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7 May 2008 : Column 749

To give the Minister an example, I had to consider resigning on such grounds when I was dealing with the allegation that my predecessors had sanctioned the export of chemical weapons precursors and nuclear weapons precursors to Iraq. The only way to kill that allegation dead was to publish the details of every single export licence relating to Iraq in those categories in the years preceding the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. It took a long time; there were thousands of licences. The officials eventually came back and said, “All clear, Minister; not a single example. Only the export of two hunting guns were possibly against the sanctions regime.” I then summoned in the members of the press one by one, and said to each of them, “Look, there are the 14,000 export licences. You can read them yourself, but I can assure you that you will not find an example of anything out of line.”

After I had seen the last member of the press, and they had all gone away rather disappointed that this fox had been shot, a civil servant came to see me and said, “I’m frightfully sorry, but one of the very first documents we looked at did actually contain reference to the export of some chemicals that at the time were not considered to be chemicals weapons precursors, but which were subsequently so designated by the United Nations.” I asked, “Are you sure that that is the only one?” and they said, “No; we will go and have a look.” They then came back and said, “Actually, there are five or six shipments, Minister.” I said, “Do you realise that although you think this is very amusing, I will have to take responsibility, and I will almost certainly be required to resign?”

As it happened, I wrote an open letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee, and everyone was on holiday, and the Press Association wrote the story up very favourably to me and I got away scot-free. However, Ministers are ultimately responsible for the advice they take, and if they take bad advice on a serious matter on which they have given serious assurances, their heads are on the block.

Let me finally make some brief observations about the reforms that are needed. In response to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, I referred to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. They entrenched in the British civil service a belief that generalism, not specialism, is the only way to the top, and in terms of promotion and internal recruitment and recruitment from outside, we need to bring in people with specialist experience. It is my experience in business that someone who knows a lot about repairing motor cars can be made into a good librarian, but someone who knows nothing about anything probably cannot be made into a good manager of anything. So specialist expertise is important. That went out of the civil service with the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms. Before then, the Indian civil service had at least required people to learn Indian languages, but as a result of those reforms Haileybury college—it is nothing to do with the school—where the civil servants were taught was closed down and thereafter they learned Greek and Latin in order to go off and govern India. We have suffered from that ethos ever since.

More significant, in my experience, was the paucity of people in the civil service with project management experience and skills. That might explain why so many
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major projects go wrong: to get promotion in the civil service, staff should want to be a policy adviser, not a manager. Normally, staff in the civil service do a job for only a couple of years before moving on to something else, hopefully higher up and away from actually managing anything to advising Ministers. Therefore, very few people in the civil service have had any prolonged experience of managing anything through to completion. I raised that with the head of the civil service, and now there is at least some attempt to provide for the formation of project management skills, but I suspect that it does not go far enough.

I congratulate my Front-Bench colleagues on introducing this motion, and on focusing on the importance of bringing back to the centre of our debate integrity, truth in information and accountability in terms of Ministers’ policies and the actions of their Departments. Driven by the criticisms that have been made of their stewardship for the past 10 years, I hope that the Government will forge ahead and introduce a Bill that will entrench the integrity of the civil service; that should not be necessary, but alas, it is. I also hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will live up to what they are saying now when they are in government after May 2010.

3.15 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on a subject that has interested me greatly for a long time, not least because I am privileged to be a member of the Public Administration Committee. That is the most enjoyable, interesting and worthwhile role I have had during my 11 years in this House. I am particularly pleased that the Committee is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). He is not merely a competent Chair but a brilliant one; he leads us superbly in the work we do. However, although I congratulate him on his speech, it must be said that we do from time to time have slight differences of view. That is healthy, however, and the civil service should be like that, too.

First, I apologise for not being present for the speech from the Opposition Front Bencher as I was unavoidably detained. I will not be too critical of the motion, even though I shall, obviously, vote with the Government when we divide. I hope that what I say will reflect some of the Opposition’s concerns—I certainly think that that will be the case, as I shall be repeating comments I have made in the Committee on more than one occasion.

