Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
MP AND RT
27 JULY 2010
Q60 Charlie Elphicke: I read the
diaries of Chris Mullin, who indicates that the most onerous duty
of a junior minister seems to be to pour the water for the Cabinet
minister to fill his glass, and it does strike me that there is
a real issue here, that junior ministers are effectively pointless,
except for making speeches in godforsaken places no one else wants
to visit, and with decentralisation this problem is going to get
worse. Should there not be a reduction in the number of junior
ministers so that we can have a few less ministers in the future?
Is there much point in having so many junior ministers?
Mr Letwin: Can I respond to that
by just giving you a little case history which I think illustrates
the point I was trying to make in response to Mr Brennan's questions.
One of the important topics which this Government is seeking to
address, which I am sure you will deal with in the Committee,
is the question of leading people out of drugs and other alcohol
addictions and so on into the mainstream. One can hardly think
of anything more important for the sake of our social progress,
the reduction of crime and so forth. We have established two inter-ministerial
groups, and these are not sort of grand rubber-stamping things,
but two groups of ministers and officials working together to
try to crack through this problem. One is specifically related
to the rehabilitation of people who are caught in drugs, and I
am chairing that and there is a group of colleagues, all of whom
are junior ministers, involved in that task. That feeds into a
second which is being chaired by the parliamentary under-secretary
from the Home Office with a group of junior ministers with their
officials. We have a relatively short timescale. This is an urgent,
pressing necessity and we intend before Christmas, in fact before
the end of November, to have a fully developed plan for changing
the way in which we do these things to lift people out of drugs.
I cannot, as I say, think of anything more important. Now, of
course, at the tail end of those discussions, proposals will have
to be approved by the Social Justice Committee, which is mainly
composed of ministers attending Cabinet, and by the Home Affairs
Committee likewise, but, to get there, it is actually the senior
officials and the junior ministers that are working to get the
proposals together and that is in itself an enormous labour, and
it would be impossible to do that without political-level involvement.
You cannot say to a group of officials, "Please go away and
think about this", this is immensely complicated terrain
with considerable political judgments required, but it could not
possibly be done by secretaries of state because they are too
occupied with too many things. So I think that, very far from
pouring the water, we are talking about people who are really
engaged in immensely important development of policy.
Mr Maude: Can I also add just
on the Chris Mullin point, and I have not read the whole of Chris
Mullin's diaries, but I have read bits of it, and I have said
to him that actually I think he rather tamely accepted limitations
on what a minister can do. Ministers are there to drive the policy
agenda, to be accountable to committees like this and to Parliament
for what the Government does, so they are to take responsibility
for things, and that means you have to step up and grip the agenda,
often collectively, as Oliver has just been describing, but actually
just in taking the agenda for which you have been given responsibility
and driving it.
Q61 Charlie Elphicke: But the essential
point is that Mr Letwin sets out a very cogent thing which is
touching in relation to alcohol and things like that, but is not
the truth that it will be less driven by the junior ministers
and probably more driven by the special adviser for the Cabinet
minister? Also, the second question: why has this got to be done
by a senior group of civil servants? Why does it need junior ministerial
involvement when in fact does not the Cabinet minister direct
the thrust of where he wants to go?
Mr Letwin: Well, may we stick
with my example for a moment and answer in those terms, and it
may be Francis wants to amplify in general. I think my example
illustrates perfectly where you could not do either of those things.
There is not a single Cabinet minister involved; the Home Office,
the Department of Health, the DWP, the Ministry of Justice, a
whole range of departments have a very strong interest in this
area. You would, therefore, require to occupy a group of secretaries
of state for prolonged periods, and we are talking here about
hours and hours and hours of sitting in rooms, crunching through
things, so that certainly would not work. Special advisers cannot
possibly be asked to do this task because decisions are required
as this is a question of making policy and not of dreaming ideas
up. A group of senior civil servants, whilst they certainly have
an enormous amount to contribute and will be involved, could not
possibly do it on their own because the Government has certain
general principles which we are trying to apply to this. We are
in favour of payment by results rather than payment for no particular
result. We want this to tie up with a series of political priorities
to do with the disadvantaged and social justice and the rehabilitation
of prisoners and the work programme, so you need politicians there
who understand the programme of the Government and make sure that
the need gets driven through. I cannot think of anybody that could
do that, except junior ministers, and that is why we are using
Mr Maude: I could scarcely disagree
more actually with Mr Elphicke's characterisation of the process.
Special advisers have a very serious and good role, an additive
role, but it is not to do what you suggest, and neither is it
remotely appropriate for ministers simply to contract out to senior
officials the delivery of fully formed policy. A good policy process
is iterative with ministers setting directions, setting objectives
and then going through a process week by week, sometimes day by
day, of developing policy, looking at options, deciding which
to exclude, looking at the delivery implications of what is emerging,
and this idea somehow that you say, "I want to do this. Go
off, oh senior officials, and devise a scheme which I will either
say yes or no to", may have been a way some ministers have
worked in the past, but it is completely inappropriate.
