Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


15 NOVEMBER 2007

  Q60  Chairman: So if the Prime Minister said to you, "Design a new centre for me", you would come up with something very much like we have got now, would you?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: It would be close to what we have got now. I am much happier with the centre now than I was when I first started.

  Q61  Paul Flynn: The consequence of setting stretching targets seems to be that targets are not measures of success, they become measures of failure. Should you have a target for setting achievable targets or would that fail too?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Michael Barber has written a whole book on that subject, which I commend to you.

  Q62  Paul Flynn: That is very kind of you.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: There is a trade-off. If we set targets that we pass completely then the worry I would have is we set the targets at too low a level. The optimal position is where we set a range of targets that are very stretching and we meet some and fail on some others. I do not regard that as failure, I regard that as a success of the system.

  Q63  Paul Flynn: You spoke eloquently, and we were delighted to hear it, those of us from outside of London, of your strong belief in relocating out of London and the South East. Your department pledged to relocate 250 posts outside London and the South East by March 2008. By March 2007 you had relocated 41 posts and I believe you have now abandoned the target.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The point about that target was it was for a Cabinet Office that was rather different, that had a whole range of different areas. As I say, we moved from 2,300 to 1,300. What I have done in this whole process is moving to the core of what I regard as the essential part of the Cabinet Office and that core part is the part that is intimately associated with supporting the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. They are all the kind of people I have to have close to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Whilst, as a Government, we have been able to relocate successfully, and Government is meeting the Lyons' targets very well, the new Cabinet Office does not have the kinds of posts that I can relocate anywhere else.

  Q64  Paul Flynn: The target was set, you failed to meet that target and you have now abandoned that target, that is the situation. What about the Gershon efficiency targets? You have not met any of those on efficiency itself, on headcounts and relocation, have you?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No. Our headcount reduction required was 150 and as a result of some of the machinery of government changes, which in this case meant a number of people moving in the Office of the Third Sector, for example, that headcount reduction target was recalibrated by the Treasury, thank you very much, up to 250.

  Q65  Paul Flynn: Recalibrated?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes. They decided to give us a "more stretching target", I think was the phrase, which was very kind of them. Out of that 250 we are now at 211, so we only need 39 more by the March 2008 deadline, so I expect us to meet that headcount target. On financial efficiency, our savings target for March 2008 is 25 million and we are currently at 23.9 million, so I expect to meet that target.

  Q66  Paul Flynn: There is another matter you might be able to help us on. When we spoke to Yates, I asked him if there were any conditions laid down by the Prime Minister about being interviewed and he said, "Only his diary.",[10] yet I read in the newspapers the next day that the Prime Minister had insisted on certain conditions being laid down for being interviewed, including threats of resignation. Is there any truth in that?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The only situation in terms of sorting out for the Prime Minister to be interviewed by the police was the question of diary. We sorted out the diary and they then interviewed him three times on whatever they wanted.

  Q67  Paul Flynn: Are you saying at no time did the Prime Minister threaten to resign or impose other conditions?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The Prime Minister never threatened to resign.

  Q68  Paul Flynn: Were you surprised when Mr Yates said that he had never spoken to a lobby journalist?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I know that the fact of the way the police have to operate at times means, and this was pointed out to me by the police themselves, they have to have dealings with journalists. I know they have dealings with journalists but obviously it cannot involve lobby journalists.

  Q69  Paul Flynn: We have testimony that we have not put in the public domain of an uncanny amount of activity that preceded visits by police to witnesses in this case. Apart from clairvoyance, why do you think that activity took place?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I am afraid that is not a question I could answer, you would have to ask others.

