House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION SELECT COMMITTEE
Thursday 9 February 2006
BARONESS PRASHAR CBE
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on Thursday 9 February 2006
Dr Tony Wright, in the Chair
Mr Gordon Prentice
Examination of Witness
Witness: Baroness Prashar CBE, a Member of the House of Lords, gave evidence.
Q98 Chairman: Let me call the Committee to order and welcome our witness this morning, Baroness Prashar. We are very pleased to have you along; thank you very much for coming. You are here really because you have just ceased to be the First Civil Service Commissioner and you have now gone onto other things. We are currently doing two inquiries where you may be able to help us: one is one that we are calling Ministers and Civil Servants, looking at that whole relationship; the other one is looking at the so-called ethical regulators in government of which the Civil Service Commission is one. We shall probably range in our questioning through these two areas if we may. We have had a memorandum from the Civil Service Commissioners that we are grateful for. Would you like to say anything by way of introduction, or shall we just ask you some questions?
Baroness Prashar: I should like to make a few brief comments, if I may. May I first of all say thank you for inviting me to give this evidence. It is now six weeks since I gave up my role as the First Commissioner but I am glad to be here and happy to share with you my views based on the experience of the last five and a half years. You have had various memoranda from the Office of the Civil Service Commissioners over the last 12 months including the annual report, but by way of introduction I just want to make some brief points which I hope will give you my perspective and analysis, particularly on your inquiry which you entitle Ministers and Civil Servants. My view is that over the years not much attention has been paid to the development of the Civil Service. Insufficient investment in the Civil Service as an organisation in the past, together with a focus mainly on one part of its role, which is working with ministers, has led to an organisation today which is not always able to keep pace with the demands being placed upon it. The capability and the capacity of the organisation are therefore lagging behind and this has been compounded by the fast-changing context in which it is operating. There is now general agreement that there is a need for urgent reform and nobody would dispute that fact. The Committee are fully aware of the reform programme which the Civil Service is currently engaged in. But you are also aware that there are others who have argued that the reform of the Civil Service, on the scale needed, could only be achieved through the appointment of either a more politically partial Civil Service or greater involvement of ministers in appointments to the Civil Service. Some argue that the enduring values of which the commissioners have been custodians are being eroded. I should say that it is they who stand in the way of reform. I believe that it is possible to reform the Civil Service while maintaining its values, its sense of worth and its identity. In that context, I was quite pleased to read the speech which the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, made a couple of weeks ago called The Fusion of Historic Values with 21st Century Dynamism. While it is evident that there is a need to professionalise the Civil Service, to enhance the capabilities such as policy advice, financial information, technology management and to develop other capabilities such as service delivery and project management, there is also a need to change the culture of the organisation to one which is more outward looking, engages with others, delivers through others and sees itself as a dynamic learning organisation. That reform is in my view entirely compatible with the current constitutional position of our Civil Service. What do we need to do? It seems to me that, as this Committee has recommended, if we were to get the Civil Service Act and promote the code, we would then disentangle the constitutional position of the Civil Service from the issues to do with its management and its organisational development. That would actually take away some of the arguments that are there about the erosion of values. If you dealt with that, that would free you to deal with the organisational development of the Civil Service. The current reform is on the right track. Developments like the Professional Skills for Government, the capability reviews and all that seem to be on the right lines now, but it should be accompanied by much more of a cultural change where a lot more investment is made in learning and staff development. Then comes the question of who should be responsible for this, because not much investment has been made historically into the Civil Service. I take the view that the responsibility for the health and the fitness of the organisation should be left to the Cabinet Secretary and the permanent secretaries and they should be held accountable for making sure that the Civil Service is actually fit for purpose to deliver and serve successive governments. That will not be achieved by a politically committed Civil Service: the reverse is to be the case. If you introduce as a quick fix a political layer and think somehow you will deal with some of the problems, that is a rather superficial way of looking at it. What you really need is someone who can take a continuous look at the Civil Service and make sure that it actually remains effective. If you introduce a political layer and people move along with ministers or there is a cadre, then it would cease to offer the best advice. If the test is loyalty and not merit, over time there will be no incentive to develop the organisation. I do think that the values set a standard by which it needs to be done. That is really what I want to set out as my stall. On your second inquiry on ethics, maybe we can get into questions on that, but I should be very happy to answer any questions and elaborate some of the points I have raised with you.
Q99 Chairman: Thank you very much, that was very helpful to kick off in that way. Let me start by asking you this. Someone might say that here we are, we have had the Civil Service Commissioners since the middle of the 19th century because of this attention to propriety and appointments and so on, yet here you come, a century and a half later, having been doing this system, to tell us that the Civil Service essentially is not fit for purpose as it is now. It does rather raise the question of whether we have been worrying about the right thing all this time, does it not?