Q62 Nick de Bois: Notwithstanding
the high start-up and intensity of what ministers are going through
at the moment, does not the actual agenda of smaller Government
mean though, fundamentally, that we should be having fewer ministers,
and also it is probably fair to ask if we can actually afford
the full ministerial complement?
Mr Maude: Well, we are very, very
cheap to run, we are extremely low-maintenance and we have all
taken a pay cut. I am actually, because of the size of the Cabinet,
not a member of the Cabinet and I am costing very significantly
less than my immediate predecessor. The actual cost of ministers
is not huge and it is less than it was, and so it should be; we
have to lead by example in these circumstances.
Q63 Nick de Bois: And the smaller
Mr Maude: Well, getting to a point
where you have smaller Government and big society requires a hell
of a lot of stuff to be done, and that has to be done, some of
it, by legislation, some of it by driving change through. If we
are talking about taking cost out of Government and protecting
front-line services, which may be something you are going to come
on to, as much as possible and protecting public service jobs
to the greatest extent we can requires very intense work in taking
those internal costs out of Government, things like renegotiating
contracts with suppliers to Government; it does not just happen
by itself, it requires intense activity.
Q64 Chair: But I have to ask the
question at least as a tease: is this not a classic example of
what the Adam Smith Institute called `public choice theory', that,
whatever cuts have to be made, they are not going to be us?
Mr Letwin: Chairman, I do not
think it is, partly for the reason that Francis advances, that
both he and I are disbeneficiaries of the principle, the right
principle, that there should be very limited numbers of ministers
paid Cabinet salaries, and we accept that principle. We are also
disbeneficiaries of the principle that we will take not a one-year
pay freeze, but a five-year pay freeze after a five per cent pay
cut. We have tried to lead, as Francis says, by example. I think
we really must not underestimate the extent of the structural
reforms we are trying to bring about, and those in the end are
the reforms which will lead to a giving of the power to the people
that we are seeking, and it may be, as Francis said right at the
beginning, that in due course, some while away from now, the Prime
Minister looks at the whole scene and says, "Now we have
got to the point where those structural reforms are in place,
the spending of Government has been constrained and we no longer
need so many ministers carrying out the task". If he came
to that conclusion, fine, but I do not think it applies today.
Q65 Nick de Bois: I think in my question
I said that there is the high start-up and the initial investment
for ministers that I fully appreciate, but in many ways, if you
are successful, my question is, by definition, we should need
Mr Letwin: Well, I would certainly
be happy if the Prime Minister got to the point where he felt
that we had brought about enough change so that we were giving
people enough power for themselves and giving
Q66 Kevin Brennan: How long do you
think that will take?
Mr Letwin: I do not know, and
it is certainly not going to advance my or Francis's career if
we try to presume on what is, as you very well know, entirely
a prime ministerial decision.
Q67 Nick de Bois: Just to explore
this point, actually, if we are successful in many ways of devolving
power, one could argue that some ministers were doing themselves
out of a job. You could take housing as a very good example where
we are devolving power down the line much more to local authorities,
so what would a housing minister do after that, apart from presumably
keep an eye on things? Is that the reality?
Mr Letwin: It is certainly a very
noble ambition, which I think Francis and I have shared for many
years, to try to ensure that people are given so much power over
their own lives that Government does not any longer need to exercise
so much and it works better without Government exercising so much
Q68 Chair: Shall we move on. Perhaps
we could spend ten minutes each on the four remaining subjects
and, first of all, quango reform. How does the Government identify
a superfluous quango?
Mr Maude: Well, we subject every
quango, well, there is a first sort of existential test which
is: is what this body does necessary at all? If it passes that
initial existential test, we then subject it to three further
tests, one of which it has to meet in order to be justified as
a body independent of ministers and not accountable through ministers
to Parliament. Those tests are: does it do something which is
plainly technical; does it do something which is about the measurement
of fact; or does it do something which again plainly requires
it to be politically impartial? If it does not meet one of those
three tests, then our collective conclusion, as a Government,
is that it should be brought back within a department, so that
what it does, to the extent that it needs to be done at all, is
accountable to Parliament through a minister.
Q69 Nick de Bois: Would you give
PASC a role in approving new or reorganised arm's-length bodies
as, I think it was, the Institute for Government recommended?
Mr Maude: It is not a bad idea
Mr Letwin: That is a rather attractive
Mr Maude: So you can take that
as a yes.
Q70 Nick de Bois: Okay, we will work
on that one! What about a similar role then in approving the abolition
of excessive existing arm's-length bodies?
Mr Maude: Well, there are two
processes for abolishing arm's-length bodies. Many of them are
not statutory and many of them had been established on an extra-statutory
basis, and a lot of them are statutory and will require primary
legislation to change their role or to abolish them. Our intention
is to accomplish much of the latter part of the programme through
a single Public Bodies Bill which we aim to introduce, all being
well, in October or November of this year, which will obviously
be subject to the usual legislative processes. As you will have
seen, some departments have begun to announce some of their conclusions
of the review which has been conducted, say, on a reasonably collective
basis with me and my officials providing challenge to the reviews,
and it has been a very productive and collaborative process, so
the extent to which this Committee wishes to engage in that process
is a matter we could discuss, but the timescales are somewhat
Q71 Chair: When will you be producing
this legislation? Is it still on track for November?
