Public Administration Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 74

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee

on Tuesday 29 January 2013

Members present:

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)

Alun Cairns

Robert Halfon

Kelvin Hopkins

Priti Patel

Mr Steve Reed

Lindsay Roy


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Lord Wilson of Dinton GCB, former Cabinet Secretary, and Rt Hon Dame Janet Paraskeva DBE, former First Civil Service Commissioner, gave evidence.

Q133 Chair: May I welcome our two witnesses to this session on the future of the Civil Service? Could I invite each of you to identify yourselves for the record?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am Richard Wilson, Lord Wilson of Dinton.

Dame Janet Paraskeva: I am Janet Paraskeva.

Q134 Chair: Thank you very much for joining us. What do you make of all this debate about the appointment of permanent secretaries and ministerial influence?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: Having spent a considerable time in my previous role as First Civil Service Commissioner trying to ensure that, in the legislation that was passed in 2010, Ministers were involved in some way in the appointment of permanent secretaries but did not have the final say, I have found the whole debate very interesting. It is a position that we were very clear about and for which we had allparty support. At the end of any appointment process on merit, which is what the Act affirms, the final decision should be not of the Minister but of the appointments panel. The appointment should be made on merit, after fair and open competition. It is very interesting that, two and a half years on, the whole issue has been reopened again: the issue of whether or not Ministers can have the final choice. It is not a view that is necessarily shared by all.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am a bit bemused that it is being pressed so hard. At one level, I am not surprised, in the sense that there has always been a strain in British politics about wanting to reintroduce patronage. There are short-term attractions for a Minister, sometimes, in wanting the person they want, but I think that the way we have evolved the constitutional position of the service is pretty bedrock to the whole way we run politics. An impartial Civil Service, selected on merit-and with the Civil Service Commission underwriting that, and the final selection being an independent decision-is very important for the way we run things. You could do it differently, but it would require much bigger constitutional change.

The other thing that surprised me, and why I am bemused, is this: some of the debate takes place as though Ministers have no say at all. As Sir David Normington has said, Ministers’ involvement is actively encouraged. They are allowed to meet candidates, talk to them and so on. There was a statement in the press yesterday that Ministers were not allowed to talk to candidates. That is so wrong. I do not know how that misunderstanding arose, but it is a failure of communication. It should be possible for Ministers to play an important role, provided, as Dame Janet has just rightly said, they do not have the last word.

Q135 Chair: "Reintroduce patronage" is quite an aggressive defence of the status quo, is it not?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I did not mean to be aggressive.

Q136 Chair: It sounds pretty pejorative as to what Ministers are expressing frustration about. You do recognise that there is some very legitimate frustration-although frustration seems rather a mild word, compared with some of the things that Ministers have said to me.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am 10 years out of Government now, so I do not know what lies behind the frustration. What I am saying is that I would have thought, given reasonable relationships and reasonable dialogue, it would be possible to find what Ministers wanted in a job and to find the best person for that job who meets those skills, with the Minister being involved but not having the final say. I do not think that what is happening is necessary. I used the words "reintroduce patronage" simply to sound a warning. I think what is being proposed could be-going back to our old friend, the slippery slope-the beginning of changes in the way we run politics that are not to the advantage either of people in politics or the Civil Service’s position. It could be damaging. I do not think the implications have been quite understood.

Q137 Chair: That may well be the case, but there is room for a bit of inflection in this, isn’t there?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Yes. This does not need to be such a contentious issue.

Q138 Chair: Dame Janet, don’t you think that Sir David Normington has dug in and hoisted the Jolly Roger rather early in this discussion, when there are some legitimate concerns being expressed by Ministers, albeit that their solutions may not be the right ones?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: What Sir David has done is reiterate the position of the Civil Service Commissioners. As I said, we enshrined in legislation and put down a marker for the need for the permanence of the Civil Service to be continued and the permanence of the appointment of permanent secretaries. One of the points I would like to make, to add to what Lord Wilson has said, is that one of the things that might be damaged, if Ministers had the final choice, is the permanence. It is the erosion of permanent appointments to the role of permanent secretary that we need to look at very carefully. If the secretary of state appoints the person that fits him or her best, and that Secretary of State-and we know this can happen fairly frequently-then loses their role, that permanent secretary, in the present system, continues to work for whomever the next incumbent is, be they the same colour of Government or, indeed, if the Administration changes. The person appointed might well be seen to be the person of the previous Secretary of State. Are we going to have a system therefore, as they do in Canada and other countries, where, when the Secretary of State moves, the permanent secretary moves? If so, where does the permanent secretary move to?

Q139 Chair: Those are perfectly legitimate questions, but the system Sir David is defending seems to have reduced the influence that Secretaries of State have over their appointments, and the word "permanent" becomes rather a misnomer; there is such a speed of churn of permanent secretaries at the moment. Only two of the departmental permanent secretaries are in place who were in place at the last election. Permanent secretaries can no longer instantly be assumed to be the reservoir of departmental knowledge, history and experience of that Department. Hasn’t something gone wrong here?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: Those are two separate things. I am talking about the permanence of the post.

Chair: But the post has become rather impermanent.

Dame Janet Paraskeva: People have moved because they clearly have not liked the role or not liked what was going on. What I am talking about is the permanence of the post; in the current experience we have had, a whole raft of permanent secretaries were appointed and moved on really rather quickly. I hope that when one looks at the Civil Service reforms in the round that what one is looking at is how the appointments of permanent secretaries fit into the things the Government would like to achieve there. I hope that what the Government wants to achieve is the continuation of a permanent Civil Service, objectively appointed.

Q140 Chair: That may well be the case, and the Civil Service Reform Plan does not purport to overturn the Northcote-Trevelyan principles. A system that is produced, with churn at the top of the Civil Service, so that departmental heads are no longer guaranteed to be experts in their Departments, is not making the relationship between Ministers and civil servants any easier is it? Why do we think this is a success? Doesn’t it need to change?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: I do not understand why politicians want to change it, except to have greater control over the people they appoint.

Q141 Chair: What I hear in that comment is everyone just digging in. Let us try to analyse what the problem is. Very often, the Secretary of State has more expertise in the Department in question than the permanent secretary who is appointed to serve under the Secretary of State. This seems very odd. The example I keep using is in the Ministry of Defence, where we are asked to believe that, relatively inexperienced Defence people, such as Ursula Brennan and Jonathan Thompson, are the apostolic successors to the likes of Sir Frank Cooper and Sir Michael Quinlan. Something appears to have gone wrong here if that is not the case. There is no personal criticism intended at all.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I share your worry. I think the degree of churn over the last two or three years has been very worrying. Your argument-that it detracts from the ability of permanent secretaries to provide the kind of support and continuity that the role ought to be providing-is a good one. What I do not understand is why the position would be made better if you allowed Ministers to have the final say in whom they chose. I think you would make it worse. I am not part of this, so I do not really know what is going on, but what we should be doing is finding out why people are leaving, why there is this turnover, and trying to return to the proper role of permanent secretaries. What the service does not need, at a time of transition and change, is further uncertainty and proposals that tend to create more uncertainty rather than less.

Chair: I understand exactly the point you are making.

Q142 Priti Patel: In light of the excessive frustrations being aired by Ministers, from your experience, Lord Wilson, both in the past and as an observer now, do you sense that Ministers and Secretaries of State have a good, solid understanding of the role of the Civil Service and how the Civil Service is there to help them function in their duties?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I worry about that. I have to say that this is not new. When I was Cabinet Secretary, I felt that an understanding of the constitutional position of the service was not shared by all the Ministers. I have dug out a rare copy of the report on Civil Service reform that I put to the Prime Minister and we implemented in 1999 and beyond. One of the proposals in it is that there should be joint training of Ministers and civil servants. I was rather impressed, if not slightly startled, to read in the progress report of 2001 that three-quarters of Ministers in the UK Government had attended at least one Centre for Management and Policy Studies event. In other words, we had joint training. I remember that we used to have sessions for new Ministers, which I used to talk to, in which I would talk to them about the constitutional position, what to do if they were unhappy with their private office and what the position was on appointments. I did my best, in a friendly and constructive way-and nonaggressive way-to put to them the background, because I felt that there was a gap there.

Q143 Mr Reed: I want to make a comparison with local government, which according to the Audit Commission is a more efficient part of government than national Government Departments as a whole. In local government, elected members do choose their own chief executive of the local authority and take the final decision, after a rigorous search and selection process, on their senior directors. Is that damaging?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: It is slightly different. It is not a direct parallel. The final panel, which as you rightly say is a political panel in the local authority environment, is one in which all parties will be present. It is not simply a Minister coming in after the selection and saying, "I will have her not him," or, "I will have him not her." It is a panel that is representative of the total council, so it is rather different. Of course, we do see chief executives move when the party changes control in a local authority. This goes back to my point about permanence and the permanence of our Civil Service, notwithstanding the difficulty that you point to right now. It is too simple to say that in local authorities the politicians appoint, and in central Government they do not. There are very real differences.

Q144 Mr Reed: You seem to be implying that the fact a chief executive may move is a negative, whereas in fact that may be contributing to the greater efficiency of local government compared with national Government Departments, and the relationship between the senior politicians and the senior people on the Civil Service side is therefore better.

Dame Janet Paraskeva: I am not making a point about whether it is better or worse. I am saying that it is different. One of the reasons I raised the permanence issue is because permanence and politicisation go hand in hand. What we need to do is take a step back. I agree with you that everybody is getting stuck in and defending their positions. It feels to me as if we need to take a step back in this debate and ask what it is that Government wants, rather than trying to chip away and give small prizes to pressures. Those small prizes to pressures from Ministers, in relation to appointments, might be the beginning of a slippery slope to somewhere we did not intend to go. If we are looking at a different constitutional model for our Civil Service, where politicians do control the people who work to them most directly, then I would argue that we need to look at that in the round and very thoroughly, rather than allow ourselves, accidentally, to start down a slope we perhaps did not mean to travel down. If that is the path we mean to travel, then let us have a look at it.

Q145 Chair: I hope that we can resolve these problems without upsetting NorthcoteTrevelyan. How should we address these problems? The present system is not working on two fronts. Ministers are very frustrated. The relationship between many Ministers and senior officials is not good. We have impermanent permanent secretaries. How should we address this?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Can I come back briefly?

Chair: I want to answer this question.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: The answer, in my view, is that you do your best to get back on the rails. You do not try to switch to another model, because that will make things-

Chair: We have accepted that. What do you do to address these concerns?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: First of all you find out-because I do not know-why Ministers are so extremely frustrated. I do not know; I do not think the public knows; I do not think they have explained. Saying critical things about the service, such as that they are obstructive, without evidence is unhelpful and not something that you would find in the private sector. People need a proper dialogue, possibly mediated, at which the cause of frustration is examined, and it may need to be facilitated.

Q146 Chair: Is that the role of the Head of the Civil Service or the Cabinet Secretary?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Goodness knows. When I was in both those roles, we had two seminars of the whole Cabinet and their permanent secretaries, jointly chaired by the Prime Minister and me, with an external facilitator, at which we discussed Civil Service reform. Some frustrations were aired, and they were communally discussed. There is a dialogue that is needed among only those playing part, quite possibly with external discreet help. I do not know what has gone wrong.

Chair: That is a very positive suggestion.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I would get them in a room and make them talk to each other.

Q147 Chair: Dame Janet, do you have anything to add to that?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: I would absolutely support that. Where things are going wrong, you do not just change the system; you try to make the system work.

Q148 Chair: Can I press you on the other matter? We have had advice from one of our witnesses pointing out that the idea you would have chief executives churning around top companies on three-year terms would be greeted with derision in the private sector.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Yes.

