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Civil Service Bill

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will introduce a Civil Service Bill and grant its consideration parliamentary time.

My Lords, the draft constitutional renewal Bill, published in March 2008, included proposals to enshrine in statute the core principles and values of the Civil Service. As set out in the Queen’s Speech, the Government will continue to take forward proposals on constitutional renewal, including the Civil Service provisions.

My Lords, it is more than nine years since the Government said that they would introduce a Civil Service Bill. This undertaking has been repeated year after year. When the legislation comes before the House, will it deal with the impartiality of the Civil Service as it is backed by the force of law? The important question is: if there is once again to be further draft legislation, when will it finally be passed into law?

My Lords, I must congratulate my noble friend on his tenacity on this issue. I can confirm that the core values and duties of the Civil Service, which of course include impartiality, will be part of the Bill. I believe that our Civil Service is impartial, but it is good that there should be a statute in which those core principles are included. Pre-legislative scrutiny on these issues has taken place and I do not believe that further draft legislation is necessary. These proposals will be brought into law in due course.

My Lords, has the Lord President read that George Osborne has a detailed plan to sack senior civil servants whom Conservative Ministers deem responsible for shortfalls in their own financial targets? Might this not lead to an American-style spoils system of public appointment? Should not the opportunity of ministerial buck-passing be prevented by entrenching the independence of our British Civil Service?

My Lords, I am never in favour of buck-passing; I always think that the buck stops here. The existing Civil Service Code, which forms part of civil servants’ terms and conditions of employment, already states that civil servants must,

“make sure public money and other resources are used properly and efficiently … use resources only for the authorised public purposes for which they are provided”,

and that they must not,

“use official resources for party political purposes”.

That is absolutely correct; it is in the code; and I believe that it is sufficient.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware that the constitutional renewal Bill contains a Civil Service Bill which is a fully formed and lusty baby after its long gestation and that there are many who think that the Civil Service is important enough to deserve a Bill of its own. Will she consider with her colleagues whether that baby might be delivered on its own?

My Lords, do the Government have any intention to reduce the number of special advisers, a very large number of whom have been created under this Government, which has gone so far to undermine independent advice being given by the Civil Service?

My Lords, there are no proposals at present to reduce the number of special advisers, but I disagree fundamentally with the noble Lord that their position in any way undermines the impartiality of the Civil Service. Gordon Brown’s first act as Prime Minister was to revoke the Order in Council that granted powers to special advisers to line-manage and give instructions to civil servants. We are now back to where we used to be and we are in a very good position.

My Lords, the constitutional renewal Bill was a miscellaneous measure. Could not the Civil Service Bill be brought in as an individual measure as it is so strongly supported? Could it not be said also that the Government cannot be accused of undue haste, as this was proposed in 1854 by the Northcote-Trevelyan report?

My Lords, I am grateful for that historical perspective and will certainly take those ideas back to the department.

My Lords, I support the idea of an individual Bill. That reflects the recommendations of the report of the Joint Committee and was the view taken by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. I support both of them.

My Lords, does my noble friend consider that it would be beneficial if the contents of the Civil Service Bill drew on the distinctive insights and experiences, brief as they were, of the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham?

My Lords, I was disappointed by the views expressed recently by the noble Lord, Lord Jones. I was also slightly confused, because a couple of months previously, he had referred to our Civil Service, not exactly as world class, but he was full of praise for it. I endorse his praise for our Civil Service, which does a first-rate job.

I will abuse my position here to make a comment about the staff of the House. At this difficult time for the House, when the House is brought into disrepute, it must be difficult for our staff, who must feel demoralised. On behalf of the whole House, I record our thanks to our staff at this difficult time.