Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)|
15 NOVEMBER 2007
Q80 David Heyes: We have referred
to the intrusion of the press into what you do, and they have
been at it this week. Just a couple of days ago, a reputable newspaper,
reputable journalist, said there are beginning to be murmurings
against the popular Sir Gus O'Donnell, that you have got yourself
trapped into a "Brown bunker". Is this right? Is this
Sir Gus O'Donnell: This week I
was working on a security statement for the Prime Minister and
doing a report the Prime Minister asked me to do in bringing together
Customs, UKvisas and the Border and Immigration Agency. As a former
Press Secretary I tell everybody you have got to have a very tough
skin about things that happen in the press.
Q81 David Heyes: If it is as reported,
and this is within quotes so it appears not to be speculative,
it is pretty disloyal behaviour from one of your key colleagues,
is it not?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I am always
sceptical about everything I read in the newspapers. It is a very
good band of Permanent Secretaries at the minute and they are
very collegiate in a way that, in my time as Permanent Secretary,
I have not seen before. You should ask other Perm Secs.
Q82 David Heyes: Can you really tolerate
that kind of disloyalty amongst your colleagues? You will have
a good idea who the culprit is here, are you going to do anything
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I do not even
know if it is an existing Perm Sec or a previous one.
Q83 David Heyes: Let me turn this
into a more focused question. What have you found to be the key
differences between working with the Blair Government and the
Sir Gus O'Donnell: It is in part
the difference between working with a Prime Minister who had been
in post for eight to ten years versus a Prime Minister coming
in who had just started. There is a different style. You were
working with someone, in Tony Blair, who basically had been doing
it for very many years and had worked out what he wanted to do,
the areas he wanted to concentrate on, and the new Prime Minister
coming in who had a whole series of different issues, particularly
the constitutional area, for example, where he wanted to concentrate.
They have different working styles and we, and the rest of the
Civil Service, adjust to that.
Q84 David Heyes: But apparently not
all of your colleagues are agreeing to that, they are saying after
an initial flurry of apparent change things have gone back to
the way they were, there is a Number 10 bunker again.
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Cabinet Government
is still working very well. There are lots of detailed Cabinet
meetings, lots of papers, lots of parliamentary statements. I
am pretty happy about the way governance is going at the moment.
Q85 Kelvin Hopkins: Following on
from what David has been saying about the changeover, when our
new Prime Minister took office, personally I was very encouraged
by, first, his statement on governance and constitutional change
and, second, the Green Paper. He seemed to have been listening
to many of the things we were saying in this Committee, which
was very encouraging. A few weeks later things started to go wrong.
There was the ill-advised visit to Iraq during the Conservative
Party Conference, which rebounded, and then two weeks ago there
was a publicly quoted speechhe was going to make a speech
praising certain schools, and then it was not made. This had the
flavour of the previous regime, of a prime minister who was, again,
falling into the hands of 24 year old New Labour wannabes rather
than the wise counsels of the Civil Service. These things do not
have the flavour of sensible advisory civil servants. Do you have
a stronger co-ordinating role in these matters than under the
previous prime minister? Are you going to try and make sure this
sort of thing does not happen again?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: There are specific
things to do with that bit about schools which I think our press
office has responded to. The press reporting was not particularly
accurate on that. In terms of co-ordinating government policy,
yes, a number of key advisers we now have inside the Cabinet Office
and I get together to co-ordinate what is going on. I can talk
to the Prime Minister, I have got weekly bilaterals, but I can
go and see him whenever I want, so I do not have a problem about
access. Like I say, obviously he has got a very wide agenda and
there are lots of things he wants to do. You will see still an
accelerated pace in terms of parliamentary statements and work
on a whole range of issues.
