To be published as HC 707-iv

House of commons



Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

The Impact and Effectiveness of Ministerial Reshuffles

Thursday 13 December 2012

Rt Hon Charles Clarke

Rt Hon Lord Heseltine CH PC

Rt Hon Lord Reid of Cardowan

Evidence heard in Public Questions 179 - 225



This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.


The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

on Thursday 13 December 2012

Members present:

Mr Graham Allen (Chair)

Mr Christopher Chope

Paul Flynn

Fabian Hamilton

Simon Hart

Tristram Hunt

Mrs Eleanor Laing

Mr Andrew Turner


Examination of Witness

Witness: Rt Hon Charles Clarke, gave evidence.

Q179 Chair: We are going to move straight on to our next inquiry, which is about reshuffles and the first witness we are going to hear from is the Rt Hon Charles Clarke. Good to see you. Welcome. It is good to see you back in the House.

Charles Clarke: Pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Q180 Chair: You know our inquiry is about the concept of reshuffles and what we should be doing about that. Would you like to start off with an opening statement?

Charles Clarke: I do not have an opening statement, Mr Chairman. I am happy to answer any questions the Committee have.

Q181 Fabian Hamilton: Charles, great to see you here. We have been taking quite a bit of evidence on this subject and it has been entertaining, to say the least at times. One of the best bits of evidence we received was from Chris Mullin last week who told us that he thought that two years was the minimum amount of time that a Minister needed to be left in the post to be effective and get to know the job that he or she was supposed to be doing. From your own experiences as a Minister, I know you had sometimes less than two years in a particular post, would you agree with Chris?

Charles Clarke: Basically, yes. My fundamental view is that, for the major Departments of State, the big complicated ones, a year is an absolute minimum to get up to speed with what is going on and to grasp the issues. That applies to about five or six of the major Government Departments. It does not apply to all the Cabinet posts; some are less pressing. The point that I think is often not appreciated is there are two types of Cabinet Ministers, the Cabinet Ministers who are essentially the political jobs-Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Chief Whip, Leader of the House, Chair of the Party, and so on. Then there are the Cabinet posts that are running Government Departments and they require different types of skills, and the considerations, which I am sure Chris was referring to there, and which I would agree with, extend to the big Department jobs as opposed to the political jobs, if I can put it like that. I think you need at least a year to get hold of a department, like Education or Home when I was there.

Q182 Fabian Hamilton: Thanks for that. Do you think though there should be better methods by which the performance and effectiveness of Ministers is assessed? I am not quite sure who would do that of course.

Charles Clarke: There are all kinds of rumours, and I do not know to what extent they are true, that the Prime Minister received briefings on ministerial quality from the Permanent Secretaries of the Departments concerned from the Whip’s Office, the Chief Whip in particular, referring obviously to parliamentary performance, and probably also would take into account media performance, as that is also an important part of a Minister’s job these days. I do not know to what extent that is true, in the sense that they were formal reports because I was never in a position to see them, but I certainly think it is credible and I have heard too many anecdotes not to believe them-of Ministers being appointed even to senior Cabinet posts against the view of the Cabinet Secretary, based on the view of how that individual had performed in office in a different area. I think it is likely there is such a kind of reporting system in place.

A big issue for any party leader is whether they are going to promote on the basis of talent or of political balance. Classically, if you think back to the Harold Wilson days, for example, there was a constant issue of balance between the left and right in the party, and I do not think that is ignoble. I do not think politics is a purely managerial task, and as the job of the Cabinet is to maintain the confidence of the whole of the parliamentary party to carry its legislation, that requires having people in Government who, broadly speaking, have the confidence of elements of the parliamentary party. You cannot do it on a pure talent base approach.

I think a Prime Minister is bound to take into account all of these considerations, but I certainly think performance is one of them and an important one, and one that is sometimes undervalued.

Q183 Fabian Hamilton: Given that, should it not be more transparent if those assessments are made of the Minister in office or the Secretary of State? Should it be clearer?

Charles Clarke: I do not think so. I know that this Committee is leading the way in the battle for transparency in Government, but I am not myself a tremendous advocate of transparency in these things. I think that people have to be able to make candid judgments. We were told when we passed the Freedom of Information Act that this would guarantee the possibility of private policy assessments being made and that people could discuss their situation in confidence, but that proved not to be the case. You add to that the villainies done by the diarists of various descriptions who tell their own version of truth to history, and the collapse of the Cabinet Office control of ministerial memoirs and so on, so that there no longer exists, effectively, a system which is a constraint. I do not think any of this has benefited good Government, and I do not think making transparent, for example, the Chief Whip’s assessment of the Secretary of State’s performance in the House of Commons would do any good in any direction.

Q184 Tristram Hunt: Charles, looking back at your time both within the last Labour Government and your broader political career, do you think Tony Blair was particularly bad at reshuffles in terms of frequency and chaos?

Charles Clarke: Basically yes, I do think that. I think his Government could have gone on longer if he had been better at it, and it would have been better Government and better for the country and also better for Tony Blair. All these things are very personal. They are all prime ministerial judgments and I think one of the difficulties for your Committee in making this assessment is to try to generalise across a series of very different circumstances and personalities.

One of Tony’s weaknesses was that he thought that most of what was done in Government came from No. 10 and No. 11 Downing Street and that essentially he could make things happen by his own strength of will and his own leadership. I think that was partly a consequence of his not having held Cabinet Office before being Prime Minister and he believed he could drive it forward, and that therefore it was not absolutely essential to be sure that he had the Cabinet that he wanted in all respects. I think that meant he thought it was okay to reshuffle relatively quickly.

In the case of some very important portfolios, he was basically a fatalist. He reshuffled Transport almost incessantly and I remember him saying to me at one point that he thought there was nothing you could do about transport and Ministers could not do anything, and therefore there was not much point. His big subjects were Education, Health and Crime; he thought they were the issues where you could make a difference. So if he did not think you could make much difference, then it did not matter who was the Minister at any given time. I thought he had too grand a view, in that sense.

On the other hand, of course, politics has changed dramatically since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and has moved much more to the centre, so his outlook was not irrational or silly, if I can put it like that. But I think he changed Ministers far too much and more than he need have done so.

Q185 Tristram Hunt: Do you think there is any way to institutionalise a more considered programme of reshuffles or ultimately are you dependent on the character of the individual? We assume that our current Prime Minister, who has clearly learnt the lessons from the past, is slightly more considered about when this happens in terms of the fixed-term Parliament. Or are you simply dependent on the personality of the Prime Minister and their own inclination?

Charles Clarke: You are a historian so you would have gone back through history and seen how this has operated, but fundamentally reshuffles happen because of political change and the desire of the Prime Minister to reshape his or her team in a way that can better meet what the country is looking for and boost the parties’ lateral prospects at the next general election. I do not see how that ever changes. You have events that come along, obviously sadly sometimes death; you have scandals and you decide whether you are going to resist or not, but at the end of the day somebody may decide to resign and just go "out of the blue". I do not see how you legislate for that. You simply have to have a state of mind that says reshuffles are not that good a thing.

