Previous Section Index Home Page

30 Oct 2008 : Column 340WH—continued

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. One thing that should worry all of us is the declining turnout at elections, which shows a
30 Oct 2008 : Column 341WH
declining interest in politics or a resentment of the political system by the electorate. According to academic research, it correlates to only one thing: the narrowing difference between the parties. Front-Bench Members from both parties seem to be in the same place ideologically, and the range of views that used be represented in Parliament and that retained interest among the electorate is no longer there.

Mr. Hurd: I am not sure whether I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I certainly do not agree that that is the only constituent factor in the worrying drop in voter turnout. Long political cycles have a part to play in such things and there is another fundamental, structural problem in that people are not sufficiently persuaded that their engagement is going to change anything. In part, that drove me to take the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 through Parliament—there was a strong sense that people needed to have a much greater influence over the decisions that really affected them. A sense of disengagement is part of the problem. I do not wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I recognise what he is saying.

There is an erosion of public confidence in how we are being governed, and the hon. Member for Pendle was robust in listing some of the failures. There are always failures in government, but there have been a string of high-profile, damaging and painful failures that the public feel, because they deal with them. I am talking, for example, about tax credits, the Child Support Agency and the Rural Payments Agency—that was not mentioned but it is on the list of high-profile failures. Among other things, they cause people to ask again, “What is going on in the Government? Why are we getting this apparently systematic failure?” They notice when a Home Secretary, for instance, says that his Department is not fit for purpose. People sit up and listen to things like that and ask, “What on earth is going on here?”

Such things must feed into the morale of the public services. We are talking specifically about civil servants, but we can extend the debate to the wider public services. We all talk to teachers and doctors in our constituencies, and we know that they do not all have a great spring in their step. They are concerned about how they are being managed and whether they are being listened to. The public recognise that. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester talked about the collapse in morale at the Treasury, and one hears the same about the Foreign Office. Such things must concern us.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) mentioned another problem: it is getting increasingly difficult to get an answer to the questions of who is in charge and who is accountable. The hon. Member for Pendle was strong on the fragmentation of government and the proliferation of quangos and agencies. As MPs, we know that it is getting increasingly hard to find out who can address our constituents’ concerns, because the buck seems to shoot round the system. The public are conscious that the power of Parliament has diminished, that local government has effectively been turned into local administration over the past 20 years and of the proliferation of quangos and agencies, and they get increasingly frustrated at the lack of accountability in the system.

30 Oct 2008 : Column 342WH

One lady comes into my surgery once a month or so with an article ripped out of The Sun, the Daily Mail or whatever—about data loss, for example—and she is incensed by the fact that no one seems to be held to account. No one puts a hand up saying, “It was my fault, and this is the price I pay for it.” She does not understand that. She lives in the real world where, when someone makes mistakes, they are identified and held responsible. The report is very much plugged into that wider malaise. It is crystallised in the quote from Lord Butler:

That is the context of the debate and why the report is important.

To return to the narrow but hugely important issue on which the report centres, which is the relationship between Ministers and civil servants, the hon. Member for Richmond Park was extremely modest about her knowledge. I confess to even greater ignorance: I am an inexperienced Member of Parliament and I have never been a special adviser or Minister and certainly not a Secretary of State, although I know a man who has. My only experience of the interface between Ministers and civil servants was taking the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 through Parliament as a private Member’s Bill. That brought me into direct contact with the delicate dance that goes on between Ministers and civil servants. It was clear from the outset that the relevant Department and Secretary of State did not want the measure. However, the Minister concerned, enterprisingly, saw the politics of it and decided that he wanted to change the Department’s mind. It was fascinating to see that delicate dance. Actually, it worked out well, because the political vision prevailed and the civil service tied in behind to make it work. In that case, it worked, but the evidence is clearly building that it is not working throughout the system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester quoted Sir Richard Wilson and others on their concerns about the politicisation of the civil service, the inadequate process of giving and receiving advice and the implementation of policy. As the report makes clear, there is a muddle—I believe that that expression is used—of relationships and sense of responsibility and the definitions of responsibility and accountability. That is not sustainable in the increasingly challenging, complex and evolutionary background of government.

