Civil Service Compensation Scheme/Work of the Cabinet Office - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 40-59)


27 JULY 2010

  Q40  Chair: If you are taken to court over this we will obviously have to come back to it.

  Mr Maude: I think it would be a great pity if this did end up in court. This is something that should be negotiated. All the unions have accepted that the scheme as it is is indefensible and not sustainable and it will be a very great pity with the goodwill that certainly exists on our side if we could not agree a long-term, sustainable and affordable scheme which particularly builds in fairness for the lower paid, which is really important.

  Q41  Kevin Brennan: Just one very brief question on what you said earlier in your evidence that there were many people in the Civil Service who do not actually have a job to do and it was unkind to them to keep them in a job. Could you give us some actual examples?

  Mr Maude: There are in most departments I think what is called a redeployment pool, people for whom there is actually no job who are kind of treading water. The reason for that is the current scheme makes it prohibitively expensive to go through the process of making them redundant. That does not seem to me to be any way to treat people.

  Q42  Chair: Any further questions on the Superannuation Bill? We recognise its importance and it is our only opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny and I am very grateful for that. We have a number of other areas we would like to ask you about in a slightly different order than you may have been briefed. We have just approved two inquiries. We want to ask you about quango reform, public spending cuts, the Big Society and the work of the Cabinet Office. One of the two main inquiries we have just approved will be about strategic thinking and government and who does UK grand strategy. With the creation of the National Security Council as the strategic part of government for a broad definition of national security, would you say, as Baroness Neville-Jones described it, that the National Security Council is the primary body for developing strategy within government?

  Mr Letwin: Perhaps I could answer that, Chairman. I sit on the National Security Council and have been considerably involved in the thinking that led up to its creation. Yes, I recognise the description that Pauline Neville-Jones gives of it. The intention behind the National Security Council is to ensure that government does not think about the elements of national security—defence, foreign policy and diplomacy, our international aid programme, our energy security, our intelligence services and indeed our domestic security apparatus partially operated through the Home Office—as separate blocs, which we had analysed as being a problem for a very long time. This is not a partisan remark about the last few years; we think there has been a long-running problem in British government in not being able to put together all those things in a rational framework. The meetings of the National Security Council so far, (which incidentally has met, I think I am right in saying, more than any other Cabinet committee; I sit on almost all of the Cabinet committees and it is certainly the one I am conscious of meeting much more frequently than others), the meetings have covered a very wide terrain and not only have looked at operational issues, principally of course Afghanistan as is perfectly public information, but also have begun the work of organising the thought processes of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. It is through the SDSR that we hope in the first instance to bring together consideration of all of these elements of our security. The intention is to make sure that instead of doing something because we have been doing it or doing something because it is a departmental agenda to do it, we instead work out what it is that we need to do within the envelope of expenditure that the country can in present circumstances afford in order to provide maximum security for the population of this country. That is the starting point for all our investigations. That obviously leads you into many areas which you, Chairman, have had a long history of thinking about and many other members of the Committee and many other colleagues in Parliament have thought about, and needless to say some of those are very detailed and some of them are very general and we are trying to put all of that together in a rational outcome that allocates resources where they are most fruitful.

  Q43  Chair: Our inquiry will be concerned primarily with the process of generating strategy rather than with what the strategy actually is. You say we do all this thinking. A Cabinet committee or the National Security Council is essentially a decision-making body. Where is the thinking done? What is the capacity that the Government has across the departmental strategic thinking and how is the strategy developed and then sustained in the light of events?

  Mr Letwin: The first point I should make is that the National Security Council is not actually just a decision-making body, it is subject to Cabinet for that, but it is also a place for thinking. These meetings that I am describing may sound unfamiliar because it has not been how government has been organised for a long time, but we are operating genuinely a Cabinet government and the meetings are genuine efforts to discuss things. Of course, they have to be supported by work going on underneath, to which I think you are referring. Sir Peter Ricketts, the Prime Minister's National Security Adviser, has a team working with him drawn from around Whitehall, the purpose of which is to bring together consideration from all the relevant departments so that as the proceedings of the National Security Council either operationally or strategically or in terms of resource allocation proceed we are well-advised on what each of the department's views are and on what objectives could be realised by different kinds of action and, in short, the entire analytical apparatus is provided to the National Security Council. I do stress that the National Security Council itself is then engaged in a process of trying to think through strategy, operation and resource; it is not simply putting a rubber stamp on some thinking done somewhere else.

  Q44  Chair: Does this have any relationship with what the Cabinet Office call the Strategy Unit?