It is some 150 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report, so it is not before time that we are talking about putting some of their thoughts into legislation. I am pleased that the Committee put forward a draft civil service Bill, which was highly regarded by Members of all parties, although the previous Prime Minister and his Government were resistant to implementing it. I very much welcome the fact that our new Prime Minister has brought in a new era, one in which we are looking forward positively to a better future.

My purpose in speaking in this debate is to say that we are moving in the right direction. I have had a number of private conversations with Ministers, and I have spoken publicly in the Committee, and I want to
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do what I can to give the Government a small shove to move further in the right direction.

I should also say that I appreciate the speech of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who is a near constituency neighbour. I agree with almost everything he said. He emphasised that there should be a pervasive sense of honour in government in general, and that people were honourable in the past. We have, perhaps, forgotten that a little. This is not just a game of winning and losing; it is about principles, behaving well and setting examples to the rest of the world.

Without being too high-flown, I should mention that I was recently interviewed for a television programme for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the programme makers wanted to know how to run a civil service. I have not been a civil servant and I do not know much, but I emphasised the points made today about civil servants having integrity, ability and a strong sense of public service to the state, and not being corrupted. They were very worried about how to keep corruption out of newly created Governments, particularly in relatively poor countries where people can be corrupted. I said, “You should start from the beginning by saying that the first principle is that the civil service must not be tainted by corruption, and you must have people running your state who are not corrupt, and whose objective is to help their politicians govern well and to serve their people to the best of their ability.” We in this country must remind ourselves of that a bit, too, given the events of recent times.

I welcome the very clear shift of direction under our new Prime Minister and his Ministers, but we have some way to go to squeeze out the remaining toxins particularly of the Blair era—and to some extent the Thatcher era as well. I make no apology for mentioning the previous Prime Minister, who happened to be in the same party as me. I do not care much for labels. Reference was made to “new Labour”, which no one has ever called me, apart from one of my Conservative opponents. She mistakenly described me as a “Blairite” one day, which caused a great deal of mirth in my constituency, although no one took the comment seriously and she learned better later on. We had a very civilised campaign, we were good friends and so on, but she realised that I was not “new Labour” and that the word “socialist” did apply to me. If a label is to be used, I am happy to have that one applied to me.

What we saw during the Blair era was what I have described, in a perhaps extreme phrase, as the “Leninisation” of British politics. The essence of Leninisation was to get absolute central control, to smooth out and destroy all resistance in the regime and to have political checks at every level to ensure that what was decided at the centre was carried out at the base. That was the drift. I am not and have never been a Leninist, but interestingly a number of people of Leninist origins, from Leninist organisations—Conservative Members are not so familiar with those, although some Labour Members are—were in the Blair regime. Some of the special advisers and political advisers, and even some Ministers, had such associations, so they understood the process of Leninisation and of control; I believe
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that Lenin’s first slogan was, “Secure control of the party.” Control was the essence of the approach, and that is what happened.

The attempt to strip away the opposition went on at every level, and of course it marginalised and pushed to one side the principle that underlies British Government: pluralism. All democratic constitutions must contain checks and balances on power, because power is dangerous. People like it when they get it; they do not want to give it away. They want to have more of it, because it is a bit of a drug. The job of constitutions is to restrain those who like power from having too much of it and, sometimes, to take it away from them, by election or by some other means.

Most constitutions are set up in a way that restrains power, and they contain checks and balances. The American constitution is a classic example of that: it contains the separation and balance of powers. Other constitutions contain restraints within parties. One of Britain’s constitutional features that restrained power was the fact that the parties contained a democratic structure that restrained even their leaders. Even that restraint has been stripped out to a large extent from my party and possibly from the Conservative party, and that was damaging. Having healthy debate within parties and restraints on power within parties are as important as having such things within the state.

Other forms of government exist—for example, federalism. America, as well as other countries, depends on such a system, where there are defined roles for central Government and for other parts of government at a lower level—for example, a regional system could be used, as could some form of states system, as happens in America. Federalism is a way of dividing power so that not all of it resides in the centre.