Chair: So why is it happening in the Civil Service? Why is it that, if anybody has been in a job for more than three years, they think they are going stale and being left behind?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: There is something about the leadership of the Civil Service-and I do not just mean the very top job, but in the seniority of the Civil Service-that perhaps we need to focus on. There was a move a few years ago to really bolster the talent management processes.

Q149 Chair: Do we need to plan careers much more than we do? So do we need to abolish open selection?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: No, I do not think we need to abolish open selection. We need a balance between the best home-grown civil servants and the best people that will come and join the Civil Service from the private sector. We need to recruit slightly earlier from the private sector. There was a great move to bring in people from the private sector.

Q150 Chair: There is this question about three-year term limits for permanent secretaries. I would like a permanent secretary, when I take over a Department, who has been there for five years and knows how to run the Department.

Dame Janet Paraskeva: That is what most secretaries of state said they wanted. When I went to see Secretaries of State to ask what sets of skills and experience they want in their new permanent secretary, the first answer was always, "Whitehall skills-I want someone who knows their way around the system."

Q151 Chair: But if you do not know your own Department, you will not be any good for negotiating your Department around Whitehall.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Chairman, can I say that I agree with you? I wrote a letter to all permanent secretaries saying that I thought that, as a rule of thumb, we would expect people to be in post for seven years. At that point, we would take stock.

Q152 Chair: How many permanent secretaries, as heads of Department, have been in post for seven years? I can tell you: none.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I do not think there are any. I would also want to know why people had all left. Communication seems to me to have broken down. My remark about patronage was simply a warning that I think it is going in the wrong direction. People need to pull back, calm down and talk. They should not do it in the public arena.

Q153 Chair: So a touch of Michael Winner would suffice-or if not suffice, then help?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: Better long-term planning would help. That means bringing in expertise from outside of the Civil Service, and not leaving it till the director-general or permanent-secretary level, but bringing people in at assistant-director level. We brought in many people from the private sector. Not all found it comfortable, and I think that was because we left it a little late in their careers.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Can I have 30 seconds? We had a committee called SASC, [Senior Appointments Sub-Committee] which was of very long standing, in which we reviewed the careers of bright people coming up and we planned for them. I know that does not happen now. I think it was a good thing.

Q154 Chair: If you are going to have more of what one might call managed moves in the Civil Service, it means there is going to be less open selection. Do you accept that there is a trade-off between the two?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: No, I do not, because I do not think a managed move needs to exclude competition for the post. I think you can have internal competition for movement within the service among the best homegrown people if you have a proper talent management system in place. I do not think it is one or the other. The other thing I want to add is that we must not muddle up the argument there is for better support for new Ministers coming into their role. That might be better political support for Ministers coming into a new role. One of the differences we have in this country is that a Minister comes in on day one and is supposed to be an expert. They have not always had the brief in shadow portfolio.

Q155 Chair: The one thing we really depend upon is that the permanent secretary is an expert.

Dame Janet Paraskeva: You depend on the permanent secretary, of course.

Q156 Chair: That is what I am really complaining about. We are the amateurs.

Dame Janet Paraskeva: You depend on the permanent secretary and his or her team for objective advice. You also look to your own special advisers for political advice. If we are able to take a step back and look at how we make the system we have work better, we might also want to look at what the political support that surrounds the new Minister actually is and whether we have the level and transparency of it right.

Q157 Chair: It sounds like the civil servants are blaming the Ministers and the Ministers are blaming the civil servants.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think you are right. There needs to be a balance between open competition and internal management. The question, to which I do not know the answer, is whether it has gone wrong. Permanent secretaries need to be there for a good stint of time because they are the source of advice, experience, knowledge and, to some degree, training to help support new Ministers. I always saw Ministers as my clients. I had to find out what they wanted, what they were good at, what they were less good at, and how I could help them get what they wanted through the machine.

Chair: My Committee has been extremely patient while I have asked those questions.

Kelvin Hopkins: Some of the questions I was going to ask have been answered already.

Chair: I am so sorry, Kelvin.

Q158 Kelvin Hopkins: You have said some very interesting things already about the current causes of concern about the Civil Service. I asked in a previous session about this issue. Do you not think that we are in a state of permanent revolution, in a sense? One of the techniques of permanent revolution is to keep people off balance all the time and churning all the time, so that you weaken them. I get this very strong feeling about Government in Britain that it has been happening for some time now, particularly under the latter part of the Thatcher regime, the Blair regime and now the Cameron regime; it has all been the same. In the last meeting, I said that my thought was that in the past the Civil Service worked well with Government because they could hover between one-nation conservatism and social democracy on the other side, both of which were statist. What has happened now is that we have an antistatist ideology, a market ideology, thrusting its way in, making the Civil Service feel very uncomfortable and in some cases resisting, whether they be of the right or the left. Until that ideological battle is resolved, we are going to have this ongoing problem.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think you may be right that the consensus that underpinned the service has begun to fragment. That is true. I think you are right about waves of reform. I joined the service just before Fulton reported. I was chairman of one of the FDA committees on implementing Fulton. My life has been a series of reforms. I was a director of a private-sector company that had taken over, under TUPE, quite a lot of civil servants. We had a big reform programme. When we had the reform programme, we found that people who had been in the Civil Service during reform had learnt to put their heads down and wait until the fashion passed. There is a sense in which too much churn produces people who say yes and mean no. That is a real danger.

Q159 Kelvin Hopkins: When I was a student, many years ago, I was taught economics by a former Treasury official. He said that the great thing about the Civil Service was that, within it, they had the capacity to adjust. If a particular policy was not working, there was always somebody in the back office working on Plan B, to quote a current phrase. That could be brought forward and adopted and adapted, and things would work well. Ministers and civil servants always knew that was around. The drive for ideological change began with Selsdon and moved on beyond that. It certainly was not there when you started in 1966.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Selsdon is the root, yes.

Kelvin Hopkins: Ever since, there has been this deep undercurrent. You will not want to give away any secrets, obviously, but the early years of the Blair regime were dominated by very powerful special advisers, who effectively were ordering civil servants about. It must have been very uncomfortable, particularly in the Department for Education, with Andrew Adonis, who is coming to see us later, where there was that forcing through of revolution. They looked to me very like commissars, if you like, or political civil servants who were being interposed over the top of civil servants to make sure that the ideology was driven through.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: It may be that the reason why Sir David Normington is so immediately firm on this red line, and why I have put it so strongly to you, is because we have learnt that you have to decide where to draw the line and to take a stand, in the face of the ambiguities and the trends you have been describing. We have come to the view that the absolute bedrock for the Civil Service has to be independent selection of people and the final say not being with Ministers. That is why there is such a strong reaction. Your instinct, which is that people have got too excited and too entrenched and we need to slow down and talk, is absolutely right. I myself am absolutely convinced that, whatever the frustrations are, they can be dealt with within the ground rules without going across the red lines.

Q160 Kelvin Hopkins: Many times in this Committee, I have said that I rather admire the French system, where they have a very strong centre, l’état-the state. There is this elite who run everything-with politicians, but they effectively run everything. They are much more powerful than our Civil Service, I would suggest. I am an uncompromising statist and an uncompromising opponent of the marketising of politics.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Can I just say something on being an admirer of France and views on local government? With all these different constitutions, people like bits of them. You cannot take bits of America, bits of local government, bits of France, the bits you like, and keep the rest of the position as it is. If you are going to change, the change tends to be much more fundamental, and it will have consequences that you have not foreseen. Nick Ridley predicted in the 1980s that, if the poll tax failed, local government would become the agent of central Government-it would lose its independence. He was absolutely right. What he did not foresee was that a lot of local government influence would actually be drawn into central Government. That may well be a very interesting thought. I could develop it, except the Chairman is short of time.

Q161 Chair: I would just point out that it used to be, from the evidence we have seen in the papers from Secretaries of State of previous eras, that Secretaries of State seemed to have more influence over their appointments than they have now. I am particularly thinking of the appointment of Brian Hayes, who was the nomination of the Secretary of State after he had turned down all four of the names offered to him in the first instance.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Partly what I am trying to say to you is that I think this is all soluble. But if people feel that the underlying bedrock position is being threatened, they get more rigid. These things are soluble, but they have to be on a basis of trust. I am sorry to have to use that word. If the underlying consensus, and the underlying deal, is respected then there are ways of managing these issues.

Q162 Chair: I would put it the other way around: that by threatening to upset the fundamental deal at the heart of our constitution, everybody is digging in in response, and that is the wrong way to approach it. Would you agree with that?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I agree that everybody ought to take a step back and think a bit.

Q163 Kelvin Hopkins: It strikes me very strongly that, up until 1970, the Civil Service and politicians broadly got on with each other quite well because they were pointing in the same direction. They accepted the role of the state, be it Macmillan conservatism or Wilsonian social democracy. They were pointing in the same direction. After that, it broke.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think the Civil Service is quite good at managing and adapting, but what it is not good at is accepting a fundamental breakdown of the deal. That is the worry. You are right to be worried about churn because, in a way, that is also another bit of a breakdown of the deal.

Q164 Mr Reed: This is pushing at the same point, but you are quoted in The Times as saying that it is a sign of weakness for a Minister to criticise or complain about the Civil Service in public. Why do you think they feel they have to do that?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I do not know. Your job is to try to help your Minister get what he or she wants, within the grounds of propriety and the understandings. If you feel that the Civil Service is being obstructive, it depends on the circumstances, but you take action. If you were a Minister and you felt you were being obstructed, I would make sure you were not obstructed. I would deal with it. I would know how to deal with it. I would find out what was going wrong, and I would put it right. In the end, the permanent secretary would go and talk to the Cabinet Secretary. You would do whatever you had to do to deal with it. A good Minister will know perfectly well how to deal with it, too. Between you, a good permanent secretary and Minister working in tandem, you could deal with obstruction wherever it is from.

Of course, the real source of obstruction is usually the Treasury. I say this as one of the few top people who is not really a Treasury man. I have to say to you that obstruction in Government, with the Treasury being difficult, is the natural order of things. We are all experts in dealing with obstruction. A lot of Government is about disagreement and obstruction from other people, so of course we know how to deal with it. To go public and blame the Civil Service is surprising. It is a shame because it undermines trust. It is very demoralising to the Civil Service. I think it tends to increase churn, rather than reduce it, and I do not think it is necessary.

Q165 Mr Reed: Another quote from you in The Times was that a strong Minister should know how to get their own way. Can we infer from that, and what you have just said, that you think the problem is weak or perhaps untrained Ministers?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: It is really an exhortation to people to strengthen up a bit: "Look, come on." This needs a bit of improved morale among Ministers as well as civil servants. There are ways of doing this. We can handle this.

Q166 Mr Reed: In some of the earlier answers you both were giving, you implied that one of the problems was a lack of political support or experience on the part of some Ministers. Is it not more likely to be the lack of experience in leading a large, complex organisation with multiple stakeholders, rather than the lack of political ability?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: It might be either or both. Certainly, the lack of experience of running a large organisation, and the managerial and leadership skills required there, will obviously affect people’s degree of security. If you are not feeling secure in your role because you have never done it before and do not have the support mechanisms around you, then it is very easy, when things start to go wrong-as inevitably some things will-to blame the other part of the double act. It is this blame culture that has actually added to this feeling of not being recognised.

