Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)



Annette Brooke

  140. If I can just try to speed it up, it is not the best way of questioning, but I have three points I really want addressed, one is specifically for Jonathan, first of all I do not have the evidence that we last took from Sir Richard Wilson in front of me but my memory tells me the gulf between what Jonathan said this morning and that is absolutely enormous, not just shades of opinion. Jonathan, I believe you said Alan Evans was forced to move, that certainly was not the statement in that evidence. I do not have it here, I am sure we need to revisit it. My question is, if this gulf is so large how on earth are things going to be resolved without a proper inquiry if we have such totally different answers on this very same question? Should there not, to clear the decks, be a proper inquiry into this particular section before you could possibly start putting a Civil Service Act together? The other thing—because I quite sincerely believe this aspect of justice towards all employees, Jonathan—has Martin Sixsmith actually had a proper hearing?
  (Mr Baume) I am not convinced that some form of formal inquiry would add very much to this. I set out what I think are the lessons to be learned from this. As to Martin Sixsmith I am currently still involved in negotiations with the Department of Transport to resolve Martin Sixsmith's position. He has had a rather full hearing, given newspaper commentary, but I do hope to see resolution to that. I do not particularly want to go into the details given the position I am in representing him at the moment. I am not convinced that some kind of formal inquiry would add much more to events.

  141. Thank you.
  (Mr Jones) No, I could not really comment on the internal inquiry because I have not dealt with him directly.

  142. I have a couple of general matters, do we need to really get everything out in the open before a Civil Service Act could work because otherwise you would not have the trust and confidence for it?
  (Mr Jones) I do agree with you that the preparation for the Civil Service Act does need much wider discussion than we have had so far. You have referred to Sir Richard Wilson's evidence, Sir Richard has consistently made the point that the special advisers—he numbers them at 80—must be considered, in relation to a Civil Service of 300,000. I have always said that point must be considered that we have special advisers influencing a small number of press officers. What we heard was also significant from Mr Granatt this morning, he confirmed the figure that, yes, there are 240 information officers working in Whitehall and that there were 30 in the Transport Department and there were three special advisers who could potentially influence 30 information officers, that is the relationship that needs some attention. I think the Civil Service Act has to be precise and I do not think that this potential conflict has been looked at by your Committee.

  Annette Brooke: I think there is an awful lot more questions but those are questions to address another day.

Brian White

  143. Can I just start with Nick.
  (Mr Jones) Yes.

  144. What I do not understand is why you think a disjointed approach to government presentation of information is a good thing?
  (Mr Jones) I think there should be a coordinated approach. I am all in favour of it. We only have to think back to the events during the autumn following the attack on the World Trade Center to understand how democratic governments have to understand how to use the media. I understand and believe that democracies should understand how to use the media. We do need some clarity for the system, we do need a position here in Britain whereby we do not have the system that is now operating, where you can get story after story in the newspaper without any identification or attribution. It suits many of the newspapers because the one thing the special advisers can do is trade exclusive stories, that is in their gift, they can give those stories to people. I think that we should have some clarity in the system. It is not that I disagree with the need for clear and coordinated government communication but I just think we need some more clarity and we should be able to, for example, have televised lobbying briefings, we would not use them everyday but the fact that the government is speaking, the fact that somebody is speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister we should be able to know who it is. The way that this contaminates, for example, political broadcasting is we have to talk about sources. I think the views of the listener are, your constituents, if he knows something why is he not telling me whose these people are.

  145. Does that not undermine the lobby system which is something which should have long since been removed?
  (Mr Jones) If we had televised briefings you would have the public in a position to be able to judge the behaviour of the corespondents. The position they have in the United States, where the journalists ask more predatory questions, is because they are under the spotlight of public scrutiny, and it has done something for journalism. My great concern, looking back, and I have been working here in the House of Commons for nigh on 30 years, what has concerned me is the way in which we have this increase in stories which are not attributed to anybody. I think that the whole special adviser system has encouraged that, in the sense that they are providing the stories. I think that has added to the cynicism of the public, there is a danger.

  146. I am not for a civil servant running government information, but it would be better than an out-in-the-open, special adviser such as you are arguing for?
  (Mr Jones) If you look at the United States, why is it that journalists in Britain can get more information from what is happening in Britain through the United States freedom of information procedure. I think the two go hand in hand. Yes, governments need to coordinate media, but we need the safeguards, and I do not think we have the safeguards that we need.
  (Professor Weir) There is no contradiction between having an impartial government information service and a political appointee as press secretary alone to the Prime Minister on the record, there is no contradiction there at all in my view, in fact. I totally agree with everything that Nick has said, you must have a central direction to government strategy for communication, you must put these people on the record, one of the most undesirable aspects of the current regime that we have is that an enormous amount of rubbishing and smears are generated from the political side of the information system at the moment and that is really damaging the quality of our democracy and the reputation of government as well. It should be stopped.

  147. Are you saying it is all coming from politicians and not necessarily from journalists?
  (Professor Weir) Some of the coverage of the Sixsmith stuff was very biased and spun, as it were. I know that some critics of this government, some people unearthed information about, for example, the role of special advisers or the state of the Health Service. Those critics have been smeared and bullied and damaged because they spoke up in the ways which people at the heart of the government, the political people, do not like. That should be stopped.

