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Ministers and Civil Servants

October 30, 2008

Nick Hurd winds up the debate on the Public Administration Committee’s report, “Politics and Administration: Ministers and Civil Servants” on behalf of the Opposition. He raises concerns about the politicisation of the civil service and broadly welcomes the inclusion of a ‘mini Civil Service Bill’ within the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Like the Minister, my alternative entertainment this afternoon was with my children—they too are on half-term holiday—but I cannot think why I thought that it would have been more fun than this debate.

We have had a good old-fashioned spat, which has raised blood pressures. We had sparkling contributions from Labour Back Benchers. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) is always interesting, and he had a lot to get off his chest. He gave the Opposition yet another good example of how to duff up the Government. The welcome spirit of Robin Cook was introduced to the debate by the hon. Members for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Pendle in that marvellous line that good scrutiny is good government.

The debate has also been proof that it is impossible to avoid Lord Mandelson these days. We have to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) for introducing the good Lord Mandelson and the ghastly image of him smiling benignly—or smirking, depending on one’s political viewpoint—as the adoring civil servants strew palm leaves before him as he re-enters his Department. It is a terrible image, and I am trying rid of it myself.

I congratulate the Committee on its report. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), its Chairman, enjoys an outstanding reputation. The report is clearly rooted in a robust process of consultation, with impressive witnesses. As we would expect, it is well argued. However, it did not impress my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), and I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) described as anodyne.

The Committee Chairman may feel that some punches have been pulled, but the most conclusive and clear recommendation—the main one—is to press the Government to deliver a civil service Act. I also congratulate the Committee on its persistence. It has been a long journey, but it seems that it may deliver a result—against what appears to be considerable Government resistance. We spoke earlier about the delay in the Government’s response to the report, but that is just one symptom of a wider process of apparent foot dragging. I am sure that the Minister will have something to say on that subject.

As a relatively new Member of Parliament—I have been only three years in this place—some of my most rewarding experiences have been in my work on the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. It is therefore a particular pleasure to see a Select Committee apparently get a result. We should all feel good about that.

I turn to the specific question of whether we are seeing a trend towards the dangerous politicisation of the civil service. With your indulgence, Mr. Jones, I shall put this in a wider context, which I believe is necessary. That context is the erosion of public confidence in the way in which we are governed, which is gnawing away at the vitality of our democracy. We should be concerned about that.

I look at the problem through the prism of my constituency experience. People recognise that there has been change in the style of government. It may have started under a previous Administration—a subject that is open to debate—but people believe that that change has accelerated since 1997. People talk about a presidential approach to government. Prime Minister Blair’s outgoing chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, described it as Napoleonic. Similar concerns underlie that sort of language, and they also centre on the short-cutting of due process in policy and decision making.

The hon. Member for Pendle must surely be right that that change was crystallised most clearly in our going to war in Iraq. Out in our constituencies, that is why people’s concerns over how we are being governed continue to be crystallised. The reality is that, during the years of that and arguably the present Administration, some of the key words that people conjure up are stamped in our memories. I include names such as David Kelly, Alastair Campbell, the Hutton report, the Butler report and phrases such as “A good day to bury bad news”, sofa government and the culture of spin. Those phrases have entered into the lexicon. They have a resonance way beyond the House, and we should be concerned about that.

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. One thing that should worry all of us is the declining turnout at elections, which shows a declining interest in politics or a resentment of the political system by the electorate. According to academic research, it correlates to only one thing: the narrowing difference between the parties. Front-Bench Members from both parties seem to be in the same place ideologically, and the range of views that used be represented in Parliament and that retained interest among the electorate is no longer there.

Mr. Hurd: I am not sure whether I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I certainly do not agree that that is the only constituent factor in the worrying drop in voter turnout. Long political cycles have a part to play in such things and there is another fundamental, structural problem in that people are not sufficiently persuaded that their engagement is going to change anything. In part, that drove me to take the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 through Parliament—there was a strong sense that people needed to have a much greater influence over the decisions that really affected them. A sense of disengagement is part of the problem. I do not wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I recognise what he is saying.

There is an erosion of public confidence in how we are being governed, and the hon. Member for Pendle was robust in listing some of the failures. There are always failures in government, but there have been a string of high-profile, damaging and painful failures that the public feel, because they deal with them. I am talking, for example, about tax credits, the Child Support Agency and the Rural Payments Agency—that was not mentioned but it is on the list of high-profile failures. Among other things, they cause people to ask again, “What is going on in the Government? Why are we getting this apparently systematic failure?” They notice when a Home Secretary, for instance, says that his Department is not fit for purpose. People sit up and listen to things like that and ask, “What on earth is going on here?”

Such things must feed into the morale of the public services. We are talking specifically about civil servants, but we can extend the debate to the wider public services. We all talk to teachers and doctors in our constituencies, and we know that they do not all have a great spring in their step. They are concerned about how they are being managed and whether they are being listened to. The public recognise that. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester talked about the collapse in morale at the Treasury, and one hears the same about the Foreign Office. Such things must concern us.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) mentioned another problem: it is getting increasingly difficult to get an answer to the questions of who is in charge and who is accountable. The hon. Member for Pendle was strong on the fragmentation of government and the proliferation of quangos and agencies. As MPs, we know that it is getting increasingly hard to find out who can address our constituents’ concerns, because the buck seems to shoot round the system. The public are conscious that the power of Parliament has diminished, that local government has effectively been turned into local administration over the past 20 years and of the proliferation of quangos and agencies, and they get increasingly frustrated at the lack of accountability in the system.

