Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 400-419)



  400. I put it to you that, either in the House of Commons or indeed straight to the face, in earlier times a Secretary of State would have taken on that role in order to defend his department.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) But he did do it on the Tuesday.

  401. If we can stay with this for a minute, Richard Mottram also told us that the Secretary of State had been an obstacle to the resolution of the Sixsmith issue which he said he had got nicely sewn up in the traditional fashion up until the blocking took place. He said also that Downing Street was an obstacle by that very clearly. Were you aware that Downing Street was being an obstacle as well as the Secretary of State?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Could you refer me to that please? Do you have a question number?

  402. Yes: 293. He said, "You only have to read the four o'clock lobby briefing to see that". The official spokesman of the Government was unhappy. "There were a number of other people who were, I think, not best pleased with what happened. You only have to read the four o'clock lobby briefing to see that." Without great detail he was telling us that there was a problem with the deal, both with the Secretary of State and across the road. Were you aware at that time that there were these multiple difficulties?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I was aware. I was not myself engaged in negotiations with Mr Sixsmith, but I was kept in touch from time to time with what was going on. I knew that a deal was being set up, that discussions were taking place. I knew that the Secretary of State had his views on what should happen, and I kept in touch with Number 10.

  403. What I am trying to get to is that by tradition this has been sorted within the department, but when Mr Sixsmith found himself in difficulties, according to his account, he went to his permanent secretary, but he also went to Alastair Campbell and opened up a second front in Number 10 but in the end both failed him as he saw the matter. Why could he not have solved this in the department in Whitehall and why could not Sir Richard Mottram have sorted it out with the Cabinet Secretary? Why did the system not work?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think what went wrong was that Martin Sixsmith decided not to wait to get the thing sorted out but went to the press, from where I was sitting.

  404. You do not feel that he lost the game before he went to the press?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) No, I do not feel that.

  405. Jonathan Baume also felt that this perhaps had not been coped with as well as it might have been. He told us that "civil servants did not raise their concerns through the normal procedures. I think that they did not do so because they did not believe that any action would be taken to tackle her [Jo Moore] behaviour". Jonathan Baume clearly had the view that the normal disciplinary procedures, regulatory procedures, within the department did not work with this particular special adviser. Indeed, the Chairman said so, when he asked this question: "What is the point of having formal complaints procedures if they do not work, and in particular with this specific case?"
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You asked me earlier—and I am not sure I ever got to the answer—about the lessons to be learned from this. One of the aspects of this episode that gives me pause for thought is that people had grievances that clearly they felt they did not have a way of having addressed other than by the possibly improper way of leaking. I think that it is quite important that we should have proper avenues of redress for people who feel that strongly. In the context of legislation in the current discussion, Chairman, that we want, I would like to consider whether there are ways in which we can make the grievance procedures more effective, whether we can find ways of having more accessible arrangements for people. I did myself talk to someone quite informally a while ago through being involved on this, and said, "Why did you not come to me? Why did you not come to the Civil Service Commissioners? They were there." This person said, "That would be nuclear", and I can see that. But if people feel that the grievance procedure is nuclear then that is not good enough. We want something that can actually work, and I would like to consider, for instance, whether the role of the Civil Service Commissioners could be made more effective.

  406. It is the problem that governments have had with whistle-blowers in a sense over decades probably, to find a sensible way for the Civil Service management to sort this out.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) We can have this discussion. I do not know for sure what the answer is. I can think of ways in which we could perhaps have something that was more accessible to people in this situation than that at the moment. I would like to do that. If you are going to say to people, "the way you behave is improper", you have to have an alternative which would be proper which they could adopt.

  407. Has the management board considered this? Have you talked to Jonathan Baume about this case and what it has thrown up? Baume's view was that it was, in his words, "an extraordinary failure of the system". That was how he felt about it.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Certainly he is one of the people I want involved in any discussion of this kind.

  408. One of the things we discussed last week was Alan Evans, the press officer in the DTLR. Richard Mottram told us that Evans was not the sort of person the Secretary of State wanted in the job. Jonathan Baume told us then that Mr Evans was indeed forced to move because of problems with the special adviser. We did ask you about this once before and you told us he was not forced out of his job but moved as part of his career development. I wondered if you had had a chance to look at it again.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, I stand by what I said before, which reflected the discussion I had with Richard Mottram. I notice that Richard Mottram gave you a very full and frank account on page 12 of his evidence, and I think that sounds an accurate account. What I said before, and I am not going to repeat it unless you want me to, was that I had had discussed this with the Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, and the question of Alan Evans moving from his job was in play before the events we are discussing. That is what Sir Richard Mottram says: "He is an able man and he also naturally wants to go further. A number of us had the view that his career would need to broaden out at some reasonably early point." That is exactly what I see Richard Mottram was saying to you.

