Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 300-319)



  300. Can you first tell us who put it to you?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I cannot now remember. It was a conversation we had about what happened. There was a bit of a furore on 25 February. The reason why I was reluctant was because for constitutional reasons I think it is very inappropriate for the Permanent Secretary to make statements. I absolutely agree with Robert Armstrong. As you say, you can point this at me, people point lots of these things at me, if I had not been willing to chat away to Mr Sixsmith to find a solution to his problem, along with others, whose confidence he equally dealt with by ignoring them, the government might not found itself in this position. When asked if I would do this I said I would do it. I drafted this statement myself. It was wholly my view. It was not interfered with by anybody else, it was not changed to fit somebody else's view of events or justify somebody else's view of events, or whatever.

  301. I fully accept that. My earlier question was, who asked you to do it?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I was chatting to people around.

  302. In the way one does. If we are not going to get any further on the personal statement do you think I can ask you about the weekend in question. It seems to me highly irregular that a Permanent Secretary was not able to speak to his Secretary of State, the Secretary of State would not pick up the phone and talk to him. Is that not a new development?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) That is untrue, I did speak to my Secretary of State.

  303. When you told Mr Sixsmith you were unable to speak to the Secretary of State that is not true?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) We are now getting into what I think is a disgraceful way to conduct public business.

  304. It would be disgraceful if the Permanent Secretary could not speak to his Secretary of State—
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I did.

  305. —when putting together the innovation of making a personal statement, which is what this was. Perhaps some complications are the difficulties at the top between the civil servants and the politicians, a suggestion made earlier from the other side of the Committee, was that the government, Number 10, might have been leaking against you about your career prospects. This must be a very unhappy situation for a career civil servant with great distinction to find himself in?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) It is very kind of you to call me a career civil servant of great distinction. Perhaps I was! I do not mean to be flippant in relation to your question, for me in all of this there are some very important and serious points about the position I found myself in. I find some of this quite ironical, really, because I have been accused, for example, of in a sense being politicised, and that I did this to serve the interests of the government, or something. I deeply resent suggestions of that kind. I do not think the Civil Service has been politicised but I have always strongly believed in a politically impartial Civil Service. I led all of the work we did recently on the values of the Civil Service which re-emphasised all of that. I take my reputation as a Permanent Secretary extremely seriously and I do not like to be in the newspapers in a way which personalises my role, because I think it is quite inappropriate. I do not think it is appropriate in general terms for civil servants to be making personal statements. What is now their accountability for this?

  306. It is also my anxiety that the Civil Service does not become politicised, the Civil Service needs protecting and needs a mechanism whereby it can hold its own against the spin doctors and the politicians. Let me put it to you this way, when Martin Sixsmith discovered he was in trouble he opened up on two fronts and he went, quite properly, to his Permanent Secretary and said, "What is going on?" You and he discussed arrangements. He opened up a second time with Alastair Campbell at Number 10 and tried to conduct these negotiations both through you and through Alastair Campbell. Alastair Campbell at one stage, from Mr Sixsmith's account, appeared to have a better line of contact with the Secretary of State.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) To my Secretary of State?

  307. Yes. Mr Sixsmith realised both sides of this equation had turned against him and he realised no further progress could be made—that is how, I imagine, he justified what he did—and the whole machinery closed in against him?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) If I might be so rude as to interrupt, the machine was still talking to him, anyway.

