Change in Government: the agenda for leadership - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 106-153)

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster GCB CVO, Lord Wilson of Dinton GCB, and Lord Turnbull KCB CVO

1 February 2011

Q106 Chair: Thank you for joining our Committee this morning. For the record, would you each kindly just identify who you are?

Lord Armstrong: I am Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. I was Secretary of the Cabinet from 1979 to 1987, and Head of the Home Civil Service from November 1981 to December 1987.

Lord Wilson: I am Lord Wilson of Dinton. I was Secretary of the Cabinet from January 1998 to September 2002. I was both Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service in that time.

Lord Turnbull: I am Lord Turnbull. I succeeded Richard Wilson in both roles in September 2002 and I retired in July 2005.

Chair: Thank you. Our principal concern is our inquiry into good governance and Civil Service reform. We are attempting initially to establish some principles of good governance, but our questions will go wider than that. We will start with the Cabinet Manual that has just been produced.

Q107 Robert Halfon: Do you think that the production of the Cabinet Manual is a good thing?

Lord Armstrong: Yes, I do think it is a good thing. It is a comprehensive collection of material about how things are done, both in some constitutional matters but also in administrative matters right across the Government. It is a very useful collection of information. I do not think that one should exaggerate its importance. I do not see it as a written constitution or anything of that kind. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive, descriptive of the way things are now. I think it is very useful. I can see that it will be able to be updated as the system and practices change. That too is going to be very useful.

Q108 Robert Halfon: Is it based on precedent and convention? How has the Manual been drawn up?

Lord Armstrong: You would have to ask somebody closer to the business of it than I am, but I presume there has been a team of people collecting the material. Some of it obviously is not directly from the Cabinet Office—the material about the Attorney-General, the Law Officers and so on. There would have been an editorial team collecting it under the leadership of Sir Gus O'Donnell.

Q109 Robert Halfon: What is the legal backdrop to the document?

Lord Armstrong: The legal backdrop?

Robert Halfon: Yes.

Lord Armstrong: I do not know that there is a legal backdrop as such. I think it is an administrative document.

Q110 Robert Halfon: In essence, is it just guidelines rather than an enforced set of rules?

Lord Armstrong: It is not rules, it is guidelines. It is a description of what happens now, the way it is done now, and it is capable of modification as the way things are done changes.

Lord Wilson: It says on the cover "a guide to laws, conventions and rules on the operation of government". It is a mixture of all those things. Some of it is in the law; some of it most definitely is not in the law and, as Lord Armstrong rightly said, is about describing how things are done.

Lord Turnbull: It brings together two kinds of material, and they have slightly different statuses. There is the bit that relates to how the Civil Service and Cabinet work, which is authoritative, because the Government is in the best position to say what is the best description of those workings. There is also material where they are describing their relations with other people—the Judiciary, both Houses of Parliament and so on. Some people have said, "What right have you got to describe that?" I think the answer they will give is, "We are telling you how we think we interact with those other parts of Government." It is useful for them to know what we think is the way in which we interact, for example, with the conduct of civil servants appearing before Select Committees. Those two parts are of slightly different status, drawn together in one document.

Q111 Robert Halfon: Lord Armstrong, would you have found the Cabinet Manual more useful when you were conducting negotiations in 1974 regarding the potential coalition with the Liberals?

Lord Armstrong: I should have found it useful if there had been such a document, certainly yes. I suppose, in a sense, the experience of that time, as it was funded at the time, became part of the basis of the Manual. As it was, I had to do research from other sources to fill myself in to think about what would happen if we came to that situation.

Lord Turnbull: Another use of this was not simply to get the principal players in, for example, the Cabinet Office and the Palace on to the same page, but to explain to the outside world how this works. There were a lot of misconceptions. People had got used to a Prime Minister losing an election and departing the scene by Friday afternoon. To explain the process whereby negotiations take place, I think, helps calm people. They did not expect there to be a result immediately. The comment written about this process was thereby more informed. Given the tensions around the markets at the time, I think that was a very useful function.

Q112 Robert Halfon: Given what you have said about the Manual really being about guidelines, is your view that this Manual does not represent the start of a written constitution?

Lord Armstrong: No, in my view it does not. I think it is descriptive, rather in the way that academic and learned treatises have been in the past. There is nothing in it that says there is a process for amending this. It is a description of business as it is, work in hand, if you like. That will change; it will modify, as it has in the past. That will be reflected in updates of the Manual. I do not see it as a written constitution, but I do see it as a useful work of reference.

Lord Wilson: I see it as a modest but useful document. It does not attempt to write comprehensively. There is a great deal that lies behind it--behind almost every sentence in some places--but it provides the outlines, a starting point, for someone who wants to have an overall view of what the conventions are in a particular situation.

Q113 Chair: Is it in fact therefore misnamed? It is not a Cabinet Manual; it is questions of procedure for civil servants.

Lord Turnbull: It is not just for civil servants. It is to explain both to Government's partners elsewhere in the constitution how they think they work, and to the wider world. I think it is misnamed. It is a title they have borrowed from New Zealand. People think this is about the Cabinet, whereas it is about a lot more than the Cabinet. The subtitle "guide to laws, conventions and rules" is actually a more accurate description, because "Manual" has slightly too prescriptive a tone, I think. Maybe they can adjust the title, but I think the foreword is very clear on what the purpose of this document is.

Lord Armstrong: I agree with the comments on the title and I have been trying to think what better title one might give it. I am unable to think of anything crisp and short, except perhaps, "The Way We Live Now".