  148. Does this not come back to this nonsense that we treat special advisers as civil servants and we have this nonsense of not recognising them for what they are. Is that not the fundamental change we should be making? Bringing the special advisers out into the open, making sure they are named it would make it far more transparent, rather than the nonsense that we have to have some sort of impartial civil servant doing it and retreat back to the situation when there were nine broadcasts a day as opposed to 50 an hour?
  (Mr Jones) If you have a clearly identified unit within each department that would be fine, the journalists would know and you would know where they were getting the information from. I think you are quite right, that is, I think, the central point, we should know where the information is coming from.
  (Professor Weir) I think they should be brought out into the open as far as possible or the slant or spin, or whatever, should be the job of the political parties, some of which are very good at this already and special advisers should be advisers only, so that you divorce the two. There is a division currently which is purely party political remarks can come from within departments as opposed to being left to the party's own press machines and that special advisers straddle this very difficult divide between government information/party political information. That is a very difficult place and you need clarity, either they can come out openly and their briefings, as far as possible, should be on the record, as should the Prime Minister's press secretary, or there should be clear limits on what they can do in relation to their media role.

  149. That goes back to a world which no longer exists. We live in a world of 24 hours news, we live in a world where government if they are not they ought to be campaigning all of the time. To come out with the kind of statement you have does not recognise the real world we live in.
  (Professor Weir) They should be promoting government policy, ministers should be doing that, without the secret and confidential briefings, the choice of this evidence against that evidence.

  150. We are talking about a government campaigning all of the time, making political statements, which is far different from you what are looking for, you are arguing that should not happen and we should not have special advisers for the reasons that you were arguing there.
  (Professor Weir) I do not think so, that is not what I said.

  151. Can I go on to Jonathan, if you look at the real victim of this whole exercise in the run up to Sir Richard Wilson's successor you have Sir Richard Mottram—I will not quote the article, but I think it will go down as one of the most famous alongside Robert Armstrong's general article in its attitude—Mottram's career is finished. I suspect that somebody else in the run up to Richard Wilson's successor is going to be next, which are your members, what are you doing about the briefings going against the people who could have given a radical view to the Civil Service as the next head of the Civil Service, protecting your members from those kind of briefings?
  (Mr Baume) I am not sure I fully understand.

  152. There are briefings going on for some of the candidates and the only person who has benefited from the current exercise is David Omand in succeeding Sir Richard Wilson, I am asking what you are doing to protect your membership from briefings in the run up to the successor for Sir Richard Wilson?
  (Mr Baume) To be quite honest I do not think there is anything that the FDA can do. I have not seen particularly negative briefs. I should add that despite all of this speculation about the next head of the Civil Service in the end the decision will be taken by the Prime Minister and at least we have had a more formal process established, that was announced in a slightly roundabout way a week or two ago, which is a step forward from the puff of white smoke we have had in the past. People will be asked to make an expression of interest. In the end it will be, as I understand it, a decision for the Prime Minister. I do not have a problem with that. Previous prime ministers have been the person who have ultimately taken that decision. I cannot imagine in the end the Prime Minister is going to be influenced by anything in the press. I have not actually seen anything particularly damaging, but there may well have been articles I missed.

  153. Is Sir Richard still a candidate?
  (Mr Baume) I have no idea whether he wishes to be a candidate or is a candidate.

  154. Is there still departmentalitis in the Civil Service? It comes back to this competition which creates some of the problems and some of the briefings Nicholas was talking about.
  (Mr Baume) I think that is a different issue, how do we foster greater working across government. I am merely making a point that you do in the end take a strong professional interest in helping your minister to succeed, that is exactly the same under any government. I do not want you to read too much into that, it is about the team working closely with a particular minister and wanting their minister to succeed and taking pride in that. They do see it as a bit of a personal failure if the minister does not.

  155. I have one final question for Stuart Weir, you accuse Alastair Campbell of all sorts of things in the document that you produced, at one point you accuse him of lying. You shook your head when Jonathan was talking about there is no evidence of impropriety, you were shaking your head at that point. Can you put on the table today what evidence you have for the accusations you have made against Alastair Campbell or are you representing the popular prejudices that exist at the moment?
  (Professor Weir) I do not think I am reflecting the popular prejudices. I think there is plenty of evidence. There is some in Nicholas's book "The Control Freaks", which is a good example, the behaviour of the professor, for example who criticised the National Health Service is one case; the treatment of the person from the Observer is another.

  156. You are saying they should not be rebutted?
  (Professor Weir) I do not think that rebuttals should be as aggressive and as partisan and involve smearing and bullying of the person.

  157. That is your interpretation of what was being put forward. It could be argued that if you gave a robust rebuttal—
  (Professor Weir) Rebuttal means you answer the points that somebody is making. Rebuttal is a reasonably decent and pure operation.

  Brian White: Unless you are on the receiving end.


  158. We probably cannot do great justice to ourselves or to Alastair Campbell as this point. We have heard Jonathan saying he is a model of propriety and we have the opposite, if you like.
  (Mr Jones) I think I would probably like to stand on the various things that I have written over the years. I certainly have not come along here to engage in personality bashing.
  (Professor Weir) I spoke to a previous government information officer and he said that he thought that the treatment that Alastair Campbell hands out to Nicholas Jones is improper too. Joking remarks are one of the ways bullies operate. The British tradition is to make jokes of people. That is really a serious matter.

Kevin Brennan

  159. Speaking of jokes in your joint article you said, "Let us begin with the organ grinder, Alastair Campbell", who did you have in mind as the monkey?
  (Professor Weir) That was a turn of phrase. I deliberately did not put monkeys in because I thought it would be—

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