Baroness Prashar: As you will appreciate, I am not 150 years' old myself. I have not been worrying about it for 150 years but for the last five years. There has been a lot of mythology around about the role of commissioners. By being custodians of the values, what we have been trying to do is to ensure that the right people are appointed; those with the right competences. We have been very concerned about outcomes and that we appoint the right people. When you say that we have not been concerned about the right issues, in a way it is not our responsibility because the fitness of the organisation, what it needs, should have been the responsibility of somebody within the Civil Service. I have said before that since the demise of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, there has been no forum other than your Committee for looking at the Civil Service. The changes which have occurred in the last 20 to 30 years and the context of the fast-changing nature of the world have meant that the organisation has lagged behind the demands placed on it. It has always worked in terms of policy advice, giving advice to ministers, and nobody has paid attention to whether it has all the capacity and the capabilities to do all that it should be doing. Unless somebody does that, we cannot properly engage in appointing the right people. We have attempted over the last five years in my time to engage with the Civil Service, to work with departments, to get to understand them, to see what the nature of the reform agenda is and what their needs are. We have encouraged them to professionalise recruitment, to ask solid questions about what kind of people they are looking for, what kind of teams they are trying to build. If you put in that kind of investment and you professionalise recruitment, you will get the right kind of people; in fact it becomes easier to work with them when the direction of travel is clear. I can say that over the last two and a half years, it really became clear they were looking for professional skills, they were trying to fit in people with human resource capabilities, they were trying to have people with financial capacity, and it then became easier to fill those posts. We have helped to professionalise recruitment, but, at the same time, it is the responsibility of the Civil Service itself to see what it needs. To some extent we have never had a debate about what the Civil Service is for. Once, it was there to give advice; then under the Thatcher era, it was a question of Next Step agencies' delivery and they had to become more business-like. From then the mantra has been delivery, delivery, delivery. The question really to ask, as Sir Andrew Turnbull did, is: what professional skills do you need? You need a high quality policy advice capability, high quality project management, a range of skills. What is the whole menu of skills that you need? Someone needs to define that and you then build a generic capacity in the organisation so that it is fit for purpose.
Q100 Chairman: Back to one of our issues, you can see how ministers coming in - as was clearly the case in 1997, but it was not the first time - have really accepted your analysis. They have said "Here is an organisation which does not have the skill mix, does not have the capacity for what we want it to do. We want to be able to change it quickly and one of the ways we want to change it is by bringing new kinds of people in and by us having more involvement in how that is done". That is a perfectly proper objective is it not?
Baroness Prashar: It is on the face of it a proper objective. However, I do want to take you back. Of course prior to when this Government came to power, the number of civil servants had been reduced and it probably did not have all the capacity to deal with the agenda of the incoming Government. I can tell you now that when I was having a debate, both with the Civil Service and the ministers, when they wanted greater involvement and ministerial choice, I went to talk to some secretaries of state and it was clear to me that they were exercised by the organisation not having the capacities. It was not an issue of politicisation: it was about having the necessary skills. That is why I have come to the conclusion that to get the necessary skills you need to have standards by which you recruit people. So you would not have a quick fix by saying you will bring your own people in. How do you assess that they will be the right people? My argument is that if you want the right people let us professionalise recruitment, let us see what kind of competences you need. In the longer term you give responsibility to permanent secretaries, to make sure that they are actually looking at the development of the organisation, so that it is able to serve successive governments. It is a short-term and a long-term issue and I can see that the horizon of politicians is short and they want things done quickly, but in my view with a quick fix there is a danger of losing something which we all see as a national asset. What I am concerned about and have been concerned about and continue to be concerned about is that it would be a pity to go in for the quick fix and erode the values which have set the standard and which are there to get you the best person to do the job.
Q101 Chairman: Just to give the particular, which you have just mentioned, you had this rumbling argument with ministers and with the Cabinet Secretary too, did you not, about any modifications ---
Baroness Prashar: It was not just one. It started as soon as I became the First Commissioner. It was one of the things on the agenda: let us give ministers a choice. My argument was that we should look at it. Why do you want choice? Yes, we deliberated and that process of deliberation, discussion and to-ing and fro-ing of letters and argument, led to a very good conclusion. In our memorandum, we have given you the arrangements for ministerial involvement, which works well and meets the concerns. In that sense, the outcome was fine.
Q102 Chairman: Let me just ask you this final question. Do you think we still need the Civil Service Commissioners?
