30 Oct 2008 : Column 305WH

30 Oct 2008 : Column 305WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 30 October 2008

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

Ministers and Civil Servants

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Public Administration Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 122, on Politics and Administration: Ministers and Civil Servants, and the Government response, HC 1057.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]

2.30 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to introduce the Public Administration Committee’s report, “Politics and Administration: Ministers and Civil Servants”. It may not immediately seem the most exciting topic for a Thursday afternoon, but perhaps we can make it slightly more exciting.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister. It is the school half-term holiday, and his young children are in town today. Assiduous followers of his blog and other things will know what a great family man he is, and we want to reunite him with his family as soon as we can. We are grateful to him for being here.

I say a real thank you—not because it is customary, but because it is true—to the members of my Committee. Select Committee vacancies are advertised every week, but we on our side of the House have noticed that there is never a vacancy for the Public Administration Committee. That is extremely revealing. It shows that a number of us have set about a body of work over a number of years and are able to contribute to that work collectively. The fact that we have worked together for so long helps us in what we do, and I hope that that is reflected in our products, including the report.

I apologise to the House for the huge delay in debating our report. I shall now be less generous to my hon. Friend the Minister and say that the delay is entirely of the Government’s making. The convention is that Select Committee reports are replied to within two months. Extraordinarily, the report was published in March 2007 and the reply in September 2008—a full 18 months later. I have to tell my hon. Friend that the delay was not caused by the intellectual effort that went into producing the reply. It could have been done a good deal more quickly. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree, and say that the Government will do better.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): I want to head off repetitions of that complaint by long-standing members of the Committee. I give my unreserved apologies to the Committee on behalf of the Cabinet Office. When it was brought to my attention that our reply was so late, I said that we must ensure that we do not make that mistake again. If such problems arise again, I ask the Committee Chairman to please get in touch with me directly, and I shall try to put things right.

30 Oct 2008 : Column 306WH

Dr. Wright: I fully accept that handsome apology. Let us now put the matter out of the way. Let us not keep reciting the problem, as it will take a lot of our time.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): As the hon. Gentleman says, it was a handsome apology—but it was an apology without a reason. Having read the Government’s response, it is difficult to see what on earth could have held up such an anodyne reply.

Dr. Wright: Indeed; but I am not in a position to answer that. We have probably identified the issue—

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Not quite.

Dr. Wright: My hon. Friend says that we have not quite finished with it.

Mr. Prentice: The implications of that huge delay can be seen in the reports before us. We started taking evidence in November 2005, which is four years ago.

Dr. Wright: It is three years. On this occasion, I am not going to say that we have come to the end of the discussion, but I should like to think that we have probably covered its most useful territory. We expect the Government to do better and hope that the problem will never recur.

In general, the Committee’s job is to keep an eye on what the Government get up to. That takes us in a number of different directions. Recently, it has taken us in the direction of reporting on the machinery of making government changes. Again, the subject is not exciting in itself, but we highlighted the fact that, although other public bodies are expected to engage in consultation when they want to reorganise themselves, the Government can reorganise themselves at will by changing nameplates on Ministries. That has costs as well as benefits.

We argue that existing arrangements to involve Parliament in the making of such changes are completely unacceptable. I made that case the other night in relation to the new Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is a good idea, but it would have benefited hugely from consulting Parliament. That is an area to which we should return.

We keep our eye on these things, and I have noted how the size of the Government is covertly increasing. Parliament has made provisions about the size of the Government. Some issues derive from the increased size of the Government. We now have many more Parliamentary Private Secretaries; we also have unpaid Ministers—indeed, there is a good number of them—and we have what are called “assistant Ministers”, whose job is help the regional Ministers. The effect of that is to increase the size of the Executive. It also increases the size of the payroll vote.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): But without the pay.

Dr. Wright: Without the pay, but with associated costs.

The reason for such restrictions was to maintain a proper balance between the Executive and Parliament. We should therefore be watchful of developments that could cause difficulties. It is worth reminding the House that, once upon a time, it was the constitutional convention
30 Oct 2008 : Column 307WH
that, when a Member of Parliament joined the Executive and took a ministerial post, he had to resign his seat and fight a by-election, so jealously guarded was the dividing line between Parliament and the Executive. We are entitled to watch out for such developments.

