Examination of Witness (Questions 200-219)|
THURSDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2001
200. We are grateful, we are almost at the end
of this. Just so we are all clear about it, we have left the memo
now and I think you have told us that a civil servant believed
that there had been an improper request from a special adviser
but I think you also told us that nothing happened to the special
adviser as a consequence of that, contrary to that code, and also
the civil servant did not report it, contrary to that code. Is
that not what you have told us?
(Sir Richard Wilson) That is not how I would like
to record it. I have told you that nothing wrong, in fact, happened
because the civil servant said they thought this was not the right
way of proceeding and they referred the matter up the line. I
think that is a very proper way of behaving, that is what I have
201. As a way of leading this then let me put
to you this suggestion that in the way Permanent Secretaries can,
if they want to, tell the Public Accounts Committee if there are
things amiss on that side of things in their role as accounting
officer, why could Permanent Secretaries not also be ethical accounting
officers so if they felt there was something going amiss on that
side of the business they could alert the relevant parliamentary
(Sir Richard Wilson) Because I think there are other
ways of handling it which also work quite well. I think these
are issues we should discuss in the context of a Civil Service
Bill. The very special process which applies in relation to expenditure
where an Accounting Officer puts a note on the file that they
cannot defend, this decision is very different from the kind of
situation where a head of department feels that a special adviser
is not entirely playing within the rules. I think that is a situation
which could be dealt with, and should be dealt with, best by raising
the issues directly between the Permanent Secretary and the Minister
and, if need be, involving me in the discussion. I think that
is a perfectly proper way of doing it. The problem about putting
it on the files of a select committee, and I intend no disrespect,
is you tend then to invite the whole thing becoming a matter of
a party political football, a controversy of the kind that you
quite rightly said is not the best way of handling it. I do not
think it should become a matter for point scoring because the
truth is there are grey areas, it is not easy. I actually think
that it would be very wrong to give the impression that there
is widespread abuse of the rules. I do not believe there is.
(Sir Richard Wilson) I keep very closely in touch
with my colleagues and I think if there was widespread abuse they
would come to tell me about it much more than they actually do.
That is where I come from.
203. There is a public interest and we all in
our different ways want to identify it and uphold it. No doubt
we will come back to this on occasions in the future. Could I
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think that public interest
lies in clarity about where the boundaries are and what the rules
are. I am not claiming that the Code is perfect, although I think
it is a good step myself, but I would.
204. Thank you for all that. That took longer
than I hoped it would. We have not quite got to the New Centre
which is what we wanted to talk to you about. I have got one further
hurdle to make you jump over first which is an area this Committee
has had a long-standing interest in and produced endless reports
on, which is freedom of information. The Committee is alarmed
at reports which suggest that there is a possibility, perhaps
something stronger than that, of a serious delay now in implementation
of the legislation. We had this leaked minute from the DEFRA FOI
Committee on 3 August this year which found its way into The
Guardian which says: "Previously HO (Home Office) had
timetabled June 2002 but this has been abandoned in favour of
an across-the-board implementation supported by the Prime Minister."
A question in the margin is is the person who leaked that in trouble
because it could be seen as the release of information which should
not be released but, more importantly, the firm promise was given
that 18 months after Royal Assent this Act would start to kick
in with central government in the summer of 2002. There were all
kind of reasons for that in terms of the system learning how to
do it, central government coming in first, then local government
coming in and and other bodies coming in after that. And yet suddenly
now we have got the prospect of it being kicked into touch with
some kind of "big bang" before 2005. Surely, that makes
no kind of sense and is also contrary to everything ever promised
about this piece of legislation.
(Sir Richard Wilson) It is my policy to be helpful
to this Committee but I do feel bound to point out that Freedom
of Information is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. He
gave evidence on the matter on 16 October to the Home Affairs
Committee. To the best of my knowledge, no decision has been taken
about the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. I
think the Lord Chancellor is due, if I remember rightly, to make
a report before the end of this month and I am sure that is the
right way to proceed.
