Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




1. On behalf of the Committee could I welcome our witnesses this afternoon, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for the Cabinet Office, Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office. Thank you very much all for coming along. It is in the nature of the Cabinet Office, even more so now since the recent reorganisation, that you range wide and I suspect the Committee will want to range fairly wide in its questioning to you, but I am sure you are prepared for that. Do any or all of you want to say anything by way of introduction?

  (Mr Prescott) Yes please. I think I took your warning on The Today programme, Mr Chairman, that you do range wide. We have been in the job for four months and we will try to give you the best answers to your questions. I would like to thank the Committee for inviting us here to set out our role in the Cabinet Office and to discuss our contribution to the delivery of the Government's key objectives. You have a memorandum which sets out the detail of that but there are just one or two points I would like to make, if you would allow me. The Prime Minister has, indeed, made it clear since the election that the Government's key priority for this term is to deliver world-class public services, built around the four key principles which again are set out in the memorandum. That indeed is no small task. I think anybody looking at the particular problems involved would agree with that. To succeed needs the commitment of everyone and indeed a strategic direction from the centre of government which I think your earlier report, Chairman, pointed out. The Prime Minister too was conscious of the need to make changes at the centre and through the creation of my Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the restructuring of the Cabinet Office, we believe we are better placed to help ensure that all departments deliver on those key priorities and objectives which the Prime Minister has set for us. I have looked carefully at the Committee's Seventh Report. Indeed, being in office for only four months in this particular job I have had a valuable insight into the kind of problems that we face coming new into these matters. You did raise a number of interesting points about the role of the centre and to Lord Macdonald and I with only four months in the job, it gives us an invaluable insight into the challenges. I hope you will agree that the changes we have made so far in that limited time have strengthened the centre and met some of your concerns. We have strengthened the government offices in the regions. We are bringing them under the Cabinet Office to help the co-ordination and delivery of policy. The Delivery Unit will be focusing on improved outcomes not just outputs, another recommendation that you made in your report, as we look to develop better public services. You were also concerned about the centralisation of government and, indeed, I have always felt you should decentralise it, being an advocate of regional government. It is one of the responsibilities I have got at present to bring in more decentralisation although I hope through the work on regional governance in the coming White Paper we will address ourselves directly to that concern of your Committee. In my role as the Deputy Prime Minister I hope—I leave it to you to make the judgment—you have the powerful Cabinet Minister for which this Committee called to help in the direction and delivery of those services. The responsibilities that the Prime Minister has asked Lord Macdonald and myself to undertake have a major role to play in delivering those priorities, but for my part I have a number of other tasks, again set out in detail in the memorandum. Principally, I support and deputise for the Prime Minister at home and abroad and I help to oversee the delivery of the Government's key priorities. I am assisted in doing so by the chairmanship of a number of key Cabinet committees that I hold but I also have a number of specific responsibilities. These include social exclusion—and you have been complimentary about the work of the Social Exclusion Unit—regional governance and the role I continue to play in the international climate negotiations representing the Prime Minister. Indeed, yesterday I returned from a visit to Russia and the Ukraine where not only did I discuss on behalf of the Prime Minister a number of bilateral issues, but also how we may develop the global action, not only against terrorism but how we can deal with the coming UN conference, the World Summit on sustainable development, next January[1], and I think that is quite an important part for Britain to play. I discussed that with the Presidents and Prime Ministers of those countries. Where cross-cutting issues arise which are of interest to both Gus and I we work closely to ensure a co-ordinated outcome. I know the Committee is also interested in how we work with the rest of government. We work of course very much in a role of partnership and the Cabinet Office is there to support and assist departments in achieving successful delivery of services. It will work with these departments to set out the framework for delivery and it will provide strategic direction and evaluate and monitor success. Finally, chair, the Cabinet Office has been significantly strengthened in order to play its part in all of this. In addition to the staff in the Government Offices, our London staff are in many different buildings. We will reinforce our efforts to create a stronger centre by bringing as many as possible of the London staff together in nearby locations next summer. These are the main points I wanted to make. They are in detail in the memorandum. I am grateful to you for allowing me to make that statement and now we are at your convenience.

