Debate on the Civil Service

- Wednesday, 7th May 2008

 

Debate
Date of Proceeding: 07.05.2008
Reference: 475 c744-6
Member: Lilley, Peter
Title: Civil Service
Description: It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) in addressing these matters. He interestingly went back into history and paid tribute to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. In many ways that might be right, as far as the integrity of the civil service is concerned, but I would advise him to read a forthcoming work on the subject which puts a wholly different complexion on whether those reforms were beneficial for the efficiency of the civil service. It is written by a civil servant-a gentleman called Mike Coolican-who advised me when I was at the then Department of Social Security and, no doubt, my Labour successors in due course. I urge the hon. Gentleman to put that on his reading list.

I should like to put the hon. Gentleman right on the impression that he might have created-even though I do not think it was his intention to do so-that there was a degree of politicisation in the selection of permanent secretaries under the Thatcher Administration. That was not my experience. I remember when I first got my foot on the lowest rung of the ladder and became a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister responsible for local government-indeed, the Minister responsible for the abolition of Ken Livingstone, the Inner London Education Authority and all that sort of thing.

The Bill to achieve those changes was introduced by the Government, and Mrs. Thatcher was very much in favour of it. It was a key centrepiece of the Government's Administration. The official in charge of it made it absolutely clear to Ministers that he thought that it was a barmy idea, that it was wrong in principle, and that it would be damaging in practice. None the less, it was his job as a civil servant to tell us how to achieve our aims in the least damaging and most effective way. As a result, he caught the attention of Ministers, who found him all the more effective because they knew that, rather than soft-soaping them, he was telling them how a bad Bill could be made less bad. He rapidly became permanent secretary, over the heads of his rivals in the then Department of the Environment. That was how it worked. Mrs. Thatcher liked people who answered back and who told her the truth. I suspect that there might be a difference between that attitude and those that pertain nowadays. There was certainly no party political import at that time.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) on raising this extremely important issue. The integrity of the civil service is a pearl of great price, and anyone who has lived or worked in a country that does not have an impartial civil service will recognise just how valuable it is. The possession of an information service within the civil service, that is dedicated to honesty and integrity, is also of immense importance to the operation of democracy. The accountability of Ministers to Parliament, and of civil servants to Ministers, is central to the working of parliamentary democracy.

All those things are now under threat-or have been threatened-under this new Labour Government. Even the fact that the Government are introducing this legislation is a recognition of the fact that there is grave concern about these issues, and that the Government are trying to respond to that, perhaps in good faith, and trying to reverse those things that have been put under threat over the past 10 years. This is unique to new Labour. Historically, the Labour party and Labour Governments have been respectful of the conventions and traditions that uphold the civil service and the integrity of its management.

The other night, I was browsing through Roy Hattersley's admirable autobiography, “Who Goes Home?” in which he refers to his experience ahead of, I think, the 1979 election. He had discovered that the retail prices index figures, which were coming out a day after the election, were going to be very good. He said:"“So I asked the Prime Minister if I could announce, or at least leak, our success”-"

in getting down inflation-"“on the eve of the poll. Jim could not have been more scandalised if I had confessed to doctoring the figures.”"

So the attitude of that Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, was full of integrity and respect for the system. Callaghan in turn explained to Hattersley how a junior Minister called Dugdale, as a young Member of Parliament and Minister in the post-war Labour Government, had questioned Sir Stafford Cripps as to whether it was really necessary to announce a proposal to reduce the already inadequate cheese ration by a further 2 oz, just before a general election. Stafford Cripps replied that he was not sure of the questioner's identity, but"“whoever he was, if he allowed political considerations to influence his judgement, he was not fit to be one of Her Majesty's ministers.”"

Thus there has been a tradition on both sides of the House to uphold the integrity of the processes of Government, and that is why we have retained an impartial civil service until recently.

 

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, my political neighbour, for giving way. He is describing a situation that I remember from my youth; it could even be described as a golden age. Although things were not perfect then, are there not values and attitudes that were prevalent then that we could re-adopt and reinforce now?

Mr. Lilley: I entirely agree.

I want to ask why the new Labour Government have put so much pressure on these features of our civil service. The answer lies in the fact that new Labour is essentially old Labour that has ceased to believe in socialism, or indeed in anything. And those who believe in nothing are prepared to say anything. Those whose agenda is more about gaining power than implementing an idea focus essentially on headlines. That leads to a focus on spin and to “initiativitis”, which embroils the civil service in producing spurious policies that can be announced but never implemented. It also leads to conflict between Ministers and civil servants.