Q86 Kelvin Hopkins: The Prime Minister
was very specific about special advisersthat they would
no longer be giving instructions to civil servants, they would
be put back in their box, have a legitimate role in advising,
but essentially they would be regarded as party-political hacks,
creatures of politicians, not to do with the Civil Service. I
would welcome that. Has that happened, and do the special advisers
behave differently now?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: It is a different
batch of special advisers. The first thing is there are less of
them and, like I say, the key policy advisers are now based in
the Cabinet Office. It is fair to say I have always said that
good special advisers are essential to the Civil Service. Number
10 is not a politics-free zone, so it is very important you have
people there who can help on the political side, which is not
appropriate for civil servants to do. It is in our interest to
have good special advisers there and we have a good crop of special
Q87 Kelvin Hopkins: I was also concerned
about the previous regime, of the previous prime minister's government
and Downing Street, in that he seemed to have very close relations
with big business, with city consultants, and they had much more
influence on him than, shall we say, his parliamentary colleagues.
We have just seen recently a former special adviser now taking
vast sums of money to obtain access for health corporations to
get to the Prime Minister. Is this going to change or is this
closeness with Mammon going to carry on?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think you
will always find prime ministers who want to be close to the business
sector. It would be a mistake for prime ministers to isolate themselves
from the whole of the private sector. The Prime Minister announced
his Business Council. That has got a lot of senior business chief
executives on it and I think that will go forward. Your point
about the links, it is important that everybody goes through the
appropriate business appointments procedures and, as far as I
know, that is happening.
Q88 Kelvin Hopkins: Another factor
in the previous prime minister's government was that he used consultants
very widely, he spent vast sums of money. Apparently £2 billion
was spent in a year on consultants, making sure that his will
was carried out at every level and throughout the public services
in particular. Are we going back to a more traditional style or
are we going to carry on with this obsessive control from the
centre, seeking to marginalise Parliament in the manner of the
previous prime minister?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: No. If you
look at the recent White Paper on devolving decision-making, I
think it is very clear that the Government is moving to a situation
where they want to let go more to local authorities. In terms
of within government itself, we are in a new era. With the Comprehensive
Spending Review, all of the PSA targets are cross-cutting PSA
targets, so I think we are going to have to have a world where
a number of departments get together and we work with them to
do that. Ours on social exclusion of adults: that is not something
that we, in the Cabinet Office, will deliver, we will work with
a number of different departments and with a whole set of people
down what they call the delivery chain to get to whether we can
do something concrete, like end up with more ex-offenders in jobs
and homes, which is one of our targets. I think that whole process
will be rather important, but I do expect us to spend less on
consultants, not least because we are moving away from headcount
targets towards financial targets, and I think that gives quite
a strong incentive towards employing civil servants rather than
Q89 Kelvin Hopkins: We have just
been on a visit to Washington, and the American Constitution sets
great store by the separation and balance of powers. In our politics
we have had checks and balances, but the checks and balances have
been severely undermined by recent prime ministers, yet our new
Prime Minister, I was very glad to see, wants to raise the status
of Parliament, wants to gives strength back to the Civil Service
and true independence again. Are we going to have a genuine re-establishment
of proper checks and balances as appropriate in a pluralistic
democracy or is it just going to be show?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, you will
see the reality of it in the Constitutional Renewal Bill. There
are very specific transfers of power to Parliament in that, and
there will be the Civil Service legislation which your Committee
has called for in that. It was 1854 when Northcote-Trevelyan said
this should happen, in 2008 it will be there in Parliament. Sometimes
it takes a while but we are getting there.
Q90 Paul Rowen: Going back to the
beginning when the Chairman talked about Assistant Commissioner
Yates and Number 10, do you not think the people he was referring
to were the special political advisers and they were the ones
who were obstructing the inquiry?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I cannot get
inside his head, I am afraid, you will have to ask him who he
was referring to.
Q91 Paul Rowen: In the Constitutional
Renewal Bill which is coming through, are there going to be specific
regulations to regulate and control what special advisers and
former special advisers will be able to do?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: There is already
a code of special advisers and what it will do in the BillI
have to be careful because it has not been published yet and it
would be inappropriate to go into detailis it will be about
putting the Civil Service on a statutory footing and ensuring
that we are selected on merit, for example on aspects in recruitment.