2. That is very helpful, thank you very much indeed for that. Perhaps I could just tell you that the Committee has said that it wants to spend a short time at the beginning exploring with you some of the recent events that you were referring to obliquely at the beginning and then we can move on in the remaining time to the main business. Could I just begin by asking you about this. Lord Macdonald; when you were asked about the Jo Moore business in the Lords earlier this week you referred to it, as many people have done, as a "serious error of judgment". Could I put it to you that what many people feel is that is precisely what it was not, that it was gross professional misconduct. It was an attitude that was reflected, not a judgment of one course as against another. It displayed an approach to the job which was inconsistent with any notion of public service. Is that not the point?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I think the Prime Minister made it very clear yesterday just how abhorrent he felt some aspects of that statement were. I do not think you could have asked for a more abject apology than we got from Jo Moore and it seems to me that the Prime Minister's key phrase was he did not think that an individual's whole career might be destroyed for one error of judgment, no matter how horrible or distasteful that error of judgment might be. I understand, of course, that the Secretary of State did reprimand Jo Moore and indeed formal action was taken by the Permanent Secretary and it is now for that Department, I think, to decide what the course of action is next in terms of Jo Moore. I think the Prime Minister has made it very clear that he backs the judgment of his Secretary of State.

3. With respect, I think that answer would work if it was an error of judgment we were talking about. If it is something else then it probably does not because if I look at the model contract for special advisers, again issued in September, just last month, it could not be clearer. It says: "Your employment requires performance consistent with the high standards expected of senior members of the Civil Service". On any test surely that test has not been passed?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) That is right, but I think the question is should someone be sacked for any transgression of a contract, and that is surely a judgment that has been made by the Secretary of State, by the Permanent Secretary and now by the Prime Minister.

4. We are talking about someone who only lives as an appendage of a Minister, a political appointee whose career in that sense expires with a Minister anyway. So it is not a normal career pattern. Let me put this to you or perhaps to Mr Prescott. If a Minister had done this —

  (Mr Prescott)—Not unknown for Ministers —

5. —Would the Minister still be in the job?

  (Mr Prescott) The issue is about an adviser not a Minister. You may argue that the Minister has reprimanded the individual and has decided that it is not a sufficient case for sacking, which is the view taken by the Secretary of State in this case and, indeed, the Prime Minister. It is an error of judgment of the worst kind, "stupid action" I think it has been described as, and I certainly feel that is so, but it is one for which she has apologised, for which she has been reprimanded and the Prime Minister now as head of the Civil Service has made it clear that he did not think it was a sackable offence.

6. Had it been your special adviser, you would have taken the same view?

  (Mr Prescott) I think all of us who are in ministerial positions and have employees who are special advisers have to arrive at their own judgment, and in this case it was the judgment of Stephen Byers. The Prime Minister has looked at the matter, the Permanent Secretary was involved in it, there have been reprimands, apologies made, and I think in those circumstances we have to accept that it is not, in the view of those people, a sackable offence and I have nothing more to add to that.

7. Is her position still tenable? Can she still do her job?

  (Mr Prescott) That is always a consideration when somebody makes an error of judgment, however bad that error is and the one who employs him, and employees is what special advisers are, and they were not advising me in this case; the special adviser was advising this Secretary of State and he has to make a judgment. He has made the judgment, she has apologised, and neither the Prime Minister nor the Secretary of State believe that it is a sackable offence. Frankly, it does not rate against all the other problems we are dealing with, does it?

8. You do not think it turns on trust in government?

  (Mr Prescott) I think it turns on trust between the individuals involved certainly because they are better placed to make a judgment as to whether this was an error of a more permanent kind or one that they slipped into and had not taken fully into account, and they have made a judgment. I am bound to say that if the same criteria were placed on the House of Commons none of us would be in there very long, would we? Nevertheless, it is a judgment that that individual has to make and they have made it. I hope if I am placed in such circumstances I will make my judgment and I hope people might agree with it. But I do not know until the event occurs and you would not ask me to comment on it.

9. If it turned out that the individual concerned, as has been alleged, had been asking a senior civil servant to do things which it was improper for a senior civil servant to be asked to do, would that change things?

  (Mr Prescott) I have heard it alleged. I hear a lot of allegations in the papers. If I had to act on every one of them I would be in a considerable amount of difficulty with time. No-one has made an official complaint, as I understand it, on this matter and where there has been a disagreement about the matter of judgment in this case it has been dealt with by the Permanent Secretary and the Secretary of State.

