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30 Oct 2008 : Column 310WH—continued

The Home Office tried to improve matters after the events that led to the failed deportation of foreign prisoners, which caused the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) to resign. It devised a compact, which has been reproduced at the end of our report, that outlines the responsibilities of Ministers and civil servants. I am not saying that it was a complete document, but it was a response to a demonstrable difficulty, and it attempted to point the way forward. If the Home Office can do it—albeit under such circumstances—I cannot see why other parts of the Government cannot have a go at it, so that Ministers and civil servants know what they are respectively signing up for. We do not want to do it in a
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way that splits the different parts of the Government. Above all, we want them to work co-operatively.

I recognise that things may not be the same in each Department, because different Ministers bring different approaches to the job. Some Ministers want to be far more hands on; they want to be managerial. I could cite examples, but I will not. Others want to take a more strategic view. Therefore, I am saying not that there is one model, but that there should be a discipline in each Department, in each period, whereby the different parts say what they think they are responsible for.

The problem with the current doctrine of ministerial accountability is that, if it becomes difficult to pin down exactly who is responsible for anything, we have a defused accountability. That happens all the time. Whenever incidents happen, it is never clear who is responsible. On the one hand, how can Ministers be responsible for everything that goes on in their Department? On the other, we cannot identify civil servants, because they have anonymity. They are there to serve the Minister; that is the chain. No wonder that leaves Parliament and often the public baffled about why it has not been possible to get inside the chain of accountability.

In recent times, we have had strains on both sides of the relationship. Some Ministers have said quite regularly, and in some respects openly, that they are dissatisfied with the performance that they get from some of the civil service. The civil service is not very good at delivery or project and performance management. It does not do what the politicians, who are elected, want it to do. They might say that that has been confirmed by the capability reviews, which showed that civil service departments had major deficiencies.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Can my friend tell us how Home Office civil servants reacted when the former Home Secretary, my friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), said that the Department was not fit for purpose?

Dr. Wright: I was coming on to that. Civil servants say that it is unfair that they should take responsibility for things which Ministers are responsible for. The problem with that case is that we did not know who was responsible. Civil servants also say, “It’s not fair if we don’t get consistent leadership and a clear, strategic direction. It’s not fair if we don’t know what we are being asked to do. It’s not fair if our policy advice isn’t listened to. It’s not fair if we don’t have the resources to do the job.”

On both sides, those voices have spilled into the public with former Ministers and former senior civil servants saying disobliging things about one another with regard to the relationship. That is an indication that we should better clarify the respective roles, and it is why we say—in the language that we use—that we think that there is a case for trying to put together a new public service bargain. We know what the old bargain is, and we know the difficulties that it poses for real accountability. Can we put together a new bargain that is underpinned by a good governance code? We say that there is one code for Ministers and one for civil servants, but is there a code for Ministers and civil servants? By that I mean the integral relationship.

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We often talk about Ministers and civil servants in different categories, yet what we do not do, and what we need to do, is to talk about them collectively, because their collective operation determines whether or not we have good government. We have lots of talk about Ministers and civil servants, but we have little talk about that relationship. That question of improving accountability was one area that we considered. A second area that we stumbled into while exploring politicisation was the respective roles in relation to appointments.

The traditional principle is that civil servants are appointed on merit and that politicians inherit their civil servants. The fact is that we have a mismatch at the moment regarding the role of Ministers in relation to public sector appointments generally. We have a different system for Ministers in relation to externally appointed civil servants; by that I mean civil servant appointments that go out to external competition. In those appointments, the Minister is simply given a name to accept or reject. If the name is rejected, the whole process must be rerun.

In the case of quango or public body appointments, Ministers get to choose from a shortlist of people who have gone through the public appointments system. That raises questions about why there are separate arrangements for external civil service appointments and quango or public body appointments. We need to think our way through without simply making knee-jerk charges of politicisation every time the issue is raised.

We all know that we have an absolute requirement to prevent patronage, but we want at the same time to give Ministers a proper role in the appointment process, because they are the people held accountable for the performance of appointees. Different views were put to us about that during our inquiry. One view put to us forcefully was that we should stop pussyfooting around and allow Ministers essentially to appoint whom they want, including to the civil service. That was from someone by the name of Ed Straw, who is not entirely unconnected with a certain Justice Secretary. His view as a management consultant was that we have an interest in Ministers hiring those whom they consider the best people, because Ministers are accountable for their performance, so why on earth stop them?

We did not go down that road, because we thought that the dangers of patronage must be avoided and the principles of probity and impartiality safeguarded, but there is a case to be put. It is not the case that every kind of political involvement is simply a contamination of elected people. People are elected to do things, make policies, make a difference and produce outcomes. It is right that they should be involved in deciding which people run organisations.

