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Davis: Conservative proposal to rein in political advisers

In a speech to the Newspaper Society in London, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, the Rt Hon David Davis MP, said:

"In a few weeks we will celebrate 5 years of New Labour in power. Even as we speak, glossy proofs of a Government 5-year Report will be lying on Alastair Campbell's desk.

"Never were the ritual words "Check against Delivery" more appropriate.

"For nearly 5 years into government, what exactly have New Labour achieved?

"They've turned the constitution upside down - with a strategic sense that reminds me of Pooh Bear trying to work out how to open a honey jar.

"They've also kept the economy on a fairly even keel, largely by sticking to the 3-year economic plan laid down by the previous government - though I worry about the effects of the huge structural increases in taxation, spending and regulation now kicking in.

"And they have, of course, done what Tony Blair always said he wanted most of all - won two elections.

"On the other hand it is now clear that on the key issues that touch nearly 60 million real lives - health, transport, crime, schools, welfare reform - New Labour are utterly incapable of delivering the improvements they promised. New Labour will fail in the next four years - fail as a government, fail the "instruction to deliver" that was Tony Blair's key message at the last election.

"They will fail for four reasons intrinsic to New Labour's whole approach.

Lack of philosophy and principle

"The first - and most serious - is that they lack any roots in philosophy or principle.

"The longer we live with it, the harder it becomes to understand what New Labour or Blairism actually amounts to.

"We have all followed their public search for the truth of political life. Cool Britannia - Third Way - communitarianism - stakeholder society.

"We have all watched a procession of gurus trekking into No.10 - from Will Hutton via Antony Giddens to the new wunderkind, John Birt, and his "blue-skies thinking".

"Frankly, it is all pretty fragile stuff.

"In reality, the Third Way is a political posture - a rhetorical device - no more, no less. It is defined by what it is not, rather than by what it is.

"Unfortunately, the Third Way is sometimes the worst of choices - and certainly not always the best. Ask anyone who's been fooled by the three-card trick.

"Obsession with perception management

"This lack of any serious philosophy gives free reign to the second fatal flaw in Blairism - an obsession with perception management. Of course, politicians down the ages have worried about what people think. It is inherent in democracy. Indeed, it is one reason I am here today.

"But this government is more obsessed with perceptions, with "spin", than any in history.

"Politicians should worry about what the people think. What they should not do is allow that to override issues of real achievement, let alone allow management of perception to displace the proper running of government, as has happened all too often in recent years

"Let me give just one example. New Labour recognised that you get almost as big a headline for "Government spends £10 million" as you do for "Government spends £10 billion".

"So they created literally hundreds of initiatives to "fix this" or "change that". One offender was the Department of Education under David Blunkett. It unleashed an artillery barrage of paper on the staff rooms of England. As a result, it seriously undermined teacher morale, with little or no benefit to educational attainment.

"The gain for government was a weekly headline and a perception of action. The danger was that ministers confused activity with achievement, mere change with real progress.

"Many other sins, of course, arise from an obsession with perception:

· the willingness to fiddle figures

· deceitful management of news

· pressurising of civil servants

· twisting of policy priorities to win a headline

· intoxication with propaganda to a point that corrupts the entire operation of the government machine.

"Most of these sins are more than obvious to this audience. So I need not say Jo Moore.

"Instead, I will move on to a third fatal vice of New Labour - related to its obsession with perception, and almost as pernicious. Its constant short-termism.

Political short-termism

"Old and New Labour both often accuse business of short-termism. In fact, business is capable of being enormously long-sighted and creative, whether we look at the creation of canals and railways that underpinned the Industrial Revolution, or the huge electronic, telecoms and software infrastructure supporting the modern economy.

"No business is, in fact, as short-term as a politician under pressure. (I should know - after all, I was a minister in the last Conservative government).

"But this government is even more short-termist than most. It has raised inconsistency to art form. Its obsession with public perception makes it a slave to polls and focus groups and sends it flailing back and forth like seaweed in the turning tide.

"That is why Stephen Byers embraces the private sector, then turns on it 6 months later. Why Alan Milburn does exactly the opposite, at exactly the same time.

"Labour made short-termism a core political tactic. They adopted the words and imagery of New Labour to dissociate themselves from their own past. The success of the tactic is so deeply ingrained they cannot help repeating it endlessly even in Government. Thus:

· The 2001 election was fought not on defending their record, but on an entirely new set of promises.

· They launch 10-year plans for health, railways, or crime, but we never find ourselves even 4 or 5 years into a 10-year plan - long before then the plan has been superseded by another one, with a new flourish and no acknowledgement of its predecessor.

· Exactly the same happens to ministers. David Blunkett positions himself as a new broom, a fresh start, by repudiating his predecessor Jack Straw. Stephen Byers does the same in transport contrasting himself with John Prescott. Patricia Hewitt elaborately distances herself from the record of Stephen Byers at DTI.

"Every year is year zero - so no recognition of failure, no responsibility, no accountability.

Philosophical incoherence and weak comprehension of policies

"This cocktail of philosophical incoherence and short-term expediency explains Labour's total failure on the central planks of the public service policies on which they were elected.

"It is why they promised welfare reform, but have brought more and more people into benefits than ever before.

"Why they pledged to solve public transport, but have presided over five years of dither, bickering, inactivity and decay.

"In fact, all too often, when they attempt a new policy, they appear not to understand what they are doing. Their aims are confused; the outcomes are often perverse.

"Take the Private Finance Initiative, or Public Private Partnerships, to use the New Labour alias.