Britain has relied for a very long time on a balance of power between different parts not of our constitution as such, but of our political society. Our system has embodied pluralism and, for a long time, strong local government, strong trade unions, strong independent parties that were quite different from each other and that acted as a check on each other, and the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature. Even the legislature is divided between two Houses, which act as a check on each other. All those checks were built in.

The problem with the recent regime is that it has tried to eliminate all those constraints and checks, so we are examining ways of strengthening them once again. Even within the Executive there were, and I hope that there will be again, strong constraints on power. For example, the Cabinet sometimes acted as a restraining influence on Prime Ministers, but unfortunately that has not been the case in recent times. The papers released after 30 years have told us that back in the days of Jim Callaghan and the 1970s economic crisis, a real debate took place in Cabinet about whether the Government should opt for the International Monetary Fund loan or an alternative economic strategy based on some kind of protectionism. Those on the left wanted the protectionist approach, those on the right wanted the IMF loan and deflation, and there was a balancing group in the middle. A powerful debate went on for some time in Cabinet, but eventually Jim Callaghan got his way because the middle group chose to support the
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IMF loan people. We ended up with the IMF loan, the social contracts and so on, but a real debate did take place in Cabinet.

I have heard more recently about a case—I am not talking about under the present Prime Minister, but this certainly applies in respect of the previous one—involving a Minister who had recently joined the Cabinet. He had the temerity to make some kind of critical suggestion in Cabinet, and was taken aside afterwards by a fellow member and told, “That’s not done. I’m afraid we don’t do that in the Cabinet.”

In recent years, Cabinet meetings have been very short. Senior civil servants have told our Committee that back in the Wilson era and before, it was typical for 200 papers a year to be delivered to Cabinet by Ministers, or by civil servants through Ministers, in order to discuss policy. The Cabinet meetings would go on for some time while the papers were discussed. I understand that in a particular year during the Blair era just two papers were put to the Cabinet, so something has gone seriously wrong between that earlier time and now. The suggestion is that Cabinet became a cipher and was not the power that it used to be.

Within our constitution, the civil service was always a rock, although perhaps one did not always agree with it; its independence, impartiality, ability and sense of commitment to the public interest were unquestioned. From time to time, one might disagree with it, but we were certainly aware of it. The idea that civil servants might be corrupt or on the take, or that they might take big jobs in industry later so they might be serving the interests of the companies they were later to work for while they were in government, was unthinkable. There were rules about that, but more important than those were the inner constraints: people had a sense of what was right and what was wrong. It was not the job of a servant of the state—a servant of the citizens—in the civil service to think about lining their pockets as a result of what they did in government. Some doubtless would have done that, but it was not the view held.

Such values have perhaps declined, partly as a result of the interface between the civil service and business outside becoming so much more porous. There is a difference in values between serving the public, the state and the citizen as a public servant, and making money. I am not saying that either is not necessary, but they are different. I would emphasise that serving the public is a superior value to making money. I know people, even some within my own family, who say that they do not want to work in the private sector, that it is fine for those who do and who want to make money, but they want to serve society through public service. That is a noble thing to say, to feel and to do. Many people in the civil service do that today. We should not make light of that, play it down or try to control it; we should respect it. Re-establishing that attitude in our civil service would be a very good thing.

To an extent, I am a golden age-ist and I watched “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” with great interest. Although the civil service is portrayed as a rule unto itself and Ministers as doing what they are told by those clever civil servants, that was a better model than we have now. In the end, Ministers make the decisions, but the civil service is there to ensure that things do not go wrong—to speak truth unto power, as the phrase has it. When Ministers have a notion to do something,
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the civil servants say, “Actually, Minister, that will not work, for these reasons. You may want to spend lots of money and cut taxes, but the sums don’t add up. You have to have some kind of fiscal balance.”

We have to have civil servants who know what they are talking about because, with great respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, not all Ministers are brilliant, even when it comes to their own portfolios. They have to depend on civil servants— [ Interruption. ] The Minister is obviously a star in his own right. The civil service has to be preserved and reinforced, and its values have to be restored, if they have been damaged.

