Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 385)



  Q380  Chairman: Surely there is a difference because the politicians take the flak. They are the publicly elected figures and they are fair game for everything. They want to vindicate themselves and answer back against colleagues. The deal with the Civil Service though is that they get anonymity but ministers get loyalty. That is the nature of the invisible contract, is it not? If we depart from that—you want to reassert the old conventions that have broken down—we are in deep trouble, are we not?

  Clare Short: My argument is that the old conventions have broken down and therefore all the books are coming out. I agree with what Lord Owen said. You delving into this unleashes this   other monumental argument about our constitutional arrangements. If we could get back to the trust, rules could be made within that trust. There is enormous politicisation. You have Alastair Campbell and the chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, being political appointees. I know there are supposed to be fair rules about promotion for senior officials but, believe you me, the ones who are not wanted are squeezed out. There is a deep politicisation on who is promoted and that is a shift because if you are promoted because you are in with Number 10 as a senior official and increasingly put into the public domain to front things the lines have been blurred. It is no good just having firm, old fashioned lines on memoirs when they are blurred on decision making and public statements.

  Q381  Chairman: Lord Lawson tells us in his memoirs that he was involved in appointments way outside the Private Office. You have a lovely little section about that.

  Clare Short: You have a veto of power. It is much deeper interference now.

  Q382  Chairman: "My personal involvement in Treasury appointments and promotion extended well beyond the Private Office." You go on to talk about individuals and so on. You are quite robust in proclaiming that you had quite a large role in appointments.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: The role was three fold. Two parts have already been mentioned. The Private Office is very important, as is having a Permanent Secretary you can work well with. I was involved with a change of Permanent Secretary at Energy, for example. Then there is the question of the resources you have at your disposal. It is sensible—certainly this is the way I played it—to discuss with the Permanent Secretary which were the most difficult policy issues and how where we could put the ablest people into the difficult areas. It seemed to be common sense. I am sure any enterprise of any kind would do that but it would have to be done with the Permanent Secretary. It was not a question of going behind his back and, say, appointing somebody as a Deputy Secretary.

  Q383  Chairman: It is corrective to the idea that there was some sort of golden age of purity.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: There is a difference between ministers and officials which you very clearly and lucidly set out a moment ago in response to Clare Short. I think that is absolutely right and should remain. I think it is well known that there are a number of officials who are extremely unhappy with the Meyer revelations, with the fingering of politicians in the way that he did in his memoirs, because they realise that if ministers think that officials are going to be fingering them in that way in their memoirs all their reticence hitherto about fingering officials is going to go. If anything, they are probably going to try to get their retaliation in first. This convention did, very properly, protect officials. Officials are now concerned that it may have been weakened as a result of the Meyer book.

  Q384  Chairman: You told us at the beginning that you thought the Radcliffe rules were obsolete. Clare has given us a very strong statement for why, in the heat of the moment, you want to get this stuff out while it is raw and you cannot go through a 15 year wait and the kind of things you were doing, Lord Owen, with Robin Butler back when he was citing 15 years at you. It has a kind of unreal feel to it now. If we are all saying something has changed but we somehow need to put it back together again and to mend these relationships that have broken, the evidence for the break is the memoir field. What we are saying is how on earth do we do it.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: That is what your report is for.

  Clare Short: I have not really studied the Radcliffe rules. Christopher Meyer's description of the way in which the Washington embassy is not functioning in the way it used to is important to our constitutional arrangements. As to Mr Major in his underpants and the rest, I think we could tighten rules on personal abuse. One would have to think about the phrasing. I think his book is important to what is going on and how the system is changing but we could tighten the rules so as not to permit the real spice in it.

  Q385  Mr Prentice: His view is that junior ministers were political pygmies.

  Clare Short: That is abuse too.

  Lord Owen: As I understand it, the Cabinet Secretary did not raise with him or his Permanent Under-Secretary in the Diplomatic Service any of these points. That is just amazing. There is nobody who has gone through this process, I would suggest, who could possibly imagine circumstances when a book like that would not come back. Let us be realistic. If nobody comments on it and you are in the business of writing a memoir, you are not going to say, "I am surprised you did not take this out." The system has broken down and the then Cabinet Secretary has a pretty heavy responsibility for that particular area.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for what has been a very useful session, not that you have had unanimity, but you have brought some very interesting observations to bear on this. As Lord Lawson said, it is up to us to make some sense of them. Thank you very much indeed.

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Prepared 25 July 2006