Q114 Robert Halfon: Lord Turnbull, you are quoted as saying, "Civil servants should support the Government, but shouldn't try to keep the Coalition together." Do you not think that, in the negotiations for the coalition, the Civil Service overstepped the mark, given that Gus O'Donnell is quoted on the record saying that he advised that a coalition would be better for the markets? Is that not a step too far in terms of the Civil Service?

Lord Turnbull: The Civil Service said two things. One is that they would provide logistical support: people needed rooms, communications or whatever, and that offer was taken up. The other was that they said, "If you want note takers or you get into something like proximity talks and you want someone to carry messages from one place to another, we will do that," which is what has happened in Scotland; or "If you want help drafting this document." In the end, the parties decided they wanted to do that themselves but, if they had wanted to take advantage of that, I think that is a proper function. Advice such as, "It would be a good idea if you went about this briskly, given the uncertainty of markets"—that was advice that was generic; it was not specifically catered to a particular party.

Q115 Robert Halfon: He said specifically that a coalition would be more helpful to the markets. Surely that is a political statement in itself. Who knows whether a minority government would have been beneficial to the markets? We just do not know. Even if it is right, is it really the job of a civil servant to try to push the Government into having a coalition?

Lord Turnbull: I think it is perfectly valid, particularly for someone who had been a permanent secretary at the Treasury, to indicate that there was a danger of market uncertainty. I personally think it is true that a coalition has two things. It has support—in effect it has a majority—and also it has some commitment that this will last through time, which is going to give more assurance than a minority government, where it is all about how long it is going to be before one of them decides to break cover and demand an election.

Q116 Robert Halfon: Does it not give the impression that the Civil Service favour the coalition, as opposed to another scenario?

Lord Turnbull: I think it may be valid to say the Civil Service favoured a coalition; it did not say which form of coalition and whether it was Lib/Lab or Conservative/Liberal Democrat. That would have been overstepping the mark.

Q117 Robert Halfon: Surely the Civil Service should not favour a coalition or not a coalition? It should be up to the elected politicians to decide.

Lord Turnbull: No, what it should favour is a government that is stable, able to carry through its programme and has some prospect of lasting long enough to see it through. It is perfectly right to express a view that that would be a desirable outcome.

Lord Armstrong: I think it is not unreasonable for a civil servant, who was probably asked for his view, to say that, if the Queen's Government is to aim to be able to be carried on, it would be a good thing to avoid instability in the markets. Given that markets were in a fragile state, a fragile condition, at that time, it is perfectly reasonable for a civil servant, particularly if asked, to say, "You should be thinking about the possible effects of what is going to happen upon the markets," because the consequences of not thinking about it could have been extremely serious.

Q118 Chair: Lord Wilson, would he have been better to keep his advice private?

Lord Wilson: I make it a practice never to comment on what my successors did, but I think the role of the Civil Service is to support the Queen and to help advise the Queen in her function of inviting someone to form a Government. In the process of doing that, I think it is proper for them to draw attention to something that was—I guess; I don't know the facts of this case—pretty obvious at the time, that there was a real danger of instability in the markets. I think that is part of doing the job well.

Q119 Paul Flynn: Part of the Manual is the role of the Sovereign. Do you think there is a need now to redefine the role of the Sovereign, after having had the present Queen, who has served for a very long period without knowingly or publicly expressing any political opinion? A future change will involve possibly Prince Charles, who frequently expresses political opinions. Unless the role of the Sovereign is redefined and restricted to a largely ornamental role, isn't there a possibility of problems similar to those that occurred in the 1930s with the Sovereign?

Lord Wilson: I am sure Select Committees or their predecessors over many years have said, "Should we be defining this?" The fact is that, by not defining it over some centuries, we have actually allowed the role of the Sovereign, in a very British way, to evolve without creating crises. I think that is a peculiarly good achievement. We are astonishingly lucky to have a Sovereign who has such a source of political experience of public life—over half a century and more, 60 years—who has met the Prime Minister of the day, weekly, to talk in private about the affairs of state. That is an arrangement that is reasonably clearly set out here and reasonably well understood but, if you tried to put it into the law, you would have great difficulty pinning down the essence of it. The process of slowly cutting back on the royal prerogative in legislation has been going on for a long time. My own view on the whole question of a written constitution is that it is much better to try to move forward incrementally, bit by bit, rather than to attempt a comprehensive rewrite of something that works, on the whole, pretty well and is quite hard to define.

Lord Armstrong: I am quite sure that the present Prince of Wales, who has been around in that capacity for some decades now, knows very well that his freedom of action and speech will be curtailed when he succeeds his mother. I am sure that he is ready to adopt the same constitutional arrangements, as to what he may say or do, as she has followed.

Lord Wilson: I should have said that. I absolutely agree with Lord Armstrong's comment.

Q120 Paul Flynn: The historian Robert Rhodes James, who was a former member of this House, wrote that, at the time when the Conservative party had decided to get rid of Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister, there was terror in the party that she would call a general election. The Conservative party couldn't stop her; Parliament couldn't stop her; the Cabinet couldn't stop her. Only the Sovereign could stop any Prime Minister who was acting in her or his own interests from calling an election at that time, which might have been contrary to the public interest. Isn't it important that the role of the Head of State is defined and strengthened in that particular area?

Lord Turnbull: I was serving in Mrs Thatcher's private office at the time. I do not recognise that description at all. The idea of an election—this is, quite honestly, the first time I have ever heard of it. I think it is a fantastical idea and has no real relevance to the discussion.

Q121 Chair: Supposing it was the case that a Prime Minister wanted to call a general election rather than just face their own demise as leader of the party, what would happen?