Mr Maude: October or November,
we hope, yes.
Q72 Kevin Brennan: Can I just briefly
ask you about the letter you sent to the Chair of the Committee
about the appointment of, first of all, the Service Commissioner
and the Commissioner of Public Appointments, the joining together
of those two appointments. This Committee has done inquiries in
the past into public appointments and the system. Would you broadly
say that the system that we have now and that has been in place
in recent years produces a fair system for making public appointments
and one that is free of political bias?
Mr Maude: Free of political bias?
No, I would not say it has been completely successful in doing
Q73 Kevin Brennan: Why is that? What
is wrong with the system, if that is the case?
Mr Maude: Well, it is very `processy'
and quite bureaucratic at the moment. I think it has also led
actually in the process of making appointments to public bodies
to enormous amounts of public money being spent on hiring external
head-hunters in a way that has been very good business for head-hunters.
Q74 Kevin Brennan: So is it your
intention, as well as merging these two posts, to bring forward
proposals to change the procedures about how public appointments
Mr Maude: I would certainly like
to look at how they are made and see whether there is not a way
of making it a bit brisker, a bit less cluttered, but, just to
be clear, the office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments,
if that is the right title, these are about ministerial appointments,
so at the end of it ministers will make these appointments.
Q75 Kevin Brennan: Indeed, but from
a shortlist usually of two that has been approved as being above
the line and appointable by the Commission for Public Appointments
or indeed the Commissioner, as appropriate. I do not want to pursue
this too far, Chair, because I know this is not our business today,
but, if there are thoughts about changing this, it would be very
useful, I think, if you could keep the Committee informed of what
your thinking is.
Mr Maude: Absolutely.
Q76 Chair: It is tangentially related
to quangos, but thank you for that.
Mr Maude: Tangentially, but closely
Chair: Shall we move on to how the Government
is making public spending reductions.
Q77 Greg Mulholland: Obviously, this
is something that the Committee, I think, will be particularly
focused on, and rightly, during this Parliament. Could you clarify
for us, first of all, just so that we are clear, the relationship
between the Efficiency and Reform Group in the Cabinet Office
and the `Star Chamber' of ministers and how those two bodies will
Mr Maude: Well, the Efficiency
and Reform Group is a collection of the pre-existing parts of
central Government. The only machinery of Government change we
have made is to bring the Office of Government and Commerce, the
OGC, and its agency, Buying Solutions, under the ambit of the
Cabinet Office, so all of this is, as it were, under one roof,
a virtual roof in this case, because there is a lot of interaction
between, for example, the Office of Government and the CIO, the
Chief Information Officer who deals with information technology,
where the relationship with procurement in OGC is very clear,
so bringing it altogether in one place has created the Efficiency
and Reform Group. The relationship with the public spending process
is this: that there is an Efficiency and Reform Board which sits
over the Efficiency and Reform Group, which is co-chaired by the
Chief Secretary and myself. We are looking essentially at cross-cutting
changes that will drive efficiency. For example, the Efficiency
and Reform Group support me in the work we are doing in renegotiating
contracts with the Government's biggest suppliers in centralising
procurement of commodities, goods and services across the Government
so that the Government can use its scale and buying power to drive
down costs to the taxpayer. The greater extent to which we succeed
in driving down costs in those cross-cutting ways, the more assistance
it gives to departments in the way they address the pressing demands
of spending reductions and deficit reduction, so its relationship
with PX is kind of through me and the Chief Secretary, equipping
us to put pressure on departments through this spending process
to take out unnecessary cost from their internal structure and
processes rather than the pain being taken in the delivery of
front-line services on which our citizens depend.
Q78 Greg Mulholland: So that is more
the work of the Star Chamber? Is that correct? Can I ask you on
that, because you are both obviously key members of the Chancellor's
Star Chamber, could you give us an insight into the process that
is being followed and what criteria are used in terms of deciding
what to cut and what not to cut?
Mr Letwin: Yes, in fact that is
exactly what I was about to offer as a complement to what Francis
has been saying. The Public Expenditure Committee has been established
in order to provide sufficient weight behind the Treasury in its
discussions with departments, and those discussions are carrying
on, and will carry on for a few weeks yet, before the Public Expenditure
Committee, which has sat and discussed its process, but has not
yet tackled any particular department, begins to intervene in
the case of departments that have not been able to reach a settlement
with the Treasury. That is a process which is intended to enable
the Committee to make judgments under circumstances where the
Treasury and a department cannot reach an accommodation.
Q79 Chair: Is `Star Chamber' a good
name for this body?
Mr Letwin: This is not a name
that we have ever given it, Chairman.