House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
public administration committee
RT HON PETER LILLEY MP and RT HON NICK RAYNSFORD MP
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Public Administration Committee
Dr Tony Wright, in the Chair
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger
Mr Gordon Prentice
Mr Charles Walker
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke MP, Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP and Rt Hon Nick Raynsford, gave evidence.
Q128 Chairman: Let me call this Committee to order and extend a warm welcome to our witnesses and colleagues. We are delighted to have Peter Lilley, Nick Raynsford, Ken Clarke and David Blunkett. As you know, we have asked you because we wanted people with deep ministerial experience to contribute to this inquiry which we have rather grandly called Good Government. The point of it, just so that we are clear, is to see if we can stand back from some of the daily grind to take a rather more reflective look at how we do government, some of the good things about it and some of the bad things, whether we have learned anything over the years and whether we can distil some of that into decent recommendations. You all, in different ways, have thoughts on this and we want to draw upon those today. I do not know whether, knowing all that, any or all of you want to say something very briefly to get us going or whether we will just kick off. Nick, I think you were going to say something, were you not?
Mr Raynsford: I am very happy to.
Q129 Chairman: Do you want to kick off, Nick, and then others will perhaps join in?
Mr Raynsford: I am more than happy to defer to my colleagues if any of them want to kick off but if you want me to start off I will do so. Reflecting a little bit on the questions and the subjects that your inquiry has covered so far it seems to me there are three separate issues that need to be looked at in terms of improving quality of government. Some of those are administrative issues; some of them are political issues; some of them are cultural issues. If I can very briefly summarise what I see as the distinction between those and the priorities in some of those areas maybe that will help start things off. Firstly, I do think in terms of administrative issues we still have a long way to go to improve the way in which we look at legislation for example. The preparation is often too hasty; the scrutiny through the various parliamentary stages is sometimes rudimentary and does not always focus on priorities, and the process by which we then evaluate the impact of legislation - what its outcomes have been - is very hit and miss. There is not a consistent process of trying to learn from experience to improve future legislation as there should be, in my view, to ensure that we keep the process of policy formulation and implementation linked very closely together rather than being done by separate people often in completely different parts of the wood. On the political side I am still very concerned about the speed with which the ministerial office comes to an end, the number of ministers who move around at frighteningly short periods. Just to give an illustration, I had the good fortune of being Minister for Construction in the early years of the current Government between 1997 and 2001. I had four years there and for three years before that I had been the opposition spokesman. So I had a really good period of time, seven years, to get to understand an extremely large and complex industry, about eight to nine per cent of GDP, two and a half million people employed in it, responsible for all the infrastructure and buildings that make our society work; a hugely important industry. The minister responsible for that industry has lots of interfaces with the industry. I had the time to be able to get to know people, to understand the relationships and some of the complexities and some of the consequences of legislation on the industry. My successors since 2001 have had a period in office respectively of two years, two years, one year, one year, seven months, seven months. I do not exaggerate; that is the fact. The last minister, Baroness Vadera, was moved in the latest reshuffle; she had only come into that post in February. With the best will in the world - she is a bright lady and so too have been most of the other ministers who have fulfilled that role - it is virtually impossible to get to know an organisation and industry of that complexity in that period of time. I just do not think that helps good government. It certainly does not help people on the outside to believe that a government is trying to understand them and build long term relationships. I do think, on the political side, we can do a lot more to ensure that ministerial office is treated more in terms of outcomes and less in terms of the success of the individual minister in climbing the greasy pole. The third issue, the cultural one, I just think we have to learn the lesson that people expect governments to do too much. It is ever so easy for people in government to claim that they can find solutions to any problems and indeed the media are all the time egging us on to show that we can produce solutions to any problem. In reality the powers of government are limited and a greater degree of honesty on the part of those involved in the political process about what government can do and what it cannot do and also a greater understanding of the limitations of top down government, understanding the case for greater devolution to the front line and to the locality, and accepting that if that happens there must be more responsibility there for decisions. The example I always give is local government, because if local government really is not responsible for its own spending because central government controls a vast amount of local government spending - about three quarters currently -what chance is there of getting effective local government that really is responsive and answerable to its local population. That depends on government being brave enough to say, "We must devolve more, we must do less but do what we do better".
Q130 Chairman: David, I saw you nodding vigorously at one point in that, would that be your cue to come in perhaps?
Mr Blunkett: My message this morning is: do what I say, do not do what I
did! On Nick's point that we indicate to
the public and to our colleagues that we can do more than we can do and in fact
I have been talking to ministers over the last two days and both of them said,
"What would you advise me as an old codger" and I said, "Get across the message
that everything in the world is not going to land on your doorstep". I fear that when I was in, I often felt that
I had an obligation to counteract the Roy Jenkins' view of the world. When I gave evidence with Michael Howard,
both of us agreed that
Q131 Chairman: Can I just push you a little bit further, David, before we lose you? You mentioned the article you have written in the Political Quarterly and I confess to be a joint editor of that illustrious journal. However, in that article you say, if I may quote you, "The Government appears to have learnt little about the critical nature of reform of the Civil Service after over a decade in office. Partly this can be explained by the assumption that this is a matter for the Government. For its part, the Government assumed that the Public Administration Select Committee would provide alternative scenarios, but it did not." My memory of this period is so fundamentally at odds with that that I am puzzled by it.
Mr Blunkett: Why is it fundamentally at odds?
Q132 Chairman: We spent the last ten years giving the Government ideas about public service reform in which it showed no interest of any kind.
Mr Blunkett: My criticism was not of the Public Administration Select Committee, you understand Chairman.
Q133 Chairman: What I am really getting at is that Michael Barber - who you are going to mention to us because he was your man and he then went on to be the Delivery Unit man - in his book on his years he says that he thought the great failure of the Government was that it never got to think about serious Civil Service reforms.
Mr Blunkett: That is what I am saying. I do not think we do and I think in the first two years we should have taken it very seriously indeed because delivery is how governments are judged and if they are being judged on something they do not have a grip on then inevitably people become disillusioned.
Q134 Chairman: You are suggesting that somehow you were waiting for someone to give you some ideas about this. We have it from the inside that in fact you had no interest in these matters.
Mr Blunkett: Actually I was being critical of my own party, that my own party has neglected to actually take the issues seriously. Apart from some cursory training of potential ministers in 1996/1997 we have not really, as a party, addressed the question at all. I take as much criticism on my own shoulders as anyone else for this. I also make the point that there are historic reasons. In the question you raise - what does the British Government do well? - they do probity well. They do not do being interfered with by politicians in the official sense well. We have been so hung up on this quite understandably that we never wanted to be accused outright of political interference with officialdom, with the Civil Service. Every time there has been any kind of move whatsoever - including modernising communications; when we came in people were still sending press releases out by post never mind fax, never mind embryo e-mails - and when you do that then quite understandably the media rally around with the Civil Service as though the enemy is the politician. We have to live with that but we also have to be brave enough to say that although the capability reviews and the work that Sir Gus O'Donnell has been doing is very welcome and an important step, firstly it should have been done ten years ago and secondly it should have learned the lessons of the 1980s where Margaret Thatcher did try and modernise. I might not have agreed with everything on this particular front as with others that she did, but actually she did try to get across the message that the Civil Service needed to be in the late twentieth century rather than the late nineteenth.
Q135 Chairman: Thanks for that. Can I just bring Ken in and ask you what you think we get right, what you think we get wrong and what we need to do about it?
Mr Clarke: On the political front I do agree with what Nick said. We have not really, I think, come to terms with the change in the nature of government now in reaction to the 24 hours a day/7 days a week constant campaigning. Government has become a permanently campaigning activity which it did not used to be. It has quite transformed since I first started, but the governments I first observed spent most of their time governing and started thinking about campaigning about six months before they realised an election was due to come forward and there were periods where you could just get on with the job for better or otherwise. That is now quite transformed; it is permanently transformed. I think the present Government transformed it dramatically as soon as they came into office. One of my former civil servants told me that within a few weeks of his first experience he thought the new lot were much more professional than we had ever been. At first he was very impressed by this fantastic determination that the press releases should be more striking and be out more quickly and all the rest of it. It has had a permanent and irreversible effect; any future government will want to do the same thing. However, it has altered the relationship quite a lot between the Government and Civil Service and I also agree that we have done nothing to lower the expectations of the public which are now very, very much higher than they used to be and governments do not deny that they can cure every ill that society suffers from. They go into wider and wider areas. I have heard it said in the Japanese context that this leads to an infantalisation of the public who are led to believe that any problem they face is the fault of their political masters who shall be expected to sort it out in the next two or three weeks. This gives a breathlessness to government which is not very good. I agree with Nick very strongly on the reshuffling point; it is farcical.
