Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

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 just fabrication?

  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 about it?

  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 Brown Government?

  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 speech—he 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 advisers—that 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 advisers.

  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 consultants.

  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 Bill—I have to be careful because it has not been published yet and it would be inappropriate to go into detail—is 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 business appointments.

  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 that case.

  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 that.

  Q95  Paul Rowen: Can you get back to us on that?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Certainly.[11]

  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."[12] Do you recognise that as an accurate reflection of the "Brown bunker" mentality?

  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 that.

  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 of Lords.

11   Ev 17 Back

12   "Brown bunker traps Sir Gus", The Financial Times, 13 November 2007 Back

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