Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 260-279)



Mr Trend

  260. You have two or three times in the course of this session talked about a Bill. We are very interested in a Civil Service Bill and I think the Committee has a view on this, that we are in favour of it. I would interpret—I am sure you would not—some of your remarks as saying a Bill would make your life a lot easier and it would make life clearer. Can you tell us is this Bill on the horizon, over the horizon, over the rainbow?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I did not in any way intend to convey to you the thought that a Bill would make my life easier.

  261. I know you did not.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Nor is it actually what I think. That is not why I think a Bill is a good idea. I think that the time is right to have a Bill. Over the last five years or so we have put in place a number of different codes. I think we are now at a time where there is more public interest in issues to do with the Civil Service than there has been in the past. Some of the things that we have been discussing have existed a long time and what has happened is that the public have become more sensitised to them rather than that the issues are new. I also think that there is much less understanding of the Civil Service now than there was at some points in the past. I think we have reached a time where a Civil Service Bill would give us an opportunity once and for all to have the debate about special advisers, about what the Civil Service is for, what the ethics are or what the code is that should govern our behaviour and to put it on a statutory basis. The Government has made a very clear commitment to having a Civil Service Bill in their reply most recently to the Sixth Report of the Neill Committee. They have included some commitments as to what the Bill will contain, including a commitment that it will put the Civil Service Commission on a statutory basis and it will include a cap on the number of civil servants. What I would like to see though, I think this clearly will be a Government Bill—


  262. Do you mean a cap on the number of special advisers?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, that is in the response.

  Mr Trend: We were all trying to correct you.


  263. That would have been quite an announcement you have just made.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am so sorry, can I correct the record? That was a slip. What we must ensure is that whatever Bill is brought forward, and I have cleared this with the Prime Minister, should be a Bill that commands as wide assent as we can achieve, that is done on the basis that it commands support across the parties and is not, as it were, just being pushed by one party, and that it is a Bill which does not itself become a political football. On the Civil Service Code we worked closely with this Committee to put the code together, this Committee played an important role in that, and I hope that we can formally or informally work with this Committee as well as those people outside who are interested in the Civil Service and what it might contain, including people in academia, in the media, even some people present. If we could do that I would welcome it.

Mr Trend

  264. Can I press you on the timetable.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes.

  265. I am trying to press you on it.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I cannot obviously make a commitment about the Government's future legislative programme, that is not for me to do and it would not be proper for me to try to do it. What I can do though is say that I would like to embark on this process of consultation in the next few months and see if we can see what progress we can make by, say, Easter. I think we should issue a consultation document and we might have discussions before we issue a consultation document just to get the issues running, and then have a proper consultation process in accordance with our own code, and then see if we can get to a position where drafting the Bill can take place.

  266. So something will happen by Easter?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Oh, yes. I would like to embark on that process and I have got the Prime Minister's approval that we should embark on a process of consultation. He attaches importance to this and I think we should put this in hand. I would just repeat that I would very much welcome it if this Committee could support what I have said, that we should do it in a way which takes it outside party political controversy and have it in terms of a proper debate about the issues but not make it contentious.

  Chairman: I think what you have said will be warmly welcomed here and we would like to proceed on this basis and we accept your offer.

Mr Trend

  267. I have one more question on this chart. On the last chart there was a Cabinet Minister responsible for the Civil Service and now he seems to have disappeared.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) The Cabinet Minister responsible for the Civil Service is the Prime Minister.

  268. Ah, so it is absolutely clear?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Absolutely clear. It says if—

  269. Totally clear?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) If you look at the description of the Prime Minister it says "and Minister for the Civil Service".

  270. So the next time we say that we want to discuss the Civil Service with the Cabinet Minister responsible for the Civil Service we will get the Prime Minister? We will write and invite the Prime Minister because we usually get you or, indeed, the Minister who is responsible for the Civil Service, which is very nice of course.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Chairman, it has always been the case that the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service. I am not going to make any undertakings that the Prime Minister will appear before this Committee and I would prefer not to go over ground which I have gone over with you before.

  271. That is what I expected you to say. There is in my mind anyway now a real option to invite senior advisers to the Government to come before this Committee. This has also been resisted. I can understand why the Prime Minister resists coming before this Committee, although I think he should come before some Committee in the House to answer questions properly which he has not done at Prime Minister's Questions. That aside, there are people now in positions of enormous power and responsibility who are not able to bat aside questions like the Deputy Prime Minister on the basis that he does not know the answer or he has got a funny political retort. We have previously had Alastair Campbell before the Committee, a second request did not succeed. Are there grounds to think that some of the people at the heart of Government who are not elected politicians and who are not Permanent Secretaries could appear before this Committee? What is the golden rule which stops this happening?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think it is the convention that Ministers can decide who they wish to represent them in appearances before the Committee. I think the proper course, if this Committee feels strongly on this issue, is to issue whatever invitations they wish to issue and for those then to be properly considered inside Government.

  272. That is an invitation.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) In that connection, can I just demonstrate a point I made earlier, and draw attention to an article in the Daily Mail in 1974 which is entitled "Who Really Runs Britain Now".


  273. Which you happen to have to hand.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) "You rarely see them but some have more influence than civil servants and are paid more than Ministers" over the whole rogue's gallery of special advisers.

  Chairman: We take the point.

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Where are they now?

  Chairman: They are all Ministers now.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  274. You were going on about bringing in expertise and making it all open and all the rest of it, but the permanent staff of the Cabinet Office has over doubled to 5,000 people, which is costing us the not inconsiderable sum of £170 million extra. I do not understand yet from everything you have said how that brings value to what you are doing, which is looking after the Cabinet Office and hopefully making it more open. I do not quite understand how this follows.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Would it help if I gave you some figures?

  275. It would indeed.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) The Cabinet Office at 1 April was roughly 2,200. The total strength is now a little under 5,000. The biggest element in that increase are the government offices in the regions which have been moved from the old DETR to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The figure for staffing of the government offices plus the Regional Co-ordination Unit is 2,265. In addition, we have brought across roughly 80 staff from the Home Office who deal with emergencies, and we have also brought across from other departments 15 staff who deal with issues of gender, diversity and equality. If you add that up it comes to close to 5,000.

  276. It does.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) There are other minor movements in and out. For instance, the Drugs Unit that supported the Drugs Czar went out to the Home Office and there have been one or two other movements of a pretty small kind out as well and a certain amount of winding up. The net result is that there has been an increase in the size of the Cabinet Office a great deal smaller than the 3,000 figure.

  277. Can I follow on from that to the Forward Strategy Unit, which comes under your control. It seems to have all those people who are coming in from the outside to advise.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Correct.

  278. Do you see yourself then as a manager of these people?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) The Prime Minister has appointed a small number of unpaid advisers from outside who are on a panel and they are offering a day or two a week.

  279. But you are in charge of them?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) This is something which has existed under governments of all complexions—that people can be brought in to support a Prime Minister and to give him or her advice on an unpaid basis. They are not employees of the organisation and therefore I am not their manager.

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