Q167 Mr Reed: Is it a failing on the part of the Civil Service that they have not made sure that that support is always available to new Ministers who do not have that kind of experience?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Could I put it differently? Someone needs to be the grown-up in all this. There were occasions when I felt, as Cabinet Secretary, that I was on my own but really had to be the grown-up. Someone has to get them together, be the grown-up and say something. You have a huge challenge. You are reducing the size of the Civil Service by numbers that are bigger than the entire worldwide work force of BP or Apple. You are doing it with less money and in the background of huge radical change in education, health or whatever. What you need is a strong team, working together on the basis of trust. You can do it-really you can do it-but if you fall out, you will not do it. I am trying to avoid the words "brace up" but it is really what I mean. You can do it, but you have to put your minds to the task and work together. You can achieve what you want within the framework, and you can achieve it without being rude about each other in public and without blaming each other. The leadership requires a team that has a common, positive vision and works together well. If you are divided, everybody looks up. The Civil Service appraises upwards the whole time. They watch what is going on, and they draw their own conclusions. They hunker down, and things will not happen. You need united, political will and then you will succeed. If you are not united, you will fail.

Q168 Chair: Do you think it is harder for the Cabinet Secretary or Head of the Civil Service to be that grown-up if they are two separate people?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: You know my views on them being separate people.

Q169 Chair: Is this a contributory factor?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Absolutely. I am afraid that it is, yes. If you have the two roles together, you do not need to ask yourself if it is the other person’s job. You have the force, weight, authority, responsibility and accountability to provide that role within Government. It is more difficult if there are two of you.

Q170 Robert Halfon: Can I say, in a very polite way, that you are doing a wonderful job at representing the Civil Service as being very nice, cuddly and always acting in the best interests of Ministers? I almost believe you. What I am not clear about is why Tony Blair got up and talked about the "forces of conservatism", why the current Prime Minister got up and talked about the "enemies of enterprise", or why some Cabinet Ministers feel that they have to correspond with each other using private e-mail systems, rather than using the Department e-mail systems, if everything in the garden is as rosy as you suggest.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am not saying it is rosy. There are always tensions that you have to address. I am just suggesting how you set about addressing them. I talked to Mr Blair a lot about these sorts of issues over my four or five years working for him, including the "scars on my back" speech. I think he was in a situation where he was empathising with the people he was talking to. I should not be talking about this; this is not relevant. But of course there are tensions. He had a different view of the job and of the constitution, which is why your point is right. But we were able to talk about it, and, personally, I think that we, the Civil Service, achieved quite a lot in terms of what we were able to do. We must keep the answers short.

Q171 Robert Halfon: You have not answered my question. There was Prime Minister Blair, who I mentioned, and then Prime Minister Cameron talked about the "enemies of enterprise", and everything that was indicated after that was talking about Whitehall blocking reform. You have examples of Cabinet Ministers who feel they cannot trust their own Departments, so they use private e-mail systems to correspond with their advisers. Clearly, using those examples, not everything is as you suggest: that civil servants are always acting in the interests of Ministers and up to a strong Minister. That is not always the state of play.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Ministers and their special advisers are always talking to each other and others in other Departments. When I was in private office, we did not have e-mails, but Ministers would go into little huddles and have endless discussion of officials, no doubt, and their colleagues and problems they have. Politicians necessarily behave in a political way. I am not that surprised that people are sending each other e-mails. The real problem is if it shows a lack of trust.

Q172 Robert Halfon: That is clearly what it was.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: It was, was it? You are closer to this than I am.

Q173 Robert Halfon: You do not want to talk about the previous Prime Minister, but why did the current Prime Minister talk about the "enemies of enterprise" in Whitehall?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: You would have to ask him. I do not know why he did.

Q174 Robert Halfon: You cannot say that it is because he is not strong and he should be in charge and tell civil servants what is the vision, and so on and so forth. There is clearly a view that there are elements in the Civil Service that put a brake on reform.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I suppose that if you look over 40 or 50 years there is a continuous dialogue, which is quite healthy, about how to improve the performance of Government. In 2001, the election manifesto had a commitment to make the Civil Service more entrepreneurial. This was quite interesting. We had a series of seminars in which we invited leading entrepreneurs in to talk to us about how we could become more entrepreneurial. I cannot remember his name. Who is the founder of easyJet?

Chair: Stelios.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Thank you. Stelios came and he said, "Do not try; you cannot do it. You are too big and you have no competition. It will not work for you," which was not particularly helpful, but was quite interesting. This dialogue still continues. But you still have to try to nurture trust. As a civil servant or as permanent secretary, unless you can establish trust with your Minister, you are not going to get anywhere. Trust is the first base for a permanent secretary.

Q175 Chair: So what you are saying is that civil servants really need to respect the private space of politicians?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Thank you; that is very well put.

Q176 Chair: And they need to respect the private space they have with their special advisers and the private space they have between each other and across Departments. But FOI rather militates against that, does it not?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: Private space and transparency can go alongside each other. What we need is proper transparency in the transactions about development of policy and so on. You cannot record every conversation, nor should you try. It is pointless.

Q177 Chair: The Information Commissioner has insisted on publishing private e-mails between advisers.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think that private space is crucial.

Dame Janet Paraskeva: Private space is crucial, absolutely.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Absolutely crucial.

Q178 Chair: So is FOI not working in the public interest at the moment?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: No. If it is not allowing that private space, it is doing harm. Tony Benn, in the Department of Energy in the 1970s, had two special advisers who we called the "two Francises": Frances Morrell and Francis Cripps. He spent hours closeted with them. Relations with the Department, it may now be said, were not good. This is not a new issue. I absolutely defend the right of Ministers to have this private space, and I would expect them to do it. Politicians and civil servants tend to be very different kinds of people. They ought to respect their differences.

Q179 Robert Halfon: Going back to the Department for Education issue, when there was the big error in the early days about the Building Schools for the Future programme-where the Cabinet Minister had to come back to the House to apologise-there was a view written up by commentators and some people that that list had been deliberately given to the Secretary of State wrongly, by civil servants who wished to undermine what the Secretary of State was willing to do. There are other examples of that kind of situation being suggested. I am highlighting this because, if these things are true or even have a modicum of truth, the situation you have given of everyone working for each other and needing a strong Minister here and there is not quite right.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I would take a very, very serious view if the suggestion that people deliberately gave him wrong information were true. I think it would be damnable. It would be very, very bad.

Q180 Chair: So incompetence, not malice?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I believe that incompetence is usually the answer, I am afraid. I am glad, in a way. I prefer incompetence to malice.

Q181 Kelvin Hopkins: The problem is when private space becomes sofa Government and the Cabinet becomes a cipher. Cabinet is secure, in confidence and under the 30-year rule. That is fine, and we understand that. It is different when the Cabinet is not trusted and the Prime Minister uses it as a brief meeting to tell everybody what he is going to say to the press, which is what happened under Mr Blair, I understand. Very few papers went to the Cabinet and all the decisions were taken in secret, if you like, not with civil servants, but with the Prime Minister and special advisers. That was a very different form of Government than Cabinet Government.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I know we are short of time. I gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry, if you are interested in this, in which I explained that there were two different views of how Government should run in operation that were competing. There was my view, which was a very orthodox view about how you run things through collective responsibility, through discussion and in committees. That is my model, which I still hold to as giving you the best chance of good Government, although it does not guarantee it. Then there was the model in which you had this Napoleonic view of a single corporate structure, with the Prime Minister as leader with Cabinet reporting to him, with all the permanent secretaries reporting to me, and the whole thing being one monolithic Napoleonic arrangement. I do not want to go into all that. Sofa Government has to be seen as part of that different view of how the Prime Minister does his job.

Q182 Chair: But FOI forces the Government on to the sofa.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: It absolutely does, and into the corridors and into the loos-sorry.

Q183 Chair: Do not worry-I have been there. On the accountability question, Ministers are accountable to Parliament and the civil servants are accountable to Ministers, which is the Armstrong memorandum.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Yes.

Chair: Actually, it has never really worked like that, has it?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I still think that, as a model, it is the best we have got.

Q184 Chair: If you go back to Haldane, he was more explicit that, if there were to be departmental committees, officials would have to appear before them and give information, and he said that even Ministers would have to appear before them. So there was an implication that, for matters of fact and administration, civil servants are directly accountable to Parliament, as are accounting officers to the PAC.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Accounting officers are the exception to the rule. They are personally accountable to Parliament; Mr Gladstone made sure of that. Permanent secretaries and officials do appear before Select Committees and the PAC on behalf of the Government. I stick with the Osmotherly rules.

Q185 Chair: We do not recognise the Osmotherly rules. They are an invention by the Executive.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I know you do not, but you may just like to note that the Civil Service has them, and they are how the Civil Service sees things.

Chair: They are how the Civil Service and Government try to manipulate who comes in front of Select Committees.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I remember your predecessor saying that, whomever he asked for, he got me.

Q186 Chair: Very lucky he was, too. The point is that ministerial accountability is always honoured in the breach. We have a curious situation where billions and billions can be lost through incompetently let defence contracts. Civil servants never seem to be to blame, and when Ministers appear in front of Select Committees, they are not to blame either because they have only been there some of the time. There is a mutuality of protection that exists, where civil servants cover for Ministers and Ministers quietly blame civil servants, but actually nobody is held accountable. That is not good enough, is it?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think that the Public Accounts Committee is pretty good at putting civil servants on the spot. I used to spend a huge amount of time preparing, and I felt very much personally accountable and on the spot. They are the people who are right up in front in holding civil servants to account.

Q187 Chair: Do you not think that civil servants should be more ready to speak? For example, the permanent secretary at DCMS, when asked about the veracity of a minute of a meeting and whether that actually took place, instead of just prevaricating, ought to say yes or no, or, "I am sorry; you will have to refer that question to the Secretary of State because it is too political."

Lord Wilson of Dinton: The civil servant is there on behalf of the Minister.

Chair: He is not there to protect the Minister.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Yes, he is there to protect the Minister.

Chair: He is there to protect the Minister?

Lord Wilson of Dinton: He is, in the end. Otherwise, he gets drawn in as a third party into the political arena. He becomes a figure in politics by himself.

Q188 Chair: So then the Minister comes along; the DirectorGeneral of the Prison Service or the Head of the UK Border Agency, and they get it in the neck.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: This is the tradition.

Q189 Chair: But it does not seem a very accountable system.

Lord Wilson of Dinton: Whether a Minister is held responsible or not really goes on amongst politicians on the Back Benches. You do it on the Back Benches; you do it in the tearooms. Whether a Minister has support in Parliament is actually the crucial factor for a Minister’s strength and ability to do the job well. Reputation, above all, really matters in politics. Civil servants should not get drawn on to the Floor of the House.

Q190 Chair: Thank you very much to you both, Dame Janet and Lord Wilson, for this really excellent session. We are very grateful to you. Is there anything else you want to add?

Dame Janet Paraskeva: I think we have had a fair innings. Thank you.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Lord Adonis, Sir Nick Harvey MP, Rt Hon Nick Herbert MP, and Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, gave evidence.

Q191 Chair: Thank you for joining us for this session. There are four of you, and I dare say that you all have a lot to say. We will do our best to keep our questions very short, and your reciprocation would be very much appreciated. Could you each identify yourselves for the record?

Sir Nick Harvey: I am Nick Harvey, MP for North Devon and formerly Minister of State at Defence.

Mrs Spelman: I am Caroline Spelman, MP for Meriden and former Secretary of State at DEFRA.

Lord Adonis: I am Andrew Adonis, former Secretary of State for Transport.

Nick Herbert: I am Nick Herbert, MP for Arundel and South Downs, formerly Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice.

Q192 Chair: Shall we first deal with this question about the influence of departmental permanent secretaries and the recommendation in the Civil Service Reform Plan? What do we think of it?

