Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 980-984)




  980. But, Michael Heseltine, in your book you say, "Let no-one ever naively think that officials strive assiduously to serve the Government of the day when they believe that Government is wrong, especially when they perceive the Civil Service interest to be at stake." You are a Tony Benn man on this, are you not?
  (Mr Heseltine) I was going along with what you said. You got the last sentence wrong. All human life is there. I have been as constructively admiring of the Civil Service today as I have long since believed to be the case, but I agree with the comment that has been made already that in the main you reason it out and one of the great thrills of public sector service for me was the intellectual quality of the discussion on virtually every subject. In the end hopefully you are able to sum up the meeting with the conclusion as to what you want and lay down a timetable within which it will be delivered and it will happen. It is just as well to keep an eye on it of course. But there are all sorts of tricks and they come in different categories. The battle to appoint Peter Levene as the Chief of Procurement I remember was an historic battle and Mrs Thatcher in simple language had to say to the Civil Service Commissioner that she was going to do it and that was without competition. The guy had been in the department for six months and was self-evidently better than anybody we could dream of finding anywhere else and they wanted to put the job out to competition, so Mrs Thatcher explained that was not how it was going to happen. I wanted to privatise the Civil Service College, which was another one of these jolly things in the Cabinet Office and it was not doing a particularly good job and it was very much a culture in the public sector and I wanted to mix the culture to be public and private and overseas and everything. Robin Butler wrote round his Permanent Secretaries asking for evidence to resist what I was doing. I got on very well with him but the fact is that it was unfortunate for him that I got hold of the letter. Leaks are not always outside the Civil Service; they are sometimes within the Civil Service. I can remember in the Ministry of Defence when I wanted to introduce competition I had three meetings and they were all arguing and in the end I said, "I have had enough. This is what we are going to do", and I dictated a conclusion. It makes a huge difference what level you are. Junior ministers are much more important today than they were when I was a junior minister. Then you were literally the dogsbody and you were privileged to be allowed to sit in on the Cabinet Ministers' meetings. Now the delegations are much more widely spread, largely as a result of what Peter Walker did in the 1970s. As a junior minister you really were the office boy and you had very little power. Even as a Minister of State there was an element of that, but I did notice when I became a Cabinet Minister that there was a very limited amount of resistance within your own department. They had wonderful tricks if they did not agree with you. I do remember when I was in the Ministry of Defence once. I cannot remember the precise example, and it does not matter, but it was quite obvious the weight of opinion was against me in the department officially, and I was determined to win, so I gave these instructions summed up in the conclusion to the meeting the way I wanted it. I thought, "That is marvellous; I have won". The next day there was a letter from one of my ministerial colleagues in the Treasury which began, "Dear Michael, I have been wondering about the problems affecting such-and-such"—which was exactly the issue which I had summed up the day before—"and I think this is something we ought to investigate and consider in government." Obviously they had rushed off to the Treasury and said, "The guy is barking. Send one of your ministerial letters in there and we will get it kicked up to Cabinet and stop him."

Mr Trend

  981. No wonder you wanted the Treasury abolished.
  (Mr Heseltine) It is a great game. Life is like that. We are all human beings in there. I am an instinctive admirer of the overwhelming result but every so often it falls a little short of perfection.


  982. Is there anything else we can ask you in our search for inspiration? Is there something we have not asked you, any of you, that you would like to say to us before we end, or have we covered all the ground, do you think?
  (Mr Heseltine) I do think you should get rid of these political advisers. There is a world of difference between the special adviser and the political adviser. The special adviser is the guy that you find who is excellent in his field, a specialist, and certainly all the ones that I had, it was-tear-jerking how well they worked with the Civil Service. They loved the Civil Service and the Civil Service came to admire and respect them, Tom Burke, for example.
  (Lord Simon of Highbury) I know him very well.
  (Mr Heseltine) This guy was one of the most sophisticated operators in the country. He is an environmentalist. He is in the business of pushing the environmental agenda, quite rightly. What he used to do is that he would go to the Government and talk about what the Government was doing. He would give them a bit of advice, whatever it was, and then he would go to the Liberal Democrats and say, "Look; I think the Government are likely to do this but if you were to do that you would just get a bit further ahead." Then he would go to the Labour Party and say, "The Liberal Democrats are going to respond this way. I think if you do that you would get a bit further ahead." He would then come to me and he would say, "Look; these three parties are going to do this and I think the real clever way is to do this", and so he bid the whole thing up. After four years working with this guy I came to the DoE and I said to him, "Tom, you have been doing all this advice and clever manipulation of the system. Come and get your teeth in the raw meat" and I took him into the DoE and he stayed there under three Cabinet Ministers. I think he was there until the Tories went, if I remember correctly, very close to the end anyway. He was an expert. He knew more about environmental policy than any official could know, and he was totally dedicated. There were never any leaks or rows or anything like that. Peter Levene had run a defence industry, made a successful company and so, coming in to take over responsibility for the Procurement Executive, it was taking a poacher to get hold of the gamekeepers. He saved billions on the expenditure. Tom Baron got our housing programme going because he was a house builder. These are special advisers and they have nothing to do with party politics.

