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Committee on Standards in Public Life

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will reconsider the decision not to renew Sir Alistair Graham’s chairmanship of the Committee on Standards in Public Life from 1 June 2007.

My Lords, an announcement on successor arrangements for the chairmanship of the Committee on Standards in Public Life will be made shortly. No chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has ever been appointed for more than one term. Only this morning, at the committee’s annual public meeting, Sir Alistair Graham said that it was “entirely appropriate” that he serve one term as chair.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Might there not have been an unusual, one-off case for renewal of Sir Alistair’s chairmanship, bearing in mind his outstanding work in highlighting the decline in standards of governance? Will the Minister confirm and put it beyond doubt that the Government have no plans to scrap this committee?

My Lords, as I have indicated, it is no comment on the quality of Sir Alistair Graham’s execution of his role as chairman that he is serving only one term. All his predecessors served only one term, and they, too, served with distinction. The noble Lord will know that the Public Administration Select Committee in the other place has been investigating a range of public appointments and standards in public life for over a year. It is due to report shortly. The Government are awaiting its report before they announce further action.

My Lords, is it not refreshing that Sir Alistair has approached his job with a refreshing and fair mind? Are the Government therefore prepared to pay him a generous tribute for everything that he has achieved?

My Lords, the Government appreciate Sir Alistair Graham’s work; that is recognised in the letters exchanged on his imminent departure. I have no doubt that these points will be made public in the fullness of time. Certainly, Sir Alistair served in the post well, as did his predecessors.

My Lords, I agree entirely with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and having worked with Sir Alistair I have nothing but the highest regard for his probity and independence of spirit. Will the Minister confirm or deny reports to which he has alluded that the Government’s decision is part of a wider plan to amalgamate the Nolan committee with, among others, the Appointments Commission and the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments? If that is so, a number of your Lordships would regard it as a very retrograde step.

We have no plan, my Lords. As I indicated, the Government are, properly, waiting on the Select Committee’s recommendations, which are imminent, after which we will act.

My Lords, what is the Minister’s reaction to Sir Alistair’s statement in his letter to the Cabinet Secretary earlier this month to the effect that the Prime Minister’s failure promptly to appoint Sir Alistair’s successor,

“risks the perception, unfair or otherwise, that this Government places a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct in public life”?

My Lords, any such criticism would be unfair. However, we would certainly be open to criticism among Members in the other place and noble Lords if the Government were to act and take decisions about the future before the Select Committee had produced its recommendations.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the latest international report on supposed corruption in British public life? Does he agree with the conclusions of that report that the United Kingdom is almost entirely free of corruption in political life? Does he agree, too, that the successor to Sir Alistair, whoever he or she may be, ought to try to avoid briefing journalists apparently to the contrary? Finally, does he agree that as the Liberal Democrats’ main donor at the last election is in prison, perhaps the noble Lord opposite and his colleagues should work out how to return the £2.5 million that he gave them instead of lecturing the rest of us?

My Lords, I shall ignore that last remark, but I am grateful to my noble friend for putting things into perspective. Of course we should strive to follow the highest standards in public life, and all of us are committed to doing so. But we should recognise that this country can hold its head high in comparison with most other political systems in its freedom from corruption and the general standards in public life. I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding the House of that fact.

My Lords, following the remarks, which have already been quoted, from the retiring chairman about the absence of ethics and the lack of trust at the centre of British public life, has the Minister also noted his recommendation that a Civil Service Bill should be enacted that does not require to attend the report from the Commons committee to which he referred? Sir Alistair regarded that as central to providing a clear and explicit basis to guide the behaviour of civil servants and Ministers. It is long overdue and, according to Sir Alistair, only the lack of political will is holding it up.

My Lords, I note, as the House does, Sir Alistair’s views. However, most of his recommendations related to the discrete work of the committee, its inquiries and conclusions. Noble Lords should therefore look on some of his other comments rather more as a personal stance on these matters than as the views of his committee duly arrived at. But the noble Lord is in good company when he stresses that a Civil Service Act would contribute to some of these issues. Nevertheless, a Civil Service Bill is very difficult to draft.

My Lords, perhaps I can advise my noble friend. He will not be aware that, about 20 years ago, I sat with Sir Alistair Graham on the general council of the TUC. I am very pleased to hear my noble friend commend Sir Alistair’s work on behalf of the Government since then. However, does he agree that perhaps more than enough mischief has been caused by the press in this matter, given that Sir Alistair has been treated the same as his predecessors?

My Lords, my noble friend should not assume my ignorance about trade union relationships over the past 20 or 30 years; I assure him that I was all too well aware of his close relationship with Sir Alistair in those terms. But my noble friend has a significant point: we need to keep these matters in balance. When issues are under serious investigation, we must await the outcome of those investigations. I assure the House that the Government look forward, as we all do, to the deliberations of the widely respected Public Administration Select Committee. It will undoubtedly conclude its deliberations in time for the changes necessary to improve the standards of public life to be effected at the top of government.