Mr Blunkett: Yes, none of us really wanted to be reshuffled.
Mr Clarke: I have had a much reshuffled career and I enjoyed the two which I had a long stint at because you could do something and I regretted the ones where I was moved away, but I never served a few months in office. I would add to that I think it is almost worse - because it happens more frequently - at the junior minister level. I think there is no understanding - perhaps because they have been in opposition for so long, which may be a problem for my party as well if we get back into power - of the importance of some of the ministerial jobs. They are very big jobs. We have both been at the Home Office. The minister responsible for prisons, the minister responsible for immigration, the minister responsible for construction, the minister who is handling the social services portfolio in the health department has an enormous job and it is no good appointing people on the advice of the whips who say, "It is time we had somebody from the North East" or "Joe needs a turn because he's getting a bit troublesome on the back benches", leaving them there for about nine months to a year and putting somebody else in. It has a totally destructive effect. The relationship between the politicians and the civil servants has changed very badly. We have taken to a simplistic length the idea that the politicians lay down policy and the civil servants deliver. That means that the politicians discuss with political advisors, think-tank experts and each other what they should do. When it all goes pear-shaped it is assumed that the administration is failing to deliver these great things. I think that has a lot to do with the changes in the Civil Service. I think the Civil Service has lost its policy role. They will administer things better if they play the key role they used to in the formulation of policy. Frank and fearless advice and actual involvement all the way through in the formulation of policy can spare the ministers an awful lot of chaos and anguish. Unfortunately, I think, far too often policies are produced instantly in response to media and public pressures without the people who are going to be in the department involved in the delivery of it having a proper opportunity to advise, even knowing entirely what is going on, and certainly not being given long enough to formulate both the policy and the legislation in line with their political masters' wishes. When I first started, they were most reluctant to move things in line with their political masters' wishes. The Sir Humphrey television programme is the best guide to that, but that has now gone completely the other way, where they are expected to deliver things they know nothing about and would not have done if they had been asked their opinion properly at an early stage. It is honesty and probity you should never under-rate. We are one of the few countries in the world that has an extraordinary honest level of government. The sense of public service, I think remains impeccably untouched and must never be damaged. I think a certain disillusionment with the frantic nature of the process they are engaged in has undoubtedly set in. People in the public service always tell you that morale has never been so low, but I think morale is not good throughout the Civil Service at the moment because of the reasons I have touched on. You used to be able to rely on a certain level of bureaucratic efficiency; whatever in the end was decided would be delivered with a reasonable degree of efficiency. That is no longer to be taken for granted. I would quote the glaring examples (which every MP with constituency work will not need expanded on) of the Child Support Agency, things like the section of the Inland Revenue that deals with tax credits. I could go on. A part of the Immigration and Nationality Department until recently - it seems to have been restored - sort of collapsed into a level of incompetence causing hardship to some of the victims that I do not think we ever previously had. I put that down largely to weakened junior ministers or people not staying long enough, but more importantly to over-complicated rushed policies which it was thought would be delivered in double quick time with the aid of some new information technology system that had to be devised at a tremendous rate in order to deliver it. That needs to be reversed as well. We all agree on Civil Service reform. Of course Margaret tried but did not get very far, although it is transformed. We no longer have a mandarin class totally cut off from the outside world, but we have not quite sorted out what their relationship is with policy and exactly who delivers. They should localise delivery. The only thing Nick said that I disagreed with was, as I am notorious among my colleagues, not having a simple trust in local government where I think the problems are worse than they are in central government.
Q136 Chairman: You were talking about ministerial reshuffles, we had some interesting evidence last week both from Matthew Taylor and from Geoff Mulgan, who have both recently worked inside government, who said that we simply have far too many ministers. Geoff Mulgan said that the number of junior ministers is positively dysfunctional for the operation of government. Is that a view any of you share?
Mr Clarke: Totally, yes. It is for patronage reasons that we have so many ministers and we have all kinds of important duties that somebody has to do like answering Westminster Hall debates. I think some of the junior ministers have nothing to do except answer Westminster Hall debates.
Mr Blunkett: It depends which department.
Mr Clarke: Junior ministerial jobs were always like that. Some were fantastically overworked and others really had very little to do so it is a bit of luck when you are appointed or reshuffled. Most people actually want a job where they have something to do but some jobs seem to be almost unnecessary. However, if you had a tighter core of people - without going back to the tiny numbers we used to have - I think you would do very much better, not least because people would have a proper sense of responsibility and accountability.
Mr Blunkett: I do not want to intrude on Peter's time, but could I say that you would need a cabinet system if you had a smaller number of senior ministers.
Q137 Chairman: We may come back to this issue a little later. Peter, what do you have say?
Mr Lilley: On reshuffles and the length of stay of ministers, it is clearly a problem but we should not exaggerate it. I was very fortunate; I was four years as PPS to a chancellor who was in position for seven years, and I then went on to the DTI where I was there for two or three times as long as the average secretaries of state for Trade and Industry beforehand, and I then spent five years continuously at the DSS. At the end of which I had been in post longer than any civil servant working for me had been doing their job because typically civil servants stay in the same job for about two years before moving on (often in the same department, it is true, so they are gaining experience). Ministers do gain experience as they move from, say, two years in one junior post to another. Good government can limit the amount of reshuffles and give ministers the chance to gain experience. On what government does well and what it does badly, it does probity well; it does policy advice pretty well; it does delivery less well; it does project management very badly. I do not have a comprehensive theory of everything as far as reform of the Civil Service is concerned; I do have a number of concrete observations from experience. On policy advice, it is good but it could be made better. The lapses I noticed were that because policy is normally generated when there is a problem - a perceived political problem - officials come up with a range of options which exclude one option. I observed this when I was a humble PPS at the Department of Environment and suggested that we always ought to include this option on the list and it became known as "Lilley's option" and that was do nothing. Indeed, it continued to be known as "Lilley's option" after I had ceased to be in the department, long after they have forgotten who Lilley was, but the option was at least put on the agenda. I was actually a radical Thatcherite and was in favour of radical action where it was needed but in favour, as a conservative, of not doing anything where nothing needed doing. The option of doing nothing is rarely considered when a policy development is going on because the presumption is that something must be done. It may be that doing nothing is less bad than doing something; that should always be considered. Secondly, ministers are assumed to know where they are starting from. Ministers do not know in detail what the present policy is and how it works administratively in detail. They will be told in detail how the four or five options they are presenting for change are going to work, but they do not know in detail how the existing system works. It is very important that the Civil Service should spell that out. I was not around in my department but I did do a retrospective investigation of the development of the Child Support Agency and I do not think that many politicians were aware that there was something that existed already for the gathering in of support from absent fathers and, with hindsight, it actually gathered rather more than the Child Support Agency did for the first few years of its life and probably than it does now. I doubt that that was spelt out to all those involved. The third thing is that policy is best developed when there are one or two people involved in the committee within the department who are involved in advising ministers who are against the policy. One had the impression from Yes, Minister that things go wrong when the Civil Service sabotages things but actually that is very rare. Things go wrong when everybody - ministers and officials - are convinced that this is the right thing to do and then too few questions are asked about how it is going to work in practice. If you have some grit in the oyster, if you have some people on the committee who say, "Actually, should we be doing this at all, will it really work?" and think of all the negatives then the policy is likely to come out better. Fourthly - and I will stop at that point although I have a long list we can come back to - it is much better if you have seen things work by trial either on a pilot basis or elsewhere. I discovered that it was illegal to carry out pilot changes in the DSS and we changed the law so that we could carry out pilot changes and see how things worked in one area before we universalised them. There is another great help in finding out how things work in practice and it is called abroad. Abroad they have tried a lot of policies; some have worked, some have failed. When I used to say to my officials, "But how do they deal with the problem of social finance for housing in other countries?" they would say, "Oh Minister, we could go to the Foreign Office, we could get them to ask all the embassies, there is not a social affairs adviser in most embassies so we will go to the employment adviser where there is or the economic adviser where there is not, and it will take months before we get any comprehensive information". I then pointed out to them, that there was a thing called a telephone which had been recently invented and most foreigners speak English. If you phone up your opposite number in the department abroad and ask if it works you can find out. There is now, I am happy to say after repeated effort, a 20 page procedural document within the Civil Service on how to get information from abroad. It is important that we learn from other countries' experience. They may have made mistakes that we can thereby avoid making. There are a number of ways, even policy advice which we do pretty well, which can be done better in the future.