Paul Flynn: This was from a serious historian who was at the heart of the Conservative party.

Lord Turnbull: What is in this Cabinet Manual is a very important principle, which is that the politicians, possibly eventually requiring a vote in the House of Commons, sort this thing out and present her with a solved problem and that she is never faced with having to use discretion that might prove controversial. In two areas, this is related. First of all, the choice of a leader of a party. We will never again get 1963 or whenever it was, when the Sovereign has to choose who should lead the Conservative party. All parties now have proper processes to sort this out. At an election, the political process would have to come to her and then present her with this solution. I think that is a very welcome shift over the last 30 years, and it means that the Sovereign is never put in the position of having to take a decision that might be contested, as most recently, although it is 30 years ago, happened in Australia, when the Governor­General took some action that was controversial. The whole purpose of this Manual is to say we must never put the monarch in that position again.

Q122 Charlie Elphicke: The Manual is very focused on the duties of the Sovereign. I have no doubt that Prince William will make a very fine King in due course. It is focused on the whole issue about Ministers and the Executive. Why is there no mention in this directly about more of an emphasis on the people of the land, public service and the sense of serving the people, which surely is at the heart of everything? It always seems to be looking up to what the top people want, rather than looking at how to ensure that there is a greater engagement and a greater sense of public service, or am I being unfair?

Lord Armstrong: I do not think the Manual aims that high. As I say, I think it is descriptive of what happens now and it is not there to provide guidance about what you might do in other situations or for other purposes. There would be lessons to be learnt from what happens now and the previous development, but it is not the purpose of the Manual to try to prescribe from those lessons. I do not think that that is a fair criticism of the Manual as it is intended to be.

Q123 Nick de Bois: Lord Turnbull, given the statement that you just made saying that never again should we put the Sovereign in a position of having to make a controversial decision, or words to that effect, do you still hold the view that we are not presenting the beginnings of a written constitution here by making such judgments?

Lord Turnbull: I do not think that we get nearer a written constitution. The origin of this piece of work was a time when Gordon Brown went through a phase of being rather interested in the constitution. I think he was testing out the proposition. In my experience, the minute you get to a written constitution, you quickly find that the debate is not between people who want a written constitution and people who do not but with people who want to make some changes to the constitution and then entrench them in a written constitution. I do not think this necessarily takes us that way. The fact that for example, as has been mentioned by colleagues, the role of the Sovereign has evolved, even in her reign, tells you that there are some advantages in the flexibility that we have got.

Lord Armstrong: May I go back to the night in October 1984 when the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel? There was a period of about half an hour in the middle of the night when I thought that the Prime Minister might have been killed. I did do a lot of thinking in that time about what one would do if a Prime Minister was removed from the scene by that sort of thing. As Lord Turnbull said, the ultimate solution is the election of a new leader. The Sovereign would in effect be bound by that, and it would be for the politicians to decide whether there should be an election. There would be questions about the appointment of an interim Prime Minister to carry on the Administration until the election took place, but that process would in effect be resolved by the politicians.

Chair: By the Cabinet.

Lord Armstrong: By the Cabinet. There would be some person within the Cabinet who would be the obvious choice to be the interim Prime Minister. As it happened in October 1984, it would have been probably Lord Whitelaw, I think. What Lord Turnbull says is basically right about that. I think that the Sovereign does retain an ultimate power to respond to the request for a dissolution of Parliament. In 99 cases out of 100, the Sovereign will grant the request. I think the discretion remains in case you get a Prime Minister who has gone off his or her head.

Chair: Which I think was the basis of the original question.

Paul Flynn: I was too nice to say that.

Lord Armstrong: One has to think about it. There could be a Prime Minister who went off his or her head. At that point, the Sovereign would have to exercise his or her discretion and say, "Are you sure that the Government cannot be carried on by somebody other than you?" I hope it will never happen. I have yet to meet a Prime Minister who has gone off his or her head, at any rate while still in office. I think the discretion remains, and could, in these I hope very remote circumstances, be rather useful.

Lord Wilson: This comes back to the nature of this Manual. I think it is modest and useful. In my experience, most of the situations that you have to deal with are not covered ever by the guidance. You always, as it were, have to take it as a starting point and then work out what the practice is and what you should do in a particular situation. I think this discussion has illustrated that.

Q124 Kelvin Hopkins: Isn't it crucial that the Civil Service plays a role in maintaining and safeguarding the conventions by which we govern ourselves? If that is the case, isn't it absolutely vital that they are permanent and that they retain their impartial nature? Obviously in this situation it is difficult for you to make any comment that might appear critical of the present Civil Service or its leaders, but you have commented recently on what happened in the past, most interestingly, in the Chilcot inquiry. You cannot say so, but I can say that I thought it was a bit of a break with these conventions that Sir Gus O'Donnell came out publicly urging a coalition. One would expect the head of the Civil Service to say that sort of thing in private, but not in public.

Lord Armstrong: I should think that he was warning about the danger of instability. That was perfectly within his rights. Of course I agree with what you say about the need for the Civil Service to be non­political and impartial. I should think I speak for all three of us in saying we have been constantly conscious of that while we were in office. That is the important point about it.

Lord Turnbull: Two developments in the last two or three years: first, the revised Civil Service Code; secondly, the clauses in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act that that was passed just before the election.

Lord Armstrong: It got washed up.

Lord Turnbull: It got washed up. There were important clauses enshrining the concept of impartiality, so that has been entrenched. I do not think that is something that is under political threat. I think it actually is in better shape than it has been for some time.