205. You are aware, though, that what I am telling
you is what until this point has been the position? You have not
been wholly uninvolved in this at the centre of government and,
of course, the Minister on the last day that it came before the
House of Commons said: "It seems sensible for the Bill to
be implemented in stages by extending coverage gradually by type
of organisation. It would make sense to start with central government
and it is right that central government provides models of good
practice." It would be absurd if that did not happen.
(Sir Richard Wilson) I am sorry to hold the line but
I really am not responsible or accountable to the House for this.
This is a matter which the Lord Chancellor is responsible for
and he has to report by 29 November his plans for bringing the
Act into force. That is where I have to leave it.
206. I would be very grateful if you bumped
into the Lord Chancellor if you would say to him that you met
us and we had a conversation about this.
(Sir Richard Wilson) If I bump into the Lord Chancellor
I will certainly pass on your message.
207. Finally, we get to the New Centre. My question
would be have we got a New Centre?
(Sir Richard Wilson) The Cabinet Office and Number
10, as I have said to this Committee before, constantly change
over the years and build themselves to meet the needs of the Prime
Minister of the day and the Government of the day. At the last
Election we made quite a number of important changes in our structure
in order to meet what the Prime Minister wanted from his second
208. Let me just move you a bit further. Peter
Riddell, who may be within hearing at this point, said in The
Times looking at the new arrangements : "The far-reaching
changes in Number 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office since
the Election have created a Prime Minister's Department in all
but name that ressembles the executive office serving the President
in Washington DC." Is that not a statement of fact?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think that is the same article
where he said this is "West Wing meets Sir Humphrey".
209. It is very good!
(Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think it is a Prime
Minister's Department in all but name. I hesitate to repeat things
I have said before, but we do not have a Presidential role for
the Prime Minister in this country. We have a system where legal
powers and financial resources are vested in the Secretaries of
State. The Prime Minister has few executive powers other than
administration of the Civil Service. He exercises his power through
patronage, appointment and dismissal of Ministers, and through
the chairmanship of committees, and his or her power varies from
time to time according to the extent his Cabinet colleagues permit
him to have that power, depending also on whether the Cabinet
is split, depending also on the strength of the Government majority
particularly in the House of Commons, and also popular opinion
in the electorate and attitudes in the Party. The structure that
we have is one that meets the needs of this Prime Minister but
it does not imply that the role of the Prime Minister has fundamentally
changed. I think the term "Prime Minister's Department"
implies a different role for the Prime Minister and a major constitutional
change that I would tell you has not taken place.
210. I wonder if we are not doing it by stealth
and why we cannot do it openly and then work our minds around
it. When the Deputy Prime Minister came to see us a fortnight
ago and we asked him about these things, that we thought the Cabinet
Office's job was to service the Cabinet he said that the "Cabinet
Office is the Department of the Prime Minister at the end of the
day." Something is going on here.
(Sir Richard Wilson) He also said that the Prime Minister
is the mountain top, and I think what he would want me to say
is that we do all work ultimately to the Prime Minister. The role
of the Cabinet Office is still, as it always has been, primarily
to support Ministers collectively and the Prime Minister in his
capacity as chairman of the Cabinet and certain Cabinet committees.
If you look at the past, it has always tended to be a federation
of different groups. Some posts are located there as a matter
of convenience, as you will see from our chart. In that sense
it is a bran tub because you can pull out all sorts of things
you do not expect. The fundamental role of the Cabinet Office,
which is to serve the Cabinet collectively, is one that you need
to keep in sight as a fact and as a reality through all times
and all conditions. I had hoped that you would like this organisation
chart. I have grouped under me all the traditional functions of
the Cabinet Office and they are still being performed as ever
they have been. I would draw your attention to the fact that although
people keep proclaiming the end of the Cabinet system, it is in
fact extremely healthy and active at the moment. There were 26
Cabinet committees under John Major in 1992 which declined to
19 in July 1995; there are now 38 Cabinet Committees and they
are working very hard. I think that cabinet government, collective
government is in a healthy state, and the Cabinet Office is the
right way to be supporting it and serving it.
