think, the 1979 election. He had discovered that the retail prices index figures, which were coming out a day after the election, were going to be very good. He said:
“So I asked the Prime Minister if I could announce, or at least leak, our success”—
in getting down inflation—
“on the eve of the poll. Jim could not have been more scandalised if I had confessed to doctoring the figures.”
So the attitude of that Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, was full of integrity and respect for the system. Callaghan in turn explained to Hattersley how a junior Minister called Dugdale, as a young Member of Parliament and Minister in the post-war Labour Government, had questioned Sir Stafford Cripps as to whether it was really necessary to announce a proposal to reduce the already inadequate cheese ration by a further 2 oz, just before a general election. Stafford Cripps replied that he was not sure of the questioner’s identity, but
“whoever he was, if he allowed political considerations to influence his judgement, he was not fit to be one of Her Majesty’s ministers.”
Thus there has been a tradition on both sides of the House to uphold the integrity of the processes of Government, and that is why we have retained an impartial civil service until recently.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, my political neighbour, for giving way. He is describing a situation that I remember from my youth; it could even be described as a golden age. Although things were not perfect then, are there not values and attitudes that were prevalent then that we could re-adopt and reinforce now?
I entirely agree.
I want to ask why the new Labour Government have put so much pressure on these features of our civil service. The answer lies in the fact that new Labour is essentially old Labour that has ceased to believe in socialism, or indeed in anything. And those who believe in nothing are prepared to say anything. Those whose agenda is more about gaining power than implementing an idea focus essentially on headlines. That leads to a focus on spin and to “initiativitis”, which embroils the civil service in producing spurious policies that can be announced but never implemented. It also leads to conflict between Ministers and civil servants.
Most people who watch “Yes Minister” assume that conflict between the civil service and Ministers is integral to the relationship between them. Traditionally, when asked whether “Yes Minister” is an accurate portrayal of relations, Ministers’ response has been, “You think it is a comedy; we know it is a documentary”. Actually, it is a description of the relationship between civil servants and Ministers, focusing on an abrasive attempt by civil servants to get control of the agenda, only if the Minister has no agenda of his own. If a Minister has no agenda and is moved solely by a desire to respond to a bad headline yesterday or to avoid a bad headline tomorrow and get a good one the day after, he will be all over the place all the time, constantly driven by the newspapers. In that case, the civil service steps in. Thank heavens it does; it is better to have consistent government by some body of people who know something about it than inconsistent and incoherent government by a Minister who does not have a clue what he really wants.
If Ministers come along with an agenda of their own, a clear idea of what they want to do, and put it to their officials, that is completely different. Even if those officials do not agree with that agenda personally because it goes against their own political views or they do not like it or are worried about it, once they have tested the Minister and noted the agenda that the elected ministerial representative wants to put forward, the British civil service will be second to none in helping to deliver it. Unfortunately, the obsession with spin and headlines rather than substance and a coherent agenda has put the Government in conflict with the information service, particularly with respect to the civil service. Within the first 12 months of the new Labour Government, we saw 24 of the 44 senior posts in the civil service changed and replaced largely by Government appointees or special advisers. That was extremely damaging and extremely unwise.
One point has not been brought out clearly enough. When the changeover came from special advisers who numbered a little over two dozen in the Thatcher years to the much larger number now, many of the new people were appointed precisely to the press officer posts that my right hon. Friend mentions. In the period before that, we should think not only about the numbers involved, but about what people did. They were advisers and confidants, but for the most part they were not press officers. The key change is not just that so many more of these posts now exist, but that so many more are charged on a day-to-day basis with trying to deal with the press. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
I agree very strongly with that. I would like to draw on my own experience—the best way for me to contribute—rather than provide mere assertion on that and other issues.
When I became Secretary of State for Social Security, I was told about all the skeletons in the cupboard. There was one particular skeleton—I forget exactly what it was, but it was a difficult piece of information to handle—and I was told, “Minister, you are going to have to think about how to deal with this”. I got up one morning to find that that piece of information was the headline in The Guardian.