There is an additional sub-Cabinet level reshuffle problem, which is that many Permanent Secretaries, indeed the whole civil service, focus entirely on the Cabinet Member and the junior Ministers are seen as rather marginal figures. They would probably deny what I am saying, but I believe it to be true from my own time as a junior Minister as well. So the junior Ministers become, relatively speaking, adornments to the body politic rather than decision takers in that area. I think that is a very bad thing because, particularly with large Government Departments, you need Ministers of immigration, policing or whatever it may be, secondary education or higher education, who are big figures. David Willetts is a good example in this Government as the Minister for Higher Education. He is well respected in the sector because he has been there for a while, he stayed through the reshuffle and even if he does not agree with everybody at least people think he is listening to and understands what they are about.

I think for a stable Government more generally there are a whole range of those Minister of State roles, which are quite important for a wide range of stakeholders; permanence is very important.

I read Chris Mullin’s diaries. Chris, of course, has that additional factor, if you are talking about anything in the foreign policy field, or indeed anything that requires significant EU activity. There is massive benefit in knowing your counterparts in other countries and other Governments-enormous. I was very struck in all our EU business when I was Home Secretary during our presidency of the EU that personally knowing the other Home Office Ministers and being able to talk to them and deal with them is a very substantial asset if you are trying to pursue British Government interests in those areas. Obviously, if you have never met them before you cannot know them, so I think you should try to institutionalise permanence as far as you can down through the system. But it requires some changes of attitude.

I admired David Cameron’s decision to try not to make changes. I thought that was good. He just had problems with the quality of his Cabinet Ministers, which led to problems for him to deal with.

Q186 Tristram Hunt: In terms of the autonomy of Secretaries of State, should there be a role for Secretaries of State in choosing their team? My colleague, Mr Chope, spoke very interestingly about how Mrs Thatcher allowed an ideological caucus in different ministries because she thought that was the best way to achieve change, rather than having the kind of man-marking and the yin and the yang of left and right within each Department.

Charles Clarke: Certainly, when I was Secretary of State the Prime Minister did talk to me about the changes he was going to make in the Department before he did so, and I regard that as normal good managerial practice. It sounds a rather bureaucratic description, but I think that is what one should do. I dislike intensely the practice that some Governments have had, Tony Blair’s less than most, but even his in some cases, of putting somebody in as a number two or number three to mark, in the football sense, the Secretary of State. I think that takes you down; it just institutionalises conflict. The civil service does not know where it stands, the public does not know what is going on, and I think that is a very bad state of affairs.

You will always have differences in Government, rightly so. It is ridiculous for people under the cloak of collective responsibility to suggest that differences of opinion on practice do not exist; they do. But the thing is to be reasonably open about that. I think it is perfectly reasonable for people to have different views about the size of the prison population or whatever, and that is a perfectly reasonable discussion to have. I think if you institutionalise conflict, that makes it very difficult.

In Tony’s case the most famous example, I suppose, was that of Frank Field in the Department of Welfare and Pensions, and that was an experiment that did not succeed. He either should have made Frank Secretary of State to carry through what he thought and believed or he should have not had him in the Department. He should not have had a position where it was a kind of institutionalised conflict. There are enough institutionalised conflicts in Government anyway. I mean the departmental issues, Treasury versus the rest, whatever it might happen to be, and I think we should be minimising that rather than maximising it.

Q187 Tristram Hunt: Finally, just in terms of the processes of Government and the machinery of Government, how disruptive was what seemed to be the annual reshuffle season in terms of getting the business of Government done?

Charles Clarke: I think it was very disruptive. People did not know where they stood and how they operated. I do not think it was disruptive in terms of the day-to-day business of Government because the briefs were there, parliamentary questions were answered, decisions were mostly taken. Some of the big decisions might be delayed, but the general atmosphere of freneticism was very unhealthy, particularly in Parliament. I always hated Julys in Parliament, with the combination of the imminent reshuffle plus the alcohol on the terrace leading to a state of mind which was extremely unhealthy at all kinds of levels. I do not think that is a good state of affairs.

I think if you had a regular routine time for a reshuffle-it was always such and such a time-perhaps it would be better, but I am sceptical about that as well. You should never underestimate the impact of politics in all this. With local council elections in May or European elections in June or whatever it happened to be, that was also a factor in reshuffles simply because it was a question of trying to find a process of explaining what had happened in that election and the reshuffle might be a means of dealing with that.

Q188 Chair: If you view the Prime Ministership as an elected presidency where everything is controlled from No. 10, are you not actually looking for safe pairs of hands who will do pretty much what the centre tells them, rather than people with merit or strong opinions, who may be difficult to manage?

Charles Clarke: I do not believe the Prime Ministership is an elected presidency. I think it has been overwritten generally. I think some Prime Ministers believe it is an elected presidency, and that can lead to their downfall. The implication behind your question I agree with completely. You need to have strong individuals who are able to carry political authority in their own right, earn respect in their own right, not simply for their parliamentary performances but because of their beliefs and positions. What was the book about Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, Team of Rivals, where he took the rivals in the Republican Party and brought them together into the Cabinet. I know David Puttnam gave a copy of that to Gordon Brown when he became Prime Minister, in the hope that it would inspire his own approach to leadership as Prime Minister at that time.

Chair: Unread to this day.

Charles Clarke: Unsuccessfully, I have to say, I think. But I do agree with you profoundly, and if the presidential Prime Minister is allegedly responsible for everything, it is absolutely not the right way to go. It is very difficult for a Prime Minister in the modern era because the 24/7 media makes it almost impossible for you to behave in that way. For example, my own observation of general election campaigns through my political life has just steadily moved towards the role of the Prime Minster or the party leader. Obviously, in the last general election, the leaders’ debates were a major symptom of that. I do not think that is all the fault of the party leaders. It is very difficult for them to avoid a situation where they scratch their nose and that is seen as a comment on Mr Allen’s chairmanship of the Committee, it all gets written out in a ridiculous, absurd way. That is the way it has gone, but I do not think that reflects the reality of Government. You cannot possibly run a major Government Department if you think you can do everything.

In all my ministerial roles, including junior roles, I used to identify 10 to 15 issues which mattered to me, either because I thought they were important in our manifesto or to the party or what I was personally trying to achieve, and focus on those. For the other, say, 100 issues that would come up, I would normally go with officials’ advice unless I thought it was clearly wrong, if you see what I mean. But you have to pick and choose which are the things you are going to try to develop; or I would ask one of my junior Ministers to take responsibility.

I remember asking Stephen Twigg to take responsibility in Education for the London Challenge, which was trying to change the performance of secondary schools in London and he did it extremely well, with a very talented official who unfortunately has now left.

But you have to prioritise in that way and you have to give responsibility to others. If you have a concept of elected presidency, that leads to a state of affairs where you cannot run anything. You have to give responsibility out.

Q189 Chair: We tend to view this permanent merry-go-round of reshuffles as standard; we all suffer or benefit from it, and it is in the papers. But the Committee has had the chance to look across the globe at other systems. We are the odd person out here, in that virtually every other western democracy has a much more stable structure in terms of its political appointments. Do you think we have a perception problem or do you think we are the only people getting it right?