We have to reconstruct the civil service, if it is not damaged too badly, with the values that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden mentioned. It should also contain a range of views. If we comb out opposition to a particular ideology or philosophy, it is bad for government. When I was a student, I knew a lecturer who became a civil servant in the Treasury. He told me that at the time of the Callaghan devaluation in 1967, some civil servants believed in retaining the high value of the pound, but some of those in the back office were considering the possibility of devaluation and had prepared for it. So when the decision was made, someone in the back office could say, “Here’s one I prepared earlier.” The policy could thus be implemented. What we do not want is civil servants who all believe in a strong currency and would have no idea how to go about devaluation, or its implications, and so would be at a loss.

Many Conservative Members probably now regret the rash and mistaken decision to join the exchange rate mechanism in 1990, as it led directly to their defeat in 1997. That decision was supported by many Labour Members, although I was not among them. I was an economist in the trade union movement at the time and I wrote time and again that it was a mistake. I predicted in 1990 that it would fail in just the way that it did. Everyone thought that I was a bit off the wall, but later I got a lot of credit. I was not alone, as some other economists thought the same way. In any event, I understand that Nigel Lawson wanted people who agreed with him in his private office. He did not want people who would say, “Sorry, Chancellor, but this idea of pinning our currency to other European currencies will not work, the pound will devalue and it will cause a lot of political trouble.” It did go badly wrong, but had Nigel Lawson had people around him who warned of the possible consequences, it might not have been quite the tragedy that it was for the economy, the people and, especially, the Conservative party. We might have had a healthier economy later as well.

We are moving in the right direction, and I want to reinforce the Government’s arm on this issue. We have made some serious mistakes in the past, but we are now overcoming them.

3.33 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) as we went back to Victorian times, heard from Lenin and ended up in the Callaghan era. We do not debate the civil service enough in this Chamber. There are 496,000 civil servants who play an important role. How effective our legislation is may
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depend on a 21-year-old clerk sitting in a benefits office somewhere in the north of England dealing with people. That is how the intent of Parliament is delivered in terms of service delivery to people.

The civil service is very important, and my experience of local government as opposed to national is that local government is far better at discussing money, terms and conditions, motivation, promotion and how people actually do things. The civil service, however, almost seems to be in a different pot to us, and the only time we ever see civil servants—who are all fairly good—is when we are serving for hours on a Committee.

As a country, we can be proud of our civil servants. The benefits of having a system that is not corrupt have been mentioned today. One of my observations on the European Union is the cultural difference between northern Europe—the Finns, the Swedes and the Britons—and southern Europe, where the sun shines and people are a little more cavalier. We can be very grateful that we have a system that is honest. If other countries have a problem—I am thinking of Russia and Turkey, for example—it is the corruption in their systems that holds them back.

We should debate our civil service a lot more. If we have a problem, it is probably that we do not recycle people out of the civil service into other careers. I always look to the French system, in which senior civil servants go to work in a bank or for a major institution. As the Minister pointed out, the third sector also offers good examples of people who go out and get experience in the outside world and then come back and work for the public benefit. I know that there are problems with pensions and rewards when people go in and out of the system, but I do not think it would be beyond our wit in this modern age to work out a system whereby those at the top of the civil service would not only be experienced civil servants but would have a much more direct experience of the outside world, on which they so often give advice. That would be an important reform.

I broadly welcome what the Government are doing through legislation. The problem is that we have moved over recent years to a more presidential system as Downing street becomes ever more important. In the years of my youth, Governments changed fairly regularly. In a way, that helped balance within the system. We had Wilson for six years, Heath for just under four, and then the Labour party under Wilson and Callaghan for five years. The Thatcher Government served a record-breaking 18 years and this Government will, I suspect, certainly manage 13 years. Whether they will get beyond that point remains to be seen. It changes the nature and character of the system, because people suddenly realise that the person at the top, who is the one person who can break through for decision making in Whitehall, is very important for posts and patronage. That has an impact on the way government operates.

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