Most people who watch “Yes Minister” assume that conflict between the civil service and Ministers is integral to the relationship between them. Traditionally, when asked whether “Yes Minister” is an accurate portrayal of relations, Ministers’ response has been, “You think it is a comedy; we know it is a documentary”. Actually, it is a description of the relationship between civil servants and Ministers, focusing on an abrasive attempt by civil servants to get control of the agenda, only if the Minister has no agenda of his own. If a Minister has no agenda and is moved solely by a desire to respond to a bad headline yesterday or to avoid a bad headline tomorrow and get a good one the day after, he will be all over the place all the time, constantly driven by the newspapers. In that case, the civil service steps in. Thank heavens it does; it is better to have consistent government by some body of people who know something about it than inconsistent and incoherent government by a Minister who does not have a clue what he really wants.

If Ministers come along with an agenda of their own, a clear idea of what they want to do, and put it to their officials, that is completely different. Even if those officials do not agree with that agenda personally because it goes against their own political views or they do not like it or are worried about it, once they have tested the Minister and noted the agenda that the elected ministerial representative wants to put forward, the British civil service will be second to none in helping to deliver it. Unfortunately, the obsession with spin and headlines rather than substance and a coherent agenda has put the Government in conflict with the information service, particularly with respect to the civil service. Within the first 12 months of the new Labour Government, we saw 24 of the 44 senior posts in the civil service changed and replaced largely by Government appointees or special advisers. That was extremely damaging and extremely unwise.

Dr. Julian Lewis: One point has not been brought out clearly enough. When the changeover came from special advisers who numbered a little over two dozen
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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. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Lilley: I agree very strongly with that. I would like to draw on my own experience-the best way for me to contribute-rather than provide mere assertion on that and other issues.

When I became Secretary of State for Social Security, I was told about all the skeletons in the cupboard. There was one particular skeleton-I forget exactly what it was, but it was a difficult piece of information to handle-and I was told, “Minister, you are going to have to think about how to deal with this”. I got up one morning to find that that piece of information was the headline in The Guardian.

It so happened that my first meeting was with my chief press officer, Stephen Reardon, the responsible official in the Department. I asked him how that newspaper had acquired that piece of information and he told me, “I gave it to them”. I will not repeat to the House exactly what I said, but I was intemperate-wrongly intemperate, as I should not have been intemperate with a civil servant, but I was for a moment. When I asked him how he had come to do that, he replied that the newspaper had asked him a question to which that information was the answer. It was not confidential information, he told me, and he said: “My job, Minister, is not to work for you, but for the public. My job is to tell the truth and to give to the public the information that is theirs by right, which cannot be withheld as confidential”.

When I had calmed down, I began to think that this man was rather valuable. He would stand up and tell the truth to all and sundry, including to me; I found him to be an invaluable civil servant throughout my period in office. If I asked him how a particular announcement would be seen by the media, he would give me an honest and accurate prescription. Within just a few weeks of the appointment of the new Labour Government, he was out-he lost his job; he was sacked-because they could not put up with that sort of integrity. I think that they damaged themselves, as I believe that it strengthens the Government to have people who can be trusted to tell the truth and provide a reliable conduit of information between Departments and the media.

Secondly, I want to deal with the importance of officials telling the truth directly to Ministers in confidence, helping them to speak truthfully when they are operating in Parliament and correcting errors if Ministers accidentally make them. From time to time, I am invited to speak at the civil service college at Henley and I talk about what Ministers want from officials. I talk about many things, but towards the end I include the point that when we Ministers make a mistake, it is
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the job of civil servants to present us with a little note saying, “Minister, when you said there was no precedent for x, what you actually meant was that there were seven precedents, which are as follows”. It can happen very occasionally; even I might say something in the heat of debate or without proper thought that turned out to be incorrect. In those circumstances, officials should present the Minister with a statement of the mistake and it would become the Minister’s job to put the record straight immediately, usually in Committee, or perhaps later to the House.

When I tell today’s civil servants that that was and should be the practice, they look at me aghast and in amazement! They first ask how it would be possible for them to do that when all the time Ministers say things that are not true; and, secondly, they say that the attitude of the Government and Ministers is not the same any more. It is a very sad and sorry state of affairs when some officials seem to be too cowed to stand up to Ministers. A great many probably retain their robustness, which is essential to proper relations between them and Ministers.

