CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

CABINET OFFICE – CIVIL SERVICE POLITICISATION – 7 May 2008

[Mr Francis Maude: ... Our contention is that in the face of the relentless focus on the spin machine, the morale of the civil service is at an all-time low. Its independence has been sapped by Ministers who have used it constantly to pursue their narrow partisan interests, rather than to solve the problems of the country.]

Dr Julian Lewis: Is it not a sign of the time and of the truth of the case that my right hon. Friend is making that these days, when one wants to find out what is going on in 10 Downing Street, one does not look at the leaks to the political correspondents in the national press, but one looks for the exclusive stories that seem to come up in PR Week? Does that not say it all? It is all in the public relations sphere now, not in the political correspondents' sphere.

* * *

Dr Lewis: Given that large numbers of civil servants are supposed to be told what to do by very small numbers of Ministers, a simple comparison between the number of special advisers and the number of civil servants does not take us very far. What matters is the amount of influence that those special advisers have. Will the Minister accept the fact – and it is a fact – that during the final years of the Conservative Administration most Ministries had only two special advisers; a few of the lesser Ministries, if I dare describe them in that way, had only one; and only one Ministry, namely the Treasury, had three? How does that compare with the current situation?

[The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): The current norm is that most Cabinet Ministers, including myself, have two special advisers. I do not think that that is an excessive number, but we can probably debate that.]

* * *

Dr Lewis: I am not expert in this field, but I am a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman (Dr Tony Wright) seems to be suggesting that people who reached the top posts in their Department as permanent under-secretaries were appointed on the basis of a partisan belief that they were “one of us”. In order even to have been contenders for the top post, they would surely have had to have had distinguished careers in the civil service, to get the second level.

[Dr Wright: To support what I am saying, let me simply quote one history of the civil service, which says:

“The Whitehall grapevine had it that the vital question being asked about the potential appointees was ‘Is he one of us?'. This was taken to imply a commitment to the can-do ethos of Thatcherism rather than any obvious affiliation to the Conservative Party”.

That is quite fairly put and reflects the approach of a radical and reforming Administration.]

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way again. With respect, even that quotation does not sound like a description of party political partisanship, but a description of an attitude of mind, based on whether someone is a proactive or a reactive person. The hon. Gentleman will have to make a stronger case to suggest that we are talking about party political politicisation, in the context of such high appointments to the professional ranks of the civil service.

* * *

Dr Lewis: One point has not been brought out clearly enough. When the changeover came from special advisers who numbered a little over two dozen in the Thatcher years to the much larger number now, many of the new people were appointed precisely to the press officer posts that my right hon. Friend mentions. In the period before that, we should think not only about the numbers involved, but about what people did. They were advisers and confidants, but for the most part they were not press officers. The key change is not just that so many more of these posts now exist, but that so many more are charged on a day-to-day basis with trying to deal with the press.

[For Julian's speech in this Debate, click here.]