Q125 Kelvin Hopkins: I speak as someone of the left who was deeply critical of the Blair attempts to change the nature of our constitution. I know from your comments last week, and also one could guess, what your feelings were, about the attempt to drive down the power of the Civil Service perhaps to govern with a small coterie of advisers, even marginalising the Cabinet and so on. The Blair revolution did not quite come off in the end and I think we are now stepping back from it. Did it not make you feel uncomfortable? Would that not have made Britain a fundamentally different place, if we had moved towards a presidential style of government, where the president has his small group of advisers and makes decisions without very much reference to anyone else?

Lord Armstrong: I think all three of us would be likely to agree with the last paragraph of the Butler report, some years ago, about sofa government, written in very coded language but none the less very clear in its meaning. Speaking personally at any rate, I think that one of the interesting results of a coalition is the return of a more collective form of Cabinet government. The collective system, with which we are all three familiar, of Cabinet government and the use of Cabinet committees to establish collective responsibility has received a boost, because you can only run the coalition if you are doing that. The coalition increases the need for collective government and collective responsibility, and for the mechanisms by which you achieve that.

Q126 Kelvin Hopkins: Clearly Jonathan Powell was hostile to the Civil Service, from his comments. I personally was seriously concerned that we were losing what I saw as the traditional role of the Civil Service, which I very much supported—the Sir Humphrey model that I personally thought worked very well. I would not suggest that you were quite in the same model as Sir Humphrey, but that was a better way of running things than what we saw later. Do you not agree?

Lord Wilson: When I was doing the job, Peter Riddell had an article headed, "West Wing meets Sir Humphrey". To some extent, that resonated. The position that Lord Turnbull and I were answering questions about last week was quite an unusual one in constitutional terms. It is not in my experience common for a Prime Minister to be in such a very strong position. It only happens if you have a Cabinet that is happy for that to happen, a parliamentary party that is supportive, a trade union movement and political party and public opinion. If you have all of those constitutional checks and balances lying down in the same way, then the Prime Minister is in a very strong position. To extrapolate from that to a general observation about how we run the country I think would be a mistake. Normal conventions will reassert themselves, as I think is happening.

Lord Armstrong: Mrs Thatcher was a very strong Prime Minister, but she understood the importance of Cabinet government, and she took great pains to ensure that decisions went the way she thought they should go, but she did it within the framework of Cabinet government.

Q127 Chair: We must move on. This is all fascinating but we are miles behind. The Cabinet Secretary says in the document that this Cabinet Manual is not intended to have any legal effect. Lord Wilson, in your bitter experience of judicial review after judicial review, do we really have confidence that the Cabinet Manual is not going to be cited as evidence on one side or another that proper procedures have been followed? To that extent, does it not become justiciable?

Lord Wilson: You can never stop people citing things. However, the intention is clearly that it should not be binding, and I think intention matters. It is drafted in a way that is, as you heard earlier, descriptive not prescriptive, and any evidence that a court had about the Manual would have to take account of the fact that the intention is that it should not be binding and not be, in itself, a justiciable document. This is a matter for lawyers, but I would have thought that the fact that it is not written as, and not intended to be, a legally binding document or a rulebook of the kind that is meant to create legal obligations on Ministers would be pretty conclusive proof that it is not itself a legal document of that sort.

Lord Armstrong: I went though the Manual and noted with interest that the words, 'should', 'ought' and 'must' hardly appear at all.

Q128 Chair: Very interesting comment. Would not a senior civil servant, perhaps, trying to advise a Minister to do or not to do something, be likely to refer to this document? Rather like the way legal advice is received by Ministers, would not there be an obligation on a Minister to accept that advice? If they ignored that advice and got into legal difficulties as a result of it, the Cabinet Manual would be cited.

Lord Turnbull: It is important the way this document has been put together. By and large, the civil servants who have drafted it are able to reference some other source for the statements that they are making, which exists already. There's the Ministerial Code, the special adviser code and various other pieces of hard and soft law. If they have been successful in that, there are very few statements in here that are new. The intention is almost that nothing should be new; you should be able to say, "I have written this because I've based it on that principle that is known already and I can tell you where I've got it from." The amount of new purchase, you might call it, that it creates for judicial review is small, and that is certainly the intention.

Q129 Nick de Bois: I must confess I am a little confused as to who is actually going to read this book. I will not ask you your opinion on that, but I would like to explore very briefly, Lord Turnbull, if I could start with you, what role you think this Manual could play in terms of the way in which Parliament holds the Executive to account. Is it just simply going to explain to Ministers what to expect from Parliament?

Lord Turnbull: I think it is describing the status quo. It is certainly not commenting or glossing Erskine May, the rules under which the House of Commons operates. It is explaining how they would react in certain circumstances. I doubt it is going to change that to any great extent. When it comes to the House of Lords, it does not for example deal with the interesting question about whether the Salisbury convention is changed or not changed by virtue of there being a coalition. It is careful not to try to change anyone else's rules.

Lord Armstrong: In the sort of situation you have described, a civil servant might say, "Well, here is what has been done in the past. It doesn't mean it is what you should do now, but it perhaps does mean that you should think twice or three times before doing it differently. Perhaps you should talk to the Prime Minister before you make such a change."

Lord Wilson: Strong Ministers will still want to act in a strong way, but it just provides a reference point. As to the audience, I am sure this great Committee and its successors will be regularly reading the Manual to see whether they can quote it to witnesses sitting here.

Q130 Chair: This is not the empire striking back against sofa government.

Lord Wilson: I would not want to describe any of this in the language of Star Wars.

