Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 80-99)

THURSDAY 13 MARCH 2003

SIR ANDREW TURNBULL KCB CVO

  80. It is good to see leadership. Obviously, you have programmes for ethnic minorities; are you making progress there?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) We are making progress there. Partly it is a question of recruitment, but, if you take the Civil Service as a whole, it recruits people from the ethnic minorities more or less in proportion to the population as a whole, but this is very heavily skewed towards the junior grades, so a lot of the people that we want to bring on actually are with us already. And I think we recognise that we need special programmes to identify people with the talent, to give them special help. There is a Cabinet Office programme which people from ethnic minorities join. They give them some additional training, they give them coaching and a mentor. Increasingly, a number of departments have set up their own schemes in parallel to this, to supplement them. The other feature is this whole question of outreach, going out to schools and universities beyond the traditional recruiting grounds. We have a summer placement programme, where people come in from ethnic minorities and they work during the summer vacation. Now we are beginning to see progress. We have had two people who came on this programme, saw the Civil Service, saw it in a completely different way from the way they had before, then applied, and have got in. And I think this is something that really I would like to deliver up a good deal more.

  81. Can I refer perhaps just particularly to the women's situation. There have been some rather high-profile cases in the private sector, and in the City in particular, even the Stock Exchange, I think, of women having difficulties with their male colleagues, or their male colleagues having difficulties with them, and perhaps culminating in official complaints. Do you have any issues of official complaints at a fairly high level in the Senior Civil Service about how women feel they are treated?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Not at the permanent secretary level. I think we get on pretty well, actually. My women colleagues give as good as they get, and they are very good colleagues. We have not had such a case; it is possible we could. There was a famous case in Australia, you know. If it can happen there, it can happen here, but so far it has not. But I am not going to say we can never get into a position where on a gender basis there were some serious professional difficulties; but it has not happened recently.

  82. I think you did say, earlier on, that one of your early tasks actually was working on the culture, so is that an aspect that you have been working on?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes. Going back to Treasury experience, we had a programme of compulsory training on diversity awareness. Gordon Prentice may think we should do this all in-house, but, anyway, we hired some consultants, and they came in and illustrated, through re-enacting a number of workplace situations, how people can make assumptions about people, often unwittingly give offence. I think people have benefited quite a lot from that.

Chairman

  83. Thank you for that. Why are the figures for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on diversity so appalling and so out of line with the rest of government; is that a cultural problem?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) There is a cultural problem. There is a career problem, because of moving people around all over the world and it is quite difficult to move two partners, whether it is men or women, but it has been done. People have found ways of moving both partners, but in a world in which both partners increasingly are working, it is more difficult. There is also a question of culture. Remember the event when they recalled all the Ambassadors. The Prime Minister came and addressed them. There was a question from the floor from one of the women there, expressing the view that more needed to be done, and Michael Jay will fully admit that more needs to be done.

  84. When we had some leading, in fact, the leading, public sector head-hunters here, the other day, they said, in passing, that they had noticed that routinely now, in a range of public organisations, when they ran a recruitment process and a man and a woman came through at the end, broadly comparable, they were appointing women. Do you think that practice is one which the Civil Service should adopt, or does it raise difficulties for you?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) They were saying that, we, in the Civil Service?

  85. No. They were saying they had noticed, in a number of public bodies that they were recruiting for, that it had become the routine practice now, when you had a man and a woman come through a recruitment process and they were broadly of the same standard, routinely now the bodies were appointing the woman. And we tested that argument out with Dame Rennie Fritchie, a week or two ago, on the merit test, and she promised to go away and think about it, and I wondered what you thought about it?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Well I think I will wait for the evidence, actually. I do not immediately recognise it as happening. It may be their perception, it may be it is right. Certainly there is no instruction. On the other hand, there is an objective to increase the representation of women on public bodies to 40% by 2004-05. So it is the case that you have to look hard and make sure that, if you are recruiting, say, three board members to replace people who are retiring, the field that you get has an adequate representation of women in it, otherwise you are not going to be able to make any progress towards this objective.

  86. So it would be perfectly proper to give preference to a woman at the end of a recruitment process, in order to increase the representation of women?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The discussion I had with Rennie Fritchie in the case I was involved in was, if this is a body where representativeness is part of the business that it is in, you can specify that you have got to recruit people who are representative. Now gender is one of the dimensions of this, but not the only one; it could be that you were looking also for people who are representative geographically. But I think her argument was, "If you're going to do that, it has to be part of the specification," so that you are recruiting against a known standard and known objective, for a known purpose.

