Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 352-359)




  352. If I can call the Committee to order we can make a start. It is very good to see Sir Richard Wilson. Thank you very much. You are a regular visitor to these parts and it is always a pleasure to see you. I gather we are going to see you next month too so this is perhaps the first instalment of a longer conversation. We particularly wanted to see you, Sir Richard, to see what you made of recent events, to start with at least. It seems to have done the Civil Service no good at all to have this row inside a major department, resulting in the departure of a civil servant and a special adviser. I really would like to hear from you as to why you think this happened and why it was not got hold of at an earlier point, and why we have all these codes and everything else and guidance if, when push comes to shove, they cannot help us.

  (Sir Richard Wilson) The experience of the last two weeks, as you say, is not one that can give any of us much satisfaction. I think the most important point is that I do not think you should extrapolate from what happened in part of one department to the whole of Government. You have had evidence from Sir Richard Mottram about the events in DTLR. He has given you as clear an account as anyone can of what happened. He is the man who manages the department and managed the situation, and what he has told you is the evidence on which you should base your conclusions about what happened. I think it was primarily a personality clash. I think the evidence must be that discontent built and the behaviour was such as could not go on. Shall I go on to the lessons?

  353. Yes.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) On the codes, I think the codes we have are good and helpful in that they clarify the responsibilities of special advisers and the principles that should govern the working of the Civil Service. They are an important part of the framework which we are putting in place for the operation of the Civil Service within the Government. In that sense I do not think there is anything that has happened that invalidates them. What the incidents show is that codes on their own are not enough. What is important is that people should live by them and that they should work. There are issues there that no doubt we can come to. The Civil Service is going through huge change. This is not new. It has been going through huge change for 20 or 30 years and the pace of change is accelerating rather than decelerating. From where I sit that is the most important part of the world of the Civil Service today, the challenge of change and modernisation and the challenge of delivery. The incident that you have here does, I think, have lessons to draw which I am happy to suggest to you, and indeed this Committee will no doubt have its own thoughts that we will need to consider. I would not want it thought, however, that what happened at DTLR should in some way be taken as a signal of what is happening across Government.

  354. That is an issue we would like to explore with you because of course this arose centrally and almost inevitably around the issue of news management and press issues. This clearly is new territory in many ways. I was looking at a piece by your distinguished predecessor, Lord Armstrong, in The Spectator the other day. It is funny how, once people leave office, they become much more interesting in a way than when they were in office. Here is Lord Armstrong saying, "There has never, in my experience, been a time when considerations of political spin did not enter into the business of news management; but it seems to me that the balance has now swung too far in that direction." Is that a mature judgement that you would assent to?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I would never call Lord Armstrong immature; can I make that clear. Can I begin by drawing your attention to today's Telegraph where Sir John Nott is now giving an account of his time in office. I notice The Telegraph have got a little sub-heading which is, "The obsession with unattributable background briefing—what today goes by the name of spin—was as much the curse of politics then as now." This is the 1980s.

  355. Do you remember in the 1970s that the Civil Service Department, as it then was, set up what was called an Image Unit?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I had forgotten the Image Unit.

  356. Permanent Secretaries would write letters to miscreants who were defended in the press and so on, and this was abolished by Mrs Thatcher in 1979.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) In this work he says: "Number 10 was briefing against me. Articles appeared in the press criticising me personally." In his resignation letter he wrote: "The personal loyalty and dedication of your political press advisers"—note that phrase—"in Number10 I do not question, but the lobby and the corridors of Parliament are a dangerous place . . .". I could go on. All I am saying to you is that spin - whatever you call it; whether you call it spin or putting over whatever it is; Bernard Ingham called it putting a gloss on things—is not new. That is what I would say to Lord Armstrong.

  357. So you disagree with him? You are saying that his argument that the balance now has swung too far is not true?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) The point that he may be making, because I have not talked to him about his article, is one that I have made to this Committee before, which is that the role of Number10 and the size of Number10 and the concentration of special advisers in Number10 are different from what they have been before. If you look back at my evidence I think twice before I have said that to you. It is a view that I still have and if that is what Lord Armstrong is saying I think that is true. It does not necessarily mean that it is wrong, but I think there are issues about the framework which quite properly need to be addressed and in that sense I think we have already said to you that that is the case.

  358. I do not want to get into swapping quotations, not least because I have got more than you, but it would be boring for other people. I am struck by the sheer number of former permanent secretaries who are now announcing that we are in new territory, a phrase, by the way, that was used in front of us last week by Sir Richard Mottram when asked, "Is this"—as you are saying—"the cycle going round again, or are we in new territory here?", and he came down on the basis of new territory. This is a view shared by Lord Armstrong. It is a view shared by Robin Mountfield. You seem to be almost alone in saying this is simply the old thing in a new version.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Let me stand back a bit and say what I think. I think that the Civil Service that I leave in a few months' time is going to be very different from the Civil Service I joined in the 1960s, so there is no way I am saying it is all the same and that is okay. I think that there has been huge constitutional change over the last 20 or 30 years, which is still continuing. I think that the management challenge facing the Civil Service over the last 20 years is even greater now, is colossal. I think that Sir Humphrey would be completely lost today if he were here, and I think that the political climate in some ways is also very different. The role of the media is stronger than it used to be, if I may say so. I think that all these things have put pressures on governments which are very important and which alter the framework within which the Civil Service operates. I am not saying it is all the same but I do think you need to be a bit clearer about exactly what it is that is different because some of the things that are said are not accurate.

  359. One thing that is clear, which is where we started from, is the whole role of news management and people being brought in to engage in news management. Again, we were told just a week or two ago by Mike Granatt, the Head of the Government Information Service, who confirmed to us that something like a half of special advisers are engaged in press work. You should know. Here are people who are there formally, in terms of the Order in Council, to offer advice to ministers and yet half of them are not doing that but are in fact doing press work. This leads seasoned observers to conclude that things really are very different and you mentioned special advisers a moment or two ago. Again, if I look at Robin Mountfield here, he says, "Although nominally under the disciplinary control of the Permanent Secretary, in practice it is almost impossible for the Permanent Secretary to exercise any real sanction over people who hold their positions by appointment of the Minister." Is that not just the case?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) On the numbers Mike Granatt has written you a letter, which you should have got, expanding a little on what he said to you about the figure of 40.

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