Chairman: Thank you for that. We would like to hear the rest of your list as we go along. After this rather expansive start - which has been extremely helpful - I think we have to be a bit sharper now in terms of questions and answers if we can, otherwise we are not going to get anywhere. That was brilliant but can we now bring colleagues in and move on?
Q138 Paul Flynn: I think all of you are saying that much of our policy making is evidence free, prejudice driven and hysteria driven (particularly hysteria generated by the press). I would like to ask Peter and David, that for 35 years all governments have been heading in the wrong direction, and you have made clear in the booklet you produced on this that on our policy on control of drugs we have the worst policy in Europe, we spend more money than almost any other country in Europe and we have the worst outcomes. A country that has taken on public prejudice is Portugal, and in Portugal they penalised drugs in 2001 and they now have halved the number of direct deaths as well as all kinds of other advantages. All informed opinion on this subject - from the Strategy Unit at Number 10, from your own evidence, from a former civil servant Julian Critchley (who said he was running the drugs policy but did not believe a word of it and thought it was doing great damage) - says that this policy is not only wasteful but it is killing people and resulting in terrible outcomes. David had the only bit of intelligent policy on drugs, the only pragmatic decision taken on drugs policy possibly in the last 35 years, it is now being reversed on no evidence whatsoever. Is this a general criticism of government?
Mr Lilley: I do not think it is fair to characterise government policy makers generally as hysteria and prejudice driven and information free. The stimulus for policy formation in any case is that there is perhaps a degree of hysteria, there is a problem and the prime minister says, "Gosh, department X you've got that problem, for heaven's sake come out with a policy to solve it". In the case of drugs, I have never been a Home Office minister.
Q139 Paul Flynn: You were a member of the Cabinet.
Mr Lilley: I was a member of the Cabinet, yes. I wrote about it subsequently because I turned my mind to it simply because the issue came up at surgeries, schools and colleges and I found that when I trotted out the defence of the status quo people had the cheek to come back with counter arguments which I could not refute. So I looked into it, and came up with a different conclusion. I ensured that I will never be a Home Office minister in the future because it is one of the areas where policy is determined by hysteria and therefore you will only get people appointed to the Home Office who are prepared to go along with the status quo, however ridiculous it is. When I was Economic Secretary I was responsible for the Customs and Excise and this was the only time that I did become aware of drugs because I was told with great pride by Customs and Excise who are very proud of their independence, they have existed forever, that their original role was to collect import duties from imports. I thought that was interesting because half of our imports now come from the European Community and are tariff free; the other half come from the rest of the world and used to bear an average tariff of 40% which is now below four per cent. Therefore the role of Customs and Excise has diminished dramatically over this long history. What has happened to its staffing levels? I found they had gone up by 25% at roughly the time that its original role of collecting tariffs had diminished because of the war on drugs. At this time happily the relatively short tenure of junior ministers ensured that I was moved elsewhere so I did not investigate further. However, I think it does indicate another area where ministers need to be very strong in dealing with the Civil Service. They will get excellent advice on everything except anything which undermines the rationale, the continued existence of an existing department. You will remember in Dickens he had Sir Tite Barnacle, the official at the Circumlocution Office, who died in office clutching his drawn salary in his hand. There is a tremendous resistance to change from departments whose rationale no longer exists or who should be downgraded. That probably exists in the drugs sphere as elsewhere.
Q140 Paul Flynn: Are you saying that your knowledge of drugs now and your understanding which is advanced from when you were in the Cabinet, is now a reason why it would be impossible for you to serve in the Home Office in the future.
Mr Lilley: I would quite happily serve but I think I can fairly safely predict that, should it ever happen that I am recalled to the colours, it will not be at the Home Office.
Paul Flynn: One politician I remember being very well informed on drugs when he served on the Home Affairs Committee was David Cameron. He had a very advanced idea, not far distant from your ideas, would this disqualify him from being prime minister?
Q141 Chairman: The example is fascinating but I do not want to get bogged down in drugs policy. Is the drugs policy evidence of a wider issue about government itself or is it a sui generis ----
Mr Lilley: I think it is somewhat sui generis. I do not think that is true of most policies in most departments that there is such a feeling that we have to come to some conclusion whatever the evidence.
Q142 Paul Flynn: You can take the evidence of the Strategy Committee, Lord Birt did a splendid report - it was not published but it was leaked to The Guardian newspaper - with a very powerful argument that proved that the drug policy had done so much damage over the period and the Government, out of cowardice, out of the fact that they needed to get this drip feed of adulation from the press every day took a courageous decision. That decision is about to be reversed. Were you opposed to the reversal of the decision? What is your opinion of it now, David, as a back bencher?
Mr Blunkett: I think the original decision was taken on the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs and the best advice we could receive externally, including what was then the Police Foundation under Ruth Runciman and it did seem to us that it was the right thing to do in terms of placing the evidence on education and the results have been substantial in terms of the drop of usage particularly among young people and that is very encouraging. I think there has been a debate about new forms of cannabis - skunk - and I understand why people respond in a democracy to general feeling which is why I would say this on the general front, that you can make major substantial changes and a change in drugs policy advocated by Paul would be very substantial if you have consensus across the main political parties or you have a tide of opinion running in the country that drives government in that direction. You cannot in a democracy simply say that we have not had the education, we have not got the information out, we have not had the debate but we are going to do it because the consequence of that is that you do not do anything else but you get thrown out.
Q143 Paul Flynn: The bleak message we are getting - Ken used the word "irreversible" - is that the country is being run according to the priorities and selling more newspapers and getting larger audiences for 24 hour news going out and the politicians are enslaved to the need to serve this great monster that is demanding attention and from which the politicians seek approval the whole time.
Mr Blunkett: There are a lot of examples where politicians have taken very brave decisions but they do not appear brave years after, that is the problem, because the world moves on.
Mr Clarke: I do not want to be drawn into the drugs debate. I personally have never been persuaded of the
case for depenalising drugs and I am not conscious that that is entirely driven
by public hysteria. I have to get up to
Mr Raynsford: Could I slightly differ with that because I generally agree that
there is a serious problem of departmentalitis and resistance to
cross-departmental working. But, there
are circumstances where it has worked well.
I was party to one of those when David actually asked me to take
responsibility immediately after 9/11 for the coordination of resilience
Mr Clarke: It is probably just a passage of time. The two roles I was given in the late 1980s were experimental almost. Margaret was initiating things by suggesting that somebody from outside the department should be appointed - junior Cabinet minister as I was at the time - to try to coordinate activities on a particular front. Politics is very different from the late 1980s so probably it has been tried enough now to begin to work when there is some compelling national pressure. I will bet there are still areas of policy where the same old institutional loyalties will not change, and my instinct is that the culture of departments can still be very different. You enter a dramatically different world when you are moved from one department to another.
Q144 Chairman: Does this not make the case for a stronger centre? That was the argument that was put when this Government came in, that it was because of the fragmentation, the difficulties in getting coherence, that there was a deliberate attempt to strengthen the centre which in turn has caused so much controversy.