We have spoken about fragmentation, but not about devolution, which is pushing power away from Whitehall towards local government. That will make life in the civil service more complicated. We have also not talked about how policy areas such as climate change now cut across Departments. Whitehall finds it extremely hard to deal with such things, which are yet another challenge for it. Of course, all those things are happening in a ferocious new media environment, in which the Minister is well versed—he is well known for being the first MP to put up a blog. That ferocious environment places yet another challenge in the way of our ancient systems and ways of doing business. As the report makes clear, we need to ensure that we have a framework that allows Ministers and civil servants to work together effectively and that does not lock

That is a good phrase.

30 Oct 2008 : Column 343WH

The Conservative party have for some time been persuaded of the necessity of a civil service Act. Indeed, a former member of the Shadow Cabinet promoted such legislation in a private Member’s Bill in response to the Committee’s draft, and it was explicitly called for by the democracy taskforce, which was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and so ably served by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester. I almost regret that such an Act is necessary. It is possibly not a panacea for some of the problems that we have discussed, but rather a necessary condition of rebuilding a culture of trust and mutual impartiality.

Will the Minister say why such a measure has taken the Government so long? The Chairman of the Committee joked—although he may have been serious—about the journey of 150 years, going back to the Northcote-Trevelyan report. Life did not start in 1997, as we are encouraged to believe, when all three parties were committed to a civil service Act; but since then, we have had an extraordinary process of delay. The hon. Member for Pendle described it as the dance of the seven veils, but I do not think that that is the right image, because it tells of energy, motion, passion and vigour, which have been entirely absent from the process.

To remind ourselves, the process began in 1997. In 2000, a report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended it, and there was another commitment from the Government to the principle. In 2002, the PAC announced its intention to publish its own draft Bill and the Committee on Standards in Public Life again expressed a commitment. In January 2004, I believe, the PAC presented its draft Bill, which in turn was presented as a private Member’s Bill, as I said. In November 2004, the Government published their own draft Bill, to which a lukewarm consultation was attached. That consultation expired in February 2005, and the responses to it were published in March 2008. That is not the movement, language or action of a Government who are committed to a civil service Act.

When the Minister speaks, we will listen carefully for reassurances that such an Act has the genuine support of the Government. The messages that underlie the various announcements that have been made suggest that the Government think that there may be a case for an Act, but that “Actually, things work pretty well and are getting better, and anyway we have other priorities.” We need to hear from the Minister a stronger commitment to the Act.

We welcome the inclusion of a mini civil service Bill within—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester—an otherwise rather disappointing draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. Questions arise, such as does the Minister think that the Government have struck the right balance in making more explicit the responsibility of Ministers to be impartial to civil servants? A lot of emphasis is placed on the impartiality of civil servants, but is there an appropriate balance with regard to the responsibility of Ministers?

There has been a lot of debate about special advisers. Will the Government be more explicit when they define the role of such advisers, and will they bring them back to being givers of advice rather than givers of instruction? What happens if a special adviser breaks the new code and the Minister does not punish him or her? Again,
30 Oct 2008 : Column 344WH
there will be a lot of devil in the detail. As and when the Bill comes before us—again, I would appreciate the Minister being as explicit as he can on that point—the Opposition will hold the Government to account, so that they deliver a really effective Bill that is well balanced and does not fudge definitions. It must play an important part in restoring public faith in not just the civil service, but the whole process of government.

5.12 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and his formidable Committee colleagues on securing this debate and removing me from the onerous task of going in the rain to Hamleys in Regent street to shop for three hours.

My hon. Friend said that there were no vacancies on his Committee. I am certain that there is a relationship there with the number of vacancies that have occurred for junior Cabinet Office Ministers over the years. I hope that I can be a rule breaker on that one. He is right to say that the Committee has had many successes over the years through its quiet and patient application of pressure on the Government, and all Committee members should be commended for that.

Because of the randomness of parliamentary questions, this is my first opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) to his new position. He draws down on a great body of experience, both from the civil service and his ministerial lineage. I wish him well in his new post.