Mrs Spelman: I have put some views on the record. I had the experience of losing my permanent secretary a few months after I took office. I knew she wanted to move. I would challenge the process where I was told I could not choose her successor and her successor would be chosen for me. Since I felt accountability in the Department, I found it very strange that I did not feel I had enough say on this person, upon whom to some extent your political life depends, as we were just hearing. There has been some modification in the selection process to improve it. I was not allowed to interview the shortlisted candidates. I could meet them, and they could ask me questions.

Q193 Chair: So you were not allowed to ask them questions?

Mrs Spelman: I was not allowed to ask them questions. There is some view that, maybe, I was not given the correct advice there, but there were people in the room to make sure it was done that way. That has now changed. There is now a proper interview and twoway process. The views of the Secretary of State are taken into account in drawing up the job specification. That is true. You are asked what you think is needed as the Secretary of State at your Department. But the final decision is taken by a panel. I did not have any contact with the panel. I take the view that, at the very least, the Secretary of State should be on that panel. The wider Civil Service has a wider agenda for what it wants to see in permanent secretaries. For example, they may be seeking greater diversity amongst permanent secretaries. The Secretary of State in the Department will have a very clear idea about what attributes are needed for that Department. The balance of views would be better to have air around the table as a decision is made as to which candidate to recommend.

Lord Adonis: I agree. I think that what Caroline has said is what should happen. I do not think that the Secretary of State should unilaterally be able to choose the permanent secretary, but they should play a part in choosing them. In my only experience of a change of permanent secretary when I was a Minister, the big issue was seeking to persuade by far the most qualified and able candidate to apply for the post in the first place. I vividly remember pacing around a car park in Newcastle for the best part of an hour and a half on the phone trying to persuade him to apply. So there are the rules, and there is the reality. The reality is that a Minister, if they are worth their salt, will be intimately involved. Having that formalised would be a good thing.

Nick Herbert: Does this not go to the wider issues about accountability? It seems to me that what is extraordinary about the system, and makes it unique amongst other organisations, is that the Secretary of State is accountable for everything-Ministers are accountable for everything-but does not directly control anything. Therefore, the idea that the control you have over the appointment of the lead official in your Department should be minimised has to be looked at through that prism. Personally, I think that the ability of the Secretary of State to have a greater influence over that is just the start of the necessary process of ensuring that, if accountability is to rest with the politicians, the politicians are entitled to a greater degree of control about who works for them.

Sir Nick Harvey: I very much agree with what Caroline said. I do not think you would expect the Secretary of State to have carte blanche to bring in literally whomever they pleased, but I think it is absurd for them not to be involved in the process. Having them on the appointment panel, I would have thought, would be about the right balance to strike.

Q194 Chair: It seems to me that you are all saying that you want some influence, but you do not want a political Civil Service.

Mrs Spelman: There is some influence, let us be clear. You are asked what attributes you are looking for in a Secretary of State.

Q195 Chair: But you want a final say?

Mrs Spelman: You do not have the final say.

Chair: But you want to have the final say?

Mrs Spelman: You can veto the candidate recommended, but you cannot pick one of the alternatives; the whole process has to start over again. It is very slow. We lost our permanent secretary in October 2010 to the Home Office pretty promptly. It took six months to backfill that appointment. That was a very long time. We had a good acting permanent secretary, but it is difficult. We went through some torrid times at DEFRA without the full appointment. So you are not likely to want to go through all of that, and further delay, all over again.

Q196 Chair: Did Dame Helen Ghosh have DEFRA expertise, or was she from another Department?

Mrs Spelman: When I became a Government Minister, Dame Helen Ghosh had been the permanent secretary at DEFRA for five and a half years. She made it very clear early on that she wanted to move. There was a lot of churn amongst permanent secretaries. I do not know exactly how many moved in the first year, but it is getting on for 10. So you would not want to miss the boat if you were looking to move to another Department. I understood that, and I asked her to remain for a bit so that a new Secretary of State, who had not been shadowing that brief in opposition, could benefit from the permanent secretary’s experience.

Q197 Chair: Did the new permanent secretary come from within the Department?

Mrs Spelman: No.

Q198 Chair: So you were two ingénues, if you like, running that Department.

Mrs Spelman: I can assure you that, 12 months into the job, in May 2011, by then of course the Secretary of State is fully on top of the brief.

Q199 Chair: Is it not odd that the Secretary of State knows more about the Department than the permanent secretary? What is the word "permanent" meant to mean?

Lord Adonis: That is a big problem at the moment. The turnover of permanent secretaries is far too high. The turnover of permanent secretaries at the moment is much higher than the turnover of Secretaries of State. It is quite a misnomer to describe what we have as a permanent Civil Service. It is an impermanent Civil Service, but it just happens to be politically neutral. It lacks key attributes of continuity and expertise, and that needs to be put right.

Q200 Lindsay Roy: Caroline, you said that you had an influence over the job specification. I assume that is the person’s spec, the job description and the criteria for selection. On what basis, therefore, can you veto?

Mrs Spelman: That is a good question. The general terms of reference are standard. You cannot influence the general terms of reference. You feed into the Cabinet Secretary what you regard as the attributes and skills of the job. What is interesting, and Ministers would tend to do this, is that they put a lot of emphasis on the ability of the permanent secretary to deliver the Government’s agenda. Sometimes, the wider Civil Service puts emphasis on other skill sets. I cannot emphasise what a critical position it is. Particularly if it is a small Department, it is really important that the permanent secretary has influence around Whitehall. So there are several important skills, with different elements of balance depending on which Department you are trying to fill the vacancy for. That is where the Secretary of State has influence. For example, it would be absolutely no good, in my view, to have a permanent secretary candidate who did not care passionately about the environment. I am very pleased to say that the successful candidate did care passionately about the environment, despite coming from another Department. That is one of the ways in which the Secretary of State influences the job specification.

Q201 Lindsay Roy: Should that not be screened out in the criteria for selection?

Mrs Spelman: Why would you screen that out?

Lindsay Roy: Presumably, you set a number of criteria for selection, and what you are saying is that any one of these candidates could do the job effectively.

Mrs Spelman: You would be quite surprised. Certainly, in relation to public appointments, I was quite surprised how shortlisted candidates for my Department sometimes did not have very strong green credentials.

Q202 Robert Halfon: What would you say were the biggest problems you faced from the Civil Service while you were in Government as Ministers?

Nick Herbert: There were a number of them. Andrew has touched on them, too.

Chair: You can say nice things, too, by the way.

Nick Herbert: I am going to. There is the question of skills and whether we always find the right skill sets in the Civil Service today, because I do not think we do. You are right, Chairman, that we should praise the quality of civil servants where they are delivering excellent advice and so on. It is wrong to view this debate through the prism of former or current Ministers attacking the Civil Service. That is not what it is about at all. It is quite proper to draw attention to the weaknesses in the system and the way it is constructed. A particular one I found was in the support around Ministers. I found, as a Minister, that it was a very lonely job in relation to the support I was getting. I did not think that that was sufficiently strong to enable me to drive two major reform programmes in Government in two different Departments. Sometimes, I felt that I had less support than I had in opposition. That was saying something, because in opposition we had the barest of support, but it was more focused support, which I felt was absent from the machine. I think there is a problem now in the recruitment of people to be private secretaries in Departments. A lot of high-flying civil servants do not want to do that job. The whole model of a private office is an antiquated model for what Ministers need to be able to drive and interrogate the system. It was the absence of policy advice to enable me to drive the system in the way I wanted to achieve reforms that held things up considerably.

Mrs Spelman: Unfortunately, that is not my experience, and the Committee is here to get different points of view. I had a very good experience of working with the Civil Service at DEFRA: they were very bright people; they were co-operative, constructive and impartial. We had what I would describe as very good alignment between Ministers and civil servants, which was crucial in the early days in reaching agreement on how we were going to save 30% of the running costs of the Department. They were very constructive in helping attain that target and recognising the political judgment of Ministers to deliver the final view as to what was doable and what was not doable.

The private office is the one over which we have more control, because you choose who works in your private office, and you are given a choice. It is incredibly important to have really good technical policy strength in the private office, and I think of many of the fast-track civil servants who chose to come and work in the private office, because it does give you that incredible insight into working at the top of Government. You have got to be prepared to do the long hours, the same long hours as the Ministers, sometimes.

I found that was a point of great strength, and in my time, together, we improved the processes of the private office to make sure that, perhaps where things had gone wrong, we learned the lessons and we put in the changes that made the difference. I have other observations, which I hope we will have the chance to give, about wider career development, but the private office is a very good place for civil servants to fast track their careers.

Q203 Chair: It used to be that you could not be a permanent secretary unless you had worked in a private office. It is not the case now. Should it be?

Nick Herbert: No, it is not the case. It is not the case now.

Chair: No, but should it be?

Nick Herbert: Sometimes, it is difficult to find candidates to work in private offices, because it is not necessarily an attractive place to be.

Q204 Robert Halfon: Going back to the problems, what are the actual difficulties that you faced and what could be done about them?

Lord Adonis: There are two difficulties I would highlight: I would return to this issue of turnover. The turnover of civil servants in senior positions is not related to the needs of the business; it is related to their promotion prospects and their own management of their own careers. They are servants of the state, and it should not be related to the needs of the business. For the best part of 10 years, I was managing the academies programme, which was one of the most significant things the Government was doing-a multi-billion pound programme. I had eight directors of the academy programme in that period; the two most able both left within a year in order to be promoted.

In one case, I sought to persuade the permanent secretary to allow them to remain in post and to be promoted in post; this was held to be impossible, because there were only a certain number of people who could be at each grade in Departments. I even took the unusual step of going to see the Cabinet Secretary, because I was so concerned about this. I was fighting to keep the civil servant who was being promoted into another Department in order to become a Director General, and was told by him that there was nothing he could do. As he put it to me, "My dear Andrew, I am only Head of the Civil Service; I do not manage it." There is a big, big problem in this respect.

The other big problem I would highlight is that although you have-and I entirely agree with Caroline-very able people, they are very poorly trained and their experience of the sectors in which they work is very poor, even in areas where they have the capacity to influence it. For example, it is not too much to expect that civil servants in education will acquire, as civil servants, a good working knowledge of the education world: they should have placements in schools; they should have placements in local authorities; they should become systematically school governors.

The hierarchy of the Department should foster this and provide the opportunities. It was the exception rather than the rule. Caroline said that after a year she was the person who knew most about what was going on at the top of her Department. I found, to my great concern, in education-it was also true in transport as it happens-that there were very few civil servants who spent any time on the front line or had any real understanding of what these services were like from the viewpoint of the citizen. That is not good enough and that needs to change.

Sir Nick Harvey: I found the civil servants I worked with to be of a very high calibre. I cannot comment on how they would compare with those of a generation earlier, simply because I was not there a generation earlier to see them. Given that we have had a couple of decades of economic boom and the opportunities available to people of high calibre have been many and varied, we are fortunate that we have continued to attract people of high calibre. I would make the same observation about military officers I worked with at the Ministry of Defence.

We have perhaps had less of a problem in defence than in other Departments, with people not having a commitment to defence. Most of the MoD civil servants, while they may have done short attachments outside of the Cabinet Office or the Treasury, see themselves very much as defence personnel and serve entire careers in the defence world. The difficulty that was most apparent in defence was in the area of commercial activity, particularly in procurement, where the Ministry of Defence spends vast sums of money procuring very sophisticated equipment and systems. The difficulty that Andrew has touched upon-of personnel rotating and moving too quickly-was very apparent there.