Mr Clarke: What kind of centre? I would hope that would be interpreted as a stronger Cabinet Office, and a stronger coordination at the top of the Civil Service which went beyond permanent secretaries having lunch in the Athenaeum and some process whereby you were able to pull it together. I do think, being particular partisan, it is a style of politics. It has actually turned into all policy making being drawn into a prime minister's department and I would hope that the prime minister's department should be loosened up. We had enough trouble with the Policy Unit in Number 10 when I was in office. I rather agree with Paul that government often gives the impression nowadays of being driven by a need to get the right headlines in next Sunday's newspapers. I do get the impression that at the centre you have frenetic people with varying titles who actually are driving political imperatives from the centre and making policy too rapidly, slightly scornful of the input they might otherwise get from separate government departments. I would get rid of all that. Cabinet ministers and their departments should be put back more squarely in the centre of policy in their areas including initiation of policy.
Mr Blunkett: There are two comments I would make on this. Firstly, if you have a strong political
leader from a big department, and we have the balkanisation of departments now,
so there are not that many big departments with big clout inside
Mr Lilley: I have a couple of points on my list on coordination across
departments. Historically it is more
difficult to get coordination between any two departments in
Q145 Paul Flynn: Having been in this place for 21 years what strikes me is how much more agreeable, intelligent and reasonable you are speaking to us today than you were as automatons, as ministers. It is an extraordinary change. Government is so far removed from the platonic ideal of the guardians who, in the light of cold reason, are influenced to take their decision. We seem so far removed from what you quoted, Peter, about what happened in the days of Callaghan and Attlee, and there were two occasions where the ministers - one was Roy Hattersley - had some wonderfully persuasive figures that were due to be announced on the day after the 1979 General Election and he was told that he could not possibly announce them, it would be wrong to do that, although it might have persuaded the votes to go the other way. The other example was Stafford Cripps, when someone came to him to announce a possible increase in the cheese ration at the time, and he was so horrified that someone was using the ministerial office for political advantage. He said that whoever this person is if he allowed political consideration to influence his judgment he is not fit to be one of his Majesty's ministers. How does that fit in now where we are all her Majesty's ministers of all parties put political considerations first?
Mr Lilley: You were quoting from the speech I gave to the Civil Service in May so I am inclined to agree with you.
Mr Clarke: We were given strong advice sometimes by civil servants about what could be done and what could not be done. When I was chancellor I spent my time trying to avoid the political pressures of my colleagues on macro-economic policy because we had some quite serious problems to deal with it seemed to me. Ministers at all levels would be firmly told by civil servants, that they had to announce various things or they could not announce various things, during election periods. The permanent secretary would be wheeled out to talk severely to a junior minister and say that he was instructing his officials to do something that was improper. I hope that is still the case. Because of the pressures we all admit we are under in today's hysterical campaigning atmosphere, it is more important that that is done today than it used to be.
Mr Blunkett: I think Ken is entirely right. That is certainly my experience, even for very little things like backing officials when they were right about a press release being political and having to overrule difficulties. It was, in personal terms, a junior minister. So it is still there and it is part of that probity.
Mr Clarke: David Young and I started producing white papers, as ministers do, and we had Action for Jobs as our great slogan and we started putting pictures on the covers of the white papers. We went to a tremendous length to insist on this because we were told that white papers had to have a white cover like Hansard with the royal crest in the middle and the title of it. I confess that I joined with David in saying that this was utterly ridiculous and ensured that nobody read them. In my opinion this has now been taken to ludicrous degrees where white papers are a quite useless source of information about what the Government's policy is. Every agency, let alone every government department, bombards my waste paper basket with glossy, illustrated pictures showing ministers and others in happy company surrounded by slogans.
Q146 Chairman: So you are responsible for this.
Mr Clarke: Yes, the thin end of the wedge was probably David and myself and the Department of Employment all those years ago.
Mr Blunkett: Is it not nice to think the politicians did not really used to be politicians.
Q147 Mr Prentice: If I can stick with politicians, we are waiting for the former prime minister's memoirs and we are told he is getting five million, but we do have the former deputy prime minister's memoirs. He spoke about Lord Mandelson having hissy fits and how he could blow Peter Mandelson away. I am just wondering if political memoirs - I am looking at you, David - are an aide to good government.
Mr Blunkett: And I am looking at you, Gordon! I think they shed a light on how people, as human beings, perform, feel, think, hurt. I have had the time read and re-read some of the very interesting memoirs. Richard Crossman's, although three very long volumes, is fascinating. Barbara Castle's very long volumes of 1974 to 1976 I found fascinating because I think it gave a snapshot of what government was like at that time, what ministers felt, how they reacted, some of which is reminiscent of today, some of which is a completely by-gone era. Just to reflect on that, for instance, Richard Crossman's obviously ill-advised announcement about putting the charge for teeth and glasses up at an absolutely crucial political moment in terms of local elections, having forgotten that there was an election taking place.
Q148 Mr Prentice: It is instant commentary now, is it not? When we had Professor Hennessy in front of us he said that we are going to enter into an age of competitive memoiring as the Labour Government draws to the end of its time in office. Is that helpful? Does it break down trust between politicians and civil servants if stuff can be written about intimate conversations?
Mr Blunkett: I would like to just put on record - it is a wonderful opportunity that Gordon has given me - that I have given up writing diaries for now and in the future. However, I do actually think it depends on what is said and how it is said, and although mine were unreadable because they were too long (862 pages was mind blowing), I do think that students in the future will be able to flick through it and look at particular points in time. The great advantage of the 24 hour/7 day a week news for historians like Peter Hennessy is that they can tell whether we are accurate or not. I have read diaries and memoirs where the order of what has happened has been completely reversed.
Q149 Mr Prentice: Do you think it would be helpful for the former prime minister to publish his diaries?
Mr Blunkett: It would be helpful to him, that is for sure. We do not treat our former prime ministers and senior politicians terribly well in this country, hence Harold Wilson's family having to be considerably aided when he was suffering from dementia.
Mr Clarke: I have not chosen to write my memoirs yet; one does not in mid-career! I think it is inevitable that people are to be allowed to produce memoirs if they want. When I was in the Cabinet we were told on one occasion that we had all agreed (which I certainly never had) that any memoirs we produced would be submitted to the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretary for approval and so on largely, I think, to remove criticisms of civil servants if any occurred. I did not agree to that and I regard that as completely silly and I think people should be responsible for what they write. I hope historians do not always believe them. I think the best memoirs are those written sometime after the person has left office. Recollections in tranquillity are better than the instant memoirs which are often just an attempt to carry on the political arguments of the moment. I am always told that if you need the money it is no good to wait. You will only get them published if you do so in the first six months. This is why historians should be cautious; they should realise that people produce them in a hurry because they did not think they would get any money if they left it five years, whereas Roy Jenkins was a big enough figure to do so. I have read colleagues' memoirs which contained what I think glaring mis-statements of fact or recollection, as far as I am concerned - although not too bad, nothing too serious - and far too many of my contemporaries' memoirs could be subtitled Why I was always right but my colleagues did not understand it at the time and also taking credit for things which I seem to recall they were against is another rather shameless thing that takes place. The other thing that would be worse for future historians is using newspapers as a guide to what was actually happening. I do fear that the history of our time might not be written with the same accuracy that the historians would like.
Q150 Mr Prentice: We are supposed to be discussing good government and I am interested in instances where Number 10 comes in and overturns the departmental policy because it is chasing the next day's news headlines. I am looking at you Nick now because you told us earlier that you were responsible for construction for seven years and I know you were very upset - at least I think you were very upset - when the Government ditched the Home Conditions Survey as part of the Home Improvement Pack. I just wondered if you could tell us a bit more about that because you obviously wanted the HIPs to be introduced in their entirety but they were filleted by Number 10.