  Q70  Paul Flynn: On the public appointments and pre-appointment hearings, we were told with some passion in the United States that this country would be mad to go into the kind of confirmation hearings that they have. How do you see this developing? We have had one already, and you mentioned it, Michael Scholar, who was an outstanding candidate and was likely to be entirely non-controversial in a very important job. What dangers do you see if we go down the route of these hearings, whether they are pre-appointment hearings or hearings that are there just to confirm the appointment? What is your feeling on that?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: There are two things that worry me. First, the number of candidates who put themselves forward for these jobs, which are very, very important jobs for the public sector, will be reduced. In terms of getting as large and as diverse a pool of candidates as possible there might be a problem because some would not want to go through what they would see as yet another hurdle and a very public process. The second would be how you would reconcile such a process with the rules that I think we all very strongly support in terms of free and fair open competition that we choose on merit, the rules of the various Commissioners.

  Q71  Paul Flynn: One of the advantages that was clear to us in the papers we were reading in America when we were there was there was a confirmation hearing in progress of an Attorney-General who was being closely questioned on torture allegedly used by America, water boarding. The case was made that this was a unique chance that they would not have in any other forum in America to question the activities of their own government. Do you see such an opportunity arising, perhaps perversely, as a result of these innovations that might conceivably lead to the embarrassment of governments?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I am all for government being held accountable by Parliament at select committees and the like. It would be a slightly bizarre situation if you had to have these sorts of hearings in order to get that sort of information. Surely that is the sort of information that select committees should be asking of the Government.

  Q72  Paul Flynn: Do you envisage legislation being laid down to establish a procedure for these or just to go on as they have started, people appearing before existing select committees?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: This is one of the issues that is still under discussion as to precisely what should be in the Constitutional Renewal Bill on this issue. Again, as I say, I do not think any decisions have been made, so if you have views about this it would be very timely if you let us know.

  Paul Flynn: I am grateful to you, thank you.

  Q73  Mr Prentice: This is a question of tying up loose ends on this Yates' business. Assistant Commissioner Yates told me that he did not know if emails in Number 10 were archived and he did not know if they were in sequence. My question to you is are emails in Number 10 archived?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Emails across Government have the same sort of process. If there is an email in the system it is retained in the server for a certain amount of time and then automatically deleted if not saved to certain other areas.

  Q74  Mr Prentice: I am not rerunning the inquiry, I am absolutely not, but who would decide that an email was important enough to archive? You say it is deleted after a certain period.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Could I just take advice on precisely what "deleted" means, because if you delete from one system it can be retrieved, can it not? They are all retrievable. It is a myth that you can delete anything. It takes it off one part of the system and puts it somewhere else. It is much harder to get at that somewhere else, which is why it took weekend working and looking at servers and the like to get all of that. Basically it is there.

  Q75  Mr Prentice: So out there in cyberspace somewhere there will be the emails, or the shadows of emails, that have been deleted that could have been recovered.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: And were. All of these things were made available.

  Q76  Mr Prentice: I only ask the question because the man who was leading the inquiry did not know about the procedures for archiving. My second and final question on this is Assistant Commissioner Yates spoke to you once very early on in the inquiry, that is what he told the Committee. There have been suggestions that the inquiry did not get full co-operation from Number 10, but at any stage did Assistant Commissioner Yates or one of his people contact you to urge you to speak to people in Number 10 urging them to co-operate with him and the inquiry?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No.

  Q77  Mr Walker: A very quick question and then I really will leave this alone. Did officials have any meetings or conversations with Sir Ian Blair during this investigation to convey their concerns about the way it was being conducted, in particular the way the press handling was going on?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No. There was a slightly ambiguous status for Sir Ian Blair in this whole process because there were press reports that he had recused himself from it. I was not at all clear whether that was the case.

  Q78  Mr Walker: Why were you not clear that was the case?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Because as far as I could tell the reporting line on this case went through Yates to Stephenson.

  Q79  Mr Walker: Okay. And not Sir Ian?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: That was my understanding.

  Chairman: I can report, by the way, that Mr Yates has just written to the Committee wanting to correct aspects of the record in relation to the session that we had with him, particularly on the matter of his contacts with lobby journalists. We shall be including this in the report that we eventually make.

10   Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Committee on 23 October 2007, HC (2007-08) 153 Q 249 Back

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