The defence procurement setup is detached from the main building and is based near Bristol, and is staffed, to a considerable extent, by civil servants on rotation and military personnel on rotation. Typically, the people that they would be dealing with from the private sector would be steeped in their business, have a great deal of commercial expertise-sharp-suited lawyers would turn up. The Civil Service is lacking the expertise that it needs to conduct those sorts of negotiations and manage those sorts of projects. In a sense, how could they be expected to have that sort of experience? We need in Government commercial expertise, which in my view we can only obtain by bringing it in.

Mrs Spelman: Could I add to that? This is a very important point, and hopefully it is a constructive recommendation for the Committee, given that it is quite hard for civil servants to obtain promotion at the moment: you have been hearing how they have to move out of their Departments to get on up the ladder. As part of a fresh look at career development, we should be actively looking at civil servants seconding out into the private sector, acquiring the skills needed in the Department, or other Departments, but having the opportunity to come back at a higher grade that recognises the extra skills that they have acquired and are importing.

It is incredibly important on big project management. The House of Commons Library has a very interesting piece of research on the 700 PFI projects that the country has had in its history. Common themes emerge about the difficulties that Departments have in commissioning, monitoring, delivering and sometimes stopping these big projects. DEFRA is facing a big project on the new sewer for the Thames-the Thames Tunnel. There are very, very big sums of money and considerable risks attached, and it is the scale of project that it will perhaps do once in a generation. What you really need in the career development of civil servants is the opportunity, for the Departments that face big procurement, to second in or second out to acquire the skills necessary to do the job.

Q205 Robert Halfon: Were there times when the Civil Service acted as brakes on reforms that you were trying to enact?

Lord Adonis: Not brakes in the sense of providing ideological objection; I never had that experience, but plenty of brakes in the sense of just inadequate energy and drive. The state machine is not sufficiently revved up; this is a big problem in our system. Partly that is the responsibility of Ministers, who need to lead it in a dynamic way, but it is also that there is not this drive and dynamism. There is not this intense passion that there needs to be, and Caroline mentioned that it would be very difficult to be a decent civil servant in her Department unless you had some green sympathies. I imagine it is difficult in defence unless you believe in the defence of the realm and all that, but in too many of our Departments we do not have people who passionately believe in what they are doing. I do not think it is too much to expect that, if you are in the Education Department or the Transport Department, you should have some real interest and passion in what you are doing. At the moment, that is a bit hit and miss.

Nick Herbert: One of the brakes is not the attitude of civil servants, but the design of the system and particularly the fact that the system is in silos, so you have departmental silos. One of the things that take the most energy out of a process of trying to get a coherence of policy making and get things done is that the Departments have their own fiefdoms. I had experience of this, because I was a Minister in two Departments, which had been one, in relation to the Home Office and the MoJ, in trying to achieve a coherent approach to criminal justice efficiency. It is very difficult when civil servants are effectively answering to Ministers in different Departments and to a Secretary of State in different Departments. The whole system is set up for conflict.

I found, right from the beginning, that there was an interest in ensuring that departmentally we were defending territory, or defending what was read to be the Secretaries of States’ minds or determination. When you look at quite a lot of the problems that confront Governments of any colour now, they are the long-term problems that will require a policy response that crosses a number of Government Departments: the ageing of the population, the need to secure earlier intervention to stop people going wrong, and so on. That dislocation is one of the big obstacles to getting things done.

Q206 Chair: Surely, Cabinet Committees and the Cabinet Office are meant to breach that divide, bash heads together, and agree what Departments should be doing jointly and achieving jointly. Why does it not work?

Mrs Spelman: It kicks in at an earlier stage. You can only take a certain number of items through a Cabinet Committee. They are good. I must say, coming into Government, I knew more about other people’s policy than I ever knew in opposition as a result of the Cabinet Committees, because they do cross-cut. You are asked to read a policy in the making of one of the other Departments to get the buy-in of the different Departments, before the green light is pushed.

Where there is a big holdup is for sometimes quite small but nonetheless critical time-sensitive decisions for which you depend upon another Department to give you either some resource, if they are a bigger Department, or just clearance to go ahead. I thought fiefdom was quite an interesting term that popped out. The Home Office is a big and powerful Department: the big and powerful Departments are sometimes caught up on the big things they are doing.

Q207 Chair: Can you not push these things up to a Cabinet Committee level to get them resolved?

Mrs Spelman: They would not get on to the Cabinet Committee agenda if they are relatively small.

Q208 Chair: That seems to me very odd; that is what the Cabinet Office is for, is it not?

Lord Adonis: Very few problems in Government are resolved in Committees-very few. There is a formal structure, but that is not how business is done.

Q209 Chair: If it is not being resolved, is there not a system of elevating it?

Lord Adonis: It does need to be resolved; this is the reason why you need good permanent secretaries and good special advisers, and also good relations between Ministers.

Nick Herbert: It is an elective procedure. Caroline mentioned it is about clearance; you get policy clearance, and other Ministers might block things, so you have to have a discussion about whether they are going to block something or not. That is not what I mean: that is not collaborative working. That is the point at which a decision has to be cleared in order to secure agreement between two Ministers.

Q210 Chair: So it is about how to inject energy into some cross-departmental process?

Nick Herbert: Yes.

Q211 Chair: What is the answer?

Nick Herbert: Look again at the departmental structures.

Chair: Well, that is one answer.

Mrs Spelman: I would do performance management: find out which Departments are systematically holding up other Departments’ decisions, and make it more transparent.

Q212 Chair: It is something the Cabinet Office needs to scrutinise and look at, and manage.

Mrs Spelman: It is. The Cabinet Office needs to improve the communication from the centre out, and particularly look at the interactions between the different Departments in order to address where blockages occur.

Q213 Chair: Lord Adonis, you have served in the Cabinet Office?

Lord Adonis: No.

Chair: No, you have not-I beg your pardon.

Lord Adonis: I was a special adviser there, but no, I have not.

Q214 Chair: Do you agree that the Cabinet Office has got a role here that it does not currently fulfil?

Lord Adonis: I think it may have a role. In my experience, it all depends on having very good and able people around. This is why this personnel issue is so important.

Chair: So it is an execution problem?

Lord Adonis: The three groups who should be seriously oiling the wheels day in, day out are Ministers, special advisers-including special advisers in Number 10 and the Treasury, who play a crucial role in this-and permanent secretaries. Where they do work well together and they are of a high calibre, you have a wellfunctioning machine, and where they do not, you do not. The Committees cannot be a substitute.

Q215 Mr Reed: We were listening to a couple of very senior civil servants earlier, and now we are listening to former Ministers, and the concerns you have raised are all with the Civil Service. I wonder, too, whether there are areas where Ministers themselves could be performing better. Ministers, like the rest of us, are going to be of variable quality, and to what extent do Ministers have, or are supported to develop, the appropriate leadership skills to lead, win the support of and inspire complex teams of people-complex organisations?

Mrs Spelman: As with all of Parliament, there is no continuous professional development whatsoever. You are shoved in the deep end: if you swim, you swim, and if you sink, you sink. That is just how it is; you have to learn on the job. My experience is the civil servants are very good. They might have been quite surprised when we came into Government. We did not know what was required of Government Ministers; they had to show us exactly what was involved. That is not for want of trying to find out, but there is no interaction between the Civil Service and the Opposition. If parties are in opposition for a long time, you are going to have Government Ministers who do not have much experience of being in government.

That does not mean they are not quick learners. You learn very quickly, and you learn, both through the good things and the bad things, how to do it better. That is inevitably going to happen. I do not know whether this is true in all parties. I know that in opposition we had a sort of performance review procedure for all Members of Parliament; it is good practice. I did this as a Secretary of State: I would review with my junior Ministers, on a sixmonthly basis, how they were doing. It was a twoway process: how did they feel I was managing them, and how did they feel they were getting on with the job?

You can introduce relatively light-touch modern management procedures to help support Ministers in their job; that is part of the responsibility of the Secretary of State. You talk to civil servants about how to support Ministers in your Department, particularly if they have big challenging pieces of legislation to take through and they need a bit of unloading or loading-that is just part of good man management. I do not think the blockages are there. My experience was very often we would unblock a policy clearance by one-to-one conversation in the margins of Cabinet meetings. It would turn out that it was some misunderstanding down in the system, where, perhaps for historical reasons, the Department had had a certain view about this policy. I would go to Cabinet and say, "I am quite sure I can sort this out with the DECC Minister; after all, we are sister Departments."

Q216 Chair: Your officials should do this.

Mrs Spelman: They try.

Chair: Or they do not try?

Mrs Spelman: I think they do try. First of all, they will try to unblock it, and in the last analysis your Secretary of State would be required to unblock it. If the Secretaries of State, by talking to each other, cannot unblock it, they appeal to the Cabinet Office to try to arbitrate how the matter should be resolved.

Q217 Alun Cairns: Mrs Spelman, I want to try to pursue the blockages that you talked about, and the points you talked about, Mr Herbert. At what level of the Civil Service are the blockages, or are they at ministerial level? Do you have any inclination about the motivation behind some of the blockages when they are cross-cutting policies or cross-cutting projects?

Mrs Spelman: They occur at every level.

Alun Cairns: Including ministerial?

Mrs Spelman: The blockages may be quite justified in the sense that one Department wants to bring through a policy that would cost the other Department a lot of money; let us give that example. That is a perfectly legitimate reason for the civil servants in one Department to say to the other, "That would be really difficult to implement; you do not understand the costs attached." If you take BIS, BIS has to take account of what the costs are on business; quite a lot of what an environmental Department wants to do concerns regulation, so you are bound to get those kinds of tussles, and they have to be worked through. Usually, they can be resolved by civil servants talking to each other about finding a way around. If they cannot be resolved at civil-servant level, they come to the ministerial level, probably starting out at junior-ministerial level, to try to resolve it. If it cannot be resolved at that level, then the two Secretaries of State would sit down and try to sort it out.

Q218 Alun Cairns: Mr Herbert, have you got anything to add? Did you see the motivation, as in the examples Mrs Spelman has given, as relating to finance, or were there other areas of motivation?

Nick Herbert: No, I agree with Andrew. I rarely encountered what I thought was a wilful resistance to what I was asking for, because there was some ideological opposition, although sometimes in Departments there can be a sort of settled view that needs to be challenged. When I first became a Minister, I encountered some teams that were incredibly able and determined to help us get through the reform programme. It was harder where the agenda crossed between the two Departments, because there simply was not the cohesiveness of approach, and, indeed, there was a competition and a lack of desire to work together that made it very difficult to get the process moving at all.

In relation to criminal justice efficiency, it was only when the riots took place and the Prime Minister became interested in the performance of the criminal justice system that there was that impetus from the top to effect a change and the system was required to work together. All of the energy had been dissipated, because there was just this competition and the lack of willingness between the Departments to work together. All the time that was wasted in developing that programme over a couple of years is the kind of resistance that I am talking about. It is a resistance that is inbuilt in the system.

Q219 Alun Cairns: That competition and lack of willingness to work together, the resistance that was built up, was that to do with finance or was that for other reasons?

Nick Herbert: It is to do with whom people were answering to.

Sir Nick Harvey: I found occasionally, Chairman, that our Department and another Department would be at odds over some issue, and it could have run on for a very long time. Having a meeting with Ministers from both Departments and the critical officials from both Departments around the same table, essentially compelling the officials who had been at odds, perhaps because the Departments had different cultural views of whatever the subject was, would force them to play out the debate in front of the Ministers. The Ministers from the other Department and I would almost invariably instantly see it exactly the same way.

Q220 Alun Cairns: It is personality based?

Sir Nick Harvey: It has a cultural base, I would say. Different Departments look at the world in different ways, but when you forced them to debate it head to head and then gave them a political directive, one or other just had to fall in line.