"At its best it can introduce private sector levels of innovation to public services, delivering a lot more public service bang for the taxpayer's buck.

"But it is not easy to manage. Delivering the benefits of PFI requires clarity of thought, firmness of purpose and adherence to principle.

"It means giving consumers a choice so they can force providers to deliver. It means allowing providers the freedom to manage so they can innovate and improve. It requires transparency so that producers and consumers can make informed choices. And it demands a level of trust between government, the customer and the provider that contracts will be honoured.

"Time and again, Labour's actions have flown in the face of these principles.

"The Railtrack fiasco shows just how little trust now exists between the private sector and this Government. By abolishing GP fundholding and dismantling GM schools, Labour have shown just what they think of consumer choice.

"Their co-dependent relationship with the unions means they cannot give public service managers the freedom to actually manage.

"And the idea of freely available information about public sector performance flies in the face of Labour's obsession with media management. Again I will say Jo Moore.

"When it comes to delivering the real benefits of PFI, Labour fail on every count. What we are left with is a piece of creative accounting. Public services on the never-never. Expensive. Low performance. But politically convenient.

"Nowhere is this confusion and incoherence more evident than in the mind of the Prime Minister. First, he claims public sector unions have left scars on his back by opposing his reforms. Then he tells them they are heroes. 10 days later he briefs they are to be counted among the "wreckers". 24 hours after that, they are given an apology by his political secretary.

"There is no long-term political compass at work here. It is small wonder we have watched for five years as Labour groped in the dark for a Tube policy while the service has slid from poor, to inadequate, to intolerable. But not to worry. Instead of a 10-year plan, we now have a 30-year plan for its revival. Somehow, I do not think that Mr Byers will be here to see its completion.

The centralising mentality

"Throughout all the twists and turns, the advances and retreats, only one thing about Labour remains constant. Tony Blair may have taken Clause IV out of the Constitution of the Labour Party, but he has been unable to erase it from their hearts, minds and instincts.

"Time and again Ministers attack problems with a big government, command-economy, centre-knows-best outlook. So we have avalanches of initiatives, the most complex tax rules ever; and more regulations per year than ever before in British history.

"But human behaviour will always frustrate the planners' best intentions.

"The Government demands that waiting lists be cut. So in the NHS easy operations are done before the urgent, the expedient before the important.

"The Government sets targets for MMR jabs. So some GPs faced with concerned parents move their children off their lists altogether.

"This top-down approach to reform fails to solve the existing problems and creates a raft of new ones. And all the time faith in public services falls further.

"The tyranny of targets is achieving precisely the opposite to that which the Government intended, which is why public services are going backwards.

"In Opposition they spent all their time deciding how to get back into power, how to stay in power, but not what to do once they were in power.

"So a government of control freaks now find themselves, to paraphrase Norman Lamont, in power but not in control. Not in control of events; not in control of the government machine; not in control of public service delivery.

"And as the years pass, their undoubted control of the government spin machine looks more and more like a desperate attempt to paper over the cracks.

"The task of the Conservative Party is to get to grips with this underlying failure to govern and to end the climate of media manipulation that has become a substitute for real achievement.

"Serious questions now have to be asked about the health of our political culture. Our civil service has been compromised. Our public servants are being drawn day-by-day into a culture of deceit.

"The standards of public administration in this country - long the envy of the world - are being undermined and with them our public's faith in the democratic process.

"We need to take some urgent and radical steps to restore the impartiality of the civil service and to shore-up the integrity of our political system.

"We have already come up with a number of proposals to strengthen both Houses of Parliament, but we need to go further.

"We need to slim down the swelling apparat of advisers, spin doctors, envoys and czars - and subject them to scrutiny by Parliament. And I am becoming convinced we need a new Civil Service Act to lay down ground rules for political appointees in government, set out the rights and duties of civil servants, and introduce safeguards against coercion.

"The government has promised such an Act. But we have been here before, with Freedom of Information Bill, campaigned for in '97, castrated in 2000, the sorry remains to be delivered in 2005.

"For a Civil Services Act to work, and stop dead the new corruption at the core of our constitution, it must at very least do 3 things.

"First is must take control and arbitration of the Ministerial code of conduct away from the Prime Minister, and put it under the control of a Parliamentary tribunal consisting solely of senior Privy Councillors, and on which no political Party has a majority. Whether a Minister has transgressed will then be decided without concern for the convenience of the government of the day.

"Secondly, the code of conduct of special advisers should be tightened up, and also put under the supervision of the tribunal. I am afraid that the civilised, gentlemanly methods of the Civil Service have not proved up to the job of policing the behaviour of this new tribe of special advisers, and it is time they came under control.

"Thirdly, we do not believe that political appointees should be able to command independent civil servants. That never used to be the case, but this government, on the day it took office, excepted themselves from this long-standing rule, giving these powers to Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. Too many of the problems we have witnessed in the last few weeks, months and years, too much of the institutionalised influence peddling, have their origins in this original pernicious action. No government should be allowed to do it again.

"When I hear the Prime Minister now plans to change the role of the Cabinet Secretary, hitherto the bulwark of civil service independence, but increasingly now pressurised and squeezed, I think the need for such an Act is more urgent. We will not restore confidence in our political process unless we also restore confidence in the way political power is exercised.

"Governments in office may find accountability inconvenient. But accountability is a proper test of their policies and their actions. This government has failed the test. The next Conservative government will not - we will start as we mean to go on, by acting upon our commitment to a new kind of politics."

ENDS

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