Mr Raynsford: I think it is actually quite an interesting example of poor policy
making or poor policy implementation. If
I could just go back briefly over the history I think it is instructive. This was a policy that emerged in the very
early days of the Labour Government out of a manifesto commitment to look at
the inefficiencies in the house buying and selling process. The initial process was, in my view, carried
out in an utterly exemplary way. The
Civil Service undertook a series of analyses of problems consulting widely with
what we now call stakeholders across the sector and reached a consensus view in
1998 that there was a case for reform. It
did not involve a kind of instant solution that some commentators had advocated
previously like stopping gazumping and things like that, but it did involve
trying to put together better information at the early part of the house buying
and selling process to avoid delays and inefficiencies later in the
process. That was then trialled in
Mr Clarke: Prime ministers are entitled to overrule their colleagues and their policy wishes but they should do so in the context of a properly working system of Cabinet government, Cabinet committees and collective discussion. Occasionally all modern prime ministers from Attlee onwards have sometimes put down a firm line and it is wise, as David said, to make sure that you have the prime minister roughly on side before you devote too much effort to developing policy. Today, the obsession with this week's political agenda no longer includes doing what we were all doing a few years ago. Policy should not be dependent on one man, particularly nowadays when, as I said earlier, quite often it is not the prime minister himself, it is some press officer or some political adviser, who has a bee in his bonnet that things should no longer be done in the way the responsible Minister originally planned.
Q151 Mr Prentice: You have written about so-called "sofa-government" and the experience of the Blair years and you would like to see a new kind of code of conduct I suppose.
Mr Clarke: The Task Force set out our views on cabinet government. I do think collective discussion is important because - agreeing with Peter and David - sitting and listening to people who disagree with you is quite a valuable way of improving the policy and you should not avoid it. I have so little faith now that prime ministers of any kind with the pressures they are under are always going to operate a system of Cabinet government and that it can just be left to good will. If you want to see the re-emergence of secretaries of state with some authority and so on, we actually suggested that in addition to the existing Ministerial Code of Conduct which at the moment just applies to scandals, allegations of misconduct and so on, we should have a code approved by Parliament laying down the basic principles that major changes of policy should be introduced by the Cabinet minister responsible who should take them through a process of Cabinet committee to Cabinet, if necessary, and that there should be accountability to something like the Public Accounts Committee to make sure this collective government is operating. All the pressures drive everything inwards to the prime minister and his press secretary in Blair's case, in Brown's case to Brown. I am not being totally partisan, this started before the present government, particularly with Margaret. Her way of making sure that Cabinet committees came to the right conclusion was to have a small group of colleagues who came in on a particular policy to discuss it with her on a kind of sofa-government basis before she took it through the process, but by that time she was getting round the process sometimes and it was her come-uppance. The poll tax was her undoing and it had been classically designed in that fashion.
Q152 Mr Prentice: I have one final question, if I may, and this is to David. We know about Butler's criticism of the decision making process when we went to war against Iraq, were you involved in the detailed discussions, David, or were you kept at arm's length because you were not one of the ministers that necessarily should be involved in these decisions?
Mr Blunkett: I think there were three layers.
There were those who were not involved because they did not have a
direct ministerial involvement; there were those like myself who had a
ministerial involvement in the sense that the Home Office was not just engaged
in counter-terrorism at the time but also in that the Home Office then had - it
does not so much directly now - responsibility for the whole social cohesion
agenda and we had been having to deal with that anyway. There were then a very, very small group of
people who were obviously close to the military issues. I was on what became known as the War Cabinet
once the decisions were close to being taken and then once Parliament had voted
Q153 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Tony Blair very famously said he still has the scars on his back from when he tried to take on the Civil Service. Ken has just told us that Margaret got round it by setting up a small committee of colleagues. How do you change the Civil Service? How do you make them more accountable? All of you have said there are structural problems, there are turf wars, there is a lack of understanding, there is a lack of help from officials. Tony Benn tried to stay outside of it and suffered accordingly. How do we change the Civil Service?
Mr Blunkett: I think it is not beyond rocket science firstly to develop the project management requirement that Nick Raynsford started talking about at the very beginning of this morning's session, nor the efficiency drive that Ken Clarke referred to. I remember saying to people dealing with immigration and nationality that they should take a look at the Assay Office (we have four in this country, one is in my own city) where they deal with 13 million pieces of platinum, gold and silver in any one year and whilst they are not dealing with people and the complexity of people the actual process of not losing things - like losing people's passports, forms and written material - could actually be taught to them. If the Assay Office lost what they are dealing with and failed to stamp them correctly or return them to their original owner they would not last very long. There are sources of management and administration that we can draw on much more easily. On the Border and Immigration Agency there are some real improvements, partly because the pressures are much less but partly because they have got their act together. I think there are some very practical steps which involve an interchange with the world outside who are doing similar tasks. The second is actually to accept - I know capability reviews may do this - that you need strong management. You need leadership in the management field as well as in the political field. You need accountability within the system so that people are rewarded and incentives are provided for people who do well. The example I have given before but I will give it again today is where a bill is being prepared and the civil servants working on the legislation, once that legislation has been approved and it has the royal assent, are disbanded whereas in a logical sense they should be given their head in terms of the implementation and if they have done it well they should be promoted in post, whereas there is a kind of pseudo-equality issue which says that you cannot possibly promote people in post in this way because somebody else who has waited long enough should actually have the opportunity of taking it, so you have musical chairs.
Mr Clarke: I think civil servants should be accountable through their
ministers. I think the secrecy of their
advice and therefore their ability to give frank and fearless advice should be
protected. It has been weakened. The Freedom of Information Act has raised all
kinds of problems which we have not solved.
I think if you are looking for scapegoats that is what the minister is
for. I do not think, for instance,
select committees should decide they can get past the minister and start
summoning senior civil servants to get past him. A senior civil servant should be under a duty,
if he appears before a select committee on policy, to just expand the policy of
the government even though he or she may personally have advised against it,
otherwise the independence of the Civil Service is compromised. Of course civil servants do appear before
select committees and they are under a duty to give frank, factual information
which can be embarrassing for the minister sometimes, particularly if the
government has put out a slightly misleading answer to a parliamentary question
and the committee presses the civil servant; that is different. Basically accountability should be through
the minister. That is why it is so key
that the relationship between the politicians, the political masters and the
Civil Service should be looked at. We
have all complained that it has got altered under the pressure of events. It has changed; we have gone from one extreme
to the other. Margaret Thatcher's Government
was a radical government with very clear policies and we followed a government
that had been in a period of political stagnation as far as policy was
concerned. I think Callaghan was a nice
chap and a good prime minister but he had no parliamentary majority, we had the
Lib-Lab Pact and they had not been making policies really at all for the
previous two years, they did not have any that they could implement. When I first became a junior minister, in the
first two departments I was in, there was huge resistance to the fact that the
ministers wanted to change the policy.
The Department of Transport were at first quite shocked. There were only two ministers for the
Department of Transport, Norman Fowler and myself, and they were really rather
shocked that we were changing things and did not want to do what the Department
had been doing in the name of its predecessors.
It took quite a long time and I think that happened all across the board
in 1979. When I went to the Department
of Health at first I discovered that all my letters explained to correspondents
what the government's policy was and then they had a paragraph about the
Department of Health's policy. The words
were chosen differently according to whether the individual officials agreed
with what we wanted to say so they did need more political control. In the case of the drastic health reforms
which caused so much controversy in the late 1980s, when we came up with the
idea of the internal market and did change things fairly drastically and caused
a monumental row, the permanent secretary, when we decided to embark on this,
explained to me that he had no officials who could work on this because there
was nobody who could be freed up from their existing duties to work on this
mainstream government policy. It was
because they did not want to do it.
There was a policy in the Department of Health not to upset the BMA and
Q154 Chairman: Can I press you a bit more on this? We are skirting around this question of how fundamental we think any reform of Whitehall needs to be. We had a witness last week, Zenna Atkins, the Chair of Ofsted, someone who has been brought in. She said that the Civil Service is "broken" and "utterly antiquated" and needs root and branch reform. David, in some of the stuff you have been writing you have been saying we have to break the old Whitehall model and do something rather different. I am not sure whether you are all saying that we need some running repairs - a bit better performance management, a bit better efficiency, some of the things we have talked about - or whether we think there is something more fundamental than that.
Mr Blunkett: I would not even go that far, you see, so let me be absolutely rational and calm this morning about it. I do not think that the Civil Service is broken but I do believe it needs radial reform because over the last century things have changed beyond all recognition globally as well as in terms of the way that we operate our democracy and our pluralistic approach. We need to adapt to that rapidly and we need to do so on a rational basis.
