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David Frost

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government (1) when they expect David Frost to be introduced to the House; and (2) whether he will be accountable to the House in relation to his duties as (a) the Prime Minister’s Europe Adviser and the United Kingdom’s Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe, and (b) the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has recommended David Frost for a life peerage. Her Majesty the Queen has graciously approved the recommendation. He will be introduced to the House in due course, in the usual way. The Prime Minister has appointed David Frost as National Security Adviser; he is not a Minister and will be accountable to Parliament in the usual way for officeholders—for example, appearing before Select Committees where necessary and appropriate.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply but, sadly, it raises many more questions than answers. Do the Government not recognise that the post of National Security Adviser was designed for giving impartial advice in the national interest? By appointing a Conservative Peer as the National Security Adviser, it will instead be political advice in the Conservative interest. I first ask the Minister this: will Mr Frost, as a Member of this House, simply sit silently on the red Benches, while the business of the National Security Council is debated here?

Secondly, Mr Frost is, at present, in charge of the negotiations on our future relations with the European Union—perhaps the most important negotiations in our lifetime. Will he again be sitting here silently or will he regularly report on the progress of the negotiations to the House, of which he will be a Member? The public outside will see this Government not reforming the system in a thought-through way, but introducing yet another partisan way of politicising our remarkable Civil Service.

My Lords, there were a number of questions there; I am not sure I remembered them all by the end. The post of National Security Adviser has only existed since 2010 and it is an evolving role. Mr Frost is a career diplomat of 25 years’ distinguished service to this country. He is perfectly capable of giving dispassionate and wise advice. His role as an outstanding negotiator with the EU will continue as now. He will be ready to appear before your Lordships’ Select Committees, as he has already.

My Lords, the politicisation of this and other posts at the top of government is a significant change in the constitutional settlement of this country. When and how will the Government seek democratic approval for this decision?

My Lords, I do not believe that a single appointment constitutes the politicisation of the Civil Service, for which Her Majesty’s Government have a very high regard. Reform of public service was in the Government’s manifesto and we will carry out that pledge.

My Lords, both the Prime Minister and Michael Gove cited President Roosevelt as the model for this Government’s approach. When I was first a student in the United States, I was invited to seminars given by three former members of President Roosevelt’s cabinet, all of whom emphasised the efforts Roosevelt made to carry cross-party support in both Houses of Congress for his New Deal. Are this Government similarly committed to building support across the parties and in both Houses of Parliament or do they prefer, as Dominic Cummings suggests, to move fast and break the conventions?

My Lords, this Government, who have a great public mandate, want to carry the widest possible support and, indeed, increase their support across this nation. I welcome the support given by Sir Keir Starmer to the principle of heavy investment in infrastructure, which the Prime Minister is announcing.

My Lords, watching Washington provides daily lessons on the perils of a politicised public service, and the Iraq inquiry reminded us of the dangers when politics and intelligence assessment overlap. Mr Frost is a man of proven resilience and stamina—he used to work for me—but he is being put in a very difficult position. Will the Minister reassure us that the Government understand that the primary role of the National Security Adviser is speaking truth to power, co-ordinating and presenting to Government the considered collective advice of the council, welcome or unwelcome, and not acting as a delivery mechanism to impose policies born in a back shop in No. 10?

My Lords, the noble Lord slightly lost my sympathy in the last few words of his question. I welcome his endorsement of Mr Frost’s qualities—I cannot judge how many he learned from the noble Lord—but assure him that anybody in public service, even a Minister, has the duty to speak truth to power. I am sure Mr Frost will be mindful of that.

Could the Minister confirm that, when David Frost is elevated to the peerage, he will, at the very least, be given an earldom or possibly be made a Marquis, in recognition of his brilliant letter of 19 May of this year to Michel Barnier and his superb negotiating with the EU? That led to the EU understanding that it cannot continue to treat this country as a colony of an empire run from Brussels.

My Lords, I am glad to have that endorsement of Mr Frost from the other side of the river to the previous noble Lord. Her Majesty is the fount of all honour, but I fear that if my noble friend’s suggestion were followed, Mr Frost might find himself on the expulsion list of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Perhaps we should be satisfied by a simple life peerage.

My Lords, this is really quite extraordinary: a political appointment has been made into a Civil Service job. We have not seen the like of this before. I wonder whether the Minister has really considered both the practical and constitutional issues that this raises. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, the National Security Adviser is there to tell truth to power. We all fear that there is a concentration of power in Downing Street that does not like either challenge or scrutiny. Will the Minister confirm whether Mr Frost, when he comes into your Lordships’ House, will take the Conservative whip and be allowed to speak on security issues or EU negotiation issues?