It so happened that my first meeting was with my chief press officer, Stephen Reardon, the responsible official in the Department. I asked him how that newspaper had acquired that piece of information and he told me, “I gave it to them”. I will not repeat to the House exactly what I said, but I was intemperate—wrongly intemperate, as I should not have been intemperate with a civil servant, but I was for a moment. When I asked him how he had come to do that, he replied that the newspaper had asked him a question to which that information was the answer. It was not confidential information, he told me, and he said: “My job, Minister, is not to work for you, but for the public. My job is to tell the truth and to give to the public the information that is theirs by right, which cannot be withheld as confidential”.
When I had calmed down, I began to think that this man was rather valuable. He would stand up and tell the truth to all and sundry, including to me; I found him to be an invaluable civil servant throughout my period in office. If I asked him how a particular announcement would be seen by the media, he would give me an honest and accurate prescription. Within just a few weeks of the appointment of the new Labour Government, he was out—he lost his job; he was sacked—because they could not put up with that sort of integrity. I think that they damaged themselves, as I believe that it strengthens the Government to have people who can be trusted to tell the truth and provide a reliable conduit of information between Departments and the media.
Secondly, I want to deal with the importance of officials telling the truth directly to Ministers in confidence, helping them to speak truthfully when they are operating in Parliament and correcting errors if Ministers accidentally make them. From time to time, I am invited to speak at the civil service college at Henley and I talk about what Ministers want from officials. I talk about many things, but towards the end I include the point that when we Ministers make a mistake, it is the job of civil servants to present us with a little note saying, “Minister, when you said there was no precedent for x, what you actually meant was that there were seven precedents, which are as follows”. It can happen very occasionally; even I might say something in the heat of debate or without proper thought that turned out to be incorrect. In those circumstances, officials should present the Minister with a statement of the mistake and it would become the Minister’s job to put the record straight immediately, usually in Committee, or perhaps later to the House.
When I tell today’s civil servants that that was and should be the practice, they look at me aghast and in amazement! They first ask how it would be possible for them to do that when all the time Ministers say things that are not true; and, secondly, they say that the attitude of the Government and Ministers is not the same any more. It is a very sad and sorry state of affairs when some officials seem to be too cowed to stand up to Ministers. A great many probably retain their robustness, which is essential to proper relations between them and Ministers.
In my experience, it is important to have officials working for us even if they do not necessarily agree with all our policies. I carried out an analysis of where policy had, in my view, gone wrong in its formulation or implementation in the Department of Social Security—needless to say, before I took over. I looked into the Child Support Agency. Part of the reason it had gone wrong was that everybody was in favour of it: officials, especially women, were in favour of it for feminist reasons; Ministers were in favour of it because it chimed well with dealing with feckless fathers; and no one on the committee preparing for the Bill was against it. No one said, “Hang on a minute; will this work? Is it really so sensible?” That is why I think it desirable to have officials who are robust enough to stand up and criticise Ministers or the policies that they are putting forward by suggesting that they should think again while a policy is going through a process of development. Civil servants need self-confidence and belief in their own integrity in order to do that.
Thirdly, there is the issue of accountability. Officials are accountable to Ministers; Ministers are accountable to Parliament. It is difficult to get the balance right. We cannot expect Ministers to take responsibility for every little thing that happens in their Department. We cannot expect a Minister for Transport to resign whenever there is a car crash, even though it is his job to reduce their number. None the less, when something major happens in the Department, the first implication should be that the Minister is responsible rather than, as happens all too often nowadays, the naming, shaming and blaming of the civil servants.
When I was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I was responsible for the Inland Revenue. If it had been responsible for losing all the data of every family in the country, I would at least have tentatively offered my resignation to the Prime Minister or Chancellor. I may have hoped that it would be refused, but I would at least have put forward that resignation. [Interruption.] I do not pretend to any great personal valour in these matters, but it is important for Ministers to accept that, at the end of the day, they are responsible and cannot escape blame by blaming officials.