  87. Sorry to pursue this, just to finish it off. Is representativeness part of the business that the Civil Service is in?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is why we have the targets. We believe in diversity. There is a kind of business case for diversity, that we have got to get talent from where we can get it; but also there is a kind of legitimacy case, that we serve the public, are paid for by the public, so we cannot appear to be an organisation that they recognise, they just think, is completely different.

Mr Hopkins

  88. It is a rare opportunity to ask questions of someone at the highest level of government, at the heart of government, so I would like to ask an important general question. When I read documents and speeches with words like "reform, partnership and modernisation, strategic focus, scrutiny', or whatever, I do not understand them, it sounds like Orwellian new-speak to me, and I want to know what really it is all about. Is this simply a disguise for a hard ideology, to which our Government is committed, at every level, and which would not really be very popular with the population if it were explained in simple terms?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No. I think, fundamentally, it is about improving public services and building public services around the people for whom they are being provided, and not in the interests of the people who provide them. Now that is a very noble purpose, there is nothing hard-nosed managerial about that. Some of the methods you use in order to get to that objective, business plans and targets and monitoring, and so on, are highly managerial, but the objective is far from it. It is about quality of service, it is about equity, there are some lofty ideals in there.

  89. I may say that I do not really accept that. What seems to come out of this, the whole direction of government over a couple of decades, is breaking up the public services into units, marketising, privatising, and moving towards a world where democratic government and democratic control, if you like, of society, in any sense, is being severely diminished. Is that fair?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No, not really. We have been through a phase in the eighties and the nineties where the debate was, what are the boundaries of the public sector, what are those services that should be public services and what can be passed over to the private sector, so that those organisations deliver these services direct to the public, possibly the regulator overseeing it, eg electricity, gas, water, transport. A whole host of them, including some pure market things like British Airways. That debate largely has run its course. It is not necessarily absolutely finished but largely it has run its course. The stage we are at, at the moment, is we have defined now those things which are public services, health, education and law and order, care of the elderly, and so on. But if something is a public service, in other words, funded by government, where the rights of access, the entitlements, are defined by government, nevertheless, you have a choice as to whether the government provides those services by using its own employees and its own organisations, or whether it buys them in, under a contractual relationship with someone else. Now you could say that is what the universities have been like for centuries; they provide a public service, they are not owned by government, they are not government employees, but we make money available to them and in return they provide services to students. That is how, for 50 years, the GP service has been run; general practitioners are not employees of the state, they are private contractors, but they enter into contracts and we provide them with money. Now you have a discussion now as to whether that principle can be extended into new areas. The Chancellor's speech, at least the first two-thirds of his 11,000 words, is trying to get down to what are the principles on which to decide whether you want to deliver a service using your own staff and your own organisations, or whether you will do it by entering into a contract with someone else. It is quite a difficult read, but it is trying to get to this profound issue.

  90. It is called privatisation, I think, essentially.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No, it is not privatisation. Are you saying that the GP service is privatised; the GP service is not privatised, it is contractual, it works by a combination of a contractual relationship plus professional ethics, so that self-employed people provide a service on behalf of the state and are paid for it. Now the question is can the same logic apply to hospitals? That is what the debate is about; now it is not for me to say which is the right answer, politics are going to sort that out.

  91. I accept what you say, that the public sector, in a very few years' time, could almost not exist, and government will have a job merely—
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is not true, that is just not true.

  92. Merely have a job of just handing out contracts. It was suggested that local authorities, in a few years' time, might simply have a job of handing out contracts, and that is all, meet once a year to hand out contracts, and that is all they would do. This is not what we understand, I think, historically, as public services. We have got an example, railway privatisation, where actually it is starting to reverse, because the contractual relationship has been so disastrous, we have seen already the Reading district of rail maintenance being taken in-house by Network Rail, and more of that is going to happen. And, indeed, an article from the Financial Times says "public sector runs contracts better" in terms of IT, it is the public sector doing rather better in running contracts than the private sector.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) But do you mean running the contract or operating the contract?