It is worth saying that, in some respects, we have a peculiar arrangement in how we govern. How many other organisations require people to run them on the basis that they cannot directly appoint anybody to enable them to deliver what they say they will for that organisation? Who would take a job like that in any normal organisation? What chief executive would do so if they were told, “The condition of the job is that you don’t get to appoint anybody else”? They would say, “How on earth can I deliver what I want to deliver if I can’t do that?” It is a very proper consideration. We say that because it is extremely important that we have an
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impartial civil service that can serve any Administration, but it is a peculiar arrangement compared with those of other organisations.

Ministers are fully entitled to say, “Given that, we’re absolutely determined to get a civil service that is as efficient as it can possibly be, because we depend on it for our own performance, and we’re going to be held accountable for it.” It is worth remembering—I have said this umpteen times, but I will say it again—that when we classically reformed the civil service in the middle of the 19th century, rooting out patronage in those great Gladstonian reforms, it was not just because patronage was an evil. It was because patronage was inefficient. Appointing poor people through patronage resulted in poor services. The imperative was the rightness of appointment on merit, but also the sense of it for getting efficient public service. They have always run together.

Ministers are entitled to expect efficiency. I am glad that the civil service has taken that seriously through capability reviews. The Cabinet Secretary is much to be commended for that. I note that the revisited capability reviews are showing marked improvement on the first round. Setting up that system showed great confidence. I hope that it will become an integral part of Government and will be developed further. The relationship between Ministers and civil servants may seem arcane, but it goes to the heart of the matter and gives Parliament its core business. We have an interest in ensuring that that relationship works well. It gives people policies and all the things that affect their lives.

The concluding section of the report returns to the question of a civil service Act. It does so deliberately, because we as a Committee have lived with that issue for many years. I will not give all the dreadful chronology, but year in, year out, we have argued for it. In the 1997 election, all parties were committed to a civil service Act. We finally have a serious Act, in draft, in the Constitutional Renewal Bill. It is 150 years overdue, but we are getting there.

The Committee got so frustrated by the delays that, back in 2004, we drafted our own Bill. I think that that is the first time in modern parliamentary history that a Committee has sat down and drafted its own Bill, hoping to induce the Government to make further progress. I like to think that we can claim some role in bringing it to this point, and I hope that the proposal will sit firmly within the Queen’s Speech in a few weeks’ time.

The job is to embed certain key constitutional relationships, to give protection to the principle of appointment on merit to an impartial civil service whatever malign Government might come along in future, and to put down in statute what we think the key constitutional relationships are. The job is not to freeze the civil service or keep it in its present form, but to allow change and development to take place, some of which I have just discussed, and to combine constitutional solidity with the ability to make change and be flexible. That is why we turned our attention to those matters.

I end by repeating a sentence that we used in our report:

That is important, and I hope that our Committee and the report will play some part in doing that.

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3.7 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): It is a delight to follow the Chairman of our Select Committee, who made an outstanding speech. As a Conservative member of the Committee, may I say what a pleasure it is to serve on that Committee under his even-handed guidance?

When I was a youngster, which was not too long ago, there were two things that made me proud of this country. The first was our history of democracy and Parliament, and the second was our civil service, which was impartial and beyond reproach. It is something in which we can still take huge pride. I believe that, despite what we read weekly in the newspapers about sleaze and corruption, we have a good and decent body politic in this country, both here in Westminster and down the road in Whitehall.

There is a great move towards external appointments, as though they were some panacea for problems afflicting the civil service, but we need to be cautious. I feel that many of the people whom we are bringing in are good, decent, able and talented, but they are not steeped in the ethos of public service. Many people in the senior echelons of the civil service who earn good money could leave the civil service, or could have pursued different careers in the private sector, to earn enormous sums of money. We are so privileged to have those people in public service.

Of course, civil servants are prone to making mistakes. When one makes mistakes with public money, it is a serious thing, but in the past two months—or, really, in the past 12 months—we have seen the so-called masters of the universe, who have been earning tens of millions of pounds, making mistakes that have cost the taxpayers of this country hundreds of billions of pounds. That is public money, after all, because it is our money. There are no quick fixes in this matter. For that reason, we need to guard jealously the impartiality and integrity of our civil service.

I promised that I would not speak for long, and I do not intend to, but I was truly concerned by the welcome that the new Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform received. It has nothing to do with the fact that he is Peter Mandelson; it is just not right for civil servants to be put in the position of having to perform for the cameras for the 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock news, or the morning bulletins, smiling and clapping a politician in. That is not their role. As I said earlier, I would be equally horrified if they did that for a Conservative Secretary of State. I am disappointed because Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, came before the Committee in, I think, June, and when we raised that concern, he seemed to take it on board—but it has happened again just a few months later. It damages the civil service in the eyes of the public, because the civil service belongs not to a political party but, wonderfully, to all of us. We must not allow it to be diminished in the eyes of the public.