  Mr Letwin: No. Perhaps, Chairman, it would be helpful if I were to describe the various organisations that are relevant here and their relative roles.

  Q45  Chair: I am sure it would.

  Mr Letwin: Within Number 10 there is a Policy Unit. The Director of Policy, James O'Shaughnessy, is in charge of it and that is linked with the Strategy Unit which is part of the Cabinet Office but operates in close working relationship with the Policy Unit. Between them they help me and the Prime Minister to work on specific cross-departmental tasks or development of policy tasks mainly in the domestic sphere. At the moment they are not working, I believe, in any area to do with national security.

  Q46  Robert Halfon: What is the difference between the Strategy Unit and the Policy Unit?

  Mr Letwin: The primary difference between the Strategy Unit and the Policy Unit is that the Policy Unit is composed of special advisers, who therefore bring to the task a political and ideological orientation, whereas the Strategy Unit is composed of permanent and temporary civil servants who bring analytical orientation. The teams working on any given area of policy review tend to combine those two aspects, much as was achieved within the old Policy Unit under previous administrations. It remains the case, as indeed it used to be with the Policy Unit in days gone by, that that whole apparatus is not focused on national security issues at all. The National Security Adviser, as I say, has a group of officials (who do not include special advisers) working under him and those people are working on national security issues. There are of course from time to time the possibilities of things interacting and discussions then occur.

  Q47  Chair: How many people does the National Security Adviser have?

  Mr Letwin: He is building up his group of people and I do not know exactly the number that are working for him at present.

  Q48  Chair: Is it five, ten, 50 or 100?

  Mr Letwin: No, I do not think it is either of those. It is a smallish number but it will probably grow to a slightly larger number. I do not think he has anywhere near 100.

  Q49  Robert Halfon: Are the departments working successfully and collaboratively regarding the creation of the NSC and, if they are not, what are the barriers that face collaborative co-operation?

  Mr Letwin: I have to say that so far as the national security discussions have gone, and I am trying to recall all of them briefly in my mind, I cannot think of a single instance in which anything we have discussed has turned into a Coalition issue. There have been inevitably many points of view but they have not been distributed on this side Liberal Democrats, on that side Conservatives, but rather a point of view of a ministry of a particular kind as opposed to a point of view of a ministry of another kind. Maybe the Committee will wish to pursue this further. I do not at all mean to suggest that there have not been any Coalition issues in any field but in the natural security context I cannot think of a single one. I think that is partly because the two parties actually approached these issues to begin with in a very similar way with the exception of one or two issues which were resolved in our original agreement.

  Q50  Robert Halfon: Other than what you said about the Cabinet committees and the policy and strategic point, in practice how do Ministers make strategy? What role do they have? How are you supported in the way that is done?

  Mr Letwin: The first thing I should say is that in relation to the National Security Council I am simply one of the members of it whereas Sir Peter Ricketts, who is the National Security Adviser, has a very special role. Mine is simply that of being a ministerial participant in the discussion so I am simply supported by my private office in that function. To try to capture the way in which strategy is made is of course different, but I think I can best try to explain it by saying that the role of the National Security Adviser and his staff has been to ensure that the Council is faced with a series of questions that emerge from the underlying question of how we maximise our security. He is teasing out for us the implied questions that arise from that and then in a rather workmanlike way we have been working through those questions and emerging with tentative conclusions on one set of questions which results in another set of papers to ask further questions and related questions and so gradually a view about how to proceed emerges.

  Robert Halfon: How does this all fit in with the ministerial departments' own policy teams and strategic development?

  Q51  Chair: Can I just enlarge on that question because it is a very important aspect of it. Government departments tend to like to hang on to and control their bit of strategy because it affects what they do. How do you make sure that, for example, the Treasury is going to support what emerges out of the Strategic Security and Defence Review?