Q131 Nick de Bois: Lord Wilson, I read from the evidence to the Chilcot inquiry that you seem to have a lot of faith in the way successful businesses conduct their board meetings, and went so far as to suggest that you would take an element of that and canvass opinion from Cabinet Ministers about the performance of the Prime Minister, which I found intriguing and a good idea. Is that something you would like to see in this Manual, if you think the Manual has any weight, so that it could actually become something the Prime Minister could not overrule or becomes de facto part of being a Cabinet Minister?

Lord Wilson: My comment was that I found it ironic, when I started taking up appointments in the private sector, that the Government that had been imposing increasingly stringent requirements of governance on the running of companies was itself following processes that were less stringent. I took one example from the current code, which was that boards of companies should arrange, either internally or externally, to evaluate the performance of the board—it is not just the chairman—and consider whether they were getting the papers they wanted, whether they were happy with their own performance, each other's performance and so on. I think that is rather a good discipline, and it was interesting to think of it being applied in the situation of a Cabinet. Either the Cabinet Secretary or someone else—it does not have to be the Cabinet Secretary—should go and ask the members of the Cabinet whether they were happy with the way it was running, whether they would like to see more papers, whether they would like more information or whether they thought the way that discussions took place could be improved.

Q132 Chair: Lord Wilson, you intend this to be empowering.

Lord Wilson: Yes, empowering of Cabinet Ministers. That was the underlying point, thank you.

Q133 Chair: It would seem a little revolutionary if you were Prime Minister, wouldn't it?

Lord Wilson: We have collective government in this country, in which the Cabinet as a whole takes responsibility for the decisions it takes. Therefore, what is wrong with a process that underpins that by giving Cabinet Ministers an opportunity to say whether they can see ways in which the way they discharge their responsibilities can be improved?

Chair: I think it is an excellent point and very well made, if I may say so.

Lord Armstrong: I sat in on the Cabinet under three Prime Ministers, and each of them ran the Cabinet in his or her own very different, very personal way. It would be very difficult to prescribe permanent rules as to how this is done, because it depends so much on the personality and the strength of the Prime Minister of the day, and his or her relationships with her colleagues and the way they do business. The way that Sir Edward Heath conducted his Cabinet was quite different from the way in which either Mr Wilson or Mrs Thatcher conducted their Cabinets. They were different from each other. It is so different that I think it is quite difficult to make any general rules about it.

Q134 Chair: You do not agree with Lord Wilson that there should be some check to strengthen the hand of individual Cabinet Ministers?

Lord Armstrong: I think it would be interesting to have that, but I do think that the differences between one Cabinet and another, and one Prime Minister and another, set limits to what you can do about that.

Lord Turnbull: Having heard Lord Wilson's suggestion, I thought it was a good idea, but there was one particular variation from the private sector practice. Directors of a company are elected by the shareholders, not by the chairman. Therefore, it is not in the chairman's power to deselect a director.

Chair: Something to which Lord Wilson's comments actually refer.

Lord Turnbull: Therefore, if you are criticising the way Cabinet's run, you are actually passing those criticisms over to the person who can decide whether you are a member of that body or not, so it makes it more difficult. In a well-run Cabinet, I think the Prime Minister should be having a regular series of bilaterals with his colleagues. One of the things you notice is some people see the Prime Minister every week, several times a week, and there are other Cabinet Ministers who go weeks on end and never have a bilateral. This is the point at which the relationship should develop. You say, "How do you think it is going? Are the ways in which we can improve?" That is the dialogue that I think is missing. We have to find a way of getting some feedback, but recognising it is slightly more difficult to do than in a corporate situation.

Q135 Nick de Bois: I think I'm picking up from what Lord Wilson said, that the onus, Lord Turnbull, on a non­executive director in a plc is that, just because there's a tough chairman, he still has the duty of care and responsibility to ask those tough questions. That emerged from the Maxwell days and so forth. Why is that any different for a Cabinet Minister? In fact, I would have thought a Cabinet Minister should have more spine to be able to stand up and make those recommendations. By the process that Lord Wilson is recommending, would you not agree that it gives them a little bit of an oomph to do that?

Lord Turnbull: The difference I am pointing out is that Cabinet Ministers do not have the same protection as a non­executive director has and, therefore, you have to find some other way of getting to this desirable end that there is some feedback.

Q136 Nick de Bois: A non­executive director could go to jail, and I am not sure a Cabinet Minister would if he did not ask the right questions.

Lord Armstrong: Their political careers could be ruined.

Q137 Robert Halfon: Going back to the Cabinet Manual, do you think it will have any effect on what was termed the Crichel Down principle, where Ministers are actually responsible for things that go wrong in their Department? That seems to have weakened over the last 15­20 years.

Chair: Can we leave that for a moment? We are going to come back to that later.

Q138 Paul Flynn: I come to the argument now that the worst decision in 25 years was the decision to send British soldiers into Iraq for the second time, the result of which was the loss of 179 British lives. We know now that decision was taken without the full knowledge of members of the Cabinet. Parliament supported it on false information supplied to it. Isn't this a very powerful argument against sofa government? I disagree with the Chairman. I think we have to say that we must press, on the basis of those 179 lives, for more collegiate government in future. Do you agree?

Chair: I am not disagreeing with that.

Lord Armstrong: I strongly support collective government, and I think that undoubtedly on certain occasions, including that, Mr Blair fell short of it.

Lord Wilson: I stand by what I said to the Chilcot inquiry, which is on the public record.

