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Civil Service Impartiality

Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2008

The constitutional renewal Bill, which we published in draft in March, included proposals to enshrine in statute the core principles and values of the civil service, which include impartiality. The Government reiterated their commitment to continue to take forward their proposals in the Queen’s Speech last week.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that impartiality remains important for some quite junior civil service posts? Does he agree, for instance, that appointing a civil servant who had stood as an Opposition candidate only four years ago to work in the private office of the Home Secretary would be inappropriate?

I am obviously not going to comment—just as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused to comment—on ongoing police investigations, but I hope that the whole House will agree that, whatever party Ministers come from, they must be able to rely on the impartiality of the civil service—and at all levels. That is fundamental to the civil service: those core civil service values are set out in the civil service code and they actually form part of a civil servant’s terms and conditions of employment.

But why cannot the civil service clauses be detached from the rest of the constitutional renewal Bill and be proceeded with in this Parliament, as they had widespread support and were anticipated in several Government manifestos?

Quite simply because they do not need to be. We intend to proceed with our proposals for the constitutional renewal Bill. May I say that we published those proposals in draft because they are constitutional and we believe that they deserve the widest possible scrutiny? Indeed, we have had the benefit of extremely important scrutiny from the Justice Committee, the Public Administration Committee and, indeed, from the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. We have benefited from all that scrutiny, we are drafting the clauses as we speak and we will introduce those proposals.

I do not wish to be too critical of what we have discovered today to be the erstwhile occupation of the Minister’s boss, but does the Minister not agree that one of the elements most corrosive of civil service impartiality over the past 10 years has been the explosion in the number of special advisers employed by the Government? What would he do about that?

I certainly do not agree, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not referring to his boss, the leader of the Conservative party, when he spoke of corrosive elements in our public life. I am sure that he was not—I am glad to receive that confirmation from the hon. Gentleman.

I do not agree that the civil service is being corroded. I think that we should be proud of our civil service, which plays an extraordinarily important role in our constitution. If the hon. Gentleman reads the evidence given to Select Committees by the current head of the civil service, he will see that the latter paid tribute to the important role played by special advisers in our constitutional arrangements.

Some of us remember being special advisers and protecting the impartiality of the civil service, and I pay tribute to the Lord Chancellor for what he did in that respect long ago. However, the Minister has said once again that the constitutional renewal Bill will be coming forward. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who served on the Committee that examined the draft Bill, it is an important piece of legislation, and we were all looking forward to it. We all consider the impartiality of the civil service to be the very cornerstone of our democracy. Action has been promised again and again, yet we do not see the Bill in the timetable now. If it is really to come forward, can the Minister tell us when it will do so?

We plan to present proposals in April or May. [Interruption.] This is not news, however excited Opposition Members may be about it. We have made our intentions clear. I hope Members agree that we need to take constitutional proposals seriously, and to reflect on the scrutiny that they have been given by three Committees of the House. However, we will present those proposals, and given what the hon. Lady has said, we expect to receive the Conservative party’s support for every measure of this kind that we present in future.