Charles Clarke: Firstly, I think you are completely correct. Secondly, I think a major reason for that is our adversarial system, unlike the different electoral systems, sometimes proportional, that exist in other countries, about which there is a separate set of arguments; I personally was in favour of the AV change, which was defeated in the national referendum a year or so ago.

Other countries therefore have more stable parliamentary situations and can have a more stable governmental situation. That obviously does not deal with big political crises; it does not deal with deaths, if they occur, or major resignations. We probably have a culture of more resignations-I have not compared it, but I suspect that there are more resignations than other European countries, for example. That is mainly because the media are engaged in the process in a much more substantial way than happens in other countries. But I do think we are out of step, and I do not think it is good that we are out of step. I think we should move in the other direction.

Q190 Chair: Since you were a Secretary of State, Charles, a phenomenon has arisen-which I am sure you are across-which is the assumption that Ministers go on the roundabout has been joined with an assumption that Permanent Secretaries now are on this roundabout and, contrary to the mythology of Sir Humphrey always being there and the Ministers come and go, we now have a situation since the last election where Ministers are in post longer than a typical Permanent Secretary.

Charles Clarke: That was happening before the last election. I did not know the figure you have just given me-obviously I accept it, but I was not aware of it-but the phenomenon you describe I was extremely well aware of and it became the case that it was seen as good at senior levels of the civil service, not simply at Permanent Secretary level, to have relatively short rotation in key jobs. I thought that was a terrible mistake because there is such a thing as institutional wisdom, institutional knowledge, institutional memory, and you need it. Any Government needs it, needs to understand what has been going on, what the arguments are, how it goes. I did not check carefully enough the evidence you have already taken from Bob Kerslake on this, but I think that the civil service would acknowledge that it almost encourages a culture of rotation and sharing of jobs so people have a wider range of responsibility than used to be the case. I simply think that is not what should be the case.

My father was a Permanent Secretary. I was brought up knowing about the way the civil service operated and there was a sense of relative permanence in key areas. In some cases, it is personal. There was a very rapid transfer of civil servants at the Treasury in the first part of our Government for a variety of different reasons. At the moment, people are leaving the Department of Education in droves for various reasons, and the person I mentioned who ran London Challenge, Jon Coles, would have been a very excellent senior official at Education, but has moved on to work in the not-for-profit sector. Why has all this happened? It is a very good question. I think you need to bolster the authority of Permanent Secretaries in the constitutional system of the country and you need to encourage relative permanence in the senior official levels.

I always say that the key relationship is that between the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary and they have to have a good relationship. If it goes wrong for any reason then that is what leads to further problems down the line, but that requires a good solid relationship and a degree of experience in the Permanent Secretary and senior civil service. I have not done the figures, as you have obviously, but I think it is very important to maintain.

Q191 Mrs Laing: We have been taking some evidence on the actual mechanics of reshuffles and you have seen a few of these from various angles. Do you have any recommendation as to how things could be done better as far as handover is concerned, and timing?

Charles Clarke: I saw this in your call for evidence and I thought about it and I do not have anything very helpful to say. As far as the learning in, the reading in, of the new Minister is concerned, I think it is an efficient system. There is an effective set of files that are produced, there is a process that works reasonably well. As long as the incoming Minister is fairly assiduous and fairly intelligent, they can get on top of the issues quite well. The quality of the briefing is normally good, so I do not have a great deal to say in terms of the Minister coming in. I think there is a great deal of benefit in our system with it being so quick, literally less than a day for it to happen. I think that makes it easier to take place rather than the reverse.

I think there might be a case for institutionalising more of a dialogue between the incoming Minister and the outgoing Minister to see what was on the political agenda in that area. I think that happens fairly little-it happened fairly little in my case-and I think that would be a good thing to do but is probably quite difficult for various sensitivities and so on.

As far as the actual process is concerned, I watched it in Opposition when I worked for Neil Kinnock, which was a different state of affairs, and I saw it in Government as a victim of it in a variety of different ways. It is very difficult to see how you could do it. Obviously everybody would agree it needs to be done more quickly than it often is. Obviously everybody would agree it is well not to forget people, which some Prime Ministers have done; they left them out completely by accident. Obviously it would be better for conversations to take place properly. There are a number of people who feel very bitter and angry that they were not properly spoken to by the party leader as they left. In defence of the party leaders, I think it is quite difficult to have these conversations, particularly in the media world where people can literally go out of the office and talk immediately to a wide variety of people. That is very difficult to operate with.

I thought about it, before you asked the question, in the sense that I looked at your call for evidence, but I do not have anything very creative to say about it.

Q192 Mrs Laing: We are prodding around to see what is happening and how it could be done better and how we could be constructive, but in fact it would be quite a good conclusion if we concluded that the way things are done at present is just about as well as they can be done given the politics of it, as opposed to the practicalities, but the act of reshuffling the Government is essentially political, as you said a few moments ago.

Charles Clarke: I am not far from that position, and if you look at some of the long drawn-out issues, let us take, say, the chairmanship of the trustees of the BBC or the appointment of Governor of the Bank of England, or whatever, albeit in a more steady process allegedly, but going on for an enormously long time giving rise to a wide degree of uncertainty, I do not think it is obvious-let us put it with a double negative-that this anarchic, chaotic system of instant change is that much worse than the other regimes. That is the conclusion I came to when I thought about it. I cannot think of a system that will work much better.

Responding to Tristram’s point earlier, the personality of the Prime Minister is exceptionally important and you cannot legislate for that, but the fact is that Prime Ministers have to decide how they want to conduct their Government, if I can put it like that, and they should want to conduct it in a way that promotes stability.

Q193 Paul Flynn: Tony Blair put a few reshuffled sacked Ministers back into other ministerial jobs-not many-presumably to encourage all the other sacked Ministers not to become troublemakers on the Back Benches. In this Parliament, we have something new, and four of the reshuffled Ministers this time were given knighthoods; do you think this is legitimate? Is this a way of further degrading the honours system or do you think it is sensible for the Prime Minister?

Charles Clarke: I think the knighthood system is absolutely mad and has nothing to defend it whatsoever and I think the use to which this Prime Minister has put it has been disgraceful. I do think it is perfectly appropriate for people to come back to office in other roles, including less senior roles. There are plenty of people who are capable of being Ministers of State or Parliamentary Under-Secretaries who were not very good at being Cabinet Members, and I see no dishonour in that.

Q194 Chair: Charles, I am so sorry to have to close this down after half an hour. Very good to see you again. If you feel you want to drop us a line with any further thoughts feel free, but thank you so much for your time today.

Charles Clarke: It is a pleasure and thank you for inviting me.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Rt Hon Lord Heseltine CH PC, gave evidence.

Q195 Chair: Very good to see you back in the House of Commons, may I say. Michael, you know that we are doing a study at the moment, an inquiry into the concept of reshuffles and we would like your expertise and knowledge to be brought to bear on that topic. Is there anything you want to say to start us off or shall we jump straight into questions?