Baroness Prashar: I think we do. If you want to maintain the standards, if as a country we say we want an impartial Civil Service, you need someone who can actually be a custodian of those values and in my experience, if you manage to recruit high calibre commissioners, they do add value. Now the permanent secretaries have started to say to me that it is very useful to have an outside person asking critical questions. Therefore we sit on panels at a senior level, not just to see that the proper process is followed, but we also add value and engage with them in discussions. I can talk a bit more freely now and I can tell you that when I first became involved in the recruitment process I found that on the whole it was not very well thought through. It was seen as a process. They would ring up the Civil Service Commissioners and say "We want to fill this post. Here is a job description", literally on the back of an envelope "Who should we have on the panel?". It was not very well thought through. We helped them by encouraging what I call front-loading. When a job comes up, discuss it with a whole range of people. Does it need to change? Involve the ministers and ask what kind of person they are looking for to fill this job. Look at it as a project. They have gone a long way towards ensuring that this added value. Maybe we had to do that because there was no capability within the department and if they adopt that good practice, that is fine. However, I think the role of the Civil Service Commissioners has been valuable and, in my view, probably needs to be enhanced.
Q103 Chairman: The reason I ask the question is that some decent recruitment consultancy could have done what you have just described for government. If it is a question of having independent people on appointment panels, we do that for public body appointments, so that can be brought into the system.
Baroness Prashar: Recruitment agencies do get involved in the process in the sense that they are appointed, they do the search for you. I have to tell you that as commissioners we have to watch that they do not get into unethical practices either, because, in a way, if you are appointing people on merit you are safeguarding the constitutional position of our Civil Service. As long as you want an impartial Civil Service, where appointments are made on merit and competition, you will need a body which can act as a custodian of those values.
Q104 Chairman: What I am asking you is that if we are clear about the nature of the recruitment process and that is visible, transparent, written up and we give permanent secretaries and, in turn, the Cabinet Secretary the duty of making sure that that system works, why then do we need someone else beyond that?
Baroness Prashar: In an ideal world, that would be fine. Things sometimes do go wrong and I am a believer that the Civil Service Commissioners as a regulator should be light touch. My objective has been to inculcate that good practice into the Civil Service. If that happens, that is very desirable because in a way that is professionalising the Civil Service. Sometimes things do go wrong and therefore you need someone who is there to keep an eye on things.
Q105 Julia Goldsworthy: I should like to stay on recruitment for just a while, if that is okay. You have placed a lot of stress on ministers taking the first name they are offered when it comes to Civil Service posts, but in public appointments, ministers have a choice of appropriate suitable candidates. What is the difference? Why should they not be given a choice of appropriate candidates at a Civil Service level?
Baroness Prashar: In my book there should be no difference. I take the view that there should be no choice in public appointments either and let me tell you why I say that. It comes back to professionalising recruitment. If you are delegating recruitment to a panel and you have actually been properly involved in establishing what they should be looking for, the panel should do a proper job for you to give you the candidate that you really want. The difference really here is that the Civil Service is a permanent Civil Service and civil servants stay even when ministers move, there is a different Government or even when there is a reshuffle. For public appointments the logic is that they are short-term appointments, they are Non-Departmental Public Bodies, they are at arm's length and therefore ministers are given a choice. My starting point, as I said to you, is this: if you are going to professionalise recruitment, why should you be given a choice? People are appointed on merit and you say this is the best person for the job against the criteria which have been agreed with the minister from the outset.
Q106 Julia Goldsworthy: The other area I wanted to look at quickly was the new Civil Service code and you chaired the group working on that. You talked earlier about the commissioners' role in upholding values and I just wondered what values you think are being set out in the Civil Service code. Do you think they are reflected in that?
Baroness Prashar: The history of the working party on the Civil Service code, which I chaired, is this. A Civil Service code was produced in 1995 by the Select Committee, which preceded this one. I found that this code was just not being promoted. People were given it but when I did talks at the Civil Service College or to new entrants they were not really aware of the existence of this code. In our evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life when they were looking at boundaries within the executive I recommended that this code should become a living document, something which was an important part of the induction. That was accepted and a working party was set up, which I was asked to chair because the Civil Service Commissioners had been given the responsibility to monitor how the code was being promoted. When I wrote to the departments, I found that there was nothing in place to monitor the code. So a working party was set up to see how this code might be promoted. But when we looked at it, we thought it needed to be revised not in terms of what it says, but to make it more accessible and more readable. This one, if you read it, is very Whitehall-centric and it is written in a language to make you switch off. The one which has been drafted and is out for consultation deals with the same values but is written to make it much more accessible.
Q107 Julia Goldsworthy: It allows civil servants to complain directly up to the commissioners, so I just wondered what kinds of complaints you would expect to be looking into and taking up.
Baroness Prashar: It is difficult to anticipate that, because the normal process currently is that if you have an issue, you have to go through your procedures within your own department and if you are dissatisfied, you come to us. There may be situations where you feel that you cannot go to your department. You may want to come direct, let us say if your complaint were against the permanent secretary himself, or the nominated officer within your department. Then you could come to us. Obviously the commissioners will use their judgment in terms of whether it is right for them to pursue the complaint themselves or send it back and get the department to look at it.
Q108 Julia Goldsworthy: Nick Monck has said that there should be a government code with things like minimum standards for circulation of papers, a fixed amount of time before decisions are taken. I just wondered whether you support that and whether you see commissioners as playing a role in ensuring that those kinds of values are adhered to.