On another front, I was told the other day that, when ministerial reshuffles take place, civil servants produce reports on ministerial performance. I do not know whether that is true, but it is an interesting suggestion—interesting even if it is not true. In turn, it raises the question of whether Ministers should produce reports on their civil servants. That would take us into some interesting relationships.

Our role is often to stand back from the daily disputes and the perennial scandals, and to distil some of the underlying issues and principles. The Committee is currently working on an extremely ambitious inquiry, rather grandly called “Good Government”, in which we are trying to work out some of the underlying principles of good government. We are having some extremely illuminating discussions.

The report that we are debating today is very much in that tradition. We are standing back and trying to say something about what, on any test, is the key governing relationship in this country—the relationship between what Peter Hennessy always calls the “governing tribes”. We need to revisit that relationship from time to time, to ensure that it is working well.

We began our report—this was its whole purpose—to dispatch once and for all the perennial arguments about whether the civil service was being politicised. That has been said repeatedly over the years. It has been said that it was happening under the previous Government and under this Government. We wanted to be helpful by trying to disentangle all the things that might be meant by “politicisation”. We stripped away some of the difficulties surrounding the word and its pejorative overtones, and tried to say something sensible about it.

It is worth recording that, in some sense, the civil service is necessarily politicised and partial, because its constitutional function is to serve the Government of the day. Of necessity, it is not impartial between the governing and other parties, because its job is to work for the governing party and to deliver their programme. That is what Professor Colin Talbot calls the civil service’s “serial monogamy”. In that sense, there is a necessary politicisation of the civil service, but we know what we are talking about when we identify the bits that we worry about. We are worried about politicians interfering in such things as the appointment and advancement of civil servants when it contaminates the principle of appointment on merit.

That takes us to the relationship between the political and administrative sides of government, which we explored somewhat in our inquiry. We visited Finland and Sweden because, among other reasons, they are traditionally cited in all the analyses as the homes of good government. Universally, Finland comes top of the league tables. It is interesting that one finds far more politicisation in those places and far more political involvement in those respective Administrations than here.

In many respects, this country is unique—it is at one extreme end of the international spectrum. Even in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, the people
30 Oct 2008 : Column 308WH
whom we call permanent secretaries are called deputy ministers, and they are political appointees. I was introduced to the Australian cabinet secretary a few years ago, who turned out to be a political appointee. We should remind ourselves that, although we get into a great lather here about 50, 60 or 70 special advisers, we are at the far edge of the international spectrum when it comes to the division between the political and administrative sides of government.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am following with great interest what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he accept that other polities have other systems of checks and balances, and that the difference between some of those places and here is that we have a very strong Executive, meaning that our checks and balances have to be built in in other ways, including by having a strong, independent civil service?

Dr. Wright: Absolutely: we have to build in checks and balances in other ways. Traditionally, we have been short of them. We have had a strong Executive backed up by a kind of majoritarian politics that says, “If you win an election, you get to control the show.” That has changed slightly, because we have put more checks and balances in, particularly under this Government—we now have human rights and freedom of information legislation, devolution and so on. We do not quite conform to the traditional picture but, on the whole, my hon. Friend is right.

We concluded from our examination that the evidence for politicisation in the sense of inappropriate political involvement with the civil service does not stack up. I do not believe that it stacked up under the Thatcher Government and it does not with this Government. Our conclusion, starkly, was that

That is because we have an in-built distinction between administration and politics. As my hon. Friend indicated, that provides an in-built probity in government.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Is this really a matter of perception? When a string of former Cabinet Secretaries have lined up to say that they are worried about perception, one cannot help feeling that they are using typical Cabinet Secretary-speak to say that there is politicisation. Lord Wilson of Dinton said:

Whether or not one shares that perception, it has to be addressed.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order. It is not normal to quote during interventions, Mr. Tyrie.

Mr. Tyrie: Oh. Well, I have done so now, but I will not do it again.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): You managed to get away with it.