My Lords, I repeat what I said about speaking truth unto power. I assure the noble Baroness that Mr Frost will be supported by the normal substructure of government, which remains. We are talking here about one appointment. It is my understanding that he may be introduced as a Conservative Peer, but I cannot confirm that to your Lordships today.

My Lords, in the Times today, Rachel Sylvester quotes a former Permanent Secretary saying of this Government that

“basic propriety and ethics have gone out the window, and the decision-making is a shambles.”

Does not giving someone with no expert knowledge of terrorism, intelligence or defence responsibility for national security, as well as for the Brexit negotiations, confirm this?

No, my Lords. Mr Frost has extensive diplomatic experience, and the previous four incumbents as National Security Adviser also emerged from a diplomatic career.

My Lords, will the Minister explain how, in this intense phase of the Brexit negotiations—the tunnel—our chief negotiator will have the time for his induction into his new role? Does he accept that there is a strong risk that the Brexit negotiations will not be concluded by the end of September, and that the undivided attention of the chief negotiator is needed until they are concluded?

My Lords, I do not agree that there will be a difficulty. The announcement suggests that Mr Frost will take up his appointment around the end of August, and, as the noble Lord said, there will be a period of handover. Mr Frost will remain chief negotiator for the EU talks until agreement is reached, or until they end. That will remain his first priority. As I have already said, he will also be ready to answer to Select Committees of the House in that period.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, when Mr Frost becomes a Peer, this House will be very lucky, because we will gain a new Member with huge experience—as my noble friend has outlined—and with complete dedication and commitment to the success of the UK outside the EU?

My Lords, I do agree and I am very grateful, as I am sure Mr Frost will be, for what my noble friend said. It is striking that, right across the House, among those with different views, there has been a unanimous acceptance of Mr Frost’s abilities and calibre.

My Lords, as the Government’s first National Security Adviser, I welcome the moving words of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at Ditchley Park over the weekend about the need for reform in the Civil Service to ensure the “mastery of deep knowledge”. Since Mr Frost has not, as far as I know, worked on defence, security or intelligence matters in the way that each of his predecessors had done, how is Mr Gove’s dictum about reform of the Civil Service to be read in the light of Mr Frost’s appointment?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who was, as he told us, the first National Security Adviser. Each of those, although coming from a diplomatic background, has had different and diverse experience—the noble Lord had a particular role as chairman of the JIC. Where I do agree with him is that the Prime Minister has decided that the role of the National Security Adviser and that of the Cabinet Secretary should be divided. That will give the incumbent time to display his dedication and skills, as I have no doubt he will, in carrying out this important role.

My Lords, in his own words, the Prime Minister recently said that we have embarked on the most significant reassessment of the UK’s position in the world, its allies and alliances, and its defence, security and intelligence needs. Subsequently, the Wuhan virus struck, so the task is doubly complicated. This huge job is being led and co-ordinated by someone with almost no background in defence, intelligence and security. Now, we find that the other key figure in all of this work—the most important work since the Second World War—the new National Security Adviser, Mr Frost, similarly has no experience in any of these key areas. I am only a simple sailor and I would like the Minister, who I understood severed as a spad in various guises for many years, to make it clear whether he preferred advice with political spin from someone with little expertise in their field, or unbiased expert advice, particularly where the security and safety of our nation and people depended on the outcome?

My Lords, again, I do not agree with the characterisation of the presumed danger. The Prime Minister is responsible for the integrated review, as chair of the National Security Council. Mr Frost will be involved, but there will be a cross-Whitehall process. Even as a humble special adviser, I felt it part of my duty often to give unwelcome advice to a Prime Minister, and I am sure that any decent public servant, political or otherwise, would always feel the same.

Does my noble friend agree that David Frost will be a valuable Member of this House and welcomed by all noble Lords, even those who may be embarrassed by his presence, given that they firmly declared he would never succeed in reopening the withdrawal agreement, dropping the original Irish protocol or completing negotiations by the end of November, and who now object to the robust way in which he is negotiating to achieve the mandate of the British people, democratically asserted in the referendum and the last general election? We should sympathise with their embarrassment but not allow it to mute our welcome for his presence.

I strongly agree with what my noble friend has said. Mr Frost has shown remarkable skill in negotiations so far, and I am sure will continue to do so. He will be a vital and important Member of this House for many years to come.

My Lords, the time allocated for the Private Notice Question has elapsed. The House will now adjourn until 12.30 pm for questions on an Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the House of Commons on Monday 29 June.

Sitting suspended.