Baroness Prashar: I was very interested in that article. I read it last summer and thought it was very fascinating. It is true that, in my previous life when I was director of National Council for Voluntary Organisations we had looked at governance in the voluntary sector and there had been a lot of debate about governance in the private sector, but what about governance within government? The idea that he promotes is a good one in that this is a process of good decision-making. In a way yes, you want to embed that, but that is good practice. Particularly in the modern time, given that advice now comes in such a myriad of ways, there are think tanks out there, there is a whole range of people outside, it is in the interests of the Government that the Civil Service is used to collect that information, synthesise it, filter it to be able to provide good advice. That process of decision-making means that you deliberate, that you do not actually rush into initiatives based on partial information and that, to me, is good practice and that should be embedded in any organisation, not least government.
Q109 Mr Prentice: Have the Civil Service Commissioners been sleeping on the job?
Baroness Prashar: I should not have said so, looking back on the last five years.
Q110 Mr Prentice: We have had the Butler Report and the Hutton Report absolutely scathing about the way in which decisions are made at the very centre of government but no peep at all from the Civil Service Commissioners. My question is this. Did you know what was going on, sofa-style government? If you did, what did you do about it?
Baroness Prashar: The first thing is that we did not know and this is the frustration of my job. People think Civil Service Commissioners oversee the Civil Service as a whole and its governance. Our involvement as commissioners is purely through recruitment and terms of entry and waiting to get complaints. Unless someone complained to us, we would not know.
Q111 Mr Prentice: You people network, do you not? You must have a sense of what is happening in Whitehall, what the permanent secretaries are talking about amongst themselves. You must do.
Baroness Prashar: You network, but would you want to start making comments on hearsay and gossip? No. What I am saying to you is that we can only act if somebody complains to us. This is one of the reasons I made a recommendation to the Committee on Standards in Public Life that we should be given the power to look into areas of investigation without getting a complaint but that has not been accepted. Why I asked for that power was precisely because of your point and therefore for you to say that we have been sleeping on the job is incorrect. I would not get the full facts until someone complained and, of course, what you read in the papers is what anybody else reads and I should not want to start making comments in public based on innuendo, gossip or what you pick up in the corridors. When I said you want to enhance the powers of Civil Service Commissioners, I should dearly like the commissioners to have a power to initiate inquiries without getting a complaint if there were a whiff that something was not right, and that is the power we do not have.
Q112 Mr Prentice: There must have been a whiff in the corridors of power that the way in which decisions were being made on major decisions like going to war was not being done as it should have been done with the circulation of papers prepared by officials in Whitehall departments. I am just astonished that it did not come to your ears and you waited for formal complaints.
Baroness Prashar: It did come to my ears, but my frustration was that I had no power to start making an inquiry into it. If I may tell you, the one thing which contributed to that process and which is something that we are on record as saying, is that we are not in favour of special advisers being given executive power. We have said that and it is actually an indication that ---
Mr Prentice: That is a slightly different point from the one I was making.
Baroness Prashar: It is not a different point; it is related to some extent. The way business was conducted was to some extent affected by special advisers having executive powers.
Q113 Mr Prentice: Just finally, you told us that you read the paper by Nick Monck last summer and Nick Monck made the point that if the conduct of Cabinet meetings were done on the same basis as the boards of private sector companies, who have to operate in accordance with the code of corporate governance and the Companies Act 1985, it would be a very different kettle of fish. Do you think that the Cabinet and its committees should conduct their business on the same basis as private sector company boards, which is the point he is making?
Baroness Prashar: The point he is making is a process of good decision-making which is open and deliberative. Yes, it would help. I hesitate to say that you should emulate completely the private sector because, in a way, in government there are different sets of accountabilities. You would have to adapt to that but the fundamental point about the good process of decision-making is very important to the quality of decisions that you would get and the quality of government you would get.
Q114 Mr Prentice: Government departments can be reconfigured on the whim of the government of the day and the Conservative opposition have set up this group to look at such things. Do you think the Civil Service Commissioners should have a formal role in some way when the Government decides to abolish a government department or reconfigure Whitehall?
Baroness Prashar: That really should be done very much in consultation with the Cabinet Secretary and the permanent secretaries. To go back to the point I made in my introduction, if you are going to make the Cabinet Secretary and the permanent secretaries responsible for the development of the Civil Service, there should be proper consultation and discussion by government and not announcements made without any consultation with the people who are running the service. It is not a matter for the Civil Service Commissioners.
Q115 David Heyes: You mentioned the use of recruitment consultants earlier. I just wonder whether you could give the Committee a feel for how extensive that is and what role they take. How do they fit in with the work of the commissioners?