Chair: That is marvellous: we have solved the problem of crossdepartmental working.

Lord Adonis: There is also an issue of getting things moving in a timely fashion. Government is not a business in the sense that there is a bottom line and you have got to report monthly profit figures, and all of that, which is what drives so much of the private sector. In my experience, Whitehall is often at its best in a crisis, because then things have to be done, and they have to be done that day. Where you are not dealing with a crisis, it can always wait until tomorrow, and often not just tomorrow but next week or next month.

One of the things I used to do on submissions was always not simply to give a response but to give a date by when I wanted the response to come back. I learned early on that if you did not do that, suddenly you say, "What happened to that? I asked for some further advice on X and Y; two months have passed and nothing has happened." You were given a load of waffle as to what had happened. The real reason it had not happened is there is not someone who gets up in the morning and says, "By five o’clock today, I am going to achieve X."

It should be, if they are properly trained, standard practice by Civil Service managers to see that this happens. There is a problem in respect of Ministers; part of the problem is partly because of the demands of Parliament, but also the way that Ministers structure their lives. It is important to be self-critical: too many Ministers are essentially part-time. They go off to their constituencies on Thursday lunchtime or evening; they come back, if we are lucky, by Monday lunchtime, and they essentially work a threeday week. I am not saying that they are not working hard; they are doing lots of other things, but they are not there managing their Department. Government is like any other activity: unless you are there doing the job, you cannot be surprised if the machine slightly goes AWOL. In my experience, part of the reason the machine goes AWOL is that the Ministers are part-time.

Mrs Spelman: I really must just come in on that. That is fine if you are not a constituency MP. The big difference is, as a constituency MP, if you neglect your electoral base, you will be voted out of office.

Lord Adonis: I do understand that.

Mrs Spelman: I used to have to fight to defend my constituency Fridays, which were seen as fair game in the diary in the Department, because there are things that you cannot visit on Saturday and Sunday: schools and businesses are not open. I used to find that going back to the West Midlands manufacturing heartland used to really ground me, and I used to get ground down by the red box arriving on Saturday morning, which meant eight hours of work: you could have been anywhere, but at least you got that different perspective.

I want to come back on something that Andrew said, because something changed after you were in Government. This inertia you were describing is sought to be addressed by having business plans overseen by the Cabinet Office with timelines. Although it is not a perfect tool, I would like to point out the benefit of this. When we came into Government, because we had formed a coalition, we could not just slap down on the table, "This is what we are going to do by when." It had to be negotiated between two parties, and that meant with the civil servants you were working through a shared agenda. The key question for them was, "By what time do you think we can deliver this? We have to put a date in the business plan." That business plan is reviewed quarterly by the Cabinet Office. You go along with your business plan, and if you have missed your target, you get red flagged and that is made public. The reason for the fretting when other Departments sit on a decision that your Department needs is you are going to miss the target, and you are going to get the black mark for missing the timeline on it because the other Department has not paid attention to your timeline. It is an improvement; it has injected a bit of a sense of the temporal importance of what we are doing. It is not perfect; there are still a lot of missed timelines, but it was an attempt to address that problem you described.

Nick Herbert: I agree that business plans help, but it nevertheless was true that quite often things would be done at the last moment; somebody had spotted that there was a deadline and things would arrive very quickly, and, as Minister, you were required to make an urgent decision. The urgency was not because of the nature of the event-some urgent matter had come up; it was because something had been sent to you at the last moment. I used to be irritated by that, because they were often things that required rather a considered view. The business plans were a help, but there is a management issue about the disciplines internally of getting things done in a timely fashion.

Q221 Lindsay Roy: Nick, you have said that you feel that the Civil Service is no longer fit for purpose, and you have questioned aspects of the quality of the Civil Service. We have heard detailed issues around blockages, around silos, around lack of motivation and around lack of detailed information about the operation of a Department. Can we get back to basics: what are the core tasks Ministers need from the Civil Service and how can they be delivered more effectively?

Nick Herbert: In so far as my comments about the service overall not being fit for purpose, they relate to a number of things, including the skill set. I do not think you have to look at the West Coast Mainline to recognise that there is a skills issue, particularly in relation to the ability to commission, procure and manage these large programmes. That does need to be addressed. I am going to go back to what is around Ministers, and the fact that there is effectively a monopoly of advice that is given to Ministers. One of the frustrations was that it is not possible to go to people who are experts, or to outsiders, other than to ask them for an informal view, because in the end people cannot support a Minister unless they are given privileged access-access to the papers.

The previous Government had more policy advisers around Ministers than we decided to have as Ministers. For some reason, we decided not to have those. I distinguish between those and special advisers. I think that Ministers are relatively unsupported in their ability to drive the system. That is why the system is no longer fit for purpose, because Ministers are too weak in the system, given all the accountability they have. If you look at other similar parliamentary democracies, far more support is given to Ministers, which is drawn partly from the Civil Service, if you look at Australia, for instance, or it is outside experts. Much more is built around Ministers to enable them to drive the system.

Q222 Lindsay Roy: Is one of the core tasks to make contact with specialists outwith the Civil Service?

Nick Herbert: Yes.

Lindsay Roy: To ensure people have the confidence to do that.

Nick Herbert: Yes, yes. We as a Government have made relatively few of those appointments. They were bound up in the overall number that was placed on advisers, or there was an attitude that just said, "We do not want these people." I am told that the system does allow outside advisers to be brought in, although they have to then be employed as civil servants, which may well be a constraint. I would certainly have benefited from having access to policy advisers who were working directly for me, so that I could interrogate the system better. It helps to fill the gaps that Ministers might have in their own knowledge or expertise, but also to bolster the support around Ministers. You can think of some very prominent advisers that have been brought in by previous Governments. I think of David Blunkett, as Education Secretary, bringing in Michael Barber early on. That made an enormous difference in the Department’s ability to get things done.

Q223 Chair: Do the rest of the panel share that view-that, in fact, it is about bolstering your private offices to give you more control over your Departments?

Mrs Spelman: I think there are different ways of doing it. For example, if I take one of the most difficult decisions, which was what to do about bovine TB and badgers, the monopoly-of-advice problem would be a real weakness there, given that the decision is so controversial. We tried this Cabinet Office approach of very intensive stakeholder engagement in the policy elaboration. So before the decision was made, before the policy was decided, we had 23 separate stakeholder meetings, exploring from lots of different people’s points of view what would be the solution to the problem.

It certainly gets away from the monopoly of, "You must do this, because this is what it says." It is quite time-consuming, as you can imagine-23 meetings for the Secretary of State-but worthwhile in having more confidence. It does not work very well in the "up against the deadline" scenario-of course it does not-but when it is particularly difficult, attempting to bring people into that interactive policy formation is a good and transparent way of Government working, if you give it the time.

Sir Nick Harvey: There is a problem that consultants have now got a dirty name, and you get tabloid stories about what the Government is spending on consultants in a time of austerity and so on. But that is one obvious way of augmenting the expertise of the Civil Service. The trouble is if you want, as I cited earlier, commercial expertise or you want scientific expertise, or you want subject-matter experts of one sort or another, and you are compelling them to come into the Civil Service, albeit perhaps on an interim basis, and accept Civil Service terms and conditions by comparison with what they may be accustomed to in the private sector, you are making it unnecessarily difficult. Although the idea of boosting private offices with policy advisers may get you some of the way, getting access to genuine experts, and allowing them to get into the heart of the Department to render that advice, is equally rather important.

Q224 Chair: Lord Adonis, this brings us to the West Coast Mainline question. That was an expertise problem, was it not?

Lord Adonis: On Nick’s point about consultants, this merits real consideration. While Government needs to be able to call on the best expertise, the routine use of consultants has, to a substantial extent, deprofessionalised the Civil Service. You can reach for McKinsey or whomever, and therefore you do not need to inculcate financial management, project management and other skills in civil servants.

Frankly, we are recruiting the cream. I completely agree with what colleagues have said about the quality of the people who are recruited at 21. The difference is if you compare what happens to them when they are taken on as Civil Service fast-streamers with what happens to them in Boston Consulting Group, in McKinsey or in other organisations that do policy and management in a serious way, it does not bear comparison at all.

You need to seriously invest in the skills and capacity of civil servants from the moment that they start as fast-streamers, so you do not have this routine search for the consultant who can simply do the job that civil servants are doing. However, you do need to constantly refresh the Civil Service and bring in people who have got real-time experience of, for example, commercial management, which you desperately need.

On the West Coast, because I had difficult problems with rail franchises when I was Secretary of State, I had to cling for dear life to the very small number of senior civil servants I had who had actually been engaged in the management of train companies. These were crucially important people to me, including one in particular who was essentially my commercial director, who had run a train company. He retired shortly after the election; he was not properly replaced. They had the ban on consultants, too, and they had not been bringing people in. They were essentially flying blind in dealing with the West Coast Mainline. That is no way for the state to manage its operations.

Q225 Chair: The corollary of that is the Civil Service is going to have to address the salaries question to attract these sorts of people back to the Civil Service.

Lord Adonis: There is an issue about salaries when you are recruiting people in, but training your existing stock of civil servants very well from the moment they start is not a salary issue.

Q226 Chair: If you train them very well and you second them to the private sector to give them experience, they are going to be more likely to leave.

Lord Adonis: I do not buy that at all. That is a counsel of despair.

Q227 Chair: It is not a counsel of despair; it is reality.

Lord Adonis: You will lose some of them, but you will attract some in. The fact of the matter is that, for the most part, the jobs you do in the Civil Service are 10 times more interesting than the jobs you do outside.

Chair: I am absolutely convinced you are right about that.

Lord Adonis: To argue that we should not invest in properly training them, because they might go elsewhere, is precisely what is wrong with the country at large in terms of training.

Q228 Chair: I am not arguing that, but surely if we train them to a higher proficiency and give them exposure in the private sector so they are more marketable outside, you will not tell me that fewer are going to leave?

Lord Adonis: I certainly would think it is a good thing to start training them properly.

Chair: You are avoiding my question.

Q229 Alun Cairns: I think we are missing the point, because I am trying to reconcile what Lord Adonis has said with what Mrs Spelman said earlier on, in relation to the Thames sewage PFI project, which was a once-in-a-generation model. These PFI and business models will change on an ongoing basis, so it is not merely about upskilling civil servants to deal with today’s model. It will be completely different in 10 years’ time, when there is a completely different model. I am trying to find a common ground between you that is not there at the moment.

Lord Adonis: There is common ground. You need to train your existing civil servants properly, much better than we do at the moment, and you also need to refresh the Civil Service by bringing in people with relevant frontline experience, whether it be commercial or sectoral. I think these two need to go together.

Q230 Alun Cairns: Is it not far more efficient to employ a consultant, as was suggested by Sir Nick Harvey earlier, to deal with the projects under consideration-be it a West Coast Mainline or be it the Thames project that we talked about-because that is the model that is under consideration, rather than upskilling someone on something today, when in five years’ time the model will be very different?

Mrs Spelman: Yes, but you could systematically move people around the Civil Service. We had a ban on consultants, so I do not know what it was like to have any consultants in the Department; we just did not have them. We had to find other solutions. The permanent secretary appointed to DEFRA is the one with the skill of delivering a big project at the Department for Transport. That was my point about having much more of a career development plan for these bright civil servants to move from Department to Department, to gather the expertise, and systematically think, "DEFRA has got this big project coming up. Which of the other Departments are concerned?"

Chair: But it does not work, does it?