211. You are telling us, in essence, that despite
all these new bits of Number 10 that sit in the Cabinet Office,
nothing fundamental has changed?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I am telling you that the fundamentals
of our constitution remain unaffected. There is always a temptation
to see wherever you are at the moment as being a permanent condition.
In fact, if you look back over 35 years you will see that the
role of the Cabinet Office supporting the collective government
has persisted through all sorts of different times and conditions
of government. I would maintain that it will continue to do that
and that is because the basic constitution is clear and remains
212. And there could be a rolling back from
the present position.
(Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, if you look at the next
30/40/50 years I am sure there will be similar periods of one
kind or another, just as there have been.
213. We have been circulated with a flier telling
us that Professor Peter Hennessy is going to deliver a lecture
on 7 November called "Tony Wants". There is a feeling
abroad, is there not, that what the Prime Minister wants to happen
will happen? Peter Hennessy is quoted in one of Peter Riddell's
articles saying "Blair operates command premiership".
The feeling has got abroad that the Prime Minister really does
call the shots and that full Cabinet meetings do not last as long
as they used to, there are not as many of them as there used to
be and the Prime Minister decides things on the basis of bilateral
meetings with other Ministers that he chooses. Is that fair?
(Sir Richard Wilson) As I said earlier, it is the
case that Prime Ministers have varying degrees of power from time
to time depending on their strength in the Cabinet, their strength
in the House of Commons, their strength in the party, their strength
in public opinion. That is something that I doubt anyone would
disagree with. The style of government differs greatly from Prime
Minister to Prime Minister. The problem we have got in dealing
with the kind of public impression you describe is that we have
for many years in universities and indeed, I am sure, in talks
by me and my predecessors, described a model of how government
works which is not actually quite how it has been developing.
This goes back over 20 years, to my certain knowledge. I think
there has been a change in the role of Cabinet in terms of the
number of decisions taken in CabinetI am talking over a
period of 40 or 50 yearsand a growth in the amount that
is delegated to Cabinet committees and also a growth in the amount
of decisions which are taken in correspondence between Ministers
who are on Cabinet committees.
214. Well, when
(Sir Richard Wilson) Do you mind if I just finish?
215. Yes, please.
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think it is also the case that
Prime Ministers have tended more and more over the years, and
this is not peculiar to this Prime Minister, to deal with things
in small ad hoc groups of varying sizes when it was a one-off
issue and they thought what they wanted to do was design a little
group that was going to hack their way through a particular problem.
216. I understand all that but the criticism
seems to me that with this Prime Minister there has been a step
change. You are telling us that it is all evolution and over a
period of 50 years things have changed.
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think I could, but I will not
because I know the Chairman will not let me probably,
217. Fascinating though it would be.
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think I could support that
proposition that there has been an evolution over quite a long
period of time in the way that we conduct Government which is
towards what I have just described.
218. Okay. Have you ever said to the Prime Minister,
who wants to deal with a particular subject in a bilateral meeting,
and I am the new kid on the block here, I do not know if this
is an improper question, "Tony, really this is something
that has got to be discussed by the full Cabinet"?
(Sir Richard Wilson) You would not expect me to disclose
the contents of discussions between me and the Prime Minister.
I make the point simply because all the time we are drawing boundaries.
I can certainly assure you that if I thought something ought to
be discussed in a Cabinet committee or in Cabinet I would certainly
advise him that was the right thing to do.
219. But there are people who say, and I do
not know if this is true and you are not going to confirm it,
it is astonishing that there has not been discussion in full Cabinet
on the euro.
(Sir Richard Wilson) You are quite right, I am not
going to confirm or deny it.
Mr Prentice: We are not getting very far, are
Chairman: That is a headline, is it not, "Cabinet
Secretary refuses to confirm or deny"? You cannot win, I