Lord Heseltine: I leave it to you.

Q196 Mr Turner: In your experience, what impact do reshuffles have on the effectiveness of Government and the authority of the Prime Minister?

Lord Heseltine: I think there is no general answer to that question. Whether a reshuffle can contribute depends entirely on the circumstances, on the relative rebalancing, the success or otherwise of the Government and the economic pressures on the Government at the time. I do not think there is a generalised answer. Reshuffles are part of politics. You have to have them. There is no escape and you have to do them for all sorts of different reasons.

Q197 Mr Turner: But it is necessary that they do, because most countries do not have mid-term reorganisation?

Lord Heseltine: Yes, I cannot conceive of a situation where the pressures that build up both for more action and for political success within our system avoids there being reshuffle processes.

Q198 Mr Turner: Why is that?

Lord Heseltine: I cannot pretend to have been part of any other legislative process, but this one is immensely intimate. We are a very over-centralised Government and the focus on what the Prime Minister is doing every minute of every day, and the accountability that goes with that demands this instant result, this ever-present sense of drive and being in charge. If you have a Government Department that is not delivering, the short answer is to change the Minister. You have a successful Minister, the pressure is to say, "Let’s give them a bigger role." You have a whole range of people in the House of Commons, largely, who think they should be Ministers. Some of them are right. So you have the younger generations pressing, you have every sort of pressure there all the time, and that is our system. I cannot pretend to know how relevant that is in other systems, but I do not think you can eliminate it from our system.

Q199 Mr Turner: There has been only one significant reshuffle in this Parliament, or half Parliament-that is two and a half years. Would you say that what has been done in the way of reorganisation is better this time than last time?

Lord Heseltine: I do not think you can put stipules over these things. Firstly, who would know the answer to that question, except people living with it day by day, and mercifully I do not have to do that. I do not think you can compare one reshuffle with another.

Q200 Mr Turner: But as a new Minister how long would it take to gain an understanding of the subject area and be functionally effective?

Lord Heseltine: That depends again on the Minister. Do they come with any experience of the subject? Are they a promotion from within the Department or have they been in that Department, gone somewhere else and come back? Has there been a PPS in that Department, have they specialised in their own private life or in their public life or whatever it is? Certainly I remember vividly when I became Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment I produced an envelope over lunch before I went to the Department for the Permanent Secretary with my agenda on it. But then I had been there twice before and I had shadowed it, so I knew exactly what I wanted to try and do.

If I had gone to a Department of which I had no knowledge, I know what would have happened, there would have been a great pile of files telling me what the Department thought I ought to know. Of course the great mistake is to read that pile of files because if you do you are captured. I am oversimplifying it; of course you have to know what it is in it. But every Department has its own agenda and I remember vividly the Burials Bill. I doubt if any of you have ever heard of the Burials Bill. This was a piece of legislation in draft that every Secretary of State was presented with on arrival in the Department, "Have to tidy up the graveyards, Secretary of State, and here is the draft Bill and will you make a bid to your colleagues for it?" I do not think anyone ever did; it is probably still there.

Q201 Paul Flynn: You have great experience; for a very long period you were in ministerial office. Have you any views now about what is happening? It is two and a half years into a Parliament, and 18 of the Permanent Secretaries have gone, one Permanent Secretary has just been slipped back into his spot after being appointed by Sir Bob Kerslake. And there is an attack by Francis Maude who said that there are civil servants who are obstructing what Ministers want to have implemented in policy. This is after a reshuffle. In your time was there a time like this when there did seem to be a serious attempt by Government to politicise the civil servants, even after a reshuffle?

Lord Heseltine: I have always had a very clear view about the civil service. I have the highest regard for it. I believe it carried out what I wanted. It did not always agree, but your task is to detect the disagreement and rule firmly. You have a direction you want them to go in. My experience is that they do go where they are directed. The trick is to know how to direct and this is a question of management, of human relations. I describe the British civil service as a Rolls Royce. A magnificent piece of engineering, no fuel, no driver, that is what Ministers do. If the Ministers are not capable of doing that then the machine will either stand still or drift downhill or whatever it may be. It has to be driven. I find that quite acceptable because I do not want to have a machine that has made up its mind what is going to happen without political control. In doing the report I have just done, I have found exactly what I always did find.

Q202 Paul Flynn: We have all seen sacked Ministers who are deeply shocked by this and have no explanation. Tony Blair used to tell Ministers, "You are doing a great job, but I need your job to give to someone else" for some political drama that was going on elsewhere. Tony Blair used to reappoint just a handful of sacked Ministers to a new ministerial office, presumably to encourage the others who were sacked. In this present Parliament the Prime Minister is dishing out knighthoods to some of the sacked Ministers and he set up, for the first time ever, a special Committee to give honours to Members of Parliament. Do you think this is a legitimate way to treat the honours system? Is it likely to lead that into further degradation or should sacked Ministers have these consolation prizes?

Lord Heseltine: I have no complaint about Ministers being recognised in some way. I sit before you as a member of the House of Lords and it took 35 years or something for this distinction to be bestowed upon me. I have no problem with that and I know of no arguments that should not reflect long-serving or diligent or successful Members of Parliament.

The honours system is built in. If you want to get rid of it, get rid of it, but do not single out Members of Parliament as though they should not be part of it. Many of them do a most commendable job.

Q203 Paul Flynn: It is questionable whether Members of Parliament would want the same honour bestowed on Sir James Savile and Sir Cyril Smith, perhaps in future, but the question is, this is done automatically to sacked Ministers and this Committee has been set up. It did not exist in your time. You did not have a special Committee which was manned by the Whips, to give honours to MPs and other parliamentarians.

Lord Heseltine: You tell me something of which I have no knowledge whatsoever.

Q204 Simon Hart: We had Chris Mullin in last week, and he was entertaining us with stories of Blair reshuffles and how relentlessly substandard they were, by the Prime Minister’s own admission. I think he said, "We do not seem to do this terribly well, do we?" and they seem to go on for an awful long time and never satisfy anybody. How could the process be improved so that people on the outside understand what is going on as well as people on the inside?

Lord Heseltine: I do not think it can. If you tell someone their career is over and they have lost their job, there is no nice way of doing it.

Q205 Simon Hart: If you do not mind me just following that up. One of the questions we have been asking previous witnesses is whether we have to do it in one big set piece event or should we look at it in a more corporate way. If somebody is not doing their job, you do not wait until September next year when a reshuffle might be pencilled into the No. 10 diary. You move them there and then, or move them up or move them out, whatever it might be. Allowing this huge press build-up almost, in a sense, drives the process itself. I am wondering if we should or could make less drama of it?

Lord Heseltine: You could, but then you would inject a degree of temporary uncertainty into the whole thing, with people always looking over their shoulders-is the knife about to fall? Whatever system you come up with, you will be left with the human dimension, and I do not think there is any way to do it nicely or get it right or whatever it may be.