Baroness Prashar: These days recruitment consultants are used in a majority of the senior appointments to the Civil Service. To make sure that we meet the criteria of being open and fair, adverts are put in newspapers but also consultants are recruited. They would do the search and then be involved with help in short-listing and so on. We make sure that they are fully aware of the values that we are custodians of so that they do not in any way do things which deviate from fair and open competition and appointing on merit. They do not get involved in interviewing as such. They do preliminary work in terms of seeking out references and talking to candidates and providing background material, but the interviewing is done by a different panel.
Q116 David Heyes: What you are describing is head-hunting to some extent, is that right?
Baroness Prashar: That is right.
Q117 David Heyes: How is that consistent with what is generally called an equal opportunities approach?
Baroness Prashar: It is consistent in the sense that they are not used solely. An advert is put in the newspapers as well and people are searched out. It is open to anybody to apply, but they will search out people as well. If I may say so, that is essential because if you are trying to meet some of the skills gap and deficit in the Civil Service and you are trying to attract people from other sectors, you have to search them out because the salaries in the Civil Service are not keeping pace even with local government and the private sector so you have to seek people out as much as to advertise. It is essential to use them. It does not contradict in any way the principle of equality of opportunities.
Q118 David Heyes: That has not always been the case. This has been a growing practice over recent years.
Baroness Prashar: Yes, it has. In a way it is a growing practice because open competition and going out for recruitment is also a fairly recent phenomenon, which has increased in the last five to seven years.
Q119 David Heyes: You make them aware of the ethical framework which they are to work within.
Baroness Prashar: Indeed.
Q120 David Heyes: What do you do to test out their ethics? The world view that a firm of recruitment consultants brings to the process will influence the field that they look at to head hunt and produce candidates for you. You make them aware of your requirements in terms of the ethical approach, but from a business point of view they will have their own objectives which have some sort of ethical dimension to them. How do you make sure that they are consistent?
Baroness Prashar: The fact that a commissioner will always chair a competition. We keep an eye precisely on those sorts of things and we check out with them how wide their search was, where they searched and what sort of comments they got. In a way, that is what you do.
Q121 David Heyes: How do you do that really? You said earlier that you need to watch that they do not get into unethical practices and obviously that is right. How do you do that? What is the process? Who does it and how rigorous is it? That is what I want to understand.
Baroness Prashar: They are appointed by the departments. The departments are the paymasters of the consultants. A Civil Service Commissioner would chair the whole competition and oversee the whole process. That in itself is a check that nothing untoward happens in the process.
Q122 David Heyes: Let me be more specific and exemplify it. For some of these recruitment firms the recruitment element is just a small part of their overall activity. They have other business interests as well. For instance, some of them are in the field of acquiring contracts for delivering government services as a separate operation from recruitment. How can you be sure that there is nothing unethical going on in terms of influencing the panel, with recruits put forward who come with an inbuilt bias towards their world view, which is to acquire privatised contracts for delivery of government services?
Baroness Prashar: The Cabinet Office has a list of consultants, there is a contract. Obviously it is the job of the panel and assessors to assess the candidate, to deal with the process of interviewing to make sure that they actually meet ---
Q123 David Heyes: But they are only seeing candidates who are placed in front of them.
Baroness Prashar: They are not necessarily placing them; they bring the candidates to us, but the short-listing, the long-listing and the discussion to make sure they meet the criteria are done by the panel. They are not forcing candidates onto us, they are just searching out candidates; the assessment of the suitability of the candidates is actually made by the panel.
Q124 Kelvin Hopkins: I have much sympathy with your basic premise which is that there ought to be a clearer boundary between the Civil Service and the political realm and that special advisers ought to be in the political realm and not in the Civil Service realm. I agree with that very strongly. Do you not think you understated that and have said it rather too late? For too long that process has been developing to a point where special advisers were effectively telling civil servants what to do and we have lost that independence of the Civil Service which you prize so much.
Baroness Prashar: I have not understated it. In terms of the relationship between the special advisers, the civil servants and the ministers, as you know, this was the subject of a very thorough inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and some things have been put in place. What I do think is that one needs a much clearer demarcation in terms of the roles and a respect for the roles. It is not just for the Civil Service Commissioners and the Civil Service, but the ministers and special advisers have to respect the actual rules of engagement and that relationship. When you say that special advisers have been telling civil servants what to do, there can be a slight exaggeration sometimes because only two were appointed who were given executive powers and there is currently only one. In other instances it seems to me that it is the responsibility of the permanent secretary and the minister concerned to make sure that the behaviour of the special adviser is such that he does not in any way compromise the position of the civil servants. I do not understate that, but what is quite key is that there is clarity about their relationship and the role. In some instances, special advisers can play quite a valuable role in terms of their particular perspective. I am not against having special advisers. I have worked with them in my career over the years. In the years gone by, under Harold Wilson's government, there was a whole range of special advisers, when I was doing work on anti-discrimination legislation for example. One sees the value of it. What I should like to see maybe is the quality as well. The difference was that those people had real expertise and they brought something to the table which was valuable. One has to look at the calibre, the quality and how they are appointed and so on and get a good relationship. We cannot make generalised comments about what we think has been happening and so on.