To give the Minister an example, I had to consider resigning on such grounds when I was dealing with the allegation that my predecessors had sanctioned the export of chemical weapons precursors and nuclear weapons precursors to Iraq. The only way to kill that allegation dead was to publish the details of every single export licence relating to Iraq in those categories in the years preceding the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. It took a long time; there were thousands of licences. The officials eventually came back and said, “All clear, Minister; not a single example. Only the export of two hunting guns were possibly against the sanctions regime.” I then summoned in the members of the press one by one, and said to each of them, “Look, there are the 14,000 export licences. You can read them yourself, but I can assure you that you will not find an example of anything out of line.”
After I had seen the last member of the press, and they had all gone away rather disappointed that this fox had been shot, a civil servant came to see me and said, “I’m frightfully sorry, but one of the very first documents we looked at did actually contain reference to the export of some chemicals that at the time were not considered to be chemicals weapons precursors, but which were subsequently so designated by the United Nations.” I asked, “Are you sure that that is the only one?” and they said, “No; we will go and have a look.” They then came back and said, “Actually, there are five or six shipments, Minister.” I said, “Do you realise that although you think this is very amusing, I will have to take responsibility, and I will almost certainly be required to resign?”
As it happened, I wrote an open letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee, and everyone was on holiday, and the Press Association wrote the story up very favourably to me and I got away scot-free. However, Ministers are ultimately responsible for the advice they take, and if they take bad advice on a serious matter on which they have given serious assurances, their heads are on the block.
Let me finally make some brief observations about the reforms that are needed. In response to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, I referred to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. They entrenched in the British civil service a belief that generalism, not specialism, is the only way to the top, and in terms of promotion and internal recruitment and recruitment from outside, we need to bring in people with specialist experience. It is my experience in business that someone who knows a lot about repairing motor cars can be made into a good librarian, but someone who knows nothing about anything probably cannot be made into a good manager of anything. So specialist expertise is important. That went out of the civil service with the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. Before then, the Indian civil service had at least required people to learn Indian languages, but as a result of those reforms Haileybury college—it is nothing to do with the school—where the civil servants were taught was closed down and thereafter they learned Greek and Latin in order to go off and govern India. We have suffered from that ethos ever since.
More significant, in my experience, was the paucity of people in the civil service with project management experience and skills. That might explain why so many major projects go wrong: to get promotion in the civil service, staff should want to be a policy adviser, not a manager. Normally, staff in the civil service do a job for only a couple of years before moving on to something else, hopefully higher up and away from actually managing anything to advising Ministers. Therefore, very few people in the civil service have had any prolonged experience of managing anything through to completion. I raised that with the head of the civil service, and now there is at least some attempt to provide for the formation of project management skills, but I suspect that it does not go far enough.
I congratulate my Front-Bench colleagues on introducing this motion, and on focusing on the importance of bringing back to the centre of our debate integrity, truth in information and accountability in terms of Ministers’ policies and the actions of their Departments. Driven by the criticisms that have been made of their stewardship for the past 10 years, I hope that the Government will forge ahead and introduce a Bill that will entrench the integrity of the civil service; that should not be necessary, but alas, it is. I also hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will live up to what they are saying now when they are in government after May 2010.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on a subject that has interested me greatly for a long time, not least because I am privileged to be a member of the Public Administration Committee. That is the most enjoyable, interesting and worthwhile role I have had during my 11 years in this House. I am particularly pleased that the Committee is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). He is not merely a competent Chair but a brilliant one; he leads us superbly in the work we do. However, although I congratulate him on his speech, it must be said that we do from time to time have slight differences of view. That is healthy, however, and the civil service should be like that, too.
First, I apologise for not being present for the speech from the Opposition Front Bencher as I was unavoidably detained. I will not be too critical of the motion, even though I shall, obviously, vote with the Government when we divide. I hope that what I say will reflect some of the Opposition’s concerns—I certainly think that that will be the case, as I shall be repeating comments I have made in the Committee on more than one occasion.