There is one aspect of reshuffle that I do remember, which may be worth just putting before your Committee. It is amazing how little a Secretary of State can know about the junior Ministers in their Department. First of all, they do not see them that often. They see them more now than they used to, but Peter Walker introduced, and I continued, a very intimate relationship with Ministers where probably we met every day. That is very exceptional. But you only then see your ministerial colleague in fairly unusual circumstances, whereas the Whips see them all the time and they know where they are, they know what they are doing, they know what their public interests are and what their private interests are. I can remember occasions when people were reshuffled in my Department, to my amazement, who seemed to be doing a perfectly reasonable job. I had not been consulted and one day they went. But when I found out why they had gone, there were curious reasons, not always apparent.

Q206 Simon Hart: We did ask the head of the civil service a couple of weeks ago whether it would be sensible to allow Secretaries of State to have more say in the appointments of their junior Ministers and I think there was a shaken expression on his face that such an idea could be mentioned, but would that help at all?

Lord Heseltine: I was very fortunate in that on each occasion I asked the Prime Minister if I could choose my team and invariably I got a significant way towards achieving that. There was always only one reason; I thought I could detect Ministers who could deliver and I wanted delivering Ministers because my first task on assuming a Secretary of State job was to delegate all my responsibilities, except in Defence, where security and intelligence could not be delegated. But everything else was delegated to one of my colleagues and I always had big Departments so there were always five to six colleagues.

At that point, I knew that everything would come to me from a colleague so that the party political angle would have been thought about at least once and a politician would have sieved the information that was coming to me to make sure that it was in line with what the party might think, what colleagues might think; that it had a political dimension. But it also left me free to see whether I thought progress was being made, to keep constantly in touch with the colleague, and to play a driving role in the Department.

One of my obsessions, of course, is that nobody knows what is happening in Departments. There is no management information system. I mentioned this pile of files, which is certainly ever present, but how do you know whether it is the right pile or all the pile or that it tells the whole story or it is independent or whatever? You don’t. If you say to yourself, "I am in charge of 1,500 people,"-or in my case 52,000 people-"what are they doing?", nobody can answer that question. Until you have management systems that can provide an answer to that question, you cannot effectively run the Department. Nobody knows. No civil servant knows, no Minister knows, in my view that is a huge lacuna in our arrangements.

Q207 Simon Hart: Chris Mullin was quite emphatic about the fact that longevity was important and he put a minimum two and a half year term as the bare minimum necessary to become an effective Minister and to slightly overcome the problem that you raise. Is that a reasonable time scale? I think he referred to the eighth Africa Minister in seven years and he said that was not an effective way of running the Department.

Lord Heseltine: Let’s take the Department of Trade and Industry, which I know something about. Under both the Conservative and the Labour Governments Secretaries of State moved in and out about once every year, something like that, 18 months at the most. There were three of us who were there for three years, Lord Mandelson, Lord Young and myself, but the others were in and out and it just tells you what you need to know about the attitude towards trade and industry. The fascinating thing about party politics is that each party is a coalition and you can get differences in opinion within a party, which are starker and more extreme than between parties. Certainly, I could go through the Secretaries of State that I knew about, and the differences between what I believe and what they believe were very sharp. You get a guy coming in, he has a view, I come in, I say, "What is the industrial strategy?" and they say, "We are not allowed to use the words". That was the first reply. Unbelievable.

Q208 Chair: Michael, there is not a complete read-across between business and politics and there never will be, but you have served in a distinguished capacity in both. In your business life you no doubt had effective in-service training, you had means of spotting talent, you, as the boss, would never have appointed someone just for a year or so; you would replace people when they needed to be replaced rather than have your business in a sense of paralysis awaiting your decision on whether your key employees would be in a job or not after the summer. Yet, coming into politics, we seem to accept-at least in this country, but in no other democracy-that reshuffles on a regular basis are somehow an acceptable part of political life. Doesn’t one half of you rail against the way we conduct our politics in such a disorganised and short-termist way?

Lord Heseltine: Of course I am very sympathetic to the problem you raise. But I think that there are important things to say as well. First of all, I do not believe that you should have a Government that is all business people. I do not believe you should have a political party that is all business people. This is a parliamentary democracy, representative of a society, and I think that is very important.

Where would my instinct be in squaring this circle between having management efficiency and broad representation? I think my answer is threefold. Firstly, there should be induction courses for Ministers, which certainly never did happen, whether they do or not now, I do not know. Secondly, there should be a management information system, which is transparent and which means that there is a factual basis on which judgments can be made. Thirdly, a creative tension within Government that scrutinises the performance of Departments constantly is needed so that the problems I identified within our system are much less likely to happen. You get a Minister appointed who has a strong view on something and it is an important issue, and they come up with an initiative. That will get good press. It will take a year, at least, before it has any credibility on the ground because how can you compare one year from another until you have had a year, and by that time if the guy is successful there will be talk about his promotion or her promotion.

But the initiative will probably be very superficial within the context of the whole problem and before you know where you are another Minister comes and the initiative falls away. The problem remains. If I could give, for me, the single biggest example-our education system. The Government figures are stark. There are 571 sink schools, 20% of the children coming out of our education system are either illiterate or innumerate by modern standards. Those are not my figures. That has been the position in broad terms since they started talking about it in the Victorian age. This place tolerates it. It is intolerable.

I could go on with endless examples of this phenomenon, but that is the worst one and it is not hidden. We all know it. All across the world, education standards are rising. The competitive challenge is becoming more intense and you only have to go to any of these countries and you can see it in the streets, the way they just walk in their uniforms smartly and you know in their classrooms the same disciplines apply. We have to face that challenge, and we do not. That is not a criticism of this Government. This is a criticism of the body politic and I happen to believe that Michael Gove is making important initiatives in dealing with this, but the statistics are still there.

Chair: I am deeply tempted to launch into my other favourite topic, which is early intervention and getting to the babies, children and young people before they go wrong rather than after, but I think my colleagues would not forgive me if I did that. I gave you very little warning, but may we ask you a couple of questions, while we have you here, on your recent report because it is pertinent to some of the work we are doing, particular on distinguishing local government from central Government and giving local government a little more autonomy. It is one of the inquiries we are holding at the moment. I know Andrew wanted to pick this up in particular, and I do, too.

Q209 Mr Turner: The proposal is that cities should get city deals whereby they get an amount of money from the Government, but they are to spend it. That is basically what has happened. Is this in addition to or an alternative to the money that they are getting?

Lord Heseltine: You are talking in terms of my report?

Mr Turner: Yes.

Lord Heseltine: My report is not restricted to city deals, it is restricted to taking the largely capital figure in the existing public expenditure levels and making it available to competitive bidding from the Local Enterprise Partnerships. There are 39 LEPs and there is something in the order of £60 billion over a period in the public expenditure, as reduced. You put that up for competitive bidding. The virtue of doing that is not just place-based politics and local initiatives, but that you make it competitive. Instead of getting £1 of housing money spent on the ground, you get £1 of housing money and somebody says, "We will add another £3 of our own money to it", so you get gearing. The precedents are clear from the urban grant, from city challenge, from development corporations, the regional growth fund, and city deals. This is now a well-documented, proven process but it is too small scale and so my report says "We have done enough experimentation, go for it."