Q139 Chair: Can I move on? Lord Turnbull, you also made some interesting comments at the Chilcot inquiry about the Campbellisation of the information released by government. Comparing it to the disciplines that a plc would have to follow on the release of information, those disciplines just do not apply to government. Government can selectively leak, can selectively announce, can partially withhold information in order to get the right political effect of the information released, in a way that would see directors of a public company prosecuted. Would you like to enlarge on that and do you think there is enough in the Cabinet Manual that addresses that?

Lord Turnbull: I do not think this issue is discussed in the Cabinet Manual. I was struck by reading part of the Campbell diaries, where news emerges that Cherie Blair is expecting another baby, and then there is a row as to, "Do we tell The News of the World or do we tell The Mirror?" This should never have arisen. This should have been a piece of news that just came out of No. 10 to all people, including citizens, at the same time.

Chair: So it is an abuse of patronage really?

Lord Turnbull: It is an abuse of patronage, yes and, as I indicated in my evidence, the corporate world is going rapidly in the other direction, because not only do your results have to appear through the RNS, but other forms of communication, particularly for financial services companies, are being questioned by the FSA. If you hold an investor day, investor briefings and interviews with journalists, there are questions of whether, by the back door, information is being released selectively to various people. That is being clamped down on. At the moment, there is no restraint although, in the area of official statistics, I think we have won some ground back. There is now recognition that the GDP and inflation figures are produced according to a calendar, and go out and are not selectively leaked, but other forms of government announcement are still pretty much a free­for­all.

Q140 Chair: Are you ever concerned that our political leaders in government have used non­political people, like members of the armed forces or senior officials, to make the case for something or to announce something in a certain way, which is an attempt to validate, with an impartial person, what is essentially a political decision or a political message? I am thinking particularly, most recently, of the letter in The Times from the Armed Forces Chiefs justifying cutting the Harrier, against very strong opposition from a previous First Sea Lord. Can you think of other occasions that have left you uncomfortable?

Lord Turnbull: I am not particularly uncomfortable with that one, because I think the military leaders went through a review and eventually agreed a settlement with their Minister and in turn with the Treasury. It seems perfectly reasonable, if that is the decision they have reached collectively, publicly to defend it. Whether it is before a Select Committee or a letter to a newspaper, that is what they are doing, so I am not sure that it meets the description of being leant on.

Lord Wilson: There is a very important distinction between explaining the Government's position and becoming an advocate for it. I think it is perfectly proper and necessary for a public servant or civil servant to explain what the Government's position is and what the reasons are, and this happens all the time with Select Committees, but there is a very fine line between that and a public servant getting into a position where they are actually arguing for something in a partisan way. That is a constant danger and one has to patrol that boundary.

Q141 Chair: Is it something that should be better reflected in the code or in the Manual?

Lord Wilson: To be honest, I have not read the code to check that point, but it is a very important point.

Lord Armstrong: Some of these points are dealt with in the Ministerial Code, which is a separate document.

Q142 Greg Mulholland: All three of you have clearly had long and distinguished careers in the Civil Service and have seen a number of the reforms that have come forward from political leaders. When you look at the last century particularly but the last 10 years as well, it seems that each generation is trying to reform essentially the same things and each time saying we have to get to grip with the same problems that are being identified. Is the conclusion that we take from that that all Civil Service reform ends in failure?

Lord Wilson: No.

Lord Armstrong: From my point of view, I think the process is one of constant adaptation. Yesterday's reform does one thing, then you find some other need and you have to modify and go to that, and that is a new form of Civil Service reform. You go through some periods where there is no reform, and that will be followed, particularly under the stimulus of a very active Prime Minister, by periods of quite a lot of reform. It is a process of constant adaptation within the general principles of the Civil Service's responsibility to Ministers, and Ministers' accountability to Parliament.

Q143 Greg Mulholland: Is that not really the crux of this: that it is constant adaptation, which is exactly what the Civil Service wants, and yet you have leaders, particularly strong leaders—Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now David Cameron—coming forward with these grand reform schemes that are going to change everything from top to bottom. What happens really is that it is Sir Humphrey who is in charge, making sure that constant adaptation is what actually happens.

Lord Turnbull: I think I would describe it as being that we stand on the shoulders of our predecessors and build on their work. I will give you an example. When Richard Wilson was the head of the Civil Service and I was the permanent secretary in the Treasury, there was a group that produced a report called Bringing in and Bringing on Talent, and it was about opening up senior Civil Service posts to a wider range of applicants. It was started in his time, and continued and accelerated in mine. It was not a case of coming along and simply reversing something that had happened before. Very few things get reversed; they get built on.

Lord Wilson: I agree with that. The Civil Service that I left was very different from the Civil Service I joined. It had moved on immeasurably in important ways. Some of the changes are very big and important changes. I am going to use this as a small visual aid: the Next Steps policy, which was launched in 1988, was a profoundly important step. The financial management initiative was a profoundly important policy and the Citizen's Charter was a very important idea. Each wave follows the previous wave and moves the service on, and that is how these things are bound to work. Every Government needs something a bit different from the previous Government. The Civil Service that John Major left did not have all the skills and all the people we needed for new Labour. It is bound to be a process of constant adaptation and development, rather than a big once­and­for­all change that alters it.

Q144 Greg Mulholland: Do we need next steps? Do we need the post-bureaucratic age or is it really the civil servants who will dictate the pace of reform?