Mr Raynsford: Could I add one comment in relation to your earlier question about whether we should not be seeking greater centralisation to avoid departmental division. One of the most shocking moments in my career as a minister was when I heard the senior civil servants saying to me, "We actually think this particular policy is right but we are not advising you to support it because we know it will never be supported by Number 10". In my view that potentially destroyed the relationship there should be between civil servants and their ministers which is a speaking truth to power ethos, saying what they believe was right. I do think that that is the real danger of excessive central control. Central direction on strategic matters is absolutely fundamental if you are to have a government that works, is not chopping and changing and incoherent, but once it gets into micro-management and once it undermines the confidence of departmental officials to really express their views about what is right and on the basis of the collective knowledge of their department built up over a long period of time, then you are seriously eroding the process of good government.
Q155 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Peter made some very interesting comments to start with. We have seen an enormous rise in government use of outside consultants, paid by the state to consult; we have seen an enormous increase in quangos who are unelected and a lot of the time are unaccountable; we have seen an increasing power by NGOs and other organisations like that and because of the media system we have which has been expounded by all four of you, do you think that we are now allowing certain functions to go out to people who are being paid to come up with a solution as a consultant under pressure from other people which is undermining part of the way the Government functions?
Mr Lilley: Yes, I think that is true. I
did not personally have much experience of working with consultants, that is
what the Civil Service is for. It is a
very good machine. It may occasionally
suffer from inertia but if so what you need is a strong minister rather than
some radical reform of the system, if you have a minister with no coherent
agenda who is weak and vacillating and is moved only by the fear of tomorrow's
headlines, the Civil Service will take over and thank heavens it does. It is better to have coherent and consistent
government from the Civil Service than incoherent wavering all over the place
from a minister who has no clear idea of what he wants. You initially mentioned Tony Blair and the
scars on his back. Tony Blair was very
unusual in that he was a powerful minister but who arrived with no agenda. That was his problem. So he undid all Ken's reforms in health and
education and then suddenly realised he wanted to put them all back in
place. He was Tony Duke of
Mr Clarke: Can I say that I agree with everything that Peter said and I think the point of Ian's question was very good as well. Consultants make their money by telling the client what they want to hear. You do not want a Civil Service like that and it is not the best source of advice. However, I do think it is important that you get round the problems that Peter eloquently described - and I agree entirely - by altering recruitment. It has probably changed. If you need particular project skills you should recruit people in at the right level with the relevant experience from outside and you should expect your civil servants in their career development to leave the department and go to get some outside experience. The two labour ministers either side of me will be more up-to-date than me, but Margaret insisted that we try to introduce this in the 1980s and again there was the most ferocious resistance. We had a very good guy in the Health Department who spent two or three years outside - he went to some health related industry because we had seconded him there for work experience and they gave him a job - and when we wanted him back again, the Department would not take him back. So far as they were concerned he had taken the shilling; he was no longer a public servant; he had gone out into commerce and we could not have him back again. They resisted the idea that if an appointment came up at, to use an old fashioned term, at deputy secretary level, we had not got anybody in house very good who could do it. Ministers of course should never control the appointments but you can float the suggestion that we really need to advertise this more widely and get somebody from outside. In our day (not in the whole of the Civil Service, I am exaggerating to make a point) there were quite a lot of the establishment who thought this was quite shocking that you should get people from outside with relevant experience.
Mr Raynsford: I think it has changed quite a lot. My experience is that there was a very healthy movement in and out, particularly when I was a local government minister we had a director general in the department who had been on secondment to the Local Government Association for several years before, we had other staff who had outside experience from a business perspective who understood the way in which procurements could be improved. It felt like a good team. It started very much as a group of specialists with policy analysis as their absolute overriding skill but I do think that has changed now.
Q156 Chairman: Given the fact that ministers are held constitutionally and politically accountable for the performance of civil servants, do you think there is a case for having a somewhat greater ministerial involvement in the appointment of some of these people from outside?
Mr Clarke: I had two civil servants sacked, or I thought I had. One Deputy Secretary was a great shadow over the whole department, somebody who had just got over-promoted. One was simply doing the opposite of what he had been told to do; the other was just not doing anything. It was a very, very long and difficult process and I later discovered that both of them had actually been moved sideways to some other part of the Civil Service on the basis that they obviously temperamentally could not get on with the particular secretary of state. I do not altogether object to that because I do not think the ministers should just be able to say "I'm having him and him". I once succeeded a minister who marked my card for me; he had worked out who he thought the Conservatives were in the department; he said that these were Conservatives and these were the people who people who were not, information which I did generally regard as utterly useless, I could not care less. My own opinion was that he was wrong; I did not think I had a Conservative in the department by the time I left it, but it did not matter as I had some very good officials. He had got the completely wrong idea about how to approach it. It would be dreadful if political patronage crept in and there is no doubt, on either side - this has nothing to do with who is in power - the weaker ministers would start introducing an element of patronage. There is already a danger that the more careerist civil servants start giving you advice you want because they think they are going to get on more smoothly and catch a selector's eye. I think ministers should have the right to go to the cabinet secretary and say, "Up with this I cannot put; my objection to X is he is no damn good".
Q157 Chairman: I understand that, but what I am asking really is whether you think, knowing all that you have just been saying, there is any case at all for greater ministerial involvement in appointments, I am thinking about external appointments.
Mr Blunkett: I think we moved from one extreme to the other with the Wickes review. We shifted from where the secretary of state for outside appointments could actually determine it and there was a danger of jobs for the girls and boys to a situation where they are determined by the Civil Service themselves. The commissions even that have been set up to review appointments are commissions that are appointed by the people who know them and want to appoint people in their like mind I am afraid.
Mr Clarke: Commissions can be a nuisance; I experienced that towards the end when we had them. Buggin's turn then sets in. I do not know how you recreate the best system which is a kind of old club-land world where the secretary of state could not appoint or sack anybody, but he could have quite an input sometimes. If the permanent secretary discovered he had a problem because the secretary of state did not want someone to do a particular job or wanted somebody to move out of it, it was sorted out in some common sense way. I have never had this trouble but I know cases where the permanent secretary was hopelessly unsuitable, the two of them could not get on and then in this marvellous Athenaeum Club way the cabinet secretary would be asked by the prime minister to sort it out. There would be a little reshuffle at the top until he had two people who could actually get on and work together. Funnily enough - it sounds very, very quaint, old-fashioned, Tory and all the rest of it - at its best that system worked very well apart from this terrible resistance to accepting that somebody really ought to be sacked which is very difficult to get through.
Q158 Mr Walker: You mentioned Parliament earlier on in your opening statements. I would be fascinated to know, as a still relatively new Member of Parliament, what is the point of Parliament now? We have more power focussed in the hands of the executive; we have Cabinet ministers now excluded it seems from decision making in many areas by the sort of inner coterie of advisers to Number 10. Anybody in Parliament who does not go with the flow is quietly taken aside by the whips and told that perhaps their career will not be best served by their position. What is the point of Parliament now? Is it purely a supine lap dog?
Mr Lilley: I have been in Parliament for 25 years and I can say it is less a supine lap dog now than it was then. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hailsham described it as an elected dictatorship and that was nearer correct then because the whips did have absolute control, there were very few rebellions; it was the very antithesis of a nineteenth century parliament. It is now getting back a bit more like a nineteenth century parliament, where governments even with quite substantial majorities face Members of Parliament who do not always do as they are told and have to negotiate with other members and other parties to get measures through as we have seen recently in this Parliament. Why is that? I think it is partly because Members of Parliament are more in contact with their electorate than they used to be. I get letters from my electors; I send them back some policy thing, I send them back the standard reply from the party about why it is a good thing. They now have the temerity to reply contracting certain points and very often when I read their letters I find that they are right and I have no counter-arguments. I do not think I am alone in this. Quite a lot of us find that actually the party line is questionable so Parliament now is more difficult to control and has more influence than perhaps was the case 25 years ago, so do not give up Charles.