  409. Mottram told us that the Secretary of State effectively could not get on with him and that he was the wrong person for the job.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You have got Richard Mottram's account: "So it was a career move for him?" Richard Mottram: "It was." Let us stand back and look at the more interesting aspect of this, I think, which is the role of ministers in some appointments. Can I just remind you, and be tedious, Chairman, and read again the stuff from the past. I have just read the Fulton Report in 1968.


  410. Things are getting desperate, are they not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) No, that is not a sign of desperation. I frequently—much more frequently than you think—go into the Fulton Report. It has been a seminal document in the Service for 30 years.

  411. It will be Haldane next.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I read him too. I think we are moving away from Haldane—quite interesting. "A related issue", said Fulton, "is the extent to which a minister should be free to change the staff immediately surrounding him. Because of the nature of the private secretary's duties he must be personally acceptable to his minister. There should, in our view, be no obstacle in the way of a minister selecting from within the department or on occasion more widely within the Service as his private secretary the individual best suited to his ways of working. No stigma should attach to a person who is moved out of his job. It should be more exceptional for a minister to change his permanent secretary. Ministers change often whereas the running of a department requires continuity. Even so, ministers should not be stuck with permanent secretaries who are too rigid or tired." The point I am making is that I think a Head of Information nowadays is in the category of people who are particularly important to a minister. In those days, which is Fulton, which you think was a golden era of the running of the Service, a Royal Commission was clearly of the view that for a minister to have a view about people immediately around him where chemistry mattered was a perfectly proper thing, and I think that is still the case.

  412. Also we are talking about a department, the press department, where in a few months ten officers out of 30 have moved or left in one way or another.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) How many months is it? About 12 months, is it not?

  413. Is that characteristic of the Service?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes.

  414. Do you have officers moving all the time?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) In my experience people on the whole do jobs for two to three years and then want to move on, particularly if they are ambitious and particularly if they are working in an area where they are in much demand. So if you have people moving every two or three years you would not be surprised if ten out of 30 move in a year.

  415. I am still puzzled by how individual civil servants who, through no fault of their own, for reasons to do with some political mix of the day, get their names suddenly before Committees like us and we ask impertinent questions, how they can defend themselves if the system does not work and when it does not work sensationalism would work, like with Mr Sixsmith who was a proper fully subscribed civil servant. I think it would be helpful to have more clarity about what would happen next time, what should happen next time and this sort of thing. Again, it has happened before in this Department. How would somebody with that complaint deal with it next time knowing what has happened this time? Would they go and see Sir Richard Mottram?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I would like him to go and see Sir Richard Mottram. I would like him very much to go and see Usha Prashar or one of her Civil Service Commissioners.

  416. That is what they should do?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) That is what they should do, yes. It is laid down. Yes, that is what I would like to see but I would like to feel that we have made it as easy for people to do that if they want to do it as we could.

  417. Do you regret that with the developing trend of civil servants appearing before this Committee, and having responsibility for all sorts of things which they did not have responsibility to answer for not so long ago, the parallel doctrine of when Ministers should resign does not seem to have developed in quite such a helpful way? The Secretary of State on this occasion was able to go into the House of Commons and because he was able to secure the support of his backbenchers it did not matter what he said. He did not answer questions in the way that you and Sir Richard Mottram are forced to do in this cross-examination situation. It seems monstrously unfair if the real responsibility is with somebody who does not have to answer questions in an inquisitorial way and those people who are vulnerable in this to a certain extent, the civil servants, do.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) We appear, of course, on behalf of Ministers, as the Chairman frequently complains in relation to me. Can I just point out to you that the convention is often misunderstood about Ministers resigning. There was an article by a man called Professor Finer in 1956 about the circumstances where Ministers have to resign. Basically what Professor Finer said was that Ministers resign when they lose the confidence of the Prime Minister or of their backbenchers. So the situation you have just described is an absolutely classic one in those terms.

  418. Blast. I remember there was a Minister appointed in the morning, there was a row in the afternoon and he resigned in the evening.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes.

  419. Things have changed a lot since then. Can I try and see if you will express a personal opinion on two of the subjects which we have discussed. Would you like to see personally as part of an Act or however a cap on the number of special advisers? Sir Richard Mottram was content there should be.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am content that there should be. What I particularly like though is the role that it would give Parliament. I think the issues we are discussing are increasingly ones which should be settled politically within Parliament, not in the Cabinet Secretary's room, and not done, as it were, off stage. I think that Parliament and the sort of power that you are describing is one which would require Parliament by regulation to set the cap and I think that has a lot to be said for it.

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