Lord Turnbull: Post-bureaucratic age is a new expression of a pre­existing idea. In 2001, Tony Blair said something like, "We need a new dynamic in public services—services built around the interests of the user of those services--patients, parents and the law­abiding citizen--rather than being structured around the requirements of those providing the services." That is a central precept of the post-bureaucratic age. There is also the whole idea of choice and what we are seeing in our own lives. I can remember a time when, if you had a telephone at all, you quite likely shared it with the people next door, and you only had one appliance in your house. People have different expectations about the services that they receive, whether they come from the private sector or the public sector, and this phrase, post-bureaucratic age, is capturing that and accelerating that process. Many of the ideas in it giving greater weight to the way people want the services delivered to them, already existed but under different labels.

Q145 Charlie Elphicke: In terms of the Civil Service reform, I am very struck that two thirds of civil servants now work in Government agencies. We have had written evidence from Professor Kakabadse, who came to see us in our previous session. He says there are three key core Civil Service capabilities, namely policy design and development, service delivery excellence and agency relationship management, that is to say sourcing, outsourcing and the management of wholly owned government subsidiaries. Would it be fair to say that a logical extension of the agencies would actually be to raise productivity by contracting them out altogether?

Lord Wilson: It depends on the particular situation. The next steps concept, which Lord Armstrong played a major part in introducing, applies to an enormous variety of different kinds of activities around the Civil Service, and some of them are ones where contracting out has taken place. For instance, the prison service has contracted out to private sector providers the provision of some prisons. There are numerous examples of different agencies performing different kinds of functions and, in some cases, contracting out has taken place. It is very hard to generalise, but in principle that can happen.

Q146 Chair: Professor Kakabadse also points out that to do the post-bureaucratic age and the Big Society, the Civil Service actually needs a fourth skill, which he describes as "the formation of powerful community groups to provide service but also be able to effectively interact with the Civil Service". Would you agree with that? This kind of transformation of the Civil Service would require a great deal of training and re­education of the Civil Service and its capabilities. Would you agree with that analysis?

Lord Turnbull: Yes, I do. It is coloured by my experience, which I shared with Lord Wilson, of being permanent secretary at the Department of the Environment. There are many areas in local government where you have to bring together in a local area, say with a regeneration project, many players. Civil servants need the ability to influence, to be able to go to a public event, listen and persuade. Increasingly, we are looking for people who have that skill and there is less place, and they thrive less well, for highly cerebral people who operate in Whitehall, write well but do not like speaking or interacting with local people. My experience in the Department of the Environment was that there were lots of them, and a lot of them were in the regional offices, the regional development corporations or whatever, but it is absolutely right that getting people to join you in a common enterprise is a very important skill.

Lord Armstrong: You must always have regard to what Parliament and the public expect Ministers themselves to be responsible for. The Next Steps initiative, which was introduced in 1987­88, created as the initial Next Steps agents things like the Passport Office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, where the great bulk of the work done is purely that of issuing licences or issuing passports. Ministers are not really concerned with that detailed administration; they are concerned with, in the case of the DVLA, the licence rates and with the budget for that organisation. That seems to me a perfectly sensible thing. The difficulties began to emerge with the Prison Service at the time of Mr Derek Lewis, where the Prison Service was taking decisions as a Next Steps executive agency, which eventually came back to haunt the Home Secretary of the day. That is a problem that you constantly have to have in mind. Ministers find themselves held responsible for things that they have not actually been concerned in the creation of.

Lord Wilson: I recognise what Lord Armstrong has described. I can think of specific situations that arose, where somebody within the Prison Service exercised their discretion in a very entrepreneurial way, which is very good but, when Parliament heard about it, it was seen as a scandal. This was about a prison governor who invested an end­year surplus in the provision of an all­year­round playing field, which I think was a very good piece of leadership. When Parliament heard about it, they knew that the local village playing field had been sold off, and they thought it was scandalous that the inmates had better treatment than local schools. The boundary between politics and management is quite often really difficult, and it is one of the differences from working in the private sector.

Q147 Charlie Elphicke: Lord Turnbull, this is a follow­up on my earlier question. During your time there was created, and I quote Lord Wilson, "a dizzying array of units for 'modernisation' and 'delivery' armed with centralised targets and league tables" that did not foster any engagement with the wider populace. People didn't like it; it came to be severely criticised. Would it not be a good idea to allow more local empowerment and decentralisation?

Lord Turnbull: There are two and possibly three themes in that. One is: did we create too many units? We are down to the old joke of Bird and Fortune that there are all these units in the Cabinet Office, and there was the Social Exclusion Unit for anyone who couldn't find a place in any others. When I arrived in 2002, there were too many units and we tried to rationalise that. The Office for Public Service Reform was probably surplus to requirements and gradually it was taken out, and its work was absorbed in other units.

  The second theme is really about targets, and there I have some sympathy with this, in the sense that, if you are giving the health service £100 billion a year to spend, do you simply say to the professionals, "Do your best with it. You choose what outputs are going to be delivered."? Some of the improvements that took place in the Health Service, particularly the reduction in waiting times, did respond to the pressure that was put by the setting of targets. On the other hand, targets get gamed against and they do create friction with the professionals. There has been, somebody said, a retreat from them. I do not think we should lose sight of the fact that people are entitled to know, if many billions of pounds are being spent on a particular service, what is being achieved, right down to the level of what any school is doing. If you do not like the league tables in which schools feature, you can either abandon them and retreat, or you can say, "Let us try to work on measures that are more sophisticated, which capture value added, for example." To say we are not going to make any attempt to measure or compare the performance of different parts of the organisation is a dereliction of duty.

Q148 Chair: In the private sector and the armed forces, they do not try to do this. They train the people down the line, so they become more autonomous and more capable. Delegated mission command seems to be something that the public sector is not very good at.

