Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)



  240. He has had to come to us to talk to you.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) This is a very powerful process. If I may say so, you are underestimating yourselves.

  241. We are trying to find out from you what is going on.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I cannot express myself more clearly.

  Mr Trend: Okay; I surrender.

  Chairman: I am struggling with the idea that we are all Walt Disney characters.

Mr Lyons

  242. Sir Richard, you make the point that you have to come along in this public arena and defend this situation.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, absolutely.

  243. But the sub-text surely is that you can suffer this for an hour and a half and it is finished.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) One of the interesting things in public life is that everybody assumes that other people are more powerful than they are. This happens throughout Government. I will not bore you with this but it is true. One of the things, I assure you, that is very powerful in Government is the prospect of being summoned before a Select Committee. In the case of the Public Accounts Committee, the threat of appearing before the PAC is something which I think has had a profound impact on the whole culture of public administration in this country. It is not the occasion to develop this, Chairman, I know; I will not stray, but it is an important point. I think the Public Administration Select Committee has built rather a good reputation for itself. Appearing before you on television with our friends from the media sitting here and heaven knows who behind is a very powerful sanction. I do not think it is just an hour and a half of just taking it like that.


  244. You have not come to be nice to us, have you?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Not particularly.

Mr Lyons

  245. In truth you will make some estimate, along with other civil servants, about whether it is better to go for an hour and a half of having a hard time or just giving the information. That is the balance you are trying to make.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is not taken lightly. It is not just appearing before you, though, as I say, that is a powerful sanction. It is the publication of a report by Sir Michael, it is the publication of his press report, it is the debate on the floor of the House, it is the fact that whatever he says will have ripples for a period of time. I think the case that I am attempting to put to you and to persuade you of is that there is a case to be made that privacy within areas of Government is one that has to be debated and debated openly. That is not taken lightly because it is quite a challenge.

  246. If it is such a challenge why do you not face up to the Home Office and say that a seven-month delay is totally unacceptable?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Do you want to talk about the delay, Mr Gieve?
  (Mr Gieve) I was going to make two points on the earlier question. The truth is that it would have been far easier for me just to say whatever the number was. My Ministers were not worried about it. There was no reason to think that they were going to be targeted by further questions. It was because this was a collective issue we had every reason to think that this was a test case, we knew that if we gave the number then every department had to give the number and then it would be followed up by further questions so we thought it necessary to take a collective view.

  247. Was that a collective issue or a collective decision?
  (Mr Gieve) That was a collective issue, yes, and we represent the Government in this.

  248. So the Ministers agreed collectively not to release it?
  (Mr Gieve) My Minister certainly did and so did the Prime Minister.

  249. That was not my question. Did the Ministers agree not to release the information?
  (Mr Gieve) I do not know how many Ministers. It was the Prime Minister and my Ministers and all the other Ministers who answered the first PQ, which was all except Clare Short.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) What we are saying is that we are talking on behalf of Government, yes.
  (Mr Gieve) Can I just say about the seven months, I agree that seven months is a long time and I think this is Michael's main complaint, that the delays have been so long and I very much regret seven months. We started consulting in April and various things happened in between April and our final response, including an election, the summer recess and September 11. None the less, of course, we should have tried to do it quicker.

  250. You can see Sir Michael's point. The Department must feel marginalised if you fail to respond properly to normal inquiries.
  (Mr Gieve) I think this was an exceptional inquiry. It was exceptional in our response and I think it was an exceptional inquiry.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I regret it very much if the PCA's Department felt marginalised. I would also like to feel that if the PCA felt that unhappy that he could come and talk to me. It is not our wish that he should feel marginalised, or his staff. As I said earlier, we do regard the work that he and his office do as very important and its further development is absolutely crucial.

  251. Can I turn to one other point in Sir Michael's annual report? He cites the whole question of a bad habit that seems to be developing among some of the departments of calling for exemptions at the very last part of an investigation rather than very early on. Why has that happened?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think that relates to either of the cases in here. It was a Valuation Office case. Whatever case it was, I do not know the answer to that.
  (Mr Gieve) Can I add that on these cases, especially on the Hinduja case, exactly the reverse has happened. We claimed an exemption under one of the exemptions. Michael replied `that he might have accepted the case under a different one'; but we did not then write him another letter saying, "Oh, in that case we will re-claim it under a new exemption" because he does not like us changing our case.
  (Sir Michael Buckley) That would have been valid only at the time.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is also the case on the Bedford case that when he approached me about the access point, or whatever the technical term is, I could have argued that the PCA's jurisdiction under the 1967 Statute does not extend as it happens to the part of the Cabinet Office in which Mr Mandelson was working. I considered that and rejected it immediately on the grounds that I did not wish to be obstructive and it was not good at that late stage to introduce that argument. On the evidence of these two cases it is not a universal problem.

  252. People will argue what causes the delay—departmental problems, political problems—but there is no acceptable answer surely when people just fail to respond to correspondence, and that repeats itself in the annual report. People fail to reply, departments fail to reply. What are you doing about that?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is an issue of resources in part. That is another thing which needs to be remembered in talking about the more general issues. It is not the big issues which get delayed because people find the time to deal with big issues. It is the issues which are, and this is not meant pejoratively, below the level of the big issues where it is quite difficult to see a way through: those are the ones that tend to take time and to get held up. The other thing which is a problem is getting hold of information. This will be one of the real problems of freedom of information. One of the challenges for us is getting the information in a form in which it can be published to sufficient quality to be sure that it is not going to be either misleading or inaccurate. That is the real issue and that is really where a lot of the time is taken.

