Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)



  40. When the Government replied to the Committee on Standards in Public Life—sixth report on these issues—it said, "Cases of difficulty or disagreement should be submitted to the Prime Minister for decision".
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That may be the last resort, yes.

  41. You do not know, of course, in the case that we are trying not to talk about.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I genuinely do not know the details of this case.

Michael Trend

  42. Are you in favour or do you think it is a mistake, should it become an established convention that permanent civil servants make personal statements as politicians do in the House or wherever?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think by and large the system we have where we give our advice confidentially and the public face of the department is taken by the Secretary of State works well. I think only in exceptional circumstances should you depart from that.

  43. I cannot think of any circumstance where anyone has departed from it before. Sir Richard Mottram, who was clearly very unhappy about this when he came to see us, had, in some sense, been asked to do it. Pressure had been brought to bear on him. That surely must be right. That is the right interpretation of what happened, but it surely must be wrong that he was required to do this.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) You are asking me to judge events in which I was not a player and I have had no role in trying to resolve. I can see that there are exceptional cases. By and large I would prefer to stick with the long established convention that you do not get the official head of the department issuing a statement which could be at variance with that of the Secretary of State. You try to resolve it before you get to that point.

  44. This is really all about the boundaries between civil servants and politicians. Richard Wilson in his Admiralty Arch Valedictory Lecture dwells on this for some time—where the boundaries should be—and it has been discussed for centuries really as to where the constitutional conventional boundaries should be. I was surprised this morning to hear that in the Foot and Mouth Inquiry which the House is conducting, the man from Ag and Fish, a civil servant, going through hell really at being quizzed about the Government's objectives. In former times that would certainly have been a minister who would have been answering.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) In the PAC's, the longest standing of the select committees, Permanent Secretaries have been going through hell for centuries.

  45. This was a matter of policy as to how the Government responded to a particular crisis.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The House of Parliament raise questions like what was the state of readiness of the department? Were its contingency plans quick enough off the mark?

  46. So the minister has no responsibility in what happened with the foot and mouth crisis.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The Select Committee can take evidence from the relevant ministers. The PAC was looking at what was the department's handling of this incident.

  47. In the PAC inquiry both civil servants and politicians were required to give evidence. That is surely a more balanced way of doing these things.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The PAC has long accepted that it does not question the policy. There is no dispute about the policy. The policy was to get on top of this outbreak of foot and mouth and eradicate it as fast as possible. You then have the handling of it and the Permanent Secretaries have been asked to answer for the department's handling of something. If they say that there was a choice here, it was put to the minister and the minister decided to follow this course, then the PAC cannot then turn to the Permanent Secretary and say "You were wrong there".

  48. The point I am trying to get to is that you cannot be comfortable seeing that sort of thing going on with civil servants alone in that place in the firing line or, indeed, to have Sir Richard Mottram here being asked very direct questions which he clearly got very uncomfortable about—understandably too—when the Secretary of State Mr Byers was appearing in the House of Commons and not answering any questions at all. It seems to me that here normal responsibility for public policy and public decisions is being put onto the shoulders of the civil servants.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I suppose over time Permanent Secretaries are becoming more accountable. But I do not think it is changing the fundamental position. The position of an Accounting Officer in front of the PAC has not changed. They have had hard times from the PAC for years and years.

  49. In overall terms is it not the case that civil servants are much more in the front line, the firing line, answering questions that traditionally would have been solely the responsibility of the politicians?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Going back to the time of Westland, the Cabinet Secretary then was the person who was interrogated.

  50. I am less worried about the Cabinet Secretary because we have had a number of Permanent Secretaries here and they have all answered the questions fully and helpfully with a great deal of wit and style. We sometimes make some progress. It is the more junior civil servants who do find this a real ordeal.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I absolutely agree. You do not want to put the head of the animal health team in the firing line, although these judicial inquiries—you know, Phillips and Scott—have actually done that and have, in some cases, made very personal criticisms. A lot of civil servants found it very uncomfortable.

  51. But you have some sympathy with the view that there are complications, at least, in trying to find the boundaries between civil servants and politicians at the moment?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The report describes it as boundaries; it is partly that and it is also about trying to find relationships that work. By and large the relationships do work. The departments I have worked in where there have been special advisers have been better departments for having those people there.

  52. I think it was Richard Wilson's view that the boundaries were increasingly and potentially becoming a problem and that the remedy for this was an Act. So let me just return to that for a moment. Do you think there should be a Civil Service Act?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) There is going to be an Act. That is Government policy. That is settled.

  53. There is going to be a Civil Service Act?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes.

  54. And you have told us that is going to have to wait because of pressure on time?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I am not saying when it is going to be an Act. There are conventions about what goes in the legislative programme for any particular session.

  55. That is a definitely a politician's answer, if I may be so bold to say so. That is what we say, not you.


  56. In your interview in the Times you said that we have managed without one for 150 years. Does that mean that 150 years is the kind of time scale that we are talking about?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No, I think that was meant to indicate that there is a difference between this year and next year. Just in this discussion here you can see how complicated some of these issues are. I am simply saying that we don't know enough about these issues and could draft a Bill tomorrow, that would be absolutely fine. There is a lot to work on. Meanwhile, we are operating under the systems that we already have which, for the most part, are working well. There have been one or two rather spectacular collapses, but by and large this system is working well.

Michael Trend

  57. Can we go back to the Admiralty Arch speech. Sir Richard outlined a list of things which, I imagine, he thinks should be covered by an act. They were the role of special advisers, the role of ministers in management matters, the principles governing Government communications and publications and other things like that. Do you think there should be a cap on special advisers?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Again, that has been settled. What we have to settle is what that means. Is it a firm limit? Is it, in a sense, an accountability mechanism? Are we really saying that if there are 81 special advisers there cannot be 82 without another Bill? I do not think anyone is really saying that. The Government needs to explain why it has got that number and why it thinks it needs it. That is what is common, the precise mechanism by which it is done.

  58. The Government is not allowed to have more than a certain number of ministers. That is regulated by law.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The effect is that the Government always has exactly that number of ministers.

  59. Should we not move to that position with special advisers?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is one of the options, but do you equally want a situation where a minister says: "We are at the limit, some new piece of work has come up, there is someone I really want and I can't have him unless we either sack someone tomorrow or change the legislation". Those are the practicalities of how it works. But I can see exactly what the purpose of it is, which is to create that sense that this is not a kind of thin end of a wedge that will change the balance and the historical position of an impartial Civil Service, that it could be we would change by stealth.


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