It is some 150 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report, so it is not before time that we are talking about putting some of their thoughts into legislation. I am pleased that the Committee put forward a draft civil service Bill, which was highly regarded by Members of all parties, although the previous Prime Minister and his Government were resistant to implementing it. I very much welcome the fact that our new Prime Minister has brought in a new era, one in which we are looking forward positively to a better future.
My purpose in speaking in this debate is to say that we are moving in the right direction. I have had a number of private conversations with Ministers, and I have spoken publicly in the Committee, and I want to do what I can to give the Government a small shove to move further in the right direction.
I should also say that I appreciate the speech of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who is a near constituency neighbour. I agree with almost everything he said. He emphasised that there should be a pervasive sense of honour in government in general, and that people were honourable in the past. We have, perhaps, forgotten that a little. This is not just a game of winning and losing; it is about principles, behaving well and setting examples to the rest of the world.
Without being too high-flown, I should mention that I was recently interviewed for a television programme for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the programme makers wanted to know how to run a civil service. I have not been a civil servant and I do not know much, but I emphasised the points made today about civil servants having integrity, ability and a strong sense of public service to the state, and not being corrupted. They were very worried about how to keep corruption out of newly created Governments, particularly in relatively poor countries where people can be corrupted. I said, “You should start from the beginning by saying that the first principle is that the civil service must not be tainted by corruption, and you must have people running your state who are not corrupt, and whose objective is to help their politicians govern well and to serve their people to the best of their ability.” We in this country must remind ourselves of that a bit, too, given the events of recent times.
I welcome the very clear shift of direction under our new Prime Minister and his Ministers, but we have some way to go to squeeze out the remaining toxins particularly of the Blair era—and to some extent the Thatcher era as well. I make no apology for mentioning the previous Prime Minister, who happened to be in the same party as me. I do not care much for labels. Reference was made to “new Labour”, which no one has ever called me, apart from one of my Conservative opponents. She mistakenly described me as a “Blairite” one day, which caused a great deal of mirth in my constituency, although no one took the comment seriously and she learned better later on. We had a very civilised campaign, we were good friends and so on, but she realised that I was not “new Labour” and that the word “socialist” did apply to me. If a label is to be used, I am happy to have that one applied to me.
What we saw during the Blair era was what I have described, in a perhaps extreme phrase, as the “Leninisation” of British politics. The essence of Leninisation was to get absolute central control, to smooth out and destroy all resistance in the regime and to have political checks at every level to ensure that what was decided at the centre was carried out at the base. That was the drift. I am not and have never been a Leninist, but interestingly a number of people of Leninist origins, from Leninist organisations—Conservative Members are not so familiar with those, although some Labour Members are—were in the Blair regime. Some of the special advisers and political advisers, and even some Ministers, had such associations, so they understood the process of Leninisation and of control; I believe that Lenin’s first slogan was, “Secure control of the party.” Control was the essence of the approach, and that is what happened.
The attempt to strip away the opposition went on at every level, and of course it marginalised and pushed to one side the principle that underlies British Government: pluralism. All democratic constitutions must contain checks and balances on power, because power is dangerous. People like it when they get it; they do not want to give it away. They want to have more of it, because it is a bit of a drug. The job of constitutions is to restrain those who like power from having too much of it and, sometimes, to take it away from them, by election or by some other means.
Most constitutions are set up in a way that restrains power, and they contain checks and balances. The American constitution is a classic example of that: it contains the separation and balance of powers. Other constitutions contain restraints within parties. One of Britain’s constitutional features that restrained power was the fact that the parties contained a democratic structure that restrained even their leaders. Even that restraint has been stripped out to a large extent from my party and possibly from the Conservative party, and that was damaging. Having healthy debate within parties and restraints on power within parties are as important as having such things within the state.
Other forms of government exist—for example, federalism. America, as well as other countries, depends on such a system, where there are defined roles for central Government and for other parts of government at a lower level—for example, a regional system could be used, as could some form of states system, as happens in America. Federalism is a way of dividing power so that not all of it resides in the centre.
