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23 Oct 2007 : Column 230

Mr. Mitchell: I criticise civil servants in that regard, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman is going to criticise me.

Mr. Bacon: I am interested in what evidence the hon. Gentleman has for his assertion that presiding over a disaster is career-limiting. After all, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir John Gieve, presided over such a mess that its accounts were presented to Parliament unaudited. His punishment for that was to be promoted to be deputy governor of the Bank of England in charge of financial stability in the banking system, which of course was to the fore when we had the Northern Rock fiasco. That is the sort of thing that we might expect to find in Gilbert and Sullivan, but not necessarily in real life.

Mr. Mitchell: The Northern Rock of ages was well cleft for him. I was really rebutting the point made by the Chairman of the PAC that it would be career-limiting to stand up to Ministers. It is essential that that be done; otherwise everybody is left with egg on their face. Let us not say that it is career-limiting to preside over disaster; let us say it is career-changing and possibly a path to promotion.

David Taylor rose—

Mr. Mitchell: I should not have said anything, should I?

David Taylor: My hon. Friend is most generous in giving way again. As one of the two rapporteurs on the RPA disaster for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, may I cite another example to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon)? At the time of the disaster, the permanent secretary to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Sir Brian Bender, was seamlessly moving onwards and upwards, almost without trace. That is a another classic example.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the harmonious dialogue between two hon. Members, but I am struggling to understand which report is being discussed. We do not actually have a report on that subject. It is fair enough to develop a general point about the competence or otherwise of civil servants, but we are not debating the report on the Rural Payments Agency.

Mr. Mitchell: I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was talking about the report on the Rural Payments Agency, but I shall now proceed to talk about the reports on PFI contracts and Government consultancy contracts that are within our purview today.

The report on consultants, in particular, shows a much more critical attitude to civil servants on the part of Government than I would want. We have a fine civil service in this country, but it has been downgraded—first by the Conservative Government, whose leaders had a path in their heads and imposed things on the civil service, and then by us, who did not quite trust civil servants. The result has been that instead of taking policy advice from civil servants, the Government prefer to have the imprimatur of outside consultants, at
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enormous expense. What the second report—there was an earlier one in 2002—shows is the enormous fees paid to consultancies, and as we all know, consultancies are a system for telling us what we wanted to hear in the first place.

David Taylor: And for recommending their friends.

Mr. Mitchell: And for recommending their friends to carry through the execution of the project. That is the procedure. Our report showed that the Government were making excessive use of consultants and pointed to the need to build up expertise in the Departments rather than handing work out to consultants. It is a question of respect for the civil service.

I said that I would be brief, but all the interruptions have made me take a detour for what seems like the past three quarters of an hour. I shall conclude with a couple of observations about the way in which we deal with the reports. Perhaps it is the geriatric in me, but I find our procedures a bit confusing. A National Audit Office report comes out, and we have a session on it. We then write a report, and when it is finally published, we get telephone calls from people asking us about something that we have totally forgotten about. The procedure is not seamless; it is not well knit together. There is not a stage at which we can really produce a conclusive report on an issue.

The second problem is that, as I said at the beginning, in all our proceedings we are not actually dealing with the people who made the mistake—the people who took the decision. If we are to produce an effective report, we need to know what happened to them. We need to know whether any sanctions were imposed on them, or whether they took a seamless path to promotion, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire put it. As Virgil said,

That is, it would be difficult to pull those people down again. We, as a Committee, need to know what happened to them, and whether any sanctions were imposed on them. However, the Committee should be able to acknowledge that many of the mistakes are ours; they are made by politicians, and result from our not thinking a project through before we ask the civil service to implement it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will ensure that the Official Report gets a translation.

7.31 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I have been a member of the Committee for six years, and have seen a number of common themes emerge. I want to address just a few of those themes, with particular reference to the reports mentioned in the motion.

The first issue that I shall deal with—I hope that the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury will address this point in her reply—was touched on by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)
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in his intervention on the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). The question is: what is the centre doing to make sure that when projects are spread out across Whitehall Departments and agencies, things actually happen? Obviously, there is inherent tension between avoiding a situation in which the Treasury is too involved, and tries to micro-manage matters that should be the responsibility of Departments, and avoiding sitting back and watching a Department make a mess of things with the taxpayers’ money given to it by the Treasury.

I have not had the pleasure of being a Treasury Minister and being vexed by such issues—although I am sure that that is something that history will correct in the fullness of time. I am sure that Treasury Ministers worry very much about that tension between the centre and departmental responsibility. The tendency has been to let Departments sort things out. Some years ago, there was the fiasco of the individual learning accounts—an adult training scheme with great intentions, which was designed to help the most vulnerable, and which failed miserably. I remember thinking, “Where was the Treasury?” Similarly, in the case of the Rural Payments Agency—although I respect the fact that we are not talking about that issue today, Mr. Deputy Speaker—it was for the Department to sort out the issue. The Treasury left the Department to it, and left it to bear the financial brunt, too.

The Paddington health campus scheme was the subject of our ninth report, and at the time I found myself thinking about not where the Treasury involvement was, but where the Department of Health involvement was, in relation to the local strategic health authority and the local hospital trusts involved. The ostensible purpose of the scheme was to merge the St. Mary’s NHS Trust and the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust. However, as conclusion (i) of our report said,

We went on to say, in conclusion (iii), that

The Treasury minutes responded:

That is all very good, and I think that we all say amen to that. However, the question is this: the Government may think that it is good to have full-time project directors, and that they are necessary for delivering projects successfully, but are they actually acting on that in practice?