Q125 Kelvin Hopkins: There is a difference between having advisers advising ministers and ministers then instructing civil servants, and having special advisers interposed as a layer between ministers and civil servants. That is the point I am making.
Baroness Prashar: That is not what I should like to see.
Q126 Chairman: Before we lose the point, I was not sure whether you were suggesting, in answering Kelvin then, that you thought the Civil Service Commissioners should have a role in the appointment of special advisers.
Baroness Prashar: No, that is not what I was suggesting.
Q127 Chairman: If you say that there have to be quality improvements to the way that they are appointed, how might that work then?
Baroness Prashar: That would be for ministers; it would be in the ministers' interests to have high-quality special advisers and they should take some time and some trouble to make sure they appoint the right people.
Q128 Chairman: We know that; we know that in a sense as a matter of principle. But if there is a problem in converting the principle into practice, what I am asking you is what we do to make the practice meet the principle.
Baroness Prashar: It is a responsibility for the ministers themselves, because if they want special advisers, they should make sure they appoint the right person. The Civil Service Commissioners should not have a role in the appointment of special advisers.
Q129 Chairman: Should there be any kind of quality test? Should they have to jump some kind of quality hurdle before they are able to become what are effectively temporary civil servants?
Baroness Prashar: If you are looking at a quality hurdle, one would like to see proper criteria for their role, what kind of person you are looking for and the minister concerned should actually go through a process to make sure they get the right person.
Q130 Chairman: And who should say to them "You can't just appoint your friend. This person brings no great qualities to government". Who is the person who is going to say this?
Baroness Prashar: I honestly do not know. To some extent, the political advisers and special advisers who come, come to assist the minister and therefore it is the responsibility of the ministers to make sure that happens and the government ministers themselves should think of a mechanism to do that.
Q131 Chairman: The minister may just want a friend. Government is a pretty friendless place.
Baroness Prashar: Well that is their prerogative.
Q132 Kelvin Hopkins: We have the example of Lord Lawson who wanted, as he put it, the best people to be in his office and he went to great lengths to appoint a lot of people. Would not the best people in his terms be people who agreed with him, particularly on the way he was running the economy, a very distinctive way in the 1980s? Indeed was that not a factor in the economy going wrong at the end of the 1980s? For example, Lord Lawson was known to be very strongly in favour of joining the ERM. Anyone who expressed scepticism about that would no doubt have been marginalised and pushed out of his office. That became an economic catastrophe for Britain and all the civil servants who might have said "Hang on, this is not wise, the pound is over-valued, we might be in for a seriously rocky ride if we do this" had been got rid of. So does it not actually lead to worse government if you have a minister appointing civil servants, surrounding himself with civil servants who reflect his view but will not ever say to him "Sorry minister, I think you have actually got this wrong"?
Baroness Prashar: You have made my point much more eloquently than I did. I absolutely agree with you.
Q133 Kelvin Hopkins: The other point I should make is that I should take a Platonic view. Plato made a very clear distinction, a long time ago but it is still relevant today, that politicians were men of gold, civil servants were men of silver. I am afraid it was always men in those days and not women. The third layer was the lower orders, the people who made money. We have blurred the distinction at one end between the politicians and civil servants, which is not a good idea, but on the other side, we have also blurred the distinction between the Civil Service and Mammon - money and commerce. Has that not been even more damaging to the Government?
Baroness Prashar: If you are asking whether we should bring more people with business acumen into the Civil Service, this is an area where there is muddled thinking. There is a view that you want the Civil Service to be more businesslike which is a short form for saying that you are looking for a certain set of qualities in the way the Civil Service should operate. That is why we need to look at how to professionalise it by defining better the qualities and competencies it needs to deliver, to manage projects and so on. To say we need to bring in people with commercial interest is not enough. The boundaries are shifting and you need different skill sets. The problem, if you bring people into the Civil Service with those skill sets, is that you have to make sure that they understand that it is different working in government from working in the commercial sector.
Q134 Kelvin Hopkins: There is a saying that you do not have to jump into the Thames to get a drink of water. You do not actually have to be part of commerce to understand how it works, and in fact the best intellects in the country in the past have gone into the Civil Service. They understand how business works. They do not need to be part of it. You talked right at the beginning about civil servants being objective and impartial; I should say they should be driven by the public service ethos and have no conflict of interest. Is that not being broken now, that tradition that the public interest is what drives them and that they are separate from and do not have commercial interests? Is that not being broken down and is that not one of the causes of the problem?