Britain has relied for a very long time on a balance of power between different parts not of our constitution as such, but of our political society. Our system has embodied pluralism and, for a long time, strong local government, strong trade unions, strong independent parties that were quite different from each other and that acted as a check on each other, and the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature. Even the legislature is divided between two Houses, which act as a check on each other. All those checks were built in.
The problem with the recent regime is that it has tried to eliminate all those constraints and checks, so we are examining ways of strengthening them once again. Even within the Executive there were, and I hope that there will be again, strong constraints on power. For example, the Cabinet sometimes acted as a restraining influence on Prime Ministers, but unfortunately that has not been the case in recent times. The papers released after 30 years have told us that back in the days of Jim Callaghan and the 1970s economic crisis, a real debate took place in Cabinet about whether the Government should opt for the International Monetary Fund loan or an alternative economic strategy based on some kind of protectionism. Those on the left wanted the protectionist approach, those on the right wanted the IMF loan and deflation, and there was a balancing group in the middle. A powerful debate went on for some time in Cabinet, but eventually Jim Callaghan got his way because the middle group chose to support the IMF loan people. We ended up with the IMF loan, the social contracts and so on, but a real debate did take place in Cabinet.
I have heard more recently about a case—I am not talking about under the present Prime Minister, but this certainly applies in respect of the previous one—involving a Minister who had recently joined the Cabinet. He had the temerity to make some kind of critical suggestion in Cabinet, and was taken aside afterwards by a fellow member and told, “That’s not done. I’m afraid we don’t do that in the Cabinet.”
In recent years, Cabinet meetings have been very short. Senior civil servants have told our Committee that back in the Wilson era and before, it was typical for 200 papers a year to be delivered to Cabinet by Ministers, or by civil servants through Ministers, in order to discuss policy. The Cabinet meetings would go on for some time while the papers were discussed. I understand that in a particular year during the Blair era just two papers were put to the Cabinet, so something has gone seriously wrong between that earlier time and now. The suggestion is that Cabinet became a cipher and was not the power that it used to be.
Within our constitution, the civil service was always a rock, although perhaps one did not always agree with it; its independence, impartiality, ability and sense of commitment to the public interest were unquestioned. From time to time, one might disagree with it, but we were certainly aware of it. The idea that civil servants might be corrupt or on the take, or that they might take big jobs in industry later so they might be serving the interests of the companies they were later to work for while they were in government, was unthinkable. There were rules about that, but more important than those were the inner constraints: people had a sense of what was right and what was wrong. It was not the job of a servant of the state—a servant of the citizens—in the civil service to think about lining their pockets as a result of what they did in government. Some doubtless would have done that, but it was not the view held.
Such values have perhaps declined, partly as a result of the interface between the civil service and business outside becoming so much more porous. There is a difference in values between serving the public, the state and the citizen as a public servant, and making money. I am not saying that either is not necessary, but they are different. I would emphasise that serving the public is a superior value to making money. I know people, even some within my own family, who say that they do not want to work in the private sector, that it is fine for those who do and who want to make money, but they want to serve society through public service. That is a noble thing to say, to feel and to do. Many people in the civil service do that today. We should not make light of that, play it down or try to control it; we should respect it. Re-establishing that attitude in our civil service would be a very good thing.
To an extent, I am a golden age-ist and I watched “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” with great interest. Although the civil service is portrayed as a rule unto itself and Ministers as doing what they are told by those clever civil servants, that was a better model than we have now. In the end, Ministers make the decisions, but the civil service is there to ensure that things do not go wrong—to speak truth unto power, as the phrase has it. When Ministers have a notion to do something, the civil servants say, “Actually, Minister, that will not work, for these reasons. You may want to spend lots of money and cut taxes, but the sums don’t add up. You have to have some kind of fiscal balance.”
We have to have civil servants who know what they are talking about because, with great respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, not all Ministers are brilliant, even when it comes to their own portfolios. They have to depend on civil servants—[Interruption.] The Minister is obviously a star in his own right. The civil service has to be preserved and reinforced, and its values have to be restored, if they have been damaged.