10. But if it turned out to be the case, whether a complaint had been made or not, then the question.

  (Mr Prescott) It does make a difference if a complaint has been made. At the moment it is down to the level of allegations. Have you spoken to the individual as to whether a complaint has been made or have you read it in the paper?

11. I am asking you.

  (Mr Prescott) I am sorry, the substance of the allegation has to be important if you are asking me to comment on something like that. Until that is justified I do not think it is fair to continue the discussion based on an allegation as a means of extending the questioning about Jo Moore and the action of Stephen Byers.

12. Let us remove it from the individual.

  (Mr Prescott) I got the impression it was very much about the individual and in fact special advisers are individuals. Not every one acts in the same way and we are dealing with one particular act.

13. As you say, we do not know the facts. If we remove this individual case as alleged, can I ask the general question—and I point to the terms of the special advisers' code—and say if any special adviser were found to be prevailing upon civil servants to do things it was quite improper to ask them to do, what consequences would flow from that?

  (Mr Prescott) If it is improper for them to do it—and there certainly are cases and that is envisaged in the Code to which you refer—there are means by which you deal with that. There are different disciplinary measures, for example it would certainly involve the Cabinet Secretary who said to your Committee here when you dealt with this in your inquiry that he would have a responsibility to address himself to that. At the moment it is the Secretary of State who has dealt with the circumstances as he has seen them. If it is worse than that presumably there would be a responsibility for others. As I understand it, you have the Cabinet Secretary coming here in a week or ten days' time and you will be able to address him on that. Can I tell you also that hopefully by then we will have our response to your Committee.[2] I would like to offer my apologies that perhaps it has been longer than normal. I do not want to plead special circumstances but I will do all I can while I am in the job to see there is no further delay in responding to your Committee.

Mr Trend

14. Was the Cabinet Secretary involved in the present matter, in the Jo Moore matter? Was he consulted? Did he or anyone else require an apology to be made? How does that work?

  (Mr Prescott) I have been away for two or three days but, as far as I understand it, it was not referred to him because the matter was dealt with internally by the Permanent Secretary who is, of course, connected very much with the Cabinet Secretary, and whether there was a conversation between them, I do not know, but the matter was dealt with in a professional manner and she was reprimanded by the civil servant involved in this case which was the Permanent Secretary.

15. Perhaps Lord Macdonald knows, was this matter referred to the Cabinet Secretary?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It is the practice in both the public and private sector that any complaints from staff are handled as matters of strictest confidence by the department concerned and that would be the proper procedure. Sir Richard does not propose to hold a separate investigation. He believes that this has been handled in accordance with the proper procedures in the employing department which is the DTLR.

16. In some sense you have overall responsibility for the special advisers and this matter must have been referred to you at some stage?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It has not been referred to me.

17. Do you know whether Miss Moore made the apology of her own volition or was she required to do so?

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) No, I do not.

18. Mr Prescott?

  (Mr Prescott) It is a matter of record if I believe what I read in the paper. I see also that she appeared before him, he reprimanded her, you must know that as well as I do, and I take it as his admittance that he did reprimand her. I think he has made statements also to the House to that effect.

Kevin Brennan

19. Could I ask a slightly more general question about the Code of Conduct perhaps in the light of the events that have taken place recently. Are you confident that the Code of Conduct is fully understood now by Ministers and special advisers and if that is the case I notice that within the Code of Conduct one of the duties that the special adviser is given as one of their major responsibilities Code of Conduct is "devilling for the Minister". What exactly does that mean and could that sort of phrase within the Code of Conduct perhaps have led to a misunderstanding in this case of what the duties of the special adviser are?

  (Mr Prescott) I have got some sympathy with the question. I certainly approached it the same way enquiring what was meant by "devilling", but no doubt our journalists will tell us tomorrow! In those circumstances, I think the rules are clear about honesty, about integrity, about not directing civil servants, about what those limits are. Special advisers are political appointees, albeit they are civil servants. I think the Code makes that clear. What we are concerned about is can anyone direct a civil servant to do something improper? No, it is in the Code, and if they do then they face very serious penalties.

1   Witness correction: September. Back

2   Government responses including one to the Committee's Fourth Report (Session 2000-01) Special Advisers: Boon or Bane? (HC 293) will be provided. Back

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