Lord Turnbull: Boards I am on have things called KPIs. There's a report from the CEO at each board meeting on sales, profits, assets under management or whatever. They use this system. It is easier for them, because these are very often verified and they are not qualitative to the same extent.

Q149 Chair: The entrepreneurs we want in the public sector, the head teachers and hospital managers, are driven out of the public service by the directions and paper raining down at them from on high.

Lord Turnbull: There is a sense in which an idea that had an element of merit went too far and there has been a retreat from it. I do not think you then go to the point where you say, "We will make no use of delivery targets," and the Public Service Agreements will simply say, "Here are the budgetary allocations for departments, for agencies, and you will be told nothing about what is expected to be delivered."

Lord Wilson: It is a big topic this, but I lean in the direction more of setting people clear objectives and giving them discretion within that, with good training, to pursue those objectives. You can get into a situation where people are all pursuing their targets, but they lose sight of what they are trying to do.

Q150 Paul Flynn: I cannot lose this opportunity of having so much experience of the Civil Service—it is a rare event to have you all together here—to ask a question that Oliver Letwin asked, and that is on the policy of prisons. In spite of the efforts of government after government, over a period of 40 or 50 years, recidivism has never changed. It is exactly the same in spite of all those efforts. You could say the same about drug policy, which in fact has got worse, in spite of the huge efforts that have gone into it. It seems to be mainly because government policy has been evidence­free and prejudice­rich. Do you feel, looking back on your careers, that you would like to see a measurement of outcomes to see what failures governments have chalked up because they have been following the popular policy, the tabloid policy, rather than going ahead on intelligent, informed evidence?

Lord Wilson: I do think we are not very good at going back and seeing how successful policies were, or indeed at thinking, "What is government good at and what is government less good at?" If you want brief answers, that is where I would stand.

Q151 Kelvin Hopkins: Just a question before you go, which betrays my prejudice, the Civil Service is often portrayed as being negative and acting as a brake on what governments want to do and what radical politicians want to do. In fact, after the Second World War the Civil Service facilitated a social democratic revolution. That was tremendous and immensely successful; for two or three decades we had something that really worked. Since then, we have had a number of radical Prime Ministers, radical politicians with fanciful ideas, and there is a sense in which the Civil Service has been uncomfortable with all of that. I completely sympathise. To what extent have you had to bite your tongue or keep a straight face, while politicians come up with fanciful ideas that are really not going to work?

Lord Turnbull: Radicalism I have no problem with; initiativitis is where I think I part company with it.

Lord Armstrong: What happened after the war is an enormous subject. During the war, there was a singleness of objective and a great deal of working together, of co-operation, between the Government, the civil servants, and the politicians on the one hand and industry on the other. Not only was there a great deal of working together but a great deal of friendship and collegiality developed. The legacy of this lasted us through almost until 1970 really, but the situation since then has of course changed, because those generations have passed on.

Lord Wilson: The Civil Service has shown that it is able to manage large change repeatedly. The size of the Civil Service—from memory—between 1979 and around 1997 shrank from something like 750,000 to less than 500,000. That is a very big change. Some of that was hiving off and some of that was reduction, but we did that very quietly and it was big change. You may not agree with the privatisation programme but actually the carrying out of it was very successful and a pretty big change. The service has shown that it can adapt and do the things that Ministers want, but I go along with the comment that it is initiativitis, if that is the right word, which is more difficult.

Q152 Robert Halfon: I go back to my question I asked earlier: what effect will the Cabinet Manual have on ministerial responsibility for things that go wrong and Ministers resigning, as opposed to blaming it on the Civil Service?

Lord Wilson: Can I just say a word about Crichel Down? I think what Crichel Down illustrates, because it was what you mentioned, is that a Minister's ability to remain in office depends on whether he or she retains the confidence of the Back Benchers of his Government and of the Prime Minister. That was what happened in Crichel Down. There is a lot of academic study of this. I do not think that the research bears out the statement that Ministers resign when civil servants get it wrong. I think it is about whether Ministers retain the confidence of their Back Benchers and of the Prime Minister.

Q153 Robert Halfon: Does the Cabinet Manual delineate the responsibility of the Minister to resign if things go wrong? Are there any guidelines?

Lord Wilson: The only guideline is whether a Minister retains the confidence of the Prime Minister.

Chair: Or Parliament.

Lord Wilson: And of his Parliamentary party, the party on the benches behind him.

Lord Armstrong: If I may say so, I do not think the Manual is intended to tell you that. As I said, that would be more prescriptive than it intends to be. In that respect, I agree entirely with what Lord Wilson has said. The reasons for resignations very often are a question of whether the Minister concerned still enjoys the support of his Back Benchers. I think back to the resignation of Lord Carrington in April 1982. I do not think he had lost the confidence of his Back Benchers and I am sure he had not lost the confidence of his Prime Minister. I think he came to the conclusion that he was unable to defend himself in the House of Commons because he was a member of the House of Lords, and I suspect he thought that, because of the outbreak of the war in the Falklands and the failures particularly of his Department in the previous time, a head had to roll and his was the head that should roll. It was in that sense a very honourable resignation.

Chair: My Lords, thank you very much indeed for your time with us. We have run over time. We could have run for another hour easily. It is been absolutely fascinating and I can sense my Committee is rather frustrated. They all want to ask more questions. We may follow up in writing one or two issues, if we may. Thank you very much indeed. It has been extremely helpful to us.

Lord Armstrong: Thank you. We've enjoyed our time here.

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Prepared 22 September 2011