  308. In an informal sense, but no longer talking a deal with him. The locus of power, then, to a real genuine civil servant, Sixsmith, in your Department was divided, there was the traditional Civil Service with its traditional values, and I am sure those will remain intact, but there is also a new locus of power in Downing Street, where there is somebody as important potentially to a civil servant, particularly in that area of the Department, as his Permanent Secretary and, therefore, I would ask you, what can be done to maintain a coherence of the Civil Service? How do we ensure that political advisers, even if they are civil servants, as in the case in Number 10, do not themselves politicise the senior ranks of the Civil Service?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I think in relation to my position, and people like me, roughly speaking I know what is what, I know what I am prepared to do, I operate within a framework and a set of values that I am very clear in my mind about consistently. I do not need a lot of protection myself. Okay, I have had a few problems trying to get out of the house with lots of tv cameras, this is familiar to politicians, you learn how to deal with it. If I have a problem, I can go to the Secretary of the Cabinet and speak to him. I am obviously concerned about my staff, so I do spend a bit of time thinking about how we can ensure that they have confidence that they will be looked after, that their interests will be taken into account and their values will be upheld. I am going to answer your question. I think Martin Sixsmith perceived that he was dealing with me and I could, in a sense, not quite help him because if he wanted another job he had to get it on a wider context. So actually he was speaking to Mike Granatt, as his account shows quite clearly, and he was speaking to Alastair Campbell. Alastair Campbell was certainly speaking to my Secretary of State, why should he not, and I was speaking to my Secretary of State. Throughout this process, although, obviously, it had it moments, so to speak, we were in touch about what was the appropriate way forward and we were clear that if Mr Sixsmith was to have another job within the Civil Service that was a matter for the Civil Service and it was not a matter for Alastair Campbell, and he would never suggest it was. In my experience of dealing with Alistair Campbell he is a person who does understand what his role is and what his role is not.

  309. How can civil servants, including Permanent Secretaries, get additional protection from the problem that this occasion has thrown up? There have been previous ones, there are sure to be more. What is the best way to make a clearer demarcation of the great traditional Civil Service to show that it is not a political Civil Service?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Funnily enough, I think the way in which one has to do this is as civil servants we have to affirm what we stand for. We are servants. We must operate in a framework defined by others. When they have defined that framework we should stand up for it. It is very important that Parliament also focuses on these things but focuses on them in a non-partisan way, because if we get into partisan arguments/party political arguments about the role of the Civil Service we are sunk. So if we are going to have to have a dialogue about how we move these things forward, it has to be with a Committee like this and it has to go forward with the support of all political parties if we are going to maintain these traditions. The key question is does the Government wish to maintain these traditions? This has not been my happiest four weeks but one of the good things you could say has come out of it is a strong affirmation from the Prime Minister and from other Ministers, from all the Ministers in my Department, from my Secretary of State in Parliament, from my Lords' Minister in the House of Lords, a strong commitment to the politically impartiality of the Civil Service.

  310. Would you be in favour of a Civil Service Act?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Yes I would but I do not think myself that is the decisive consideration.

  311. But it would help if, say, there were a cap on the number of special advisers the Bill contained?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Yes it would. It is agreed it is going to happen so what is the point in my talking about it? There is no particular magic, the Committee itself may have said this, in whether it is 81 or 91. There is a particular magic in whether it is 81 or 911. I favour a cap but there are also issues about how they are distributed, what their roles are and how their roles are understood.


  312. When you say the question is now whether the Government believes all this stuff about the Civil Service and then you cited Ministers who had given you reassuring noises; did you feel that this was a question that hung in the air unanswered?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) In recent weeks?

  313. Not during these very immediate events but looking back over the previous few years?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) No. I think there is a much more interesting question hanging in the air which is the way the government is organised and the balance of advice between a permanent Civil Service along the lines that we were just discussing with all that that involves and people with different skills and backgrounds. That is an active issue in the Government, it is an active issue for the Civil Service because we care deeply about government working effectively. I think those are issues to be talked about. Most people do not find them very interesting.

Mr White

  314. You have just asked a question I was about to ask. For what it is worth, Sir Richard, I think the original leaks were designed, as Kevin says, to scupper your chances of succeeding Sir Richard Wilson leaving the way clear for David Omand. I do not expect you to comment on that.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) May I comment on that? I think that is implausible. When you said the "original" leaks, you mean the leaks on the Wednesday night, the leaks in the Daily Mirror, the stories in the Daily Mirror?

  315. The start to this.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) No, I do not think so. It is very kind of you to say that but that is not a conspiracy theory I could support. I can think of other conspiracies I would go for, but not that one.