One lady comes into my surgery once a month or so with an article ripped out of The Sun, the Daily Mail or whatever—about data loss, for example—and she is incensed by the fact that no one seems to be held to account. No one puts a hand up saying, “It was my fault, and this is the price I pay for it.” She does not understand that. She lives in the real world where, when someone makes mistakes, they are identified and held responsible. The report is very much plugged into that wider malaise. It is crystallised in the quote from Lord Butler:

“There are elements of our government that need improvement and it has got worse”.

That is the context of the debate and why the report is important.

To return to the narrow but hugely important issue on which the report centres, which is the relationship between Ministers and civil servants, the hon. Member for Richmond Park was extremely modest about her knowledge. I confess to even greater ignorance: I am an inexperienced Member of Parliament and I have never been a special adviser or Minister and certainly not a Secretary of State, although I know a man who has. My only experience of the interface between Ministers and civil servants was taking the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 through Parliament as a private Member’s Bill. That brought me into direct contact with the delicate dance that goes on between Ministers and civil servants. It was clear from the outset that the relevant Department and Secretary of State did not want the measure. However, the Minister concerned, enterprisingly, saw the politics of it and decided that he wanted to change the Department’s mind. It was fascinating to see that delicate dance. Actually, it worked out well, because the political vision prevailed and the civil service tied in behind to make it work. In that case, it worked, but the evidence is clearly building that it is not working throughout the system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester quoted Sir Richard Wilson and others on their concerns about the politicisation of the civil service, the inadequate process of giving and receiving advice and the implementation of policy. As the report makes clear, there is a muddle—I believe that that expression is used—of relationships and sense of responsibility and the definitions of responsibility and accountability. That is not sustainable in the increasingly challenging, complex and evolutionary background of government.

We have spoken about fragmentation, but not about devolution, which is pushing power away from Whitehall towards local government. That will make life in the civil service more complicated. We have also not talked about how policy areas such as climate change now cut across Departments. Whitehall finds it extremely hard to deal with such things, which are yet another challenge for it. Of course, all those things are happening in a ferocious new media environment, in which the Minister is well versed—he is well known for being the first MP to put up a blog. That ferocious environment places yet another challenge in the way of our ancient systems and ways of doing business. As the report makes clear, we need to ensure that we have a framework that allows Ministers and civil servants to work together effectively and that does not lock

“them into potentially antagonistic bunkers”.

That is a good phrase.

The Conservative party have for some time been persuaded of the necessity of a civil service Act. Indeed, a former member of the Shadow Cabinet promoted such legislation in a private Member’s Bill in response to the Committee’s draft, and it was explicitly called for by the democracy task force, which was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and so ably served by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester. I almost regret that such an Act is necessary. It is possibly not a panacea for some of the problems that we have discussed, but rather a necessary condition of rebuilding a culture of trust and mutual impartiality.

Will the Minister say why such a measure has taken the Government so long? The Chairman of the Committee joked—although he may have been serious—about the journey of 150 years, going back to the Northcote-Trevelyan report. Life did not start in 1997, as we are encouraged to believe, when all three parties were committed to a civil service Act; but since then, we have had an extraordinary process of delay. The hon. Member for Pendle described it as the dance of the seven veils, but I do not think that that is the right image, because it tells of energy, motion, passion and vigour, which have been entirely absent from the process.

To remind ourselves, the process began in 1997. In 2000, a report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended it, and there was another commitment from the Government to the principle. In 2002, the PAC announced its intention to publish its own draft Bill and the Committee on Standards in Public Life again expressed a commitment. In January 2004, I believe, the PAC presented its draft Bill, which in turn was presented as a private Member’s Bill, as I said. In November 2004, the Government published their own draft Bill, to which a lukewarm consultation was attached. That consultation expired in February 2005, and the responses to it were published in March 2008. That is not the movement, language or action of a Government who are committed to a civil service Act.

When the Minister speaks, we will listen carefully for reassurances that such an Act has the genuine support of the Government. The messages that underlie the various announcements that have been made suggest that the Government think that there may be a case for an Act, but that “Actually, things work pretty well and are getting better, and anyway we have other priorities.” We need to hear from the Minister a stronger commitment to the Act.

We welcome the inclusion of a mini civil service Bill within—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester—an otherwise rather disappointing draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. Questions arise, such as does the Minister think that the Government have struck the right balance in making more explicit the responsibility of Ministers to be impartial to civil servants? A lot of emphasis is placed on the impartiality of civil servants, but is there an appropriate balance with regard to the responsibility of Ministers?

There has been a lot of debate about special advisers. Will the Government be more explicit when they define the role of such advisers, and will they bring them back to being givers of advice rather than givers of instruction? What happens if a special adviser breaks the new code and the Minister does not punish him or her? Again, there will be a lot of devil in the detail. As and when the Bill comes before us—again, I would appreciate the Minister being as explicit as he can on that point—the Opposition will hold the Government to account, so that they deliver a really effective Bill that is well balanced and does not fudge definitions. It must play an important part in restoring public faith in not just the civil service, but the whole process of government.

5.12 pm

PREVIOUS INTERVENTION IN THE SAME DEBATE

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. Is it his view that the number of special advisers should be limited, or that their role should be formally limited?

Kelvin Hopkins: It is the role that is key. Numbers are neither here nor there. In a sense, everybody ought to have a special adviser, but after one has taken the advice, they should deal with the civil servants. Special advisers should not come between the leader and the civil servants, or give direct instructions to civil servants to ensure that a line is followed.

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