The hon. Gentleman said that we must understand the historical context behind the changes that have been made—and the ones that we intend to make—to the civil service. It is not possible to understand the direction of change without looking back over 150 years at the relationship between politicians and the civil service. The repercussions of those changes and the recommendations that have been made by the Committee go far beyond Whitehall.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said—a little too often for my liking—if the civil service and Ministers do not get policies and the implementation of those policies right, the people whom we are elected to represent suffer. What matters most to my constituents is that the Government deliver efficiently on their commitments. I hope that hon. Members will agree that that is the key to the whole debate. How can Ministers and the civil service adapt and respond to the increasingly complex changes to the world in which we all live?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said, let us look back at the reforms that have taken place. Peter Hennessy described those changes as

As members of the Committee know, that gift began with the Northcote-Trevelyan report more than 150 years ago. Before Northcote and Trevelyan, servants of the Crown were appointed to office by Ministers. Governance was a family business—I am not making any wisecracks at the relatively new hon. Member—based on who one
30 Oct 2008 : Column 345WH
knew or was related to. Stafford Northcote and Charles Trevelyan were determined to remove untrammelled patronage from the system, not simply because it was corrupt, but because it was inefficient.

The Northcote-Trevelyan report recommended a proper system of examination before appointment; a proper system of transfers between Departments; that promotion by merit should be strictly supervised; and that annual increments of salary should be conditional on satisfactory work. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle would like me to reassure Mr. Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, that we do not intend to change those principles. When it comes to increments, I think that they will remain in place for the foreseeable future, although we may have a dispute about the way in which increments are calculated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase explained how Back Benchers had to resign their parliamentary seat when they joined the Executive. It was Gladstone who ensured that civil servants had to resign from their post before being elected to Parliament. That detachment from political life is one of the things that is meant by the term “permanent civil service”, which has such a long and significant history.

The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) challenged the notion and said that we might have to change the idea of three decades in the civil service. We have made many changes in recent years to ensure that we can mix up the gene pool. I hope that he will acknowledge the progress that the Government have made in that area.

The Fulton report sought to move the civil service on from what it called

It said that it

As we have all acknowledged today, times have moved on. Today’s civil service reflects changed values. For example, we have, thankfully, made great strides in recruiting women, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities. For example, the proportion of women in the senior civil service has almost doubled since 1996. The percentage of civil servants from ethnic minority backgrounds has risen by almost half since 1997, and the proportion of civil servants declaring a disability has more than doubled in the past seven years.

However, the civil service is still recognisably a product of Northcote, Trevelyan and Gladstone, and the many other initiatives and reforms over the years. Here I want to return to the notion of efficiency that was raised by many hon. Members. It was the key driver for reform both 150 years ago and now. In its report, the Committee pointed out that the civil service is expected to give continuity when Administrations change and stand up to the Government; it used the term “constitutional effectiveness”. As the Committee notes,

Although the hon. Member for Chichester attempted to build up a formidable argument, there is general consensus that that is the position.

An area with which we should concern ourselves is how to formulate and deliver policy, or what the Committee
30 Oct 2008 : Column 346WH
called “operational effectiveness”. In 1854, Northcote and Trevelyan noted that admission into the unreformed civil service was

They claimed that success depended not on civil servants’ performance but

Of course fair and open competition has been the mainstay of civil service recruitment for years now, but we want to go further. We must get the best people, but we must also make sure that they continue to perform.

I was pleased to see that the Committee was

Capability reviews aim to strengthen the civil service to enable it to meet the Government’s objectives today and be ready for the challenges of tomorrow. Reviews are carried out by the capability reviews team with a team of external reviewers assembled specially for the Department under review. The reviews are then published to ensure that the process is open to scrutiny and comment.

That leads me to the big questions posed by the Committee report. What are and what should be the respective roles of Ministers and civil servants in the performance exposed so clearly by the capability reviews and so well documented by my colleagues, particularly from the Labour party? The Committee says at the opening of its report:

It goes on to suggest, however, that the notions of ministerial and civil service accountability are far from clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) mentioned the unimportance of being right—perhaps in contrast with the speech of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), which might be described as the unimportance of being wrong when it comes to his criticisms of some of my colleagues—but I disagree. I think that we have a clear and proper democratic line of accountability. It runs from the electorate through Members of Parliament to the Government. The duly constituted Government—that is, Ministers—are assisted by the permanent and politically impartial civil service. Ministers are accountable to Parliament and civil servants are accountable to Ministers. That is proper, because what matters most is to ensure the ultimate accountability of the Government to the electorate.

The Committee is right, though, to assert that

whether on the location of desks in Downing street or on major procurement projects in the IT sector.

I agree with the Committee that

Next Section Index Home Page