Mr White

  983. Do you put the drug czar and people like that into the same category?
  (Mr Heseltine) I am only talking about using people who will want the public sector experience. You can use them extremely effectively in the public sector. That is totally different from taking some sort of know-it-all university case straight out of wherever it was who knows how to run the world and goes around in a little cohort. What actually happens—you see it all the time—is that the ministers build up these little teams and the teams become completely passionate in favour of the ministers' careers, and all the leaking and the back-biting is about, "My Minister said" and "My Minister did" and "Your guy is no good" and the journalists are all there feeding on this stuff. These guys have never had any experience of running anything. They have never run anything in their lives. They have just got a lot of textbook knowledge. The idea that you improve government by doing this—what is the evidence? This Government does not get better publicity because it has 70 more political advisers. Once the economy goes wrong these guys will become a liability. I am delighted you have got so many but, I tell you, you will pay a high price for them.

  984. You have lured us into this territory. We are just about to produce a report on special advisers and we have had evidence given to us that if ministers want these people—and I am talking now about the political advisers, not the specialist advisers—and they find they can be more effective ministers in having them, they should have them. We have had people, including, if my memory serves me right, the Cabinet Secretary, tell us that these are rather helpful beings because they defuse some of the sensitive areas that otherwise civil servants might have to get their hands dirty with. They come with a fairly universal endorsement so why are you so antipathetic to them?
  (Mr Heseltine) Because they do not add anything in my experience. I was there before we had them and then I saw what happened. I think it was just another layer of activity. The civil servants were brilliant at handling these issues when I look back on it in my early days. First of all, the Permanent Secretary, who was always a very talented guy, would produce for you a private secretary who he knew would be sympathetic to you. That is not to say he was of the same party because they often were not, but they would be people you could get on with. The civil servants were perfectly capable of saying and occasionally did say, "I think this is more for Central Office than it is for our press department" and they were always right. They knew when to deal with it politically. But you did not need armies of people wandering round the departments thinking about the party political aspect. I suspect that it blurs—I do not want to use the word "corrupts" although if I were on a party platform I would probably use the word "corrupts"—the proper administration of government. Too many things are done with a party political eye.
  (Dr Clark) I disagree with Michael on this one and can I take issue with it because I do feel—and time will see who is right and who is wrong—that if you take the Policy Unit in Number Ten, we have made no bones about it in the Labour Party that we wanted to have some strategic thinking there and we meant strategic political thinking because we are politicians and it is not the job of civil servants to think strategically politically. I hope that we will benefit from that as a government, that one will have an ongoing political agenda. I do not say it is absolutely necessary because I think Mrs Thatcher had an agenda all the way through, but I think it is an aid and an asset to politicians to move it forward. Certainly, as I say, I do have two political advisers, both very different: one a young gopher, very good, highly intelligent, the other one much more balanced, well known to this Committee, I am sure. I felt that was the right balance and I think the civil servants found it quite useful to bounce ideas off these people.

  Chairman: I regard that last exchange as a footnote to our inquiry into special advisers and it may surface in the report that we make. We have had an extremely interesting session which will repay some very close reading. We wanted shamelessly to draw upon your collective expertise, which I think we have done, and when we come to the report we shall be able to reflect on the things you have told us. Thank you very much indeed for coming along.

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