We have to reconstruct the civil service, if it is not damaged too badly, with the values that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden mentioned. It should also contain a range of views. If we comb out opposition to a particular ideology or philosophy, it is bad for government. When I was a student, I knew a lecturer who became a civil servant in the Treasury. He told me that at the time of the Callaghan devaluation in 1967, some civil servants believed in retaining the high value of the pound, but some of those in the back office were considering the possibility of devaluation and had prepared for it. So when the decision was made, someone in the back office could say, “Here’s one I prepared earlier.” The policy could thus be implemented. What we do not want is civil servants who all believe in a strong currency and would have no idea how to go about devaluation, or its implications, and so would be at a loss.
Many Conservative Members probably now regret the rash and mistaken decision to join the exchange rate mechanism in 1990, as it led directly to their defeat in 1997. That decision was supported by many Labour Members, although I was not among them. I was an economist in the trade union movement at the time and I wrote time and again that it was a mistake. I predicted in 1990 that it would fail in just the way that it did. Everyone thought that I was a bit off the wall, but later I got a lot of credit. I was not alone, as some other economists thought the same way. In any event, I understand that Nigel Lawson wanted people who agreed with him in his private office. He did not want people who would say, “Sorry, Chancellor, but this idea of pinning our currency to other European currencies will not work, the pound will devalue and it will cause a lot of political trouble.” It did go badly wrong, but had Nigel Lawson had people around him who warned of the possible consequences, it might not have been quite the tragedy that it was for the economy, the people and, especially, the Conservative party. We might have had a healthier economy later as well.
We are moving in the right direction, and I want to reinforce the Government’s arm on this issue. We have made some serious mistakes in the past, but we are now overcoming them.
I enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) as we went back to Victorian times, heard from Lenin and ended up in the Callaghan era. We do not debate the civil service enough in this Chamber. There are 496,000 civil servants who play an important role. How effective our legislation is may depend on a 21-year-old clerk sitting in a benefits office somewhere in the north of England dealing with people. That is how the intent of Parliament is delivered in terms of service delivery to people.
The civil service is very important, and my experience of local government as opposed to national is that local government is far better at discussing money, terms and conditions, motivation, promotion and how people actually do things. The civil service, however, almost seems to be in a different pot to us, and the only time we ever see civil servants—who are all fairly good—is when we are serving for hours on a Committee.
As a country, we can be proud of our civil servants. The benefits of having a system that is not corrupt have been mentioned today. One of my observations on the European Union is the cultural difference between northern Europe—the Finns, the Swedes and the Britons—and southern Europe, where the sun shines and people are a little more cavalier. We can be very grateful that we have a system that is honest. If other countries have a problem—I am thinking of Russia and Turkey, for example—it is the corruption in their systems that holds them back.
We should debate our civil service a lot more. If we have a problem, it is probably that we do not recycle people out of the civil service into other careers. I always look to the French system, in which senior civil servants go to work in a bank or for a major institution. As the Minister pointed out, the third sector also offers good examples of people who go out and get experience in the outside world and then come back and work for the public benefit. I know that there are problems with pensions and rewards when people go in and out of the system, but I do not think it would be beyond our wit in this modern age to work out a system whereby those at the top of the civil service would not only be experienced civil servants but would have a much more direct experience of the outside world, on which they so often give advice. That would be an important reform.
I broadly welcome what the Government are doing through legislation. The problem is that we have moved over recent years to a more presidential system as Downing street becomes ever more important. In the years of my youth, Governments changed fairly regularly. In a way, that helped balance within the system. We had Wilson for six years, Heath for just under four, and then the Labour party under Wilson and Callaghan for five years. The Thatcher Government served a record-breaking 18 years and this Government will, I suspect, certainly manage 13 years. Whether they will get beyond that point remains to be seen. It changes the nature and character of the system, because people suddenly realise that the person at the top, who is the one person who can break through for decision making in Whitehall, is very important for posts and patronage. That has an impact on the way government operates.