In my experience, it is important to have officials working for us even if they do not necessarily agree with all our policies. I carried out an analysis of where policy had, in my view, gone wrong in its formulation or implementation in the Department of Social Security-needless to say, before I took over. I looked into the Child Support Agency. Part of the reason it had gone wrong was that everybody was in favour of it: officials, especially women, were in favour of it for feminist reasons; Ministers were in favour of it because it chimed well with dealing with feckless fathers; and no one on the committee preparing for the Bill was against it. No one said, “Hang on a minute; will this work? Is it really so sensible?” That is why I think it desirable to have officials who are robust enough to stand up and criticise Ministers or the policies that they are putting forward by suggesting that they should think again while a policy is going through a process of development. Civil servants need self-confidence and belief in their own integrity in order to do that.

Thirdly, there is the issue of accountability. Officials are accountable to Ministers; Ministers are accountable to Parliament. It is difficult to get the balance right. We cannot expect Ministers to take responsibility for every little thing that happens in their Department. We cannot expect a Minister for Transport to resign whenever there is a car crash, even though it is his job to reduce their number. None the less, when something major happens in the Department, the first implication should be that the Minister is responsible rather than, as happens all too often nowadays, the naming, shaming and blaming of the civil servants.

When I was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I was responsible for the Inland Revenue. If it had been responsible for losing all the data of every family in the country, I would at least have tentatively offered my resignation to the Prime Minister or Chancellor. I may have hoped that it would be refused, but I would at least have put forward that resignation. [Interruption.] I do not pretend to any great personal valour in these matters, but it is important for Ministers to accept that, at the end of the day, they are responsible and cannot escape blame by blaming officials.

To give the Minister an example, I had to consider resigning on such grounds when I was dealing with the allegation that my predecessors had sanctioned the export of chemical weapons precursors and nuclear weapons precursors to Iraq. The only way to kill that allegation dead was to publish the details of every single export licence relating to Iraq in those categories in the years preceding the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. It took a long time; there were thousands of licences. The officials eventually came back and said, “All clear, Minister; not a single example. Only the export of two hunting guns were possibly against the sanctions regime.” I then summoned in the members of the press one by one, and said to each of them, “Look, there are the 14,000 export licences. You can read them yourself, but I can assure you that you will not find an example of anything out of line.”

After I had seen the last member of the press, and they had all gone away rather disappointed that this fox had been shot, a civil servant came to see me and said, “I’m frightfully sorry, but one of the very first documents we looked at did actually contain reference to the export of some chemicals that at the time were not considered to be chemicals weapons precursors, but which were subsequently so designated by the United Nations.” I asked, “Are you sure that that is the only one?” and they said, “No; we will go and have a look.” They then came back and said, “Actually, there are five or six shipments, Minister.” I said, “Do you realise that although you think this is very amusing, I will have to take responsibility, and I will almost certainly be required to resign?”

As it happened, I wrote an open letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee, and everyone was on holiday, and the Press Association wrote the story up very favourably to me and I got away scot-free. However, Ministers are ultimately responsible for the advice they take, and if they take bad advice on a serious matter on which they have given serious assurances, their heads are on the block.

Let me finally make some brief observations about the reforms that are needed. In response to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, I referred to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. They entrenched in the British civil service a belief that generalism, not specialism, is the only way to the top, and in terms of promotion and internal recruitment and recruitment from outside, we need to bring in people with specialist experience. It is my experience in business that someone who knows a lot about repairing motor cars can be made into a good librarian, but someone who knows nothing about anything probably cannot be made into a good manager of anything. So specialist expertise is important. That went out of the civil service with the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. Before then, the Indian civil service had at least required people to learn Indian languages, but as a result of those reforms Haileybury college-it is nothing to do with the school-where the civil servants were taught was closed down and thereafter they learned Greek and Latin in order to go off and govern India. We have suffered from that ethos ever since.

More significant, in my experience, was the paucity of people in the civil service with project management experience and skills. That might explain why so many
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major projects go wrong: to get promotion in the civil service, staff should want to be a policy adviser, not a manager. Normally, staff in the civil service do a job for only a couple of years before moving on to something else, hopefully higher up and away from actually managing anything to advising Ministers. Therefore, very few people in the civil service have had any prolonged experience of managing anything through to completion. I raised that with the head of the civil service, and now there is at least some attempt to provide for the formation of project management skills, but I suspect that it does not go far enough.

I congratulate my Front-Bench colleagues on introducing this motion, and on focusing on the importance of bringing back to the centre of our debate integrity, truth in information and accountability in terms of Ministers’ policies and the actions of their Departments. Driven by the criticisms that have been made of their stewardship for the past 10 years, I hope that the Government will forge ahead and introduce a Bill that will entrench the integrity of the civil service; that should not be necessary, but alas, it is. I also hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will live up to what they are saying now when they are in government after May 2010.

 

 

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