Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-111)


15 NOVEMBER 2007

  Q100  Paul Rowen: Do you not think it would be a good idea to discuss that with the Chair of the Appointments Commission?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Dennis Stevenson would be in the same situation in saying he was not sure that was within his remit. I am not saying that all the things you have suggested might not be very good ideas, I am saying you need to find a way of finding out who is the person who could do that.

  Paul Rowen: Perhaps as Cabinet Secretary you ought to be telling us.

  Q101  Chairman: It would be possible to have a section of this Constitutional Renewal Bill, which you are discussing at the moment that deals with some of these issues?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: You could and, indeed, there are sections in the Constitutional Renewal Bill which refer to House of Lords reform, for example. It will be within that context that you could, for example, decide you wanted to change rules and procedures governing the Lords.

  Q102  Chairman: It is not impossible that we shall see proposals on this front?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No.

  Q103  Mr Prentice: It is always a great mystery to me how difficult it is to establish who does what in the government or who is responsible for what. You will know that this Committee has embarked on an inquiry into lobbying. I wanted to ask you about the Business Appointments Rules. The Government has responded and the Government agrees with us that former ministers would have to accept the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before taking up a post. The list is available on the Web of course, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments website, you can see all the ministers there. The latest one is a colleague who is still a serving MP, a minister a few months ago, who is getting £115,000 a year. The caveat here, as expressed by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, is that he should not be personally involved in lobbying the Government on behalf of the company or its clients for a year after leaving office. My question to you, given there is a long list of these former ministers who are really raking it in, is have there been any complaints to you from serving civil servants that former ministers have crossed the line and, in effect, they are lobbying, putting a word in, bending someone's ear, in order to justify the huge salaries they are getting from these big companies in the private sector?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, personally I have not had any such complaints from civil servants. Sometimes you get irritation about things which are written in memoirs, but I have not had anyone responding about feeling there was improper pressure.

  Q104  Mr Prentice: Put simply, there has never been a single case you are aware of where a senior civil servant has reported up the line that ministers are trying to cash in by approaching former colleagues or bending someone's ear, it just does not happen?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I am not saying it does not happen, it has not got to me. It could well have been a situation which was dealt with within a department, for example.

  Q105  Mr Prentice: I am also interested in how the system is policed because in this list, which is available on the website, there is the entry for Tony Blair and he is listed as a speaker with the Washington Speakers Bureau Inc. The caveat here is that he can go and do his speaking engagements provided that he does not draw on privileged information which was available to him as prime minister. How is that policed, or have you had a conversation with him or written to him about the boundaries he should not cross?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, I think he is very aware of that condition and I assume he abides by it.

  Q106  Mr Prentice: On the memoirs, the former prime minister is reportedly getting £5 million for his memoirs and the deputy prime minister is putting pen to paper as well, but I do not know how much he is getting. You rejected this Committee's recommendation to have an advisory committee on memoirs. Would you like to tell the Committee why you rejected our recommendation?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The decision by Government was that what was appropriate was to tighten the rules for civil servants and special advisers and that this could be done most simply by adopting the recommendations which you put forward about the copyright issues, which I think takes away the financial incentive, and by having permanent secretaries look at who should be the people they need to cover this by, but that ministers are in a different position, they are elected officials, it is not the same situation, and they need to be able to defend their decisions.

  Q107  Mr Prentice: What about Cherie Blair who was at Number 10? There are no rules which would prevent her from saying what she likes about what happened when she was in Number 10 as wife of the then prime minister?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: That is right.

  Q108  Mr Prentice: We have a government of a different complexion up in Edinburgh, and occasionally I dip into the Scottish press and I read that Alex Salmond would like to have a separate Civil Service in Scotland. Has he made an approach to you or, indeed, the Prime Minister about hiving off the Civil Service in Scotland? If so, what was the response?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: We noted it was certainly in the SNP manifesto to move towards an independent Scottish Civil Service. The short answer to your question is no, he has not approached either me or the Prime Minister to suggest that. It is a reserved matter, it is worth noting.

  Q109  Chairman: You have accepted so many of our recommendations latterly—someone has discovered our back catalogue—it seems churlish to pick a fight on particular things, but I would like to on two or three, as we end, on the replies you have done to some of our reports. Gordon mentions one, the memoirs issue. We thought we had struck the right balance here. There seems to have been a great over-reaction, certainly on the part of the Foreign Office, in terms of closing down opportunities to speak and write on the part of former diplomats simply because Christopher Meyer behaved badly. We very much wanted to get the balance right and that is the reason why we recommended a process of trying to seek agreement and, if it could not be found, inventing an appeal mechanism which would decide where the public interest lay. There is disappointment that the Government has not accepted this, particularly because you say the Government believes that ultimate responsibility for deciding on the balance of the public interest must rest with the government of the day. Surely that cannot be right? It is not right in relation to the freedom of information provisions where we do apply a public interest test. This is an attempt to apply a public interest test to the publication of memoirs. That must be the right approach, must it not?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: On one thing you said about the Foreign Office, can I respond to the detail of that in that I have had discussions with Peter Ricketts about that in terms of the rules they have imposed and he is looking again at those. There is an issue there about whether they were too comprehensive. He wants to address that, so that will be sorted out. On the question of whether it should be an independent thing, in the end the Government decided that it was right for the government of the day to make these decisions in terms of choosing in the public interest.

  Q110  Chairman: I get the impression that was not your position, but we will pick a fight with somebody else! On the Ministerial Code, which we have kept an interest in over the years and, as you know, we have recommended there should be an independent investigator for the Code, as there is for Members of Parliament with the Parliamentary Commissioner, we have now got Sir Philip Mawer who is replacing Sir John Bourn. Can you explain how Sir Philip Mawer's role is different from that of Sir John Bourn?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: He will look at this and publish annual reports on what he is doing, but you are right on the fundamental point, like John Bourn he will not have the right to independently decide whether an investigation is done. The Prime Minister, like the former prime minister, had decided that it would be appropriate for prime ministers to make that decision.

  Q111  Chairman: Again, it is probably unfair to press you because you may be on a different side of the argument, but it does seem to us to be bizarre that people with allegations cannot simply go to an independent person to have them investigated, as we do with Members of Parliament. It seems unnecessary to maintain this protection inside the system if we are seeking to give more creditability to it. We will have an argument with somebody else! Can I finally ask about the proposal in our report on ethics and standards. We thought there was something fundamentally wrong with the fact that, although in practice independent, the Cabinet Office ethical regulators are not constitutionally independent. We thought that was rather an important point and we suggested that we ought to think about something like an independent public standards commission that would operate in this area. As I understand from the Government's reply, it has not entirely closed its mind to this suggestion, is that correct?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: This is correct. This is still under discussion as to precisely what is the right way of guaranteeing the independence of these groups. I do not think there is any dispute that we want them to be as independent as possible. What is the precise form of that and what is the precise way in which all these different regulators should be corralled together or interact with each other, I think those are the things which are still under discussion.

  Chairman: On that note of relative optimism, we will end. Thank you very much for a typically wide-ranging and interesting session. Thank you very much indeed.

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