It is important not only that we legislate through a civil service Bill but that Parliament should move to secure more influence over the way Governments conduct their business. Suspicions about the Government—not only because of the activities of the previous Prime Minister, when Orders in Council were moved to give Alastair Campbell control over press officers, but because of the way business in this House is guillotined so that we often cannot fully discuss Bills and many other matters—lead us to wonder what happens behind the closed doors of Ministries. There is a concern out there.
The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), mentioned trust. If we keep impugning each others’ motives in politics, it is no wonder that the great British public start questioning our motives on issues from expenses to everything else. That downgrades the political process, so we have to be extremely careful. Trust is a commodity. Part of the Government’s problem is that if one promises a referendum and does not deliver on it, people might impugn their motives on other issues. Trust is very important in terms of what the Government do.
The public see a Government who are spending an awful lot on advertising. No doubt, as the Minister says, some very worthy things are advertised, such as road safety, but there is a question mark over whether there is a political objective for all these things—but perhaps that is because of the sceptical times in which we live.
We have heard that there are 70 advisers. I do not have too much of a problem with advisers, and if we look at most other systems—particularly the American one—we see that we have very few advisers compared with most Governments. They play an important role that allows civil servants to be totally neutral. A lot of the political advisory roles allow links with party political organisations and so on. It depends on their role and whether it involves developing policy or spinning.
Our concern in the Conservative party, after the history of the past few years, is that rather too many people deal with the media and rather too few deal with blue-skies thinking, policy issues and those important matters to do with delivering a particular governmental agenda. The special adviser budget has gone up from just under £2 million to at least £6 million. The number of press officers in some Departments has gone up tremendously, too.
I have the privilege of serving on the Health Committee. I note that the number of press officers in the Department of Health has gone up from 15 to 26. Why are so many needed? Occasionally, nasty bugs come along and kill people, so somebody might be needed to put out information then, but the Government have been lauding the amount spent on the NHS and one wonders whether increasing the number of press officers is necessarily the best use of resources.
I believe that the US and some other Parliaments have better systems than ours. I am not concerned about the number of advisers, but there should be parliamentary scrutiny of who they are, what their role is and whether they are qualified to fulfil it. Parliament should assert itself so that it can see who is being appointed to the various Ministries. There ought to be much more scrutiny by the House.
The change of Prime Minister gives us an opportunity to revisit some of those matters. The Government have made a number of announcements, and I hope that they continue in the direction that they are going. Given the history, we are a little sceptical. A very important point was made earlier about the need for the parties to find some common ground: any civil service Bill must have the broadest possible support, as its provisions must be sustained and retained for many years ahead.
I am pleased to be called to speak in this interesting and wide-ranging debate. I have an admission to make, because I hankered after being a special adviser when I was a researcher here 15 or 16 years ago. The daily grind of casework was not for the special adviser: I imagined leaping into the ministerial Jaguar and jetting off to some exotic and exciting meeting. Given the transport that Ministers now get, I have to admit that the notion of leaping into the Toyota Prius does not generate quite the same excitement.
I accept that special advisers do a very important job but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), I am slightly concerned—not overly so, as there are much bigger things to worry about—by the fact that at departmental level their numbers have doubled over the past 12 years from about 34 to 68. They all do much better financially now, as the budget has risen from £1.4 million in 1994-95 to nearly £6 million now.
However, my problem with special advisers is that I think that the House already has some fairly special advisers: they are known as Members of Parliament. Too often, we are bypassed by our political masters in their smart limousines and ivory towers, who tend to seek advice from outside experts and gurus. The Executive are increasingly powerful, with many highly paid supporters and hangers on—I do not want to sound pejorative, as many do an excellent job—while Parliament is seen as a rather tedious nuisance that needs to be managed but not listened to. To some degree, the growth in the numbers of special advisers has paralleled the erosion of Parliament in our society, and the strengthening of the Executive.
I have some questions about special advisers. Are they very special? Who are they? We may have some idea of who they are, but often we do not know where they come from or what they have done to qualify them for their important and highly paid positions.
