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Prime Minister's Press Secretary

Volume 621: debated on Thursday 8 February 2001

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3.9 p.m.

What are the powers and responsibilities of the Prime Minister's press secretary.

My Lords, Alastair Campbell is appointed as a special adviser under terms and conditions set out in a model contract for special advisers. His contract has been modified to take account of his role as the Prime Minister's official spokesman and his executive responsibilities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, it conceals more than it tells us. Does the Minister recall that the head of the Civil Service, addressing a House of Commons Select Committee in November, four months ago, said:

"The taxpayer is paying Alastair Campbell to work for the Government as the Government, not for the Labour Party"?
Is that really happening at the moment? Does it happen when the press secretary airbrushes another reluctant Minister out of history by a disparaging remark at one of his press conferences, or, indeed, when, as the Financial Times tells us this morning, he intends to use a press conference,
"to flag up ambitions for a second Labour term"?
Is there not an impossible conflict of interest here that needs resolving?

My Lords, there is not an impossible conflict of interest. The noble Lord will recall that at the very same Select Committee hearing the head of the Home Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary said that special advisers in the position of Mr Alastair Campbell are able to put forward a more robust defence for the Government than other civil servants. That is precisely what Mr Alastair Campbell does.

My Lords, following on from that, on how many occasions has the Cabinet Secretary had cause to upbraid the Prime Minister's Press Secretary since 1997 for behaviour incompatible with the traditional roles of a civil servant? Can the noble and learned Lord tell the House if the Hammond inquiry will cover the activities of the Prime Minister's Press Secretary as regards the events surrounding Peter Mandelson's resignation, and when it will report?

My Lords, I am not aware that the Cabinet Secretary has ever upbraided Mr Alastair Campbell in the respect suggested by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. As far as the Hammond inquiry is concerned, its terms of reference have been published in a parliamentary Answer; namely, to investigate the events of 1998 in relation to the application for a passport by the Hindujas.

My Lords, has Mr Alastair Campbell reacted in any way differently from his predecessor, Sir Bernard Ingham? Is it not a fact that hypocrisy surrounds this question?

My Lords, he does not have a knighthood like Sir Bernard Ingham. I do not know how Sir Bernard Ingham conducted himself. As far as Mr Alastair Campbell is concerned, he has conducted himself in accordance with the terms of his contract.

My Lords, if the Hammond inquiry exonerates the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will the Government act in the way in which an employer would have to act in the case of an industrial tribunal inquiry and restore one of the ablest members of the Cabinet?

My Lords, the inquiry has been set up into the application for a passport. The findings are entirely a matter for Sir Anthony. We should wait until they are published before we speculate.

My Lords, as it was confirmed in my debate three years ago that Mr Campbell is one of the two special advisers who have been given the full status of a civil servant, has he been asked to sign the Official Secrets Act and does he attend meetings of the Cabinet, as distinct, of course, from a kitchen cabinet?

My Lords, his obligations in relation to the Official Secrets Act are exactly the same as for any other civil servant. As far as meetings of the Cabinet are concerned, from time to time he attends but obviously as an observer.

My Lords, it is quite clear that Mr Alastair Campbell is a civil servant at the present time. What happens if an election is called?

My Lords, Mr Alastair Campbell has made it clear that when a general election is called he will cease to be a civil servant and will work for the Labour Party.

My Lords, having been a lobby correspondent throughout the time that Sir Bernard Ingham was in power, may I tell the Minister that I can never remember an occasion on which he criticised the—

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it would be helpful to be told that I can never recollect an occasion on which Sir Bernard criticised the Labour Party and that he frequently refused to take a line for the Conservative Party, although he was—as he properly should be and as Mr Campbell should be—totally loyal to the Prime Minister of the day? If Mr Campbell finds it difficult to combine the roles, would not a simple solution be for him to continue in his position but to be on the payroll of the Labour Party?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for telling me about Sir Bernard Ingham's job as official spokesman to the then Prime Minister. As regards the present Prime Minister's official spokesman, he is well able to operate within the confines of his contract, as the Cabinet Secretary made absolutely clear at the Select Committee hearing to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred. That involves robustly putting the Government's case and, where opposition attacks on the Government are absurd, he is able to point that out.

My Lords, can the Minister give the House any indication of exactly how many senior civil servants are allowed to take time off to work for their party in an election?

My Lords, special advisers are expected, if they are going to engage in party politics in the course of an election, to resign as special advisers and act as they see fit. That position in relation to special advisers was the same under the Conservative government as it is under this Government.

My Lords, I can assure noble Lords opposite that I shall be brief. Am I right in concluding from the noble and learned Lord's answer to my noble friend Lord Campbell—a clansman of the person in question—that Mr Alastair Campbell has not signed the Official Secrets Act?

My Lords, I cannot be precise about the procedure but I make it clear that he is governed by the Official Secrets Act to the same extent as any other civil servant.