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Government: Advisers

Volume 699: debated on Monday 18 February 2008

My Lords, before I ask my Question, I want to make it absolutely crystal clear beyond all peradventure that this Question does not in any way imply anything incorrect on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I have said that to him privately, and I would like to say it on the Floor of the House.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the appropriateness of appointing advisers to the Government who are members of Select Committees of the House of Lords.

My Lords, advisers to the Government are appointed on the basis of their expertise and experience. Membership of Select Committees is a matter for your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, what I find difficult is that a member of a Select Committee can say that he cannot participate in certain sections of the work of that Select Committee because he is an adviser to the Government on that section. How can one make sure that the Select Committee is fully manned and that the people concerned have the amount of input that they deserve?

My Lords, without getting into the detail of the specifics of the individual concerned—the noble Earl has rightly made it plain that he sees no fault on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who sits on the committee with him—the way that this functions is very straightforward. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has agreed with the Justice Secretary to avoid working on issues that would give rise to conflicts of interest or to perceived conflicts of interest. The membership of the Select Committee is a matter for your Lordships’ House, the Committee of Selection and the nominations that come from individual political parties. We see no reason why it would be anything other than completely possible to continue to work on a Select Committee, bearing in mind of course the work that one is doing as an adviser. It appears from what the noble Earl is saying that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has behaved completely properly in all circumstances.

My Lords, is it not unsurprising that some members of Select Committees whose principal purpose is to offer collective advice to government should be considered individually suitable for that role? Is it not safeguard enough to allow such individuals to form their judgment and the committee to form its judgment as to the appropriateness of their participation in particular work?

Indeed, my Lords—I have no difficulty in taking the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. It is obvious to me that Select Committees of your Lordships’ House and Joint Select Committees are perfectly capable of working effectively while taking on board the background, the interests and the work that individuals are doing. In this context, I would have thought that having someone with the human rights expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was of enormous benefit, not only to the Select Committee but to your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, does the Lord President understand that asking members of Select Committees to advise the Government risks compromising those Members’ duty to speak out against the Government when they feel that that is necessary?

My Lords, I do not believe that that is true. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made it clear on becoming Prime Minister that he was very keen to involve appropriately those who have real experience and expertise to enhance the opportunities for our nation. It is clear to me that those who serve as advisers to the Government, whether on my own Benches, the Benches opposite and the Cross Benches, provide huge expertise and experience that can only be to the benefit of the Government and the nation.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there is some long-standing wisdom in the distinction between gamekeepers and poachers and between hares and hounds? Surely even she would agree that a Select Committee should not be composed entirely of advisers to Her Majesty's Government. If she does, she must have some doubts about whether a Select Committee should contain even one adviser to Her Majesty's Government.

My Lords, even “she” understands the point of the noble Lord’s question. But “she” would say to the noble Lord that, first, it is incredibly important to bring in abilities, expertise and experience. I think the noble Lord agrees that that is appropriate. Secondly, one of the functions of Select Committees, particularly the Joint Committee on Human Rights—and I speak as a former human rights Minister—has been to give advice to the Government, which is not always welcome, but is none the less important. It is important to make sure that we have that mix of experience and expertise within a committee. It is almost a false distinction to try to say that that is appropriate in some circumstances and not in others. Even “she” gets the point.

My Lords, will my noble friend assist the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who is clearly struggling with an issue of principle? To make sure that he does not have to struggle with that at a personal level, can she give me an assurance that she would resist any temptation to appoint him as a government adviser?

My Lords, I never say “never” in any circumstances. The Public Administration Select Committee made an important point on skills and government. It said:

“No organisation should be closed—outsiders can bring different skills and perspectives which should be welcomed. Every organisation can benefit from some degree of ‘ventilation’”.

Perhaps on that basis the noble Earl might indeed consider becoming an adviser.