Mr Clarke: I do not agree with a word of that. It is true on votes, there is more rebellion on votes because in all parties party discipline has broken down and I am glad to say I exercise my right as an elder statesman to be rebellious, but hopefully never on more than one subject at once. The old party discipline has gone. You were bound to get us reminiscing, but the Parliament in 1970 was nevertheless more powerful than it is today although everybody voted with the party. I was in the Whip's Office. The system has gone, can never be recovered. You really had a hard job sometimes trying to persuade your backbenchers that they were going to support what you wanted to do, equally telling a junior minister that he was not going to get through Parliament what he was proposing because we could warn him from our contacts that he was going to have a major rebellion and we did have big rebellions. The European Communities Bill, there was a big one in that Parliament. The job of the Whip's Office was to stop the government doing things that our knights of the shire who were totally independent and could not care less about having a future career as ministers or anything else actually told us we were not going to do it. The parliamentary process is infinitely weaker than it was. You may have rebellions in votes and I will just refer you to the Task Force pamphlet on the House of Commons reform. I think Parliament has no control over its own business, the select committees need to be made more powerful, the chairman of a select committee should be elected by secret ballot of the whole House. Most Members of Parliament agree with this but somehow at the moment the system has stopped us ever introducing it. I hope that after the next election, whoever wins, we will have some radical reform of the process. I agree with Peter, today's Members of Parliament want to be more independent. I would describe them as being more populist in their reaction to their constituents quite often, but that is what they are for, that is all right. The process has stopped that. We must certainly stop governments treating Parliament as a kind of permanent press conference of an embarrassing kind which I think is what has crept into the political system and leads to the government's determined attempts to stop Parliament debating things where it makes a nuisance of itself. I quite accept that these are things that are readily said by those who are in opposition and accepted more reluctantly by those in power. I hope that if my own party gets the chance we will do something.
Mr Raynsford: I just want to add one other observation which is that I think Parliament has exactly the same problem as government and that is overload. It tries to do too much and it is not very discriminating about focussing on the things where it can really be effective and the issues that are really important. A great deal of parliamentary time where there is freedom for Parliament essentially to determine priorities goes on the short term, the meretricious, the immediately popular in the media agenda items rather than, for example, detailed scrutiny and analysis of accounts, how actually government departments are spending money which I think is often woefully inadequately researched. I do think the scrutiny legislation could be done very much better if Parliament organised itself to take it seriously rather than going through the motions which appeals to Parliament as well as to government because it allows playing to the gallery, it allows the short-term to prevail, but then government gets its way. I do not say that Parliament is blameless in this; I think Parliament has been too acquiescent in an agenda where it does too much and does not do it well enough.
Q159 Mr Walker: I would just say this without meaning to curry favour, you are four very good parliamentarians, you are good attenders. It does seem there is a lack of confidence in the chamber. I was sitting in a debate, I think, with Ken Clarke. It was the first time we had had a really good opportunity to discuss the banking crisis and the business collapsed at 9.15 at night; we should have been there until four o'clock in the morning or five o'clock in the morning. It was a staggering indictment on Parliament I thought and it was not a good indictment.
Mr Clarke: The only place you can keep your views secret in the modern world is in the chamber in the House of Commons. I always give my more candid views there. They will leak out of any other place where I express them. It is partly the way MPs see their role: if it is not going to get in the newspapers or the local newspapers they are not going to do it. Charles and I were agreeing, as he said, that because of the coincidence of a banking bill being raised it was possible to talk about the whole nature of the banking crisis and we ran out of speakers because there were not enough MPs, there was no vote at the end so not enough MPs wished to come along and take part.
Mr Blunkett: I agree with a great deal, including the amusement of the last contributions, particularly with the strengthening of the select committees who ought to be able to nominate reports for proper debate on the floor of the house which would help enormously. The only disagreement I have with Ken about the reform of Parliament is that perhaps sensible hours lead to sensible reports in newspapers which lead to sensible people being prepared to sit there and wait to be called. It is fine for us as ex-Cabinet ministers because we will not get called but it is pretty miserable for people waiting into the night. Some of us who used to sit until five in the morning and have to breathe in the fumes of those who had been drinking until five in the morning and then reappear for a standing committee at 10.30 in the morning having already done some work before it, no wonder the death rate was what it was. I suggest, Chairman, with great temerity that you might have a look at the death rate of MPs before we actually moderately change the hours.
Chairman: Different views of the golden age. Kelvin?
Q160 Kelvin Hopkins: I rather like the Conservatives' Democracy Task Force - I have said this before - and recommendations which seem to me to take us back to not far away from the way the Civil Service was. I am sure Sir Humphrey would like it. I certainly do and I was a great admirer of the Sir Humphrey model. I have said this before, could this document not have been produced by Labour in opposition with a wilful Conservative government? Would we not have said almost similar things?
Mr Clarke: Yes, and there is the danger that people put forward propositions in opposition which they do not put through in government. I have warned my colleagues of the danger because I think we got a favourable reception to most of our reports. One of our main interests in the Task Force which has finished producing reports now is to try to keep reminding the Conservative Party that we hope they will take some of this up and do it if they get the chance. What they will have to resist is Sir Humphrey-type advice, not necessarily from the Civil Service but more usually from colleagues thrilled to find themselves in power, that we do not have time to do all this, and anyway the other side did not do it so let us take advantage of all the short-circuiting that is being produced and we will do reform in due course. It needs to be done very quickly before people get too comfortable with the present ways of doing things. We started the reform of Parliament and reducing parliamentary problems when we had a minority and we were having so much trouble towards the end of the Conservative Government. We had the Jopling Report where my old friend Michael Jopling presided over arrangements which greatly weakened the ability of Parliament to hold us to account. I remember protesting at a meeting that we will not half regret this when we are in opposition. I was treated like the man in the Bateman cartoon who had said something shocking because of course to acknowledge what seemed to me a self-evident truth that we were about to lose office was a defeatist statement. The danger is that the pressure of events, the deep political embarrassment that is caused by delay or not getting your favourite policies through or Parliament being a nuisance makes governments put it off. It requires the two parties under pressure from their respective back benchers to take on the inevitability of Parliament demanding more reforms, the Civil Service demanding more independence and people who have been made ministers wanting to wield ministerial power. We must give clout to secretaries of state again in a collective government, properly accountable to a stronger Parliament.
Q161 Kelvin Hopkins: Is the real problem not that there has been a dramatic shift in politics, undertaken under Mrs Thatcher first of all and then intensified under Tony Blair? There has been a shift to the radical neo-liberal right yet many Civil Servants had grown up in an era of soft social democracy, if one can call it that, under other governments, like Macmillan, Wilson and Callaghan. After that it started to change and when Blair came in he wanted to change things even more radically. I was talking to a senior former minister yesterday who said - and I agree with him - that when Blair came in he wanted power to do what he wanted to do. He wanted the backing of the really important power brokers in the world, the global corporations, the city, the Americans, and to marginalise all those people who would resist him, notably Parliament, the Civil Service and of course the Labour Party. That problem of power meant that we moved from what I have described in a previous session with Charles Clarke, from a mandarinate - as I called it - to a commissariat, driven by policy advisers who were pressing down on civil servants and ministers and making sure they did not get in the way of the political.
Mr Clarke: Thatcher in her last two years and Blair wanted a presidential government. I am a parliamentarian and I think we should resist presidential government; I think no man or woman should be given that kind of power, although in both cases I think their intentions were wholly virtuous, honourable and they saw themselves having the power to do great things. I am afraid I prefer collective systems of government, an independent Civil Service near to the driving seat when it comes to making policy and a more powerful Parliament which can hold them properly to account. The whole history of the British constitution has been to stop the accretion of excessive amounts of power in the hands of one man or woman however brilliant.
Mr Blunkett: But preventing that is not inimical to making a difference to using power to change for the better and if we came into politics in order to sit on what was already there and simply to debate in Parliament we would be wasting our time and the electorates' commitment to us. There is a happy medium here between being held to account and having to respond to Parliament and having to answer for what we do, including our executive actions, and being able to make a difference by showing leadership and bringing about change. I would like Parliament to be an organ for change, not just an organ for stopping change.