Baroness Prashar: I agree with you that you need a public sector ethos; there certainly should be no conflicts of interest. That is absolutely true and that is what the Civil Service code is about and it is one of the reasons why I have been very keen to see that the Civil Service code should become a living document. Some people have argued that, if you bring more people from the outside into the Civil Service, you are going to erode the values. We took certain steps to counter that: when we send the job description out to candidates, the Civil Service code is appended. At the end of each interview I would ask questions about what joining the Civil Service and becoming a civil servant would actually mean in practice. I have been very keen for people who want to come into the Civil Service to be given a proper induction about its values and by making the code a living document with values that are lived in the day-to-day deliberations; it is not something you read and put aside. That is why inculcating values is very important and this is no different from what any other organisation does. I agree with you that the public service ethos and conflicts of interests are to be guarded against to make sure that you do not get a Civil Service which becomes frayed at the edges for some of the reasons that you outlined.
Q135 Kelvin Hopkins: My one last question. You mentioned Civil Service salaries and the kind of money which can be made in commerce outside. Is a civil servant not bound to be influenced by the thought that they can make a lot of money when they leave the Civil Service and join industry afterwards? Is that not a problem for us today?
Baroness Prashar: It is an issue and that is why it is important that the Civil Service salaries keep pace; I am not saying that they can fully compete. In terms of going outside after you leave the Civil Service into the business world, yes, there would be incentives. However, as you know, there is another committee on business appointments which has been regulating the exit and therefore those issues have to be handled with care to make sure that there are no conflicts of interest and that the way people operate is not contaminated while they are civil servants.
Q136 Paul Flynn: The civil servant traditionally, following the ethos of the Civil Service, could look forward to retiring at a relatively young age, living with a decent pension and having the consolation that he would possibly have the chance of a decoration, a gong, but no chance of a second job. Is it not the fact now that anyone - people are younger now at 60 - can look forward possibly to another 20 years of working life? Is it not inevitable that they can be influenced by the possibility that they will have a retirement job which is worth more than they earned in their lifetime and that they should organise their career accordingly? They should go for jobs, not necessarily at the head of the Civil Service, but, say, in procurement where there is huge demand for people who are in procurement and the whole of the ethos has been undermined by the need for people to organise a lucrative retirement job. Is that not the reality of what is happening and has that not increased greatly recently, particularly with defence jobs?
Baroness Prashar: There is indeed a danger of that and it is for that reason that there is the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments which has been looking at this and in my experience, it has worked well. I know that after me you will be talking to Sir Patrick Brown who has been looking at business appointments and I am sure that he will give you his perspective on this.
Q137 Paul Flynn: Would you support part of the next witness's statement we have that what the Government seem to be doing is to suggest we weaken the arrangements and restrictions which are there at the moment, which seem to be impossible to carry out. When employees leave the armed services or the Civil Service, not because they are people of great talent but because of the influence they have with their old colleagues or the knowledge that they have, should we not in fact extend the period to say at least five years before people take up employment in areas where they worked as civil servants?
Baroness Prashar: My personal view is that you need a period of purdah, but not a standard period of five years for everything. You do need some flexibility. It will depend on what kind of job they are in. There is another dilemma: if you want to develop some of the capacity within the Civil Service, there is the question of seconding people in and out of the Civil Service and second careers. This is an area which needs to be looked at, but whether you wait for six months or a year depends what kind of job you are in and where you are going to go and what the implications are. That is where you would need some guiding principles with maybe some flexibility on the time. If you want to get people from outside with certain skills to come in, you may not attract them if they feel that when they leave the Civil Service they will not be able to get back to a decent job. It is a question of reconciling some of these difficult issues, they are not easy, but we need some guiding principles with some flexibility on the time. To me five years seems rather excessive.
Q138 Paul Flynn: A distinguished commentator wrote 25 years ago about the Civil Service in a series of talks entitled The Unimportance of Being Right. The point that he made was that those courageous civil servants who took on the conventional wisdom of the time and their political masters, and challenged what were foolish decisions, and were proven to be foolish decisions, did not prosper as far as their careers were concerned, in fact they suffered. Those who went along with the wrong decisions at the time were the ones who prospered. Is it still the situation in the Civil Service, that it is still unimportant to be right?
Baroness Prashar: I should find it difficult to generalise, but I should say that the term "speaking truth unto power" and giving fearless advice is part of a good process of decision-making and it should be encouraged and not discouraged. I come back to the Civil Service code, but we also need to make the ministers aware that it is in their interest to listen to broad advice. The question of advice-giving has now become much more complex because it is not a monopoly of the Civil Service but a whole range of think tanks which are all competing with advice. What the Civil Service can do and should do is to simplify that sort of advice. It will be in the interest of government to preserve that approach. This goes back to the point that was being made by the article which was referred to earlier. This is good governance and we should encourage that. It would be a pity if we felt that civil servants were only giving the advice that ministers wanted to hear. They are then reducing the quality of our governance and it is neither in the interests of the Civil Service nor the interests of the country and the politicians themselves. That is why I should like to end by saying that the standards are there for a reason. These standards are there to underpin how we should operate and make sure that we have good government.
