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Civil Service: Damian McBride

Volume 711: debated on Monday 8 June 2009


Asked By

My Lords, Damian McBride was appointed as a special adviser in April 2005. He was employed under terms and conditions set out in the Model Contract and Code of Conduct for Special Advisers. Mr McBride relinquished his post as Head of Communications in Her Majesty’s Treasury on taking up this appointment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Has he seen the report in the Guardian by Patrick Wintour on 16 April? It stated that Sir Gus O’Donnell, the then Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, insisted on the resignation of Mr McBride as a Treasury civil servant and press officer on the grounds, among others, that he had planted in newspapers false stories about Sir John Major and myself, quite wrongly alleging that we were blocking the release of information about the Conservative Government’s economic policies—information requested under the Freedom of Information Act—and that at that point the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, decided to make Mr McBride a special adviser beyond the veto of Sir Gus O’Donnell. Is that report true or untrue?

My Lords, Damian McBride was appointed as a special adviser in 2005 following a distinguished and important role in the Treasury. As the noble Lord will appreciate, he held a very high and significant position in the Treasury. He was appointed as a special adviser under the terms of such an appointment. The press reports to which the noble Lord referred have to be taken on the basis of one’s judgment of the paper concerned.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, on his courage in raising this issue, which must bring back some painful memories of when he was forced to offer his resignation to John Major because of the collapse of the ERM after being advised by someone—his special adviser, a Mr David Cameron?

My Lords, as ever, I am grateful to my noble friend. However, the House will have seen that the original Question relates to events in 2005, reflecting then discussion about issues which obtained in 1992. We might think that we ought to deal with more contemporary issues.

My Lords, will the Minister elucidate a bit further on this? If my noble friend’s statement from the Guardian is correct, surely it should never have passed anybody’s mind to re-employ Mr Damian McBride. Not only that, he did literally the most appalling things while he was in office, but he was allowed to resign. Why was he not sacked? Is the Prime Minister waiting for the opportunity to put somebody in his Government who will be able to turn to somebody like him and say, “You’re fired”?

My Lords, it is true that Damian McBride resigned, but he obtained—and does obtain—no benefits, emoluments, compensation or any money at all. He left that day without a further penny of public money being spent on his employment. If the noble Baroness is suggesting that there is a significant distinction between being allowed to resign and being dismissed, I think that the House will disregard that.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, irrespective of whether Mr McBride is a special adviser or a civil servant, his activities are one of the reasons why trust in politicians and this Government is so low? What assurances can the Minister give us that the McBride mentality has been stamped out by Downing Street?

My Lords, as I just indicated, Damian McBride left immediately because of the fault that had been identified in what he had done. All special advisers are aware of that and have been informed by the Prime Minister of an added specification to their code of conduct which reinforces the fact that, although special advisers have a particular role in relating matters of government to the public, they are bound by a clear code of conduct, and infringements of that code will produce condign effects on them.

My Lords, the Minister described Mr McBride as having a distinguished and important role at the Treasury, but this contradicts the reports that my noble friend Lord Lamont outlined; that Mr McBride was implicit in briefing against Sir John Major while he was a civil servant and, because of that, Sir Gus O’Donnell required him to stand down from the Civil Service. The Minister did not deny that when he responded to my noble friend; I now give him the opportunity categorically to do so.

My Lords, when I refer to Mr McBride’s role, I refer to obvious facts from his curriculum vitae. He was head of indirect taxation from 1999 to 2002. He was head of VAT strategy in 2003. He was head of communications and strategy from September 2003 until he took up the special adviser’s role. That was a significant career in the Treasury. The Opposition are contending that, during part of that time, Damian McBride may have committed some infringement in his actions in relation to the public. It is clear that, as soon as the offence was identified in 2009, the Prime Minister acted.

My Lords, is the answer to this question for the Government to disinter proposals in its Constitutional Reform Bill and create an independent Civil Service, which would be on a statutory basis and would not be tarnished by such appointments?

My Lords, I notice that there are also commendations to my noble friend from the other side of the House. My noble friend will be all too well aware that a very significant expansion in special advisers took place while the Opposition were in power. It is the case that we have increased the role of special advisers. We have also trebled the resources for Her Majesty’s Opposition parties’ ability to hold the Government to account. This reflects that government is more complicated and more demanding and, of course, that media requirements are more demanding. There is a necessity for some role beyond the Civil Service, which must be independent, as my noble friend has indicated. This will be reinforced in our constitutional proposals. I think all parties agree that there is a proper role for special advisers, who must, of course, be governed by a proper code of conduct.