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Civil Service

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made towards introducing legislation regarding the Civil Service.

My Lords, as set out in the Queen's Speech and in my Answer to noble Lords in January, the Government continue to develop our proposals on constitutional renewal, including the Civil Service provisions, and will bring them forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but is she aware that we have now been waiting for more than 10 years for a solution, and that in the past five years, there has been some comment as to when things would happen? We have had some further comments this afternoon. Can my noble friend tell us when we will actually get the legislation and put it on the statute book?

My Lords, I am well aware of the long wait that has ensued. I think that my noble friend must have a recurring reminder in his diary to hold the Government to account on this matter; I am very grateful. I can merely repeat that we will bring forward those proposals as soon as parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the independence of the Civil Service has been gravely undermined by making it part of the project of the Labour Government? Does she also accept that the presence of so many special advisers—at the last count there were 24 in No.10 Downing Street alone—has made the independence of the Civil Service very difficult?

No, my Lords, I believe that our Civil Service is wholly impartial, and I celebrate and welcome that. The number of special advisers has nothing to do with the impartiality of the Civil Service.

My Lords, the time of this Parliament is running out. Will the Government acknowledge that the Joint Committee of the two Houses found little to complain about in the part of the Constitutional Renewal Bill that was concerned with the Civil Service, and suggested that it might be severed from the other matters, which were considerably more controversial? In view of the fact that it is not just 10 years since the Civil Service has come under discussion, but nearer 150 years, since the Northcote-Trevelyan report, will the Government, even at this late hour, give us a commitment to introduce the Bill before the Summer Recess in respect of the Civil Service?

My Lords, the Joint Committee did an absolutely splendid job, and as many people have in the past, I thank it for its excellent work. I can merely repeat that we will bring forward these proposals as soon as parliamentary time allows. It has taken 150 years, but at least we have produced a draft Bill, and are proposing to bring legislation before this House.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. That committee twice recommended that there should be a Civil Service Bill introduced rapidly, and on both occasions, if my recollection is correct, that recommendation was welcomed by the Government. The earliest occasion was 1998—more than 10 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, said. However, that was not the first time the proposal had been made. Action is called for very swiftly.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Civil Service will welcome any opportunity to have its core values and impartiality guaranteed in law? Given that there has been considerable delay in bringing this measure forward, would she consider introducing a mirror provision that would place a statutory duty on Ministers to respect that impartiality and the values of the Civil Service at all times?

My Lords, as I mentioned earlier, our Civil Service is completely impartial. The core values and duties of the Civil Service as set out in the code, including impartiality, are well respected now, although I agree that it would be good to put that on the statute book. Ministers uphold and respect the code of practice as it stands, and I am confident that they will respect whatever law comes forward.

My Lords, do the Government accept that the members of the Joint Committee were concerned about the number and role of special advisers? Does the Minister accept that the code for special advisers needs to be reviewed and brought before Parliament—as was recommended by a number of the members of that committee—and that if we are to avoid a repetition of the Damian McBride affair, this is very urgent?

My Lords, we have a very solid code in respect of special advisers. While the Damian McBride case was absolutely appalling, and we all loathe and abhor what happened, having these provisions in law would not have prevented somebody doing that. I entirely condemn what Mr McBride did, but I do not think that a law would necessarily have stopped it.

My Lords, should there be a separate Bill for the Civil Service, as recommended by the Joint Committee on which I had the privilege to serve? Reasons were given.

My Lords, many people have advocated a separate Bill, and I entirely respect that perspective. However, it is the Government’s intention to bring forward the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which contains clauses on the Civil Service.

My Lords, if Mr McBride had been sacked two and a half years ago when he was first exposed for his activities, surely that would have avoided all the difficulties that we had recently.

My Lords, the problem with Mr McBride came to light a few months ago. As soon as it did, he was sacked. The Government acted quite properly and swiftly.