Q210 Mr Turner: What about the rural areas?

Lord Heseltine: Exactly the same.

Mr Turner: Exactly the same? In other words, Cornwall or the Isle of Wight would get the money direct or people in Southampton or Portsmouth it would decide where it goes?

Lord Heseltine: The Local Enterprise Partnership-basically, it is Redcliffe-Maud of the 1960s, it is a city state, and so the Local Enterprise Partnerships, which are a partnership between local stakeholders, local government, local private sector, academia, whatever, design a plan. The Government has just given them each £250,000 for two years, each year, in order to prepare the plans in order to make the bids, which will become relevant in 2015. That is how the system works. I am very encouraged by the Chancellor’s response in the autumn statement.

Q211 Chair: Michael, I press you further on this, in terms of the role of local government. We have a procession of witnesses on virtually whatever topic we are covering, who tell us we are the most over-centralised western democracy and that most other places have much more leeway and independence for their local units, whatever they are, and they are normally supported by some sort of constitutional settlement, which means the centre cannot take those powers away. Do you feel that that is a trend? Having read your report carefully, I know the answer, but do you feel that is a trend that we ought to follow in this country and free up our local government to get on and do more of the work?

Lord Heseltine: I think we should reverse the trend of 100 years that has neutered vast areas of this country outside London. As I have said, the Government have begun to pursue a localist agenda. They make speeches about localism and their credibility is clearly behind the concept, and they have now said they are going to move positively on a much bigger scale. We have to wait now until the spring to find out the detail of that.

Q212 Chair: Michael, thank you so much. I am so sorry that it has only been half an hour and I also am very sorry that we did not invite you in as a witness on our local government inquiry. I think that would have been a wonderful hour-and-a-half session, but perhaps we can write to you with any more questions we might have.

Lord Heseltine: If there are any more questions, you can ask Christopher Chope because he worked with me in the DTI.

Chair: Very remarkably, he has been quiet in this session. Thank you, Michael.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Rt Hon Lord Reid of Cardowan, gave evidence.

Q213 Chair: Good to see you, John. You know what we are doing. We are in the middle of an inquiry on all things to do with reshuffles. We had a set of very distinguished witnesses and I think it would be true to say there is a thread developing that the shuffle itself is a very difficult thing. It is a very personal thing. There is not an easy way for people to move on or move across or whatever at one level. Also, there is a bit of a trend line around, "Okay, it may be difficult, but do we need to do it so much?" Chris Mullin, in particular, put on the table a figure and he said, "You cannot be good at your job unless you have been working through … and you should be left in place, for two years", was his view. I think one or two people have echoed that sentiment, if not the exact number.

What is your own view on those two things, John, the immediate and the personal and the length of time you need to get on and do the job well?

Lord Reid: I am pretty certain that it is a difficult experience for those who are reappointed, particularly for those who are not and probably for the Prime Minister at any time as well. I do not know whether it is apocryphal or not, but it is said that Barbara Castle, when she was finally removed from the Cabinet by, I think, Jim Callaghan-I may be wrong in these dates-he said to her how difficult all this was and Harold Wilson had told him that this was the most difficult part of the job, to which she immediately responded, "That is why he never did it", which I thought was quite an apt quote. I think the public nature of what happens and the fact that it becomes an annual or biannual ritual and it all happens at the same time, is difficult, and I do not see why we cannot find a better way of doing that. In any business you promote or demote people, not at a particular time of the year, but whenever it was felt appropriate to move people on. I understand that it is more difficult in politics because when you move one piece then you have to try to balance it up with different groups, different regions, men and women and so on. I am not a great fan of the annual reshuffle-type thing. I think also on occasions a reshuffle is probably used to divert attention from a particular problem that the Government has, "Let’s have a reshuffle, renew, or at least give the perception of renewal".

On the second point that Chris Mullin was talking about, what was that, Mr Chairman?

Chair: Just on the length of time.

Lord Reid: Yes, I think that is a more difficult one. In an ideal world you would spend a few years in each job. I think it is difficult to get a metric for at what point does a Minister become effective. I was sent a circular by Anthony King that asked me to tick a box on this-three weeks, three months, three years and so on. I don’t think you can do that. I know it sounds very British to say it, but it all depends. There are certainly some jobs I took that I felt pretty adequately prepared for either through life experience or, in the case of my first job, seven years preparatory work. There were other positions where I was pretty well thrown in and it took a lot of time to get to grips with the portfolio. However, I would qualify it with this perspective-certainly at the Cabinet level, at Secretary of State level, I think you have to distinguish between three things-leadership, management and technocracy. It is possible to give leadership and to have the qualities necessary to give leadership before you are a technocratic expert in your Department. In that sense, the Secretary of State is more a chairman of the board than a chief executive. There are people there who should do management and for the most part the civil servants do it very well. I personally would not want Members of Parliament or Government involved in the appointment or selection of those people. I know that is a current debate at the moment. I think that would be a wrong move.

There is also, in the civil service, an amazing reservoir of knowledge of the detail of various aspects of the Department’s business so I think that it is possible-dependent on the qualities of an individual and on that individual’s background and experience-to become an effective Secretary of State quite quickly. In other circumstances, it will take a great deal of time.

Does that answer the point you were making?

Chair: It was very helpful.

Q214 Mrs Laing: I think you have just answered just about all of the questions because you know this subject pretty well. I remember a point where you were moving regularly from place to place clearing up messes that other Ministers had left behind.

Lord Reid: I would not quite say it that way. That could cast aspersions on my predecessors. I do not think that is the case.

Mrs Laing: I am not asking you to comment on that, but you were moving from place to place. Would it be reasonable to say that people on the outside sometimes say, "How can somebody go in and be a Minister?" for example, in education if they have never been a teacher, for example in transport if they have never flown a plane and so on. Would it be reasonable to say that the expertise that a Minister brings is in being a politician and bringing the political aspect to add to the managerial aspect of the Department?

Lord Reid: Yes, I think it would be difficult to paint an ideal picture of the criteria or the qualities that you want a Secretary of State to have, but if you were approximating towards the ideal, you would pick a man or woman who was capable of assimilating masses of information and applying a degree of intellectual rigor in terms of analysis, somebody who had the capacity to make decisions on big issues. You would choose somebody who could give the strategic leadership and carry people with them, identifying the primary strategic objectives of a particular Department and explaining the route and key points in that direction. They would have a capacity to undertake extremely long hours under considerable pressure and to work along with the civil service. I think Gerald Kaufman had it right years ago. He said that the civil service hate a Minister who does not know what he wants but they also dislike a Minister who knows what he wants but will not listen to the potential downstream consequences of the action that he is taking. I think if you have those qualities-I am not claiming those qualities-but the nearer you proximate towards them then the nearer you come to the sort of qualities that a Secretary of State would benefit from, particularly the leadership aspect. On the politics you are right-you have to carry your Department, you have to carry your Cabinet, you have to carry your Parliament, you have to carry the public. Then at the back of your mind there are always the values that your party is supposed to enshrine and your constituency and constituents and others would look for you to exhibit. I think all of that is true.