Q139 Chairman: Could I just have the last couple of minutes with you back to the appointment area because it is one that does test some of these general statements. I wonder whether it is not possible for us to think of a way in which ministers can have a greater involvement in some of these systems without falling into the trap of patronage, which is what we wanted to avoid in the first place.
Baroness Prashar: I think we have that. If you read the annex to the evidence that we gave you, there is a whole section on what we call ministerial involvement. We make a distinction between ministerial choice and ministerial involvement. Ministerial involvement means that a minister should be consulted at the outset of any competition to say what kind of person, in terms of the competences that they are looking for, the skills they want. That should be taken account of and used to inform the entire process.
Q140 Chairman: I see from the recruitment code that ministers can also be involved in the composition of the selection board.
Baroness Prashar: No. They can actually say who they would like on the board, but not be involved.
Q141 Chairman: The recruitment code says "The composition of the selection board, and in particular the choice of external members, may also be agreed with the Minister against specified relevant criteria".
Baroness Prashar: Absolutely; that is right.
Q142 Chairman: Well that is involvement, is it not?
Baroness Prashar: Yes. That is very clearly laid out and in a way it does encourage very vigorous thinking because, if the minister then rejects the candidate recommended, they have to give a reason why and that does bring us back again to what kind of person you are looking for. Was something done by the panel which did not meet the criteria?
Q143 Chairman: In your annual report, you say "... identifying the best candidate - essential at all levels - can be especially difficult at more senior levels", that is you are saying that having the system that you have that guarantees the integrity of the system and so on has difficulty in producing the best candidate. So, my response to that is to say, that if that is the case, what would be outrageous about allowing ministers to choose from the two or three candidates who were clearly above the line, clearly able to be appointed, if you find it difficult anyway to secure the best candidate?
Baroness Prashar: You misunderstand what we are saying. We are saying that when assessing candidates at a senior level you have to have proper assessment techniques. If you are clear about what you want, who the best person is to do the job in a given situation, then in my experience we have never had difficulty in identifying the best person for the job. Very rarely do you have more than two people above the line, if that, at senior level.
Q144 Chairman: But in reality, people bring different bundles of qualities to a job.
Baroness Prashar: Yes, of course they bring a different bundle of qualities and that is precisely what you want to find out: what are the qualities required for that particular post?
Q145 Chairman: All I am saying to you is that I am not persuaded that there is a huge issue of constitutional principle at stake, if we have agreed that the process has produced candidates, a number of whom are appointable in terms of the great canons of probity in public appointments, for ministers to have some involvement in deciding who the final person should be, as we do with other public body appointments. I cannot see that there is some huge constitutional principle at stake here.
Baroness Prashar: The constitutional point at stake is this. If a minister chooses the person he or she likes at a given time and then there is a change, the minister moves, take the Department for Education with three secretaries of states in the last few years, Estelle Morris, Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly, what happens to continuity if there are also regular changes of civil servant. The point really is that it is for the permanent secretary sitting on that panel, having taken the minister's mind on the type of person, to contribute to the panel deliberations in considering who is the best person. The permanent secretary has responsibility for making sure the organisation is what it needs to be. What is the reason for inviting the minister at the end to say they like A and not B? If you delegate recruitment to a panel and the panel has rigorously done the work for you, you are getting the best person for the job and I should like to move to that position for public appointments. I should like to see that position.
Q146 Chairman: We are looking at these ethical regulators of which the Civil Service Commissioners are one. Is there a case for putting a number of these together: the Civil Service recruitment function involving the commissioners, the Commission for Public Appointment's role in relation to public bodies, the Business Appointments Advisory Committee in relation to post-employment work? Could we not rationalise some of these?
Baroness Prashar: I am of that view: it could be rationalised. It seems to me that if Civil Service Commissioners are concerned with entry into the Civil Service, we could also be made responsible for exit, so the business appointments could come under one. Public appointments, yes, but with one proviso: provided the same process in terms of no choice is adopted. If you have two systems, it will confuse the issues. If you want to say you want professionalised recruitment against certain standards, one body can do that both for the Civil Service and public appointments. There is some merit in combining those three. It seems to me that the trend is in that direction. If you look at my current job as chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission, there is no choice over judges and that is now prescribed in legislation. The trend is towards that and I state the point: it is not so much about politicisation and cronyism; it is about professional recruitment, getting the best person for the job. If you make people responsible for that and you then hold them accountable, you can rationalise, but provided that the question of choice is taken out of public appointments as well.
Q147 Chairman: The Government like choice, do they not? Thank you very much indeed for a most interesting session. We valued it greatly, got a lot from it and thank you too for all the work that you did with the Civil Service Commission. Best wishes for your current and future work with the Judicial Appointments Commission.
Baroness Prashar: Thank you very much indeed and I look forward to your report in due course. Many thanks.
Chairman: Thank you very much.