  253. Could we interest you in the work of the delivery unit?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes. You will be doing that later today if you ever release us.


  254. When you took the decision in the Robathan case did you, when you were weighing these balances, which was not your job to do but it was the Ombudsman's job to do, did you weigh in the balance the damage that was going to be done to the authority and credibility of the Code and of the Ombudsman when you came to that view?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes. First of all, I think there is a balancing for us to do in terms of the guidance. Secondly, we did not like doing it at all. Governments want to accept the Ombudsman's view and they have made it clear that in the vast majority of cases they will and indeed do accept them. The view was taken that there was a sufficiently important principle in this case to make the point and to politely take a different view from the Ombudsman.

Mr Prentice

  255. There are two issues for me: the delays, which are appalling and you must feel really bad about that, and also the whole question about what happens in private offices. I take your point, Sir Richard, that people in private offices are not archivists. They have to deal with the day to day business of Government. But Peter Mandelson had to go, did he not, because of the dispute about whether a telephone conversation took place and there was no record of it in his private office. How have things changed since then in the private offices in how you deal with business?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) This is what I am trying to refer to. I take what you say very seriously. I do not want to sound too much like somebody who is leaving, but when I joined the Service, which was before photocopiers, files were kept in good order. You could see what had happened on them and quite a lot of resource and effort went into keeping them. I think we are now a long way from that. A number of things have happened. One of them is photocopying where the volume of paper has increased massively and everybody has a way of scribbling on their own copy of a photocopy. To have a file which has all the relevant documents on it is more challenging although we have not greatly increased resources for it. Secondly, technology has meant that e-mails are now very important. As everyone knows, e-mails are a very different way of doing business from either an oral conversation or a properly written document. People use language differently. I have a real worry that fairly important decisions get taken in e-mails which are actually a fairly ephemeral medium. I have quite a worry about public records in that area. I have talked to people in the Public Record Office and to the person in the Cabinet Office who deals with these things and we are addressing that issue. My third point, on which I cannot give you figures but I am fairly certain is true, is that the volume of business is growing very rapidly. In 1997, when the Labour Government came to power, the number of letters received by No. 10 doubled to a quarter of a million. It is now very nearly at half a million for this current calendar year. The number of parliamentary questions from the House of Lords has very nearly doubled in the last few years. What I am trying to say is that if one sat down and did a proper review the volume of business is growing. Finally, the spirit of the age is to do a lot more on the telephone or orally and not to record it. That is the world we live in. The combination of these factors seems to me to be leading to a world in which it is far more difficult always to be confident, and this does come out on the Bedford case, that the papers are kept in good order and that they will be available when you need them and that conversations have been recorded properly than it has been in the past. This is something that I think is a genuine worry about openness that we need to address because it is going to get in the way of what we are trying to do.

  256. I understand all that and I understand what you have just said, but if Peter Mandelson were to be brought back into Government again—who knows—and a similar set of circumstances were to apply, then the private offices would deal with the issue differently. That is what I am trying to get at, that the calls would be logged. Mike O'Brien had a clear recollection of a telephone conversation but there was nothing on paper. I just want reassurance from you that lessons have been learned on that.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Of course. I can give you the reassurance which you seek that the Hammond inquiry recommendations on this have been accepted, are being implemented, the guidance has been put around Whitehall and so on. What I am really saying to you is that I am still quite worried about the issue you are raising.


  257. Just on that before we leave it, and I know we are all over the place, we are on to something that is really very important. As you were saying yourself, we had the Hammond inquiry, chapter 9 of which is entirely on the working of private offices, and the fact that the records were just not there. He set up an inquiry the records were not there and then the Ombudsman comes along, wants to look at the same papers that this inquiry has just looked at, such as they exist, and presumably have brought them all together, and finds that they are still not there in any kind of coherent form.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) This is interesting. Can I bring in Mr Gieve? It is illuminating from the point of view of what you are saying.
  (Mr Gieve) Why were the papers not together in the files when Michael's member of staff came to inspect them? I have talked this through and I got all the papers myself and looked at them. There is a large file, about a foot and a half of papers on the Hinduja cases in our nationality section in Liverpool, and I asked the same question: surely on this file of all files they ought to be kept together. Just to explain what actually happened, the person who was in charge of this file said, "Throughout the beginning of the year we were being asked almost daily for photocopies of various documents on this file, especially of e-mails and submissions, and for ease we took them off the Treasury tag and we kept some of them in a loose-leaf folder next to the file in the same security cabinet because it gave us more convenient access." When the Ombudsman wanted to inspect them and rang up he did not want to go to Liverpool; he wanted to see them in Croydon. They said, "Do you want the registered file or all the papers?", and he said, "I think the registered file will be enough", so they sent him the registered file. He then looked at it in Croydon and did not find all the papers he was expecting. He did not have anyone to talk to, otherwise I expect he would have said, "Are there any others because they are not all here?", but he did not say that because he was doing it in Croydon and he just sent it back and a couple of months later we get a report from Michael saying our files were in disorder. This is very regrettable and new instructions have gone out and all the papers are being kept on the file on the tag now for this case and other cases, but this was not a conspiracy to hide things, all of which had been published in the Hammond report. It was sheer pressure of work and administrative convenience and a cock-up in what was sent out to Croydon.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) If I may add without wishing to make too much of a point, it would have saved time if the person looking at the file had rung them up and said, "Come on, this cannot be right. There must be more papers than this."

  258. This becomes more bizarre in the telling, does it not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is everyday life.

  259. It is everyday life in Whitehall.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) And in, I would guess, the offices of a lot of people round the room.


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 25 July 2002