  93. I will finish on that question. When I came to this place first, six years ago, people used to say to me, from time to time, "You're very off message," I was not quite sure what they meant by that, but sometimes I questioned directions the government was taking. In the core of central government, at the highest level, where you are, is there scope for flies in the ointment, people who question whether the direction is right and whether, in fact, this drift towards what I think I see as the Americanisation of our society, particularly in the Health Service, are there people there questioning and challenging, to say, "Well, let's have a real intellectual debate"? Or are they told, "No, no; we're not going to go off message, we want people who are signed up to the new liberal agenda, to the Americanisation of the Health Service," etc?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) This debate about the Health Service is vibrant, I detect no sense of it being suppressed at all. So clearly there is room for different views.

  94. One question. I understand from the newspapers, yesterday, or today, that it is going to be suggested that even foundation hospitals, if they come into existence, and I hope they do not, might be called "companies". Could we not see, in a few years' time, an Americanised hospital system, an American Health Service which costs twice as much as our Health Service as a percentage of GDP, and only looks after the rich; is that what we are moving towards?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is certainly not the Prime Minister's plan, because his starting-point is that, the Health Service, more or less, is fully tax-funded; charges are a tiny proportion of the total. Access is determined by policy, and therefore the question is, who is the provider of it. Entitlement to the Service is determined as a matter of policy, and therefore it is not an American kind of minimalist system whereby if you are well-off you make provision privately and the state runs a safety network. As I understand it, that is not the Government's policy, it is not the Prime Minister's policy. And the debate is, having determined that health care is available and is available free, who then actually provides it, subject to those conditions. This is a vibrant political debate, and obviously you are in one part of this spectrum and there are other people that are in a different part of it.

  95. One simple question. I understand there are rumours of something, I think you call it co-financing, or whatever, essentially bringing in direct charges for health services, in time. Are we not just one step away really from going towards a privatised Health Service?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I do not think the foundation hospital debate has anything to do with co-financing. It is taken as given that Health Service funding, and access to it, is as it has been; and it is confined to the issue about whether these are NHS-owned hospitals. I think the first foundation hospitals will be, I think it has been agreed that they will be part still of the NHS family. However, because they are the three-star hospitals which have earned a degree of autonomy, they will be subject to a lower degree of regulation, given more freedoms; but they are still public sector hospitals. That was the agreement reached a few weeks ago.

Chairman

  96. This is fascinating stuff, and I have got colleagues who want to come in, and I am going to let them, because I want to hear what you say. But can I just ask you, as someone who worked for Mrs Thatcher as her private secretary for a while, you were giving Kelvin an account of how you saw the narrative over a long period, do you think we are talking about ideological continuity or ideological departures?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The interesting thing is that we tend to see this privatisation debate as something exclusive to the UK. It went on through large numbers of countries, Australia, New Zealand, North America. It left certain parts of Europe by, but it was by no means an exclusive UK development. We may have been in there first, but the privatisation process and its related thing, private finance initiative, has been developed very substantially by other countries. We have this kind of insular view of it, as though it were only a narrow debate about Thatcherism.

  Chairman: I think you may have answered another question; but I will ask Gordon.

Mr Prentice

  97. It was Kevin's line of questioning that prompted this. Those functions which properly belong to the state, there is a review going on at the moment, and you will be familiar with all the details, to contract out perhaps the management and storage of files held by the Department for Work and Pensions. Millions and millions of citizens and their sensitive, personal details, held currently by civil servants, and yet, if this goes through, they may be contracted out to commercial organisations. My question is this, would you be satisfied that the security of these files could be guaranteed just by a few clauses in a commercial contract with a commercial organisation?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I do not think this breaks any new ground. Lots of departments have their files off site, managed by commercial companies. Inland Revenue has its major contract with EDS, currently up for recompetition, involving the confidentiality of records.

  98. This is all new to me. I did not realise that a lot of confidential stuff about me, presumably, is held by commercial organisations that are contracted with central government. A lot of people will find that worrying.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Let me give you another example. I think it is the case that assessments for disability benefit are contracted out, so they are conducted by private sector organisations. So this is quite intimate, confidential information about you, your health, your disabilities.

Brian White

  99. And look at the problems they have got, the people who assess the medical health records?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) As I said, we are not crossing this divide for the first time. Clearly, if you do enter into a contract with a private sector organisation, you do have to insist on the highest degree of confidentiality. You may say, "Well, GPs, they're in the private sector, they hold very confidential information."


 
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