Skip to main content

Special Advisers: Select Committees

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What arrangements they are making to allow special advisers to give evidence to Select Committees.

My Lords, the Cabinet Office guidance Departmental Evidence and Response to Select Committees makes it clear that where a Select Committee indicates that it wishes to take evidence from a particular named official, including special advisers, the presumption should be that Ministers will agree to meet such a request. The guidance also makes it clear that the final decision on who is best placed to represent the Minister rests with the Minister concerned.

Yes, my Lords, but should it not rest also with the civil servant concerned, who can be asked by the departmental committee to appear before it? Will my noble friend acknowledge that after the Government asserted or claimed year after year that a draft Civil Service Bill would be introduced, it is now clear that that commitment has been abandoned? In the absence of such a Bill, which is much to be deplored, will my noble friend ensure that special advisers may give oral evidence to Select Committees at least to determine the role that they play in practice rather than in theory?

My Lords, I should make it clear, as the guidance does, that the position of special advisers is the same as that for permanent civil servants. There is no prohibition on special advisers appearing before Select Committees. But ultimately the decision should be for Ministers because they are, after all, accountable to Parliament. When civil servants give evidence to Select Committees they do so on behalf of their Ministers and under their directions, not on their own account.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that special advisers in his Government have, according to Parliamentary Answers that I have recently received, had “numerous unminuted meetings” with Anschutz and other foreign casino operators bidding for casino licences? In the 1974 Labour Government, when I advised Roy Jenkins, as Home Secretary, on gambling regulation among other things, if I had been caught holding meetings with foreign casino operators I would have been sacked on the spot. Now that standards of conduct have changed and special advisers are clearly acting as surrogate Ministers, why are Select Committees not allowed to scrutinise their activities as a matter of course?

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord’s supposition that special advisers are acting as surrogate Ministers. As I made clear a moment ago, they act on behalf of their Ministers and under their direction, not on their own account. They are ultimately accountable to Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament.

My Lords, while it may be perfectly acceptable for political advisers to give evidence to Select Committees, is it in order for them to attack the political integrity of democratically elected Members of Parliament? When they do so, as was reported in the Sunday Times last weekend over the McBride affair, should they not simply be sacked?

My Lords, I do not make it a practice to comment on articles that have appeared in newspapers, even newspapers as well disposed as and with the integrity of the Sunday Times.

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Oakeshott I declare an interest as a former special adviser to Roy Jenkins. Is the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, correct in surmising that the Government have abandoned their manifesto commitment and the commitment made in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to introduce a Civil Service Bill? Has that been abandoned, and, if so, why?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for confessing his membership of an elite group of former special advisers, which greatly enlightens our House. As to the noble Lord’s comments about the Civil Service Bill, manifesto commitments and the Cook-Maclennan accord, I think that this Government have made a great deal of progress on matters that have been raised as part of the more general debate on the Civil Service Bill. We have tried to ensure that we have made progress on issues of interest and importance that have been generally covered in that debate. So for the first time we have in the Civil Service Code the right for Civil Service commissioners to consider taking direct complaints or concerns from civil servants about issues under the code. We have also made it very plain who special advisers are, how much they are paid, how many there are, what rank they are and so on. We have a reputation for transparency as a Government and it is important for us to make progress in implementing those things that are possible to implement without necessarily having recourse to legislation.

My Lords, like all these issues with legislation, they have to take their place and time, and it is for the Government to determine that. As the noble Lord will know, we have not listed a Civil Service Bill in this current round of legislation.

My Lords, as the person who did all the work on the Civil Service Bill as shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster between 1995 and 1997, I know that many people on this side of the House are as interested as colleagues from all around the Chamber in why the Bill has not yet been introduced. I gave undertakings to all the Civil Service unions and others who had participated in our policy framework that this would be done if time was found within the first Parliament of the Labour Government. We are now in the second Parliament—

My Lords, forgive me. We are now in the third Parliament and there is still no Civil Service Bill. Who is sitting on the job?

My Lords, I do not know that people are sitting on this particular job, but as noble Lords who are familiar with this issue will have observed in the past, I have to answer for the Government on it. We consulted on the Bill and are still considering the representations that were made. In the mean time, we bring forward measures that give effect to important issues which were raised during that debate.