To answer your practical point, speaking from my own experience, there are some positions that I took that I felt reasonably well qualified to move into and be effective from a very early stage. For my first post, as Armed Forces Minister, I had spent seven years reading military history, meeting the troops, discussing with people; and to the credit of the previous Conservative Government, including the then Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames, they had facilitated this because they had allowed me to come in a long period before the civil service would normally have required them to allow me to come in. That meant that when I came back as Defence Secretary I had then done about eight and a half years on the defence side. When I was appointed to Secretary of State for Scotland I had a pretty good awareness of what was going on and what was required.

In Northern Ireland, although I was appointed, again it was one of those occasions when someone resigned. Anyone who is brought up as a working class Catholic in the west of Scotland has a pretty good understanding of the issues and the history going back to the 12th century of the conflict.

In other cases, such as transport, I had no particular knowledge, no particular interest. I did not want to go. I liked being Armed Forces Minister. The first day I was at Transport, I remember, they were doing the roads review in Parliament, which consisted of me at the despatch box and Glenda Jackson, the Under-Secretary, tearing pages out of a large briefing book to put in front of me when somebody asked me, "What were the latest plans for the A373 going through somewhere or other?"

Health, that took me a bit of time to get a grip on because I didn’t seek the Health post, but Alan Milburn had indicated he wanted to leave it. That is why I say "it depends". It depends on the circumstances. Generally speaking, I think we turn over Ministers too quickly. I certainly didn’t seek the number of posts that I had, but then you are part of a collective and basically you have to do what is required in the collective.

Mrs Laing: I think that sums it up very well. Thank you.

Q215 Mr Chope: I think you had seven Cabinet posts in nine years.

Lord Reid: I had seven in the Cabinet, eight at or in the Cabinet because the Ministry of Transport was at the Cabinet-

Q216 Mr Chope: When you moved into those posts, did the person who you were succeeding brief you at all? When you moved out of those posts did you brief your successor at all?

Lord Reid: Yes, in some cases. I remember for instance when I took over in Northern Ireland from Peter Mandelson, even although he was facing difficult circumstances at the time-that caused his resignation-he was kind enough to phone me and to meet with me almost immediately to go over some of the major issues that he thought I should know about, some of the background and so on. When I took over at health, Alan Milburn did the same.

In Scotland it was rather more difficult because Donald Dewar who had been the previous Secretary of State had gone to be the First Minister, so I was engaged continually with him. It was about a fortnight before devolution.

In other cases, such as when I became Minister for the Armed Forces and Defence Secretary, as I said, I had spent some years doing defence, but my predecessors were available and I had a chat with Geoff Hoon, so yes. When I went I always made it plain to my successor that I was available. There is a fine line between failing to move on and trying to do somebody’s job when they come in and offering yourself and giving a briefing. For instance, I would have spoken to Paul Murphy and Helen Liddell when she came in in Scotland.

I am not sure if this is relevant to what you are asking, but you may find it helpful. I think you also have to have very quickly, as you go in, a view of your strategic objectives. I am not saying that everybody would agree with those strategic objectives, even within my own party, but you have to have a view of where you want to get to. When I went in as the Armed Forces Minister, I knew that we needed and wanted a strategic defence review, which we carried in 1997 to 1998, and we carried that out.

When I then went to Transport, I knew that one of the reasons I went there, under John Prescott, was to deliver the new underground link to the Millennium Dome by the millennium, because any Government that couldn’t deliver a link to the Millennium Dome by the millennium wasn’t going to be trusted to deliver much else. When I went to Northern Ireland, it was to achieve decommissioning of weapons from the IRA, to get a general acceptance inside the Nationalist community of the reformed police service and, if possible, to get a declaration that the war was over so that there was not only a theoretical end to violence but an actual end to violence. We achieved two of those in that period.

In Scotland, I recall that the strategic objective was to establish a competent and working Scottish Parliament, but clearly within the constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom, so it was a devolved Parliament, not a separate one.

Q217 Mr Chope: Did you decide those strategic objectives for yourself? Were you advised about them by your predecessor? Did the Prime Minister tell you what they were or did the Permanent Secretary tell you?

Lord Reid: No, not the Permanent Secretary. The strategic objectives of the Government stem from the political values, manifesto and direction of the Government so they would derive through a discussion between yourself and the Prime Minister. Then part of the job is to persuade and to make aware your ministerial team of those objectives. I am a great believer in devolving power to Ministers. If you speak to the Ministers who worked for me, I think they would confirm that I would set out the strategic priorities but within each of their areas I would then let them get on with it unless there was such a major issue that they had to discuss it with the Secretary of State or there was a train coming down the tunnel of some major disaster, but Ministers ought to be decision makers as well within their own field.

Q218 Mr Chope: Do you think there are too many Ministers?

Lord Reid: I don’t think there are too many Ministers, no, and I will tell you why. A huge amount of information is now not only available but is imposed on decision makers of all types-we live in a networked world where there is a tsunami of data coming in to decision makers, in the private sector as well as in the public sector. It comes in in real time so the time you have to make decisions is much shorter. Also every aspect of life now in the digital age, in the cyber age, is under scrutiny so the ability to analyse information and to make decisions and the requirement of public scrutiny of decisions is much more difficult than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Of course, not all data is information. There are masses of data, but if it doesn’t change your perception or knowledge it is not information, it is just data, and yet we continually send each other a mass of data on e-mails and so on so you can imagine the amount that is coming into Ministers.

Q219 Mr Chope: The aspiration of the Government is to reduce the number of MPs down to 600 and the Government are rather coy about whether or not they wish to reduce the number of Ministers. One of the jobs of parliamentarians is to hold Ministers to account, so would you agree that there should be a significant reduction in the number of Ministers if there is a reduction in the number of MPs?

Lord Reid: No.

Q220 Mr Chope: That would be strengthening the Executive in Parliament enormously.

Lord Reid: No. First of all, that presupposes that I agree with the reduction in the number of MPs; I don’t. I think MPs are much maligned. The vast majority of MPs I know are people who work extremely hard, seven days a week, and now find themselves abused because there is an expenses system that is meant to ensure that not only the rich can come to Parliament but that it is possible for working people to come to Parliament. My guess would be that there is the same percentage of people in Parliament who are misusing that system as there would be in any other organisation outside. I don’t necessarily agree that the demands on MPs are such that you can reduce the number and therefore the premise on which you are asking the question falls. Even if there was to be a reduction, I believe that the demands of modern Government are such that the number of Ministers that we have should not be reduced.

When I came into Parliament a very wise old head and former Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, told me never to tell anybody the hours that I worked because either they would think I was lying or they would think I was completely mad to do it. Yet, if you read large sections of the press you would believe in the misrepresentation, which was best signalled during the alternative vote campaign by a television advert video showing an MP hiding behind his curtain when the constituent came. I think that is a calumny on most MPs.

Q221 Mr Chope: Recently aided and abetted by none other than the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Sir Ian Kennedy.