Lord Adonis: You have just heard what happened to one of the senior civil servants that should have been managing the West Coast Mainline: they moved Departments. You have just heard the story; this is the problem of what happens across Whitehall the whole time. Somebody who was deeply skilled in managing projects in the DfT suddenly, at a few weeks’ notice, goes off to another Department.

Q231 Chair: This point about revolving the civil servants horizontally across Departments actually denudes the service of expertise, does it not? The MoD is in a fortunate position, because that does not happen very much, but other Departments suffer as a result of this career structure.

Mrs Spelman: I think that is far too negative. I saw, with the arrival of the permanent secretary, it was very insightful to hear about the different culture and issues within DfT, and to learn DfT’s perspective on Whitehall: it was beneficial. The plundering of Departments for talented people cuts both ways. We lost good people to other Departments. It happens.

What is poor is succession planning. If you have got people in key roles, what is not given thought to is, "If this person leaves tomorrow, who within this Department will take that job on and be up to speed pretty much instantly?" I do not see that happening. There is a big gap. I lost a director of communications, a head of news and a permanent secretary, all through a very, very difficult period for the Department. They go to other Departments.

Q232 Chair: Do you all agree churn is a problem?

Lord Adonis: A huge problem.

Q233 Lindsay Roy: Lord Adonis, did you see a positive difference in the quality and efficiency of the Civil Service between the time you joined the Number 10 Policy Unit and 2010, when you left?

Lord Adonis: I do not think I really noticed any difference at all, no. Do you mean in the calibre of civil servants?

Lindsay Roy: The calibre, the collaboration, the strategic policy development?

Lord Adonis: No. About the same at the end; about the same at the beginning-the same strengths and weaknesses, I would say.

Q234 Lindsay Roy: Why was that?

Lord Adonis: I suppose, being selfcritical, we did not do enough to reform it, but equally it did not reform itself. The Civil Service is not very good at reforming itself.

Q235 Chair: Some Ministers have complained about a collapse in the standard of grammar and punctuation in letters?

Lord Adonis: Is that not what the old say about the young from time immemorial?

Q236 Lindsay Roy: Are you saying that there was no robust self-evaluation?

Lord Adonis: No.

Lindsay Roy: There was not?

Lord Adonis: No.

Q237 Lindsay Roy: Is there now?

Lord Adonis: I defer to my colleague.

Mrs Spelman: Evaluation of what?

Lindsay Roy: Performance.

Mrs Spelman: Yes, you are asked. It is 360 degrees, so it is seniors, peers, subordinates.

Lord Adonis: What, for Ministers or for civil servants?

Mrs Spelman: Civil servants.

Q238 Lindsay Roy: Is it robust?

Mrs Spelman: I think the answer to that is it depends how truthful you are prepared to be when you are asked a question about people who work for you-it depends on this willingness. Any 360-degree appraisal depends for its quality on the willingness of the participants to be honest in giving their answers, so you get a true picture all round of this individual’s strengths and weaknesses. What I do not see very well is the buttressing of strengths and weaknesses. Having identified areas of weakness, I would like to hear a bit more systematically about the backfilling. Again, if we are honest about ourselves, we will know what our own strengths and weaknesses are. There is no systematic support for the areas where you know you could do with more help. It is crazy not to provide that; in the private sector, you would have those areas addressed more effectively.

There is one thing I did want to say.

Chair: Very briefly.

Mrs Spelman: Very briefly. I do enjoy watching the Committee Members all using their iPads. I do think something that would be helpful in terms of modernising the service would be embracing the digital age. A huge amount of paper flows around continuously, and I challenge this paper load, because it can sometimes feel like a device that controls the Minister’s day. The boxes arrive at night when you are tired, because it is the end of the Civil Service day, but you are making decisions at a time when you are not at your best. Obviously, I said you could have eight hours’ paperwork at the weekend. The Australian Government is digital, and the excuse that we could not do it because of security I do not think addresses the question, because papers get lost.

Q239 Chair: Ministerial submissions have got longer and longer and longer. Do you ever send them back saying, "This is far too long."

Mrs Spelman: I always say, "I will not read more than one page, so make sure it is all on one side of A4."

Chair: Do we agree with that?

Nick Herbert: Yes. I think that the failure to move to the digital age is rather symptomatic. Submissions were sent to my private office by e-mail, within the Department, and then printed off into hard copy. Once they are printed off to heavy hard copy, they have to be moved about; that requires cars, but we did not have cars. Quite often, I would be over in the House of Commons late at night and receive a message to say, "Minister, your box is in your office," by which they meant the office in the Home Office. By some alchemy overnight I was meant to tackle that work.

There was an absurdity in the whole thing of constantly having to move this paper around, only it was not moved around, I found, and that was a big problem. When I asked if it would be possible to work by iPad, which is how everybody works now, I was told that would not be possible, because the Chinese were listening in to my iPad. I do not think the Chinese were terribly interested in police reform, but they apparently were listening in. It would have been possible to have a huge, huge outdated Home Office laptop; I did not want a Home Office laptop; I wanted to work on an iPad that I could carry around. The clunkiness of the system is deeply revealing.

Q240 Mr Reed: There is just as much here; you just cannot see it piling up, which is one of the problems.

You variously expressed frustration with the ways that different Departments fail to co-ordinate. Is it your view that the federal system of individual Departments cannot be made to work effectively and do we need something different, like a stronger centre or a move to a project-management approach?

Nick Herbert: I certainly think we should investigate the project management approach, because some of the biggest challenges that face us in terms of societal problems are long-term problems that will need to be addressed by action across those Departments; they do not fall neatly into Departments. I fear that, as long as you have these silos, they will not be addressed very effectively.

Whether it is looking at a range of different solutions, whether it is that Ministers work together rather than in their own Department, and so you have the sense that Ministers crosscut more, or whether it is on the New Zealandtype model, where Departments are contracted to Ministers, and they all physically work together, it is worth exploring those different options, because the silo system is a big contributor to the problem of short-termism.

Lord Adonis: I am not much into machinery of Government changes. In my experience they are a massive, time-wasting distraction and there is nothing that the Civil Service machine likes more than devising new structures. I have been party to many of them in my time, and I cannot think of a single machinery of Government change that I have been a party to that has improved the operation of the machine, whereas every single one of them has been hugely draining of time and energy.

The Civil Service and, indeed, Ministers, to be fair, when you have got a Government lasting more than one term, particularly like doing them at the beginning of a new term, because this is when you get your shiny new Departments and your shiny new interdepartmental taskforce, or whatever it is called, working. That wastes a colossal amount of time at the point at which you have most capacity to act, which is immediately after an election. The best thing this Government did at the beginning of this term, which the coalition obliged, was not engage in a great game of departmental reorganisation. They then rapidly wasted that continuity they could have had: all of the senior civil servants then went and retired or moved anyway, so you had this massive change of permanent secretaries.

By not engaging in this great game of musical chairs, you have the opportunity for continuity and drive. Steve, you know only too well from local government that, as soon as you engage in a great game of local government reorganisation and merging councils and all of that, basically nothing happens until it is completed. It is exactly the same in Government.

Nick Herbert: That is implying that all I am arguing for is a merge of Departments, and so on, and I agree about that; I think there was too much of that under the previous Government. I am talking about a rather more fundamental restructuring of accountabilities and so on. Just to say that it is not possible because it is disruptive in the short term is not to investigate properly whether we need a different system.

Q241 Mr Reed: Andrew, earlier on you made an interesting comment I thought: that there is little understanding of the viewpoint of the citizen. Do you not see any fault in that that can be laid on the nature of siloed, top-down delivery structures?

Lord Adonis: If you are saying: do we centralise too much; is our system of Government too centralised? Yes. Clearly that is a big issue. You have got decisions on the Western bypass in Newcastle taken in London by the Department for Transport. That is not a great starting point for being responsive to the front line. However, even with our current system it is perfectly possible for civil servants, if they are properly managed and trained, to have much better experience-and for it to be part of their routine training and the way that their careers are developed and so on-and more intense experience of the world outside Whitehall than they have at the moment.

Q242 Mr Reed: Could we hear what the other two Members think about this?

Mrs Spelman: Something that is incredibly important to ensuring that the civil servants at the centre stay connected is to bring them together with the stakeholders on a regular basis, and then ask the stakeholders how they find the relationship with the Department. DEFRA systematically does that. It has a lot of very big stakeholders, like the National Trust, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trust-loads of people that they represent-and being forced to meet with them on a regular basis does help you stay attuned to what people outside the Civil Service are thinking, and then face up to their appraisal of you.

What is interesting is stakeholders said they felt well listened to by DEFRA, but not very well listened to by other Departments. I dug into this a bit, and an interesting fact emerges-that our stakeholders were being fobbed off by other Departments. They would say, "Your sponsoring Department is DEFRA; we do not need to engage with you." I said to our stakeholders, "Do not take that. You go back into BIS and say, ‘We really must talk to you about the implications of this regulatory change.’ Go and talk to DCLG and say, ‘The planning reform has a huge impact on the landscape scale management of the countryside.’ The silo mentality is not mirrored by this Department. These are these Department stakeholders; there does not need to be any other engagement." You need to break that up a bit.

Q243 Mr Reed: Did that lead you to conclude that the siloed nature of individual Departments can be managed better, or that it needs to be removed and replaced with a different structure?

Mrs Spelman: I am not a fan of machinery of Government change either, because most reorganisations never save money and cause massive disruption. Funnily enough, things were very often unblocked when real human beings with accountability met with the others with real accountability, and sorted it out. If you could replicate the opportunities that Ministers have to unblock blockages more effectively at the civil servant level, it might get the decisions flowing a little bit better between Departments.

Sir Nick Harvey: I share the instinct of Andrew that wholesale change of the architecture of Whitehall would not really help here. There are problems with the silo system, but I fear that if we opted for something else radically different and completely unfamiliar, we might descend into complete chaos. We are far too centralised; I agree with Andrew on that. Quite often, politicians are able to bang heads together and make things happen. I would like to see the Civil Service’s relationship with Parliament changed, loosened and opened up.

I remember when I was working in the City I was very accustomed to looking in the Civil Service Year Book, finding out who the civil servant responsible for something was, picking the phone up and having a chat with them. When I arrived in Parliament, I discovered that you could not do this; they could see that the telephone you were ringing on was in the Department, so I would have to go back to my flat and pretend to be a postgraduate research student in order to find anything out. We really do need to try to break some of that down, and that would be helpful in casting light in from the outside world and helping stakeholders of the sort that Caroline is talking about find their way in as well.

Q244 Kelvin Hopkins: You have talked a lot about decisions being blocked, but the Minister of the Cabinet Office has been much blunter; you have been very polite about it. He says that previous Governments and the present Government have experienced their decisions being blocked by permanent secretaries-just blocked. Has this happened to you? Caroline Spelman said that there was always a way of negotiating your way through these things, but have things been blocked by civil servants?

Lord Adonis: I never faced a situation where something I was seeking to do was blocked by a permanent secretary, no.

Q245 Kelvin Hopkins: Did civil servants always have the opportunity to put to you-I am sure you are reasonable people-a view that was contrary, or to say they thought you were making a mistake.

Mrs Spelman: Yes, constructive challenge. Yes, really important.

Kelvin Hopkins: To put it as an extreme case, speaking truth to power. Sometimes Ministers get a bee in their bonnet and it is actually wrong, and the civil servant has to say, "I am sorry, Minister, but you have got this wrong." Did you have that kind of relationship?

Mrs Spelman: Yes.