  316. I want to move on to the implications of these particular events for the future. One of the things that the Civil Service Act we have been talking about (and which Michael just touched on) is that the only Civil Service Act we could bring forward now is one that entrenches the status quo. All of the discussions that have happened over the past couple of years for reforming the Civil Service and re-organising government are all out of the window for a generation, are they not?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) No. I very much sympathise with your question. My reservation about a Civil Service Act is that it will be seen as entrenching the Northcote-Trevelyan principles of the Civil Service. I am quite happy for them to be entrenched but what I do not want is for the Civil Service to be seen to be an institution which is worrying about having to entrench principles that go back a hundred and something years and in the "Dog and Duck" they are not talked about. I am trying to make a serious point but, as always, I fall into being flippant. What we need to be seen to be is an organisation that says to the government (and this is not because this is a Labour government; it applies to any government), "We are here to serve you and to serve you in a much more effective way than we have served you up to now, not because we are not very good and we are not very committed—we are terrifically good, the people who work for me are fantastically good—but because everybody can do better. We are here to be flexible in the way we do that. We are here to work in different ways with different groups of people if that is how you want us to do it. We think that you can get all the benefits of what you want—better delivery, more imaginative policy-making, all those things that the Government, quite rightly, want—if a substantial part of the government machine is in the hands of politically-neutral politically- impartial permanent Civil Service, and the reason why we think that is we know how to run this machine on your behalf and to make it work for you.? I think that there are some people within the Government who do not think like that. They think we are not very good, they think we are an obstacle. If we are seen to be pursuing a Civil Service Act, punting for a Civil Service Act, people would say, "They are just feathering their own nests, they are just protecting themselves, they are trying to stop a beastly special adviser being nasty to them." That would be quite a wrong way, in my view, for the top management of the Civil Service to present itself either to Parliament or to the Government. I am up for a Civil Service Act if it can be done in a way that does not cause trouble in Parliament between the political parties and if it is seen as part of the Civil Service moving on and doing what a government wants and we can show that our values are relevant to what a modern government—Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem—wants. If you can show that I am up for it. Does that make sense?

  317. Yes it does. I am glad you raised those issues, I think they are very serious. In trying over the years to modernise the Civil Service, have people come in from outside and then move out again, that in and out movement, does not the Martin Sixsmith experience show that it is very difficult to come into the Civil Service and fit in without causing the kinds of problems that you have described earlier on?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Let me try and put it this way: the first thing about Martin Sixsmith that we have to have in mind is that he had worked for the Government before. He had been successful in serving the Government before and he therefore knew something about the Civil Service. He did not come in completely fresh. I think there is a very serious issue, which I do not want to apply in relation to Martin Sixsmith but if I could make a general point, about how far the Civil Service thinks about the needs (and this applies in relation to special advisers as well) of the people who come in. Partly because a lot of us have been in the business for more years than we care to remember, we assume that everybody knows what we know. I do not know whether every institution is like this, perhaps Members of Parliament are like that, but maybe every institution does assume that everything it knows everybody else knows. I do not think we are necessarily welcoming enough to people and I do not think we think enough about what support they need when they come in. As we are trying to change the way in which the Civil Service works, we have to focus much more on that, particularly when you are bringing people in at quite a senior level. In my department, without naming names, we have brought in some really excellent people from outside to take senior positions in the Department. They have improved the way the Department works. They inject a whole new dimension into a lot of our broad discussion. But do not assume they know everything. Give them some help. I do not think we do enough of that.

  318. The next time you bring somebody in from business are you not going to be accused of politicising the Civil Service. Anything you do now will be subject to the charge by the media it is just another croney or politicisation of the Civil Service. Impartiality has gone out the window. Is that not the result of what has happened—you cannot do anything radical in the future and the whole of modernising government has now been marginalised?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) No, I do not think so at all. It is difficult to describe. A number of people have lost their jobs and it has not been wonderful for some others as well. This is a fairly localised thing.

  319. It has implications for the way that the Civil Service operates?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I would not myself have said they are very dramatic. It is a fairly dramatic event but what it shows is that you need to be clear about rules. As the FDA has suggested to the Select Committee, we need to do more about the induction and training of special advisers and do more on how the special advisers are appraised. The official machine, because it says these are not quite our people, we have to look at whether it gives them enough help in operating around the system and so on. We need to think about all those things. Some of those things do apply and arise out of this. I do not think myself that it has big implications for where the Civil Service goes next.

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