Lord Reid: I don’t have any comment to make on that. I don’t know the detail.

Q222 Paul Flynn: You remind me of the AV vote when-as I crossed Vauxhall Bridge every morning I saw an advert there that said, "If we had AV" to mean that more babies would die in hospital and more soldiers would die in Afghanistan. I never quite got the point. There was a time when there was a low point in advertisements about the democratic process. You seem to have been the victim or the beneficiary of more moves than anyone else. I think Tony Blair put you in as a safe pair of hands or a hard man in various situations, many of them arising unexpectedly. Do you think that we need a system that does not depend on these regular moves and that we need more stability and fewer reshuffles generally?

Lord Reid: Yes, I would agree with that. Incidentally, I hope you don’t mind me commenting-I don’t know where this "hard man" comes from. I suspect it is partly my Glasgow accent.

Paul Flynn: Exactly, all villains have Glasgow accents.

Lord Reid: Once Mr Jeremy Paxman was having a discussion with two chaps from private schools as if I didn’t exist-I was at the end of the table. And when he turned to interview me, I made the point that if you went to a particular type of school and you got three O levels in basket weaving you are regarded as an intellectual but if you have a PhD and a Glasgow accent you are immediately classified as a hard man. I hope you don’t mind me making that point.

Mrs Laing: Some of us would support you there very strongly.

Lord Reid: I agree with you, absolutely. First of all, I don’t think a Minister or a Secretary of State wants to move that often. I certainly didn’t. I can tell you that I didn’t want to move from being Armed Forces Minister to Minister for Transport, even though it was a Cabinet post. I would have preferred to stay and without going into it in any detail, I made that absolutely plain to the Prime Minister at the time. I didn’t particularly want to go to Health. Firstly, I didn’t think I was sufficiently aware of the health portfolio, but I was told that I was a very quick learner. Secondly, and just as importantly, I was a Scottish MP and this was the English health service. I didn’t particularly want to leave Defence when I was Secretary of State for Defence to go to the Home Office. These are not reflections on the Home Office or any other Department, I just didn’t want to go. I thought that, having served a year or something as Secretary of State for Defence, to move on was a bad thing for me, for Defence, and so on. I think we went through a ridiculous number of Defence Secretaries.

The problem, Paul, is that events happen. I went to Northern Ireland because Peter Mandelson had to resign. I went to the Home Office because Charles decided to resign over a dispute he had with the Prime Minister about moving him. I went to Health because Alan Milburn decided to resign. In a sense those three mini reshuffles, whether it was me or somebody else, would have happened. My first post was Armed Forces Minister and that was when the Government came in. Certainly, in half of these moves it was almost inevitable that somebody would have been moved, but it is not satisfactory.

Q223 Paul Flynn: We have to come up with some recommendations on this and virtually all the evidence is that the system does not work. In your case, you were either moved sideways or promoted and there are others who were sacked and feel that they failed in life to this day, years later. A lot of it seemed to be part of an irrational game of Prime Ministerial chess that we were playing. You cannot always explain moves in terms of ability or in any other way.

Lord Reid: First of all, I think it is a subjective decision by the Prime Minister, so it is very difficult and I am not sure it is not illusory to search for some metrics by which the Prime Minister should judge it.

I have tried to identify some of the qualities that, if I were Prime Minister, I would look for in a Secretary of State. They are the qualities that I outlined at the beginning. Secondly, I agree with you that the present way of doing it, the big reshuffle with the media circus and so on adds a degree of humiliation. I have been fortunate, I have never been sacked. Indeed I was fortunate, probably uniquely, to decide in advance that I would voluntarily step down from the Cabinet the day Gordon Brown came in. I did that because I thought it was the honourable thing to do. Having done it, incidentally, I thought it was the honourable thing to do to keep quiet so that is why I went on radio silence for three years. I have never been in that position. I had the luxury of making my own decision that it wasn’t for me to stay-for the status or the car or whatever-if I didn’t feel confidence in the regime.

I can imagine that for people who were sacked it must be an excruciatingly humiliating experience; the walk down Downing Street and so on. I am not quite sure whether that would be the case if changes were spaced out throughout the year. There is a sense that if they were spaced throughout the year and you were sacked you would be the one person who was immediately covered in the news and in the press.

I think in an ideal world this would be regarded by the press and the media as the natural part of the evolution of an organisation, as it is in the private sector, but it does not happen that way, given the public scrutiny.

Q224 Paul Flynn: There is a fascinating tension developing now, which happens in probably all Governments. Francis Maude recently said that the civil servants are not carrying out the wishes of his Ministers and there are other signs of tension between the civil service and the Government. The Prime Minister has slipped the black spot to the person chosen to do the job in the Department for Energy.

Do the frequent reshuffles weaken the role of Government and strengthen the role of-we do call them Permanent Secretaries, but 18 Permanent Secretaries have gone out of the 20 so they are less permanent than they used to be.

Lord Reid: I am not trying to avoid your question, but that depends, again, on the Minister. I have known Ministers who are good managers and become extremely good technocrats, but don’t have a grasp of strategic leadership either in the Department or indeed for the Government as a whole. I think that one of the reasons that I found myself in the media so often defending the Government on subjects that were not my own portfolio is that along with one or two others-Margaret Beckett springs to mind, and John Hutton-we had an overall understanding of the strategic purpose of the Government and the values that lay behind it. I think that there are exceptions, but all other things being equal, what you are saying about your strength vis-à-vis the civil service being weakened if there are continual changes must be right because there is not that continuity.

Having said that, I changed quite often and you could obviously talk to people who work with me in the civil service, but I think I worked reasonably well with them. The only occasion I can remember when it was wrongly said that I might be at odds with my civil servants was when I was at the Home Office. It was said that, by characterising the Home Office as deficient in a number of areas that somehow this must mean that I was at odds with the top civil servants. That was the interpretation in the press. As so often happens, the press had no idea whether this was the case or not. In fact it wasn’t, because the words I used, including "not fit for purpose" were not mine. They were the words of the most senior civil servant in the Department who I had asked to give me a two-page summary of the deficiencies in the Department. He was good enough to be completely candid with me and I thought it was so serious that I had to be candid with the Committee that was interviewing me and I used exactly his words including the phrase "not fit for purpose", which has now stuck with me.

I read all of these stories written in ignorance suggesting that somehow this must have meant that I was characterising the civil servants as not fit for purpose. Of course at the time, like on many other occasions when you are misrepresented, it was impossible to put the record straight because these were internal discussions between myself and the senior civil servants. I think it is possible to establish a pretty quick and candid rapport, to give leadership without assuming the role of management and I worry about the plans to appoint or to have the Government Ministers play a role in appointing senior civil servants.

Q225 Chair: John, thank you very much for your time today, very informative indeed. I am so sorry we have only had half an hour.

Lord Reid: Not a problem.

Chair: If there are other things that occur to you afterwards, do not hesitate to drop us a line. I just want to thank you on the record for attending this morning.

Lord Reid: Thank you, members of the Committee. Thank you.

Chair: Appreciate it, John. Good to see you.

Prepared 4th February 2013