Q92 Paul Rowen: Turning to the example
of Nicola Murphy and Hanover and the fact that a former political
adviser to Gordon Brown was reputedly charging £181,000 for
a PR package and more than £5,000 for a Brown photocall.
Do you not think, in the same way as you put in regulations to
do with political memoirs et cetera, that there ought to be some
rules which stipulate what not just ex-civil servants but also
ex-political advisers ought to be able to do in the period once
they have ceased working for government?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: As I understand
it, there already are rules about what they can do in terms of
Q93 Paul Rowen: In terms of that
particular allegation, is that being effectively investigated
by yourself to ensure that none of those rules has been broken?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: That is the
kind of thing where there would have been an application which
goes to the Business Appointments group and they would have either
approved or not. I assume they have approved, but certainly I
will look to ensure the correct procedures were gone through in
Q94 Paul Rowen: That is about an
appointment, what you have got here is access to the Prime Minister,
where you have got an ex-adviser to him charging £5,000 for
a Brown photocall. That has got nothing to do with her applying
for the job, that is due to the fact that now she is in the job
she is using her former position to get access to the Prime Minister.
Are you going to investigate that? Do you not think there ought
to be regulations in place which put a block or makes it transparent
what is or is not available?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think you
raise a perfectly reasonable point and I will go away and investigate
Q95 Paul Rowen: Can you get back
to us on that?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Certainly.
Q96 Paul Rowen: Can I ask you again about
the statement which appeared in the Financial Times yesterday,
and I will quote it exactly because it is supposed to be from
a current permanent secretary: "People are saying that he
is too close to Brown, that he's been seduced by the fact that
he is inside the big tent. He's not looking after other cabinet
ministers and their departments. He should be telling Brown that
he needs more people in the tent and he should let them make some
of the announcements."
Do you recognise that as an accurate reflection of the "Brown
Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, I do not.
It is very important for a Cabinet Secretary to have a good and
strong relationship with the Prime Minister. I think I have had
good and strong relationships with the former prime minister and
the current Prime Minister. It is also important that we pursue
Cabinet government very strongly. I spend quite a lot of time
talking to other members of the Cabinet, not just the Prime Minister,
so I do not recognise that as a true depiction of reality.
Q97 Paul Rowen: When you came before
us before I asked you about the collective responsibility of permanent
secretaries and how you acted in a co-ordinating role. I was rather
surprised that whilst you are regarded as first among equals,
you do not have that total co-ordinating role. Is that changing
under the Blair/Brown Government?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: What I have
done is set up this thing called the Civil Service Steering Board
where I chair a smaller group of permanent secretaries and we
are actively pursuing a set of areas which go across the whole
of government. We are going to look at things like Civil Service
reputation and skills, but also areas like whether we are organised
enough to manage these cross-cutting PSAs, do we have the right
capabilities to do those, and where are the challenges for that.
In that sense, yes, I have got a strong co-ordinating role across
Government and it is stronger than we have had in the past on
Q98 Paul Rowen: Finally, just to
pick up on a point which Gordon raised about propriety and honours.
Whilst I appreciate that Lord Ashcroft was appointed prior to
your appointment as Cabinet Secretary, given that there have been
a number of pieces in the paper in the last week about Lords claiming
allowances and not using them and so on, do you not think there
ought to be some very clear guidelines set out and, again, in
the interest of open government, reported for those serving members
of the House of Lords as to what is expected of them? For example,
if you are appointed you should attend so often and you should
be domiciled in the UK? Do you not think the public have a right
to expect that as a minimum from their non-elected representatives
in this case, but appointed representatives?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I can understand
the force of those points. The question is whose responsibility
is it to do that and I am not sure it is my responsibility.
Q99 Paul Rowen: Given that you manage
the propriety and honours system and the Lords Appointments Commission
reports directly through you and gets its secretariat through
you, do you not think you ought to be discussing that with them
so we can get some recommendations and some sort of transparency
about what is happening?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I do not think
I have any control over that. Certainly HoLAC is one of those
independent bodies. I cannot lay down the rules for the House
11 Ev 17 Back
"Brown bunker traps Sir Gus", The Financial Times,
13 November 2007 Back