Q246 Kelvin Hopkins: That is good. It strikes me that one of the problems that has happened with the disappearance of all these skilled people is that, in an era of serious cuts in staffing, the people who are most likely to leave are the senior people: early retirement, big pension, they can go and get a job in the private sector. The most able and experienced people will leave, and you finish up with more junior people, less experienced people and people brought in from other Departments, who cannot do the job, and West Coast Mainline is an example.

Mrs Spelman: Obviously, you can block people going; you can block them taking voluntary redundancy. If you do not want to lose good people, you can prevent them from availing themselves of that. We did not have a great deal of it that I was aware of at DEFRA, because prudently the previous permanent secretary had frozen all the vacancies for 18 months before the change of Government, so it allowed them to manage the change, if you like. It did not happen in all Departments, but it meant that when you had to bring through the savings on running costs, which inevitably involve some savings in jobs, they had a greater degree of control over it.

As the Secretary of State, because you do not have line management responsibility for the people who work for you, the detail of who was going from where and what impact that might have did not come to me, which I found a bit frustrating. It is a very strange experience to go into a Department and be in charge, but not be in charge of the people who work for you: that is a very odd feeling. All of us as Ministers found that strange. We wanted to know more about what the impact was going to be on staff changes; we were very conscious that it was likely to hit morale. We wanted to counteract negativity by speaking to affected departments within the Department, so that we could try to provide constructive, positive leadership as the Ministers of the Department. You are held out of those day-to-day decisions.

Q247 Kelvin Hopkins: There is a question about the morale of civil servants as well; I do not know how that has changed over the years. Given that we have had successive Governments who do not essentially believe in the state and want to privatise everything, get everything out into another sector and minimise the role of the state, civil servants must feel that they are no longer trusted, and so on. When you privatise things, when you give things to PFI schemes that cost vast sums of money, the ability to manage those schemes is much reduced. In the past, they would have been within public sector organisations, which had a degree of accountability to Parliament-public corporations, for example. You mentioned the water project, which has apparently quadrupled in cost.

Mrs Spelman: We are going to have a different point of view, because of the ideological stance that we take.

Q248 Kelvin Hopkins: It is pragmatic; the fact is public money has been wasted.

Mrs Spelman: Whether it affects morale is an interesting question. There is a very clear view, and has been for some time, that the size of the state should shrink, and that quite often the private sector provides a service more efficiently and effectively than the state could. That is not a new argument. I do not think it is that that impinges on civil servants’ morale. I think their morale is affected in a number of ways, including obviously by pay and remuneration. If you cannot pay them more, and if you cannot promote them, that is going to affect their morale.

Also, very importantly, there is the public acknowledgement Ministers can give to the good job that they have done. I always said to my junior Ministers, "Do not forget to publicly praise the civil servants for the good things they have done, because we cannot pay them a great deal more at the moment and we cannot easily promote them, and to acknowledge when they have come up with a very good idea." The Flood Defence Partnership Scheme, which DEFRA introduced, was entirely the idea of the civil servants who run that section of the Department; it is a very good idea that stretches resources.

I do not know for sure, but I imagine that Ministers publicly pointing out that it came from the Civil Service is the kind of thing that lifts morale. Ministers need to look to praise the positive in public and be careful about criticising the negative in public. In leadership, if you are running an organisation and you blame the work force, you will find you hit the morale pretty hard.

Q249 Kelvin Hopkins: A final point is that there is a difference in the public sector and the private sector: it has been described as being four-dimensional rather than three-dimensional. The key is that they are driven by something else, called the public service ethos, while in the private sector you are not; you essentially are interested in the bottom line-making money. We have seen a situation where private-sector companies taking over what was previously done by the public sector are filling their boots at public expense. Civil servants are feeling, "If it was in the public sector, we would do it differently; we would do it in a more moral way," if you like.

Mrs Spelman: I have a nuance on that completely. To assume that everyone who works in the private sector is only doing it for the money impoverishes the job in turn.

Q250 Kelvin Hopkins: I am not blaming them, because that is their job.

Mrs Spelman: If you were in the private sector running a water company, you are motivated by providing a clean, safe and affordable water supply, and innovating. In the public sector, in the Civil Service, there is very clear evidence that people coming to work in the Civil Service come to work in the knowledge that they may not be as highly remunerated, but they come to work to serve their country knowing that their job is likely to be very interesting. Andrew said it was 10 times more interesting than the private sector; it depends on the job. It is acknowledging that public sector ethos is alive and well today, but there are significant things that need to change to make sure bright, capable young people continue to feel motivated to come into the Civil Service and have rewarding careers within it.

Q251 Chair: We have talked a bit about accountability already; Sir Nick described the business of trying to make civil servants more accountable. Do we think that the Armstrong memorandum is now out of date? Did it ever reflect the Haldane report, which suggested that civil servants should be accountable to Parliament through Select Committees? Do we have views on this?

Lord Adonis: They sort of are-are they not?-in that it is unusual for senior civil servants not to appear when they are asked to. I know there was this cause célèbre about the HMRC two years ago, and whether or not the head was going to appear, because the Minister did not want them to appear and all that. That looks, to me, to be the exception rather than the rule. The rule seems to be that senior civil servants do appear when they are asked to do so. The question is whether you need to formalise that so you give Select Committees a right to require senior civil servants who have clear responsibility for managing particular services to appear before them.

Q252 Chair: The question is: what are they obliged to say in front of a Select Committee? Are they the alter ego of the Minister, and they only give the line to take, or are they obliged to put on the table matters of fact and administration that might be inconvenient politically to the Minister to whom the Civil Service is responsible?

Lord Adonis: You can only have one Government at a time in terms of its accountability to Parliament.

Chair: Yes, but there can only be one set of facts.

Lord Adonis: This is the issue you come up against. If you are inviting senior civil servants to give their full and frank views where they are at variance with Government policy-

Q253 Chair: I am not asking them to give their political opinions or give their personal prejudices about Government policies, but we are requiring them to give the facts.

Lord Adonis: They should clearly give the facts, yes.

Q254 Chair: Sometimes, civil servants prevaricate about facts, because they know they are not in the line to take. That is not acceptable, is it?

Lord Adonis: They should clearly give facts, but their interpretation of facts and where they think that leads in policy terms clearly has to be constrained, to a greater or lesser extent, by what the Government is doing.

Mrs Spelman: It is very difficult; the reason I am struggling to answer is I am trying to think of an instance. I know that my former permanent secretary had to go and give evidence in front of a Select Committee about the RPA handling, and really all the handling of that IT system predated my arrival in the Department, so it made perfect sense. When we faced the inquisition of the Select Committee together-and that was more on the current issues that I had been involved in-I had a sense that we went into bat together, absolutely.

It is actually a very tough experience to face the bullets flying at you, especially over a difficult decision or something that has not gone well. That is why it is so important the Secretary of State has a say in who the permanent secretary will be, because when you go into bat together, you have got to be able to rely on each other in that situation. You need to give an honest account of what happened, but you are speaking for the Department together, because you took the decisions together.

Q255 Mr Reed: Caroline, you talked about Departmental boards?

Mrs Spelman: Supervisory boards?

Mr Reed: Yes.

Mrs Spelman: Yes, ours worked rather well.

Mr Reed: Yes, and the role that they played in the strategic working of your Department. Could you comment on the contribution that you feel they made?

Chair: Can I just say thank you to Mr Herbert, who has to leave for another appointment? We are just winding up.

Mrs Spelman: It took us a little while to work out how to make best use of the Supervisory Boards, because the Department previously had management board meetings, which were Ministers and managers together working through: it is how we got to the CSR money and so on. The supervisory boards introduced the non-executive directors to it, and they are supposed to provide a bit more of that constructive challenge within the Department.

First of all, you need good non-executive directors on it, with the skill-sets that are going to be complementary. Despite it being a buyers’ market in terms of public appointments, it sometimes can be quite hard to find good people, especially good people on IT; those are very hard to find. IT projects bedevil Government, as we know. We managed to find one of those.

We discovered the best way to get the constructive challenge was to take a deep dive on a policy issue on each one of these supervisory board meetings, and the external input was really good on those occasions. It requires a degree of openness, because you are showing to these external people some of the things that perhaps are not going so well, to take their advice on a matter. In principle, supervisory boards, certainly at DEFRA, proved their worth. They were hard to get going in the beginning, but once we got it going it provided an additional dimension.

Q256 Mr Reed: What was your role on the board?

Mrs Spelman: I chaired it.

Mr Reed: You chaired it?

Mrs Spelman: Absolutely.

Mr Reed: You were always there.

Mrs Spelman: I always chaired it.

Q257 Chair: Did your junior Ministers attend?

Mrs Spelman: Absolutely. We took it seriously, because if you are going to make something work, you have got to make it work. We met every two months; the frequency was about right, and the best thing of all, just before I left, was we had a really systematic full away day: a full eight-hour meeting. There was really great candour about the Department’s strengths and weaknesses. The reason why that happens is that it takes time for people to trust each other to say in public what is not so good. Until you can get to that point, it gets much harder to tackle the things that are not so good. I felt, in a funny sort of way, civil servants really enjoyed it, because there was an honesty, but in a supportive atmosphere, about what we really needed to improve.

Sir Nick Harvey: I thought the defence board really worked very well. It was chaired by the Defence Secretary; there were two Ministers, the Defence Secretary and me; three officials, the permanent secretary, the finance director and the Chief of Defence Matériel; the Chief of Defence Staff; the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff; and three external non-executive directors. It was kept small deliberately to make debates manageable. It met monthly, which gave the Department a very good drumbeat. It agreed a schedule of subjects for up to a year in advance, so everybody knew that they were working up a paper by the May defence board on whatever the subject was. The external assistance brought by the non-executives was of a very high value.

The other junior Ministers were peeved not to be there, and had I not been there I would have been peeved, too, but if you had had six of us there, it would have altered the balance of the board very significantly. It was a marked improvement on the previous board, which was chaired by the permanent secretary and had no Ministers on it; it became very much the premier decision-making body of the Department.

Lord Adonis: I entirely agree with that. In my day, we had a board. I never attended it. I was never invited to attend it, even though I was Secretary of State, and I had no idea who the Department’s non-executive directors were, although there were some non-executivedirectors. This is clearly no way to run an outfit. Having the Secretary of State chairing the board, having a direct relationship with the non-execs, is important in terms of developing really serious views on how the Department is doing for people who are not absolutely in the day-to-day management of it. It is a good and positive thing. I think this is a very worthwhile reform and it should be continued.

Q258 Mr Reed: It is interesting to contrast the very positive way that you are speaking about these boards with some of the very negative comments we had from some of the people who had served as non-executive directors, who found the operation of them and the nature of the business plans bore very little resemblance to their experience outside Government.

Mrs Spelman: They are still comparatively new. They have been up and running two years, I should think. A lot depends on whether people want to make it work or not, so it depends on whether you are talking to the people who want to make it work or the ones who are not so keen on making it work. I would read it through that prism. The advantages are over time that you build up a really good source of good counsel and expertise. If you stop and think about various innovations the Cabinet Office have made, you have to say they have brought in some positive changes to improve the working of Government, and they deserve the credit for that.

Lord Adonis: Have you called Lord Browne of Madingley, because he is the senior nonexecutive director, and he clearly has played a key role in this? Both of these propositions can be true: there has been a big improvement in terms of how Ministers see them, but there are still big weaknesses that non-execs have identified.

Mr Reed: I suspect that is the conclusion we may well draw. Thank you very much.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed. We have had a very, very intensive and full session, and your four perspectives have been very, very interesting, and there is a remarkable degree of unanimity on some of the issues. Thank you very much indeed for your time. If you have any further comments you wish to add in retrospect, please do send them in in writing and we will take those as evidence. Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 5th September 2013