Dr. Wright: I do not doubt for a second that there is a wide perception, just as there is a wide perception that all Members of Parliament have their snouts in the
30 Oct 2008 : Column 309WH
trough and are utterly corrupt. We know that that is not the case, but the perception prevails. Civil servants are anxious—they have some cause to focus on this—that they are being disconnected from their traditional policy advice role.

Mr. Tyrie: That is indeed a different issue. If that bevy of Cabinet Secretaries were worried about that disconnection, I am sure that they would stress the point. However, they are not; instead, they are stressing the perception that the civil service has become politicised. Will the hon. Gentleman speculate as to why on earth civil servants spend so much time worrying about a perception that he alleges is false?

Dr. Wright: I am not alleging. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that we tested the proposition to destruction, not only in this inquiry but in previous and associated inquiries. We asked every Cabinet Secretary for the last God-knows-how-many years and an array of former civil servants to give us some concrete evidence of the charge of politicisation and, simply put, it was not there. The same opinion has come from outside observers. We are right to be anxious about it and we have to protect what needs to be protected. However, even if there is a perception and if people like to say that politicians are encroaching where they should not, we should try to establish the facts of the matter to see whether it really is the case.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Perception is important. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the continued habit of civil servants in Departments to clap in new Secretaries of State? We saw that only a couple of weeks ago when the foyer of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform filled up with civil servants to clap Lord Mandelson in. That was wrong: it would be wrong if it was a Conservative Secretary of State, and it was wrong—whoever it was—with a Labour Secretary of State. Is that not so?

Dr. Wright: I can feel myself being drawn into territory into which I do not want to go. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Committee. It is quite proper for departing Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers to be applauded by their staff—it is a perfectly human thing when people have worked together for years. It is a courtesy. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman.

Indeed, the hon. Gentleman has persuaded me to go further, and I will give another reason for the example to which he referred. Many things are said about my noble Friend Lord Mandelson—we have to learn to describe him that way—but so many civil servants over the years have told me, “Whatever else you say about Peter Mandelson, he was an outstanding Minister because he gave the kind of leadership to Departments that civil servants demand and respond to.” When they applauded him in, they remembered the kind of leadership they had when he was last there and were quite pleased to see it return.

Mr. Walker: I think he was only there for three months, many years ago, so those people have a very good memory. A quiet drink is a courtesy. An engineered applauding-out or applauding-in is exactly that. It was engineered with the media. If Conservatives do it when
30 Oct 2008 : Column 310WH
we get in power—we will get in, eventually, in a year and a half—I will be equally concerned. I was not making a political point.

Dr. Wright: Perhaps we have different views on courtesy. I undertake to the hon. Gentleman that I will never criticise any incoming Conservative Minister who is gently applauded by his civil servants as a matter of courtesy when he enters office, or even when he leaves, when there may be more occasion for applause.

We started off wanting to focus on the question of politicisation but found ourselves being taken wider. That happened because, as always, events happen. A series of events in major Departments raised all the old issues about where ministerial responsibility ends and civil service responsibility begins. Events in the Home Office—I shall not go through them again—clearly illuminated that issue in a dramatic form. We had the events in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over the farm payment scheme. We had the NHS budget, which removed the chief executive and so on. Subsequently, we have had problems relating to data loss and everything else.

Each event raises the question of what Ministers and civil servants are responsible for. One of the regrets about such a debate is that everyone gets terribly exercised when events happen, and they want to talk about nothing else. There is less interest, however, in wanting to talk about the relationships that are produced whenever such events happen.

We discovered that there were good reasons for revisiting some of the old issues. The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) may have been with me on the Public Service Committee in the mid-1990s, when the Scott inquiry sat. That inquiry led to the House of Commons producing the 1997 resolution on ministerial accountability. Again, events triggered an interest in the issue, and the House of Commons wanted to nail down what that relationship was. Of course, it did not finish the business, as we see from current events.

As we explored the matter in our inquiry, a number of people agreed that there was an unresolved problem that we needed to try harder to solve. The first civil service commissioner, Janet Paraskeva, said:

That is quite a remarkable statement from the first civil service commissioner. If they do not now understand what ministerial accountability means, it suggests that we should at least give some consideration to the matter and try to find out whether we can do better.

Next Section Index Home Page