That brings me to my second question, which is not so much about the centre versus the local, but about whether we are getting the basics right, at whatever
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level. Our 14th report was on delivering digital communications through the Bowman programme. That was a so-called combat infrastructure platform—a battlefield communications system. The project was inherently complicated, because it sought to make sure that all the different players in a battle, whether they were battle tanks, infantry or air support, could talk to each other, and to HQ, and all that had to be delivered properly. It was an extraordinarily complex project, yet it did not have a senior responsible owner. It was not that the senior responsible owners kept changing, as we have seen happen in many projects; there just was not one at all. As our report concluded,

combat infrastructure platform—

The Ministry of Defence, and subsequently the Treasury in its minutes, concluded that that was an omission, and that:

It is a good idea to have project directors and senior responsible owners in charge of projects, but even if a senior responsible owner is in charge, is that enough? It would appear not, because our first conclusion in our 27th report on IT-enabled business change, which was referred to earlier, was:

In its reply, the Treasury states:

I am bound to ask, why should Ministers not be briefed all the time? Why should they be briefed only when there is slippage? Should not Ministers know what is going on in mission-critical projects all the time, whether they are going well or not? Why do Ministers not say, at an early stage, “Why don’t you have a senior responsible owner?”?

I remember talking to a Minister who was involved in one high-profile case that the Committee considered—a typical IT project that had gone wrong. I am sad to say that that Minister resigned, because he had the wisdom to vote the right way on the Iraq war—that is to say, against—and he could not do that and support the Government policy of the day. I am glad to say that his career has been restored now; he is actually in the Cabinet, so that may give hon. Members a clue as to who I am talking about. I remember him saying, in respect of a particular project, “I sat in a room, having listened to what people said, and having read about the matter, and I said, ‘This isn’t going to work, is it?’” He said that there were 12 people in the room—civil servants and consultants—and they all said, “Oh yes, Minister, it
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will work.” He said that there was no one in the room who said, “Well, actually, no. You’ve got a point; there are some serious concerns.” There was no critical friend at court to make sure that the concerns were given a serious airing and had a serious voice, and as a result, he signed off the project. Of course, his instincts and concerns were absolutely right, and the project hit the buffers, just as so many others do.

In another case, I was talking to the senior computer contractor from a major firm which has been involved in many of the projects that we have examined, who was desperate to talk to the Minister to find out how to resolve an impasse and get some clarity on direction, and finally begged the Department for a meeting with the Minister. Within 10 minutes of that request, the permanent secretary himself was on the phone saying, “You don’t talk to Ministers. We talk to Ministers.”

If I were a Minister—as I mentioned to the Exchequer Secretary earlier, she does not seem to think that that is likely, but in the fullness of time I very much hope that we will have the chance to put into practice some of the things that we are talking about. It seems to me essential for Ministers to find critical friends at court, who would tell them not what they wanted to hear, but what they did not want to hear. I am sure that the more intelligent and switched-on Ministers do that. There is also the problem, as we heard earlier, of civil servants not being able to get the access that they require to Ministers, as we heard again in the context of the Rural Payments Agency.

In relation to the 27th report, there was one answer from the Treasury that I thought was particularly interesting. We said in our conclusion (iii) that

Lack of time was a key factor in some of the other projects that we looked at. We went on to say:

We said:

David Taylor: I shall not refer to the RPA, as that report is not under discussion, but I worked on major IT projects for almost 30 years before coming to this place. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the common themes with major IT project failures is that the client Department needs to be an intelligent client, and it cannot be an intelligent client if it outsources virtually every aspect of the development of computer systems? It needs to have its own internal trusted, experienced people, who can balance out the glowing reports given by the would-be supplier of the software.

Mr. Bacon: I completely agree. I remember the then chairman of the Inland Revenue, as it was then, Sir Nick Montagu, fiercely denying what was plain to everybody else—that the Inland Revenue had ceased to be an intelligent client, because so much of its sourcing function and its buying function was spread out among
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different consultancies that it was only one or two of the consulting firms that had an overview of what was going on. The Inland Revenue was no longer capable of answering the intelligent questions that one wanted to ask, because too much of its expertise was outsourced.

I was talking about the appointment of a senior responsible owner, and the presumption that the SRO would remain in post until the project was seen through. The interesting thing was the Government’s answer in the Treasury minute, in which the Treasury says:

That is in paragraph 11, on page 3 of the minute on the 27th report. However, the next sentence states:

That is common sense, but why does the natural progression of civil servants between roles mean that a project should have more than one SRO? Why should not the SRO finish the project, deliver it and then get the natural progression to the next post in their career? Unless and until they have completed the project, they should not have a natural progression. If that means paying civil servants more in post, so be it.

I know that I am not talking rubbish about this, because I have heard Sir Peter Gershon, and before him various other civil servants, talking about the need to reward civil servants who stay in post to see projects through. Yet here we have the Treasury saying

I say that the SRO should see the thing through. The project should be short enough for one SRO to deliver it. It should be done in bite-size chunks that can be delivered. That is one of the central problems that we face in getting an improvement across Government.

Julia Goldsworthy: Does the hon. Gentleman think that one of the reasons why civil servants may move on is that projects tend to overrun for so long that if they stayed for the duration, civil servants might be claiming their pension by the time the project was finished?

Mr. Bacon: The hon. Lady probably has a point. No matter where a project stands and how well developed it may or may not be, the culture of the civil service says, “Come on, Carruthers, your two and a half years are up. It’s time for you to get some more experience. You’re going to be transferred to the Cabinet Office”— or to stamping passports in Tristan da Cunha, depending on how well or badly he has done. That is valued more highly than the delivery of a project. I do not think that the delivery of a project has enough value inside Whitehall.


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