How do members of Parliament get to know these special advisers? After all, they are paid for out of the public purse. We are told that they have hugely important and influential jobs, and that they have the ear of Ministers, Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and all sorts of powerful people, yet we in the House of Commons very rarely get to meet them. Indeed, the closest I get to those special advisers is when we on the Public Administration Committee are interviewing Ministers. Behind them sit shadowy figures who pass notes to the Ministers and whisper in their ears.
I say to the Minister—and to my party’s Front Benchers, as I am sure that we will be in power very soon—that I, as a Back Bencher, would like to meet these special advisers and get to know them. Perhaps there could be a system whereby they came before a Select Committee. We do not want to be hostile to those fine young men and women—or some of them might even be middle-aged. We would just like to introduce ourselves and give them the chance to introduce themselves to us, so that we can have a more fruitful and open relationship.
I have one more important question about special advisers. When they leave Government, where do they go? We need to know. Do they go off into the private sector, never to be heard of again, and do wonderful things and create large profits for shareholders, much though my friend the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) might dislike that? I am pulling his leg gently. Or are they parachuted into quangos, where they do their former masters’ bidding?
The question is whether they do a useful job there. I will leave my colleague to answer that question in his own good time. We parliamentarians have a right to know what influence special advisers wield after they leave Government and cease serving Ministers. Of course they have every right to earn a fruitful living in whatever field they choose, but we should keep a close eye on them to ensure that they are not wielding undue influence in an area directly connected with Government.
Moving on to the civil service, I do not want Members in this place to be too po-faced about the idea that promotion is based on merit. Could we honestly look our constituents in the face and say that promotion of a Member of Parliament to the Front Bench is based on merit in all circumstances and cases? Of course in many circumstances and cases it is, but other factors come into play, too. It is the same in political parties, in business and, I am sure, in the civil service. However, we have to be sure that recruitment is based on merit, and that we are getting the very best people into our civil service, regardless of their race, creed, colour or sex. We must make sure that the civil service remains an attractive place in which to build a fruitful and constructive career in public service. Like the hon. Member for Luton, North, I think that public service is a noble thing; that is why we in this place are in public service.
Civil servants must be free to engage constructively with, and to criticise, the politicians for whom they work. I listened closely to the “Yes Minister” stories told by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). I found it rather refreshing that he could have that sort of engagement with civil servants, and that they could look him in the eye—he is quite a fearsome chap—and say, “I’m sorry, Secretary of State; you’re wrong on this, and I’m right, and I’m executing my duty to the public by providing this information.” It is hugely refreshing that that happened 15 years ago; I hope that it still happens today, and if it does not, we must make sure that it does. We want strong, self-confident, robust civil servants who put public duty before all else, and who do not fear for their jobs or careers if they disagree with a Minister or point out the error of his ways.
There should of course be a range of views within our civil service. The hon. Gentleman brings me on to my closing point. I do not want to rake up the issue of the 22p, the 20p and the 10p tax rates, but it was interesting to hear the Secretary of State for Justice say on the radio that the best brains had got it wrong. That was an intriguing statement, because I do not think that the best brains in our civil service did get it wrong.
My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the permanent secretary to the Treasury, Nick Macpherson, said as much to the Public Accounts Committee. He said a thorough analysis had been conducted, including what he called a distributional analysis of all the effects before the decision was made.
Absolutely. The Secretary of State for Justice chose his words carefully when he said that the best brains had got it wrong, because civil servants clearly explained the ramifications, and the fact that about 5.3 million people would be worse off. However, a political decision was made to go ahead and change the tax rates. We as politicians must be careful to stand up and accept responsibility when we get it wrong. We must make it clear to the public that the decision was ours as politicians alone, and it was a political decision. The Public Accounts Committee must make it clear that civil servants were entirely impartial in their analysis, and that it was a political decision to go ahead and change the tax rates. With those few, rambling thoughts, I will close with a final statement. Civil servants have to be careful how they conduct themselves at every level. I become very nervous when I see Ministers and Prime Ministers being applauded in and out of public office; that does civil servants no favours.