Mr Clarke: We need to show that radical government when the public want it can be combined with efficient government and parliamentary accountability.
Mr Raynsford: I think it is important that we do see the need for proper accountability and a framework that avoids the accretion of excessive power to any individual, but let us not forget that the period that you have described was not actually a period of great economic success. The prime ministers you mentioned - you did not mention Heath but he also in that group - presided essentially over a period of very considerable economic difficulties for our country and I am not sure that we want to go back to that.
Q162 Kelvin Hopkins: I would like to debate that; 1945 to 1970 was a lot more successful than what happened afterwards, but there we are. The one thing I want to emphasise in questioning is the importance of parties. David talked about doing things for the better as if that judgment about what is better should be for the prime minister, for the leaders. Surely in a democracy the political parties, Parliament, the electorate have to have a role in deciding what is better and that we have had a drift in recent years away from electoral influence, parliamentary influence, Civil Service advice and a drift of power towards people who think they know better. Is that not the situation?
Mr Blunkett: We had experiences in my own party which led us to believe that there had to be moderating force against those who would pass impossible resolutions, pickled into a dogma - as Neil Kinnock put it in 1985 - and I have been thinking about the pickling ever since. There is a happy state of affairs where you are held to account in your own constituency both by your own party and by the electorate. You get strength from that which is why I am so strongly in favour of single member constituencies because I think it does have a terrific strength beyond party and beyond the confines of Parliament where we meet each other, we eat with each other, we meet journalists, professionals, we get cocooned. I think the strength of party and of pressure is going back into those advice surgeries and community meetings and we should not underestimate them. I only mention them because they do not often get mentioned.
Mr Lilley: I agree on the importance of single member constituencies and it
applies of course when you are a minister in this country. I used to have a holiday home in
Q163 Kelvin Hopkins: I have asked this question at other meetings about Cabinet government. It has been put to us by retired mandarins in the past that if you go back 30 or 40 years typically cabinets had a wide range of views, they would see 200 policy papers a year and they would have a genuine debate on these policy papers. In more recent years, there has been one year in particular where only two policy papers went to Cabinet, and the idea of a Cabinet that could contain Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Dennis Healey, Barbara Castle and a lot of others as well is now unthinkable. The idea that you could have a genuine range of views within Cabinet, real discussions about policy on the basis of policy papers and that they could come to some kind of genuine consensus which was a broader view, that has all gone. Has that not fundamentally damaged our democracy?
Mr Blunkett: I think that view of how Cabinet worked is complete mythology; they
were dysfunctional. People wandered in and
out; there were two or three cabinets a week.
If you read Barbara Castle's diaries, sometimes she forgot to go or it
clashed. They used to call Barbara's
scribblings for her diary her little shopping list but I think sometimes they
were making the shopping list. When we
came in in 1997 - I have said this before so it is not a secret - I believed we
actually curtailed discussion in Cabinet too much. By the time I left Cabinet in 2005 we were
having proper - in my view, in quotes - policy presentations by colleagues
where we could then have a discussion about the direction of travel of that
particular department or set of policies coming together and that was a lot
better. I think we were retrieving a
happy medium because the idea of sitting there waffling, literally; the 1974
-1979 Government used to waffle for hours about trivia. There is a wonderful piece in Crossman's
diaries about how they had a debate in 1966 about the broiler hen quota from
Q164 Kelvin Hopkins: So all power to the leader and the commissariat.
Mr Clarke: I disagree with that. I think if Barbara and Crossman were allowed to comment they would disagree with that as well, except if they had had a bad day at Cabinet. Cabinet government did work very much as Kelvin described it, even under Margaret in the early years. Maybe Margaret spoke half the time, she always started discussions by saying what her view was and she did drive things through Cabinet, that is what prime ministers are for, but she always went through the process and people did have arguments. I have been present when she lost arguments in Cabinet and she did get fed up with this towards the end which slightly undermined her position. John Major started with a very collective Cabinet; we did go on for too long because John tried to get consensus and we had to go back to the Ted Heath pattern of twice a week, but it was a perfectly reasonable way of conducting government and that only collapsed because our Cabinet became so divided and no-one wanted to bring any business to it because it always leaked into the newspapers if you did. There must be a way of running this sensibly. It improves the cohesion of a government if you have a proper collective discussion. I cannot obviously speak about how it has gone, but what troubles me most about where we are now is to hear descriptions of Cabinet now. It sometimes does not meet for very long - an hour or two - and instead of being just the Cabinet ministers and the Cabinet secretary with the law officers called in or the chiefs of staff if there is something particular in their area to sit in and answer questions if necessary. The walls are now lined with special advisers and press officers. It must be a small public meeting that is taking place and it alters the whole focus it would seem to me. The whole point of politics is to have a serious, political discussion about how governments put things into place. Of course things like broiler fowl controls, that is what Cabinet committees are for or ministerial correspondence. When you go to war or when you have a banking crisis or when you are proposing to nationalise or to privatise something that should be only on the basis of a policy paper that has gone to Cabinet with good time so they can read it and take advice on it and then a proper collective discussion.
Mr Lilley: Most of that is done in committee and things only go to Cabinet itself if they fail to reach a resolution in committee. Those committees are a very important and valuable part and least understood part of Cabinet government. A department will be developing a policy, will be in the lead, the minister concerned will think he knows everything about it. I even had that delusion myself when I was responsible for policies, I then went to Cabinet committee rather resenting the fact that all these other departments were going to comment on things which I knew everything about and they knew nothing about. They never failed to improve it; it always came out better as a result partly because other departments have direct concrete interests on which it impinged about I knew less than I should and I was then able to take it on board, but partly also from just general political nous. They would make comments about general political things which somehow, because you are embroiled in the details, you forget. Cabinet committees were an immensely valuable part of improving the calibre of government I found.
Q165 Mr Prentice: Was it not an absolute disgrace that the former Lord Chief Justice Woolf read about the creation of the Ministry of Justice taken from a press release? My simple question is this: should Parliament have a role in formally approving major reorganisation?
Mr Raynsford: Yes. I agree that the balkanisation has gone far too far although how they can be put back together to form some more substantial departments, I am not quite sure.
Mr Blunkett: I disagree only in practical terms. I think theoretically it is a lovely idea, but when you are dramatically changing the role of an individual, for instance the Lord Chancellor as opposed to the Lord Chief Justice, then it is very difficult not to actually tell that individual that this is what you intend to do but rather put out a paper for discussion about what their role will be. That happens in very difficult circumstances, but I just say it because we deal with human beings and we deal with practical situations.
Q166 Mr Prentice: Parliamentary approval is required in Canada.
Mr Raynsford: I do not think we handle the changes in the machinery of government at all well. I think they are often rushed and they are often not fully considered. I served in one department over eight years and it had three different names; it has now got another different name. Frankly, it is back to what it was 30 years ago, back in the Crossman era, when it was the Ministry of Housing and Local Government but it has gone through the separate roles of Environment, Transport and the Regions among others.
Q167 Chairman: Ken, I keep reading reports in the newspapers about what a future Conservative Government might be going to do to the machinery of government and of course you have written your reports. Some of those reports say that we are going to go back to the old system - you have been describing some of them today - but other reports said we are going to do rather radical things. One I read said that we are going to import chief executives from the outside into each government department to really shake them up and give them this focus that some of you say they lack on delivery and project management. Do you know which way it is going?
Mr Clarke: I only gave the advice I was asked for with the help of my Task Force. They are the opinions of my colleagues and myself on that Task Force. Advisors advise; ministers will decide. I disagree with the rival recipe.
Mr Blunkett: I would advise Ken and Peter's colleagues not to go around finding out which civil servants are one of us.
Mr Clarke: I quite agree. A non-political civil service is absolutely critical.
Chairman: We have kept you for an inordinate amount of time but that is because it was just so interesting and when we come to read the transcript it will be full of rich material for us. I hope, Peter, we have exhausted your list. I think we more or less did. Ken, I love the creation of this person who is an elder statesman in mid-career. Thank you very much indeed all of you.