  Mr Letwin: Let me take first your specific question and move back to the more general one. A thoroughly workmanlike basis for proceeding with the Strategic Defence and Security Review has been arrived at between the Treasury and the rest of us, which is that a number of possible envelopes within which the entire security spending, stretching right the way across the relevant parts and in some cases the whole of departmental budgets, needs to be accommodated, and within those envelopes Sir Peter Ricketts' team, working with individual departments, is now working up a set of possible responses in the light of particular strategic attitudes formulated by the National Security Council as a result of being asked questions about whether you wish to adopt this attitude or that attitude or that attitude. I apologise because it sounds slightly complicated, but, to you, this would make abundant sense as you have been through that sort of process, and that relationship has taken, I think, an enormous amount of the heat out of what typically have been in the past very arduous and sometimes public negotiations between departments and the Treasury about matters relating to security. I think that is symptomatic of the general answer to your general question which is that there has been a remarkable willingness on the part of colleagues from different departments not to think of themselves as representing a departmental interest, but to think of themselves as part of the collective discussion in the National Security Council, of course bringing to bear the expertise and the briefing of officials from their own departments, but seeing themselves as part of the discussion. That is why I was resisting earlier your line of questioning, tending to suggest that ministers were simply stamping decisions. It really has not been like that. It has been a very different sort of process and, I must say, has worked as we had imagined it and much better than I had at some stages feared. There is really a tendency to think of a continuing discussion and to put things together, and the result of very frequent meetings is that, as we discuss strategic issues, we bear in mind operational issues and, as we discuss operational issues, we bear in mind strategic issues in the round. It has been really profoundly exhilarating to see the potential for Government actually to act as a government and not to think of itself as a sounding board in the argument for departmental interests.

  Q52  Chair: Thank you, and we will come back to that. Perhaps you could provide us with a note of what is the nature of the team that reports to the National Security Council.

  Mr Letwin: Of course. I will ask Sir Peter to provide it. Would you like, incidentally, to know not only how it is, but how it is intended to be?

  Q53  Chair: That would be extremely useful, thank you very much indeed.

  Mr Letwin: We will do both.

  Chair: Moving on, our second inquiry is going to be called "What do ministers do" and we have one or two questions on that.

  Q54  Kevin Brennan: Obviously, I had no idea of the interest! When you spoke earlier on and said about people rattling around Government with nothing to do, I thought you might have been referring to ministers, which is why I followed up. We have got too many, have we not?

  Mr Maude: It does not feel like that.

  Q55  Kevin Brennan: We have got too many though, have we not, in our system?

  Mr Maude: Have we got too many over time and I think we could probably do with less? It does not feel like there is any spare capacity at the moment, I have to tell you.

  Q56  Kevin Brennan: But there is a big variation, is there not, in ministerial jobs, and some jobs, like yours in the Cabinet Office, obviously I have done it and it is an incredibly challenging job and you need very, very well-qualified people to do it, but there are other jobs in Government really, other junior rank levels—and you have probably read Chris Mullin's book—where you are just a sort of ministerial governmental sherpa, and we could get rid of some of those, could we not, and save some money?

  Mr Maude: It slightly depends how you approach the job. If you just want to occupy the job, occupy the post, you probably can and rubber-stamp everything that is put in front of you, but, if you actually want to grip the agenda and drive the policy agenda, then—

  Q57  Kevin Brennan: The recent report by this Select Committee said that there are too many ministers and said that it made the greatest demand on the public purse, that it possibly harmed the good interests of Government, that the number of ministers was corrosive to the independence of the Legislature, and I will not press on to questions I know other colleagues will have on that, and that it increased the size of the payroll vote in the House of Commons. We have got 23 Liberal Democrat ministers, for example, and we have got 119 Tory; that is ludicrously overblown.

  Mr Maude: Well, I think that is a disgraceful attack on the last administration, which I could not possibly comment on!

  Q58  Kevin Brennan: On the serious point, you said over time that you think it would be something that might be worth pursuing. Have you got any plans to look at this issue and the size, particularly in the light of some of the constitutional changes that are being proposed?

  Mr Letwin: Can I just give you, without anything like your experience, the benefit of ten weeks or something of experience to date, which has somewhat surprised me actually and partly it may be because of the extremely high level of activity of the Government which has come in and has a very considerable programme to get through. My experience is that ministers of all ranks in a wide range of departments are much, much more involved in really arduous policy implementation than might have been supposed. You might have thought that the Secretaries of State and Permanent Secretaries with whom we have been negotiating their structural reform plans and who are obviously principally involved in making decisions about submissions of departments on the Spending Review the two great parts of our Government activity to date, you might have thought that the Secretaries of State, therefore, would be doing all the work, but it is absolutely not my experience. So great are the demands of the Structural Reform Programme in which we are engaged that there have been enormously important contributions made, and continuing to be made, by ministers of state and parliamentary under-secretaries right the way across Whitehall, and we even have examples in which parliamentary under-secretaries of state are chairing inter-ministerial working groups to get things implemented—

  Q59  Kevin Brennan: So you think you could use some more ministers?

  Mr Letwin: I have to tell you, and you must have had this experience, that, as I get to bed at about 3.30 in the morning, I do sometimes reflect that it would be nice if there were someone else—

  Kevin Brennan: That is one thing I do not miss!

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