That is all that I have to say. The report is important. I wish that I had been present when we took evidence; I joined the Committee only a month before the report was published. However, I can give an assurance that the Committee continues to do good work in this area, and that there will be more reports, to which I shall be able to make a fuller contribution.

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3.12 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I am sure that you must be greatly favoured in the Speaker’s Office to be allocated a debate on this fascinating subject for three hours on a Thursday afternoon.

For me, the key revelation about the civil service was a series of talks given by David Henderson in the 1980s with the arresting title “The Unimportance of Being Right”. He gave two examples of work in the civil service: the decision to build Concorde and the advanced gas-cooled reactor programme; he chose them as examples of investment, comparing the beneficial result with the amount of investment. He described them as the worst investment decisions since the Pharaohs decided to build the pyramids. Regardless of any view of those investments at the time as not, in our modern jargon, cost-effective, the point that he made strongly was that there were civil servants who bravely challenged or opposed the then conventional wisdom that those were two great, sexy, important projects on which all politicians agreed. Those civil servants’ careers withered, but the careers of those who went along with conventional unwisdom prospered. The view that that is the ethos of the civil service is one that Sir Gus O’Donnell finds offensive, but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that it is something that still exists there: people must go along with the party line, and those who are courageous, innovative and brave and challenge the foolishness of fashion suffer.

There are a great many civil servants in my constituency. I have the great good fortune to have the UK Intellectual Property Office—the old Patent Office—the Office for National Statistics and the regional passport office there. There are people in those offices who are greatly concerned about the ethos of the civil servant. In 1987 a group came to see me who were very concerned, as professional statisticians. Their office was being moved from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury. As they pointed out, they had been moved into the Department with the greatest vested interest in fiddling the figures.

There were allegations at the time that the Department of Employment was the most shameless and disreputable massage parlour in London, given the way it treated unemployment figures in the late 1980s. Those civil servants told me, “We do the work. We produce objective figures, which stand up, and which are the best we can produce in our professional lives, and they are handed on to politicians to manipulate.” Their great fear was that that would happen. I sent a letter to the then Prime Minister, passing on those concerns, and received one back expressing her astonishment at the thought so unworthy that Governments would ever manipulate figures.

The present Government have not been given credit for the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. They took the decision, which should have been taken many years ago, to remove from Ministers’ direct control the job of producing and publishing statistics, and to reduce the period in which Ministers could look at the figures beforehand. One commentator judged the Bill to be one of the most important of this Parliament, but it has passed almost unnoticed. However, it is of great significance in establishing the role of civil servants.

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We know that the civil service is no longer like Dickens’s Circumlocution Office, or Trollope’s Internal Navigation Board, where civil servants were, I believe, entirely independent and removed from the political process. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) that a degree of politicisation is acceptable in civil servants—and probably desirable as well. As to the much maligned advisers, I am told that there are fewer advisers in the civil service than people responsible for setting up and removing the pictures in Ministers’ offices. It is a tiny figure.

An influential critic, Sir John Hoskyns, posed questions about the issue and argued as long ago as the early 1980s that if civil servants were not allowed to be politicised it put an unnatural and fundamental brake on Government activity. He suggested that the concept of political neutrality put senior civil servants in an impossible position, in which they had to become passive. As my hon. Friend said, that is probably the answer—that they are passive. If there is a need for change, and there usually is when a new Government who want to change things for the better come in, the people we need are not those who carry out the work passively, without being moved by any enthusiasm. If we have enthusiasts in the civil service, they are likely to work in a far more radical way, which is far more likely to be productive.

There is certainly a case for a degree of politicisation. However, we value the idea of civil servants acting as independently as possible. As has been said by hon. Members on both sides, we treasure that aspect of the service. We always think that the grass is greener on the other side of the hill. One reason I wanted to go to Finland with the Committee was that Finland has committees of the future to consider Bills from the point of view of someone who will be alive in 25, 50 or 100 years, so as to get rid of short-termism. One of the metaphors about political life is that we live in a saucer-shaped world, in which we are on the edge of the saucer, looking at one another, and obsessed with our internal divisions and gossip. The rim of the saucer, beyond which we cannot see, is the date of the next general election. There is some truth in that. However, Members of the Committee were surprised when we went to Finland and Sweden to be told that they were great admirers of our system—our foresight and organisations. We were told that we were one of the countries that is an exemplar for the rest of the world. We have many treasures here that are not always recognised.

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