Public Administration Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 74

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Committee

on Wednesday 20 March 2013

Members present:

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)

Alun Cairns

Paul Flynn

Priti Patel

Steve Reed

Lindsay Roy


Examination of Witness

Witness: Rt Hon Mr Jack Straw MP gave evidence.

Q673 Chair: Welcome to this session on the future of the Civil Service. Could you identify yourself for the record, please?

Mr Straw: Jack Straw, Member of Parliament for Blackburn.

Q674 Chair: Thank you very much for braving the picket lines to be with us today. I wonder if I could ask you to start by saying something in general. There has been an awful lot of noise about the Civil Service-the dysfunctionality of the Civil Service. Peter Hennessy somewhat explains it as what happens on cue two years into a new Government, when everything is not going quite as smoothly as Ministers would want. First of all they blame the press, and then they blame the Civil Service. To what extent do you think this is beyond the usual noise, and how serious is it?

Mr Straw: I am broadly in the same camp as Peter Hennessy. It is very hard to say whether it is more serious than in the past. Certainly, thinking back over 50 years, there has been a regular drumbeat of concern about the Civil Service, particularly by incoming Governments, and particularly by Ministers who may have been very experienced at parliamentary and party politics, but who had no particular experience as Ministers. What I am concerned with is this: I think there are quite important changes that could be brought in to make the Civil Service more effective. I suggest some of them in the letter that I wrote to you, Mr Chairman. However, I think it is really important that everybody recognises that we have in this country a pretty high quality public administration, which includes a Civil Service-both those who serve in Whitehall and those who serve across the country-who in comparative terms with other countries have very high standards. These standards are fundamentally of integrity, probity and values, but also just in terms of efficiency.

One of the things I recognised when I was Foreign Secretary is that what distinguishes one country from another is not just whether they tick the box on democracy and things like that, but whether they have a public administration that people can rely on and that deals with citizens fairly, without fear or favour. We have that, and it would be disastrous for the country if we were to lose it.

Going back to your question, there are probably two extra factors that have made things more difficult for the relationship between Ministers and the Civil Service. One is the consequence of coalition, and my guess-this is only a guess, and I have absolutely no provenance for it-is that given that those who are attracted to the Civil Service are people who do not, on the whole, have strongly partisan political views; they are likely to be more empathetic to the party in the middle, namely the Liberal Democrats, than they are to the Conservatives or indeed were to us.

Q675 Chair: Hence Gus O’Donnell’s enthusiasm for forming a coalition.

Mr Straw: I would not accuse him of enthusiasm. Let me say that having witnessed from a ringside seat the hand-to-mouth existence of the 1974 to 1979 Government-because I was a special adviser in that Government-I think we owe Gus a great vote of thanks for the fact that he thought about the prospect of a hung Parliament, and tried to make sure it worked. The hand-to-mouth existence that many of us witnessed-and as colleagues will know if they have seen "This House", actually killed a number of Members of Parliament-was not a satisfactory way to run a Government.

The second factor is the pressure on the budgets of the Civil Service. Part of the agenda, particularly of the Conservative part of the coalition, is to say there has been a considerable amount of waste within the Civil Service, and therefore the Civil Service has to be slimmed down. Now, that is an unusual circumstance, and it builds into a third factor I should have mentioned. I think there was a sense, particularly amongst Conservative Members, that somehow over the 13 years we were in Government, the Civil Service had gone native for the Labour Party-now, let me tell you, it was not true-just as, when we came in, there were people in the Labour Party who kept muttering that the Civil Service had become clones of the Conservative Party over the 18 years, which again was not true. However, I think that is part of it.

Q676 Chair: The first paragraph of your evidence talks about this natural tension between the two objectives, which is that civil servants tend to consider themselves impartial and thinking about the long term, while politicians come in and have more radical ideas, but they tend to be short term, and there is inbuilt tension. In all the work we have done on strategic thinking in Government, and lack thereof, we have been told that unless the leadership is hungry for strategy and the long-term perspective, you cannot really expect the civil servants to provide it. In fact, what seems to have happened is that as the horizons of politics have become more and more pressured and 24/7, with global technology and everything moving faster and faster, the whole system has become more bogged down with short-term and immediate concerns, and less and less capable of thinking about the long term. Yet in the increasingly chaotic context in which Government has to operate, the necessity to hang on to a long-term perspective becomes all the more important. Actually, if I think about it, the big changes in politics have been made by politicians who have been thinking very long term: Margaret Thatcher in particular, and Tony Blair in other respects. Can I challenge the idea that the Civil Service can be the guardians of the long term, allowing the politicians to indulge in the short term? I am caricaturing what you said, of course, but that does not seem to be a settlement that is likely to produce very good government.

Mr Straw: What you say, Mr Chairman, and what I was saying in the letter are consistent. I was simply talking about the fact that the kind of people you get in the Civil Service and the nature of their careers gives them longer term horizons for what they are doing than Ministers have. I do not disagree with you at all; if you want strategic thinking in government, it has to come from the top of the political leadership. I think what distinguished Prime Ministers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair from some others was their ability to see further beyond the horizon than anybody else. Leadership is about getting people’s commitment to be led into the unknown. They were able to do that, with considerable success, in a way that some other Prime Ministers who were consumed with the day to day were not. I agree with that, and I make the point in section three: "It’s weak Ministers who blame their officials." The whole of the system is designed to operate to commands from strong Ministers, a strong Cabinet, and above all, a strong Prime Minister. That is what officials want.

Q677 Chair: So you corroborate what we have heard in previous sessions, which is that in fact the problem that Governments tend to feel with the Civil Service-I use it in the plural, but this Government in particular-is actually a problem of the Government as a whole. It includes Ministers. Ministers are part of the problem if there is a problem with the Civil Service.

Mr Straw: This is a parliamentary democracy. I do not think you would find a single civil servant who will suggest that they, the civil servants, should be the people making the decisions. We do not have a deep state that is separated from the democratic institutions, which is the case in some countries in Europe, and still more in other countries. The whole system is designed to operate to Ministers. Indeed, in Departments like the Home Office, and certainly when I was there, there was a stunning degree of deference to the Home Secretary. I used to describe it as "Home Secretary worship" sometimes, which I found frightening. I did not want my off-the-cuff remarks or early morning rants to be taken as holy writ. Sometimes they were.

Chair: Who shall rid me of this turbulent priest?

Mr Straw: Well, indeed, and still more in the Foreign Office. Can I come back to this issue of timescales? I think that there is an opportunity with fixed-term Parliaments to get longer horizons into politics. We are now attuned to the idea that Parliaments are going to last for five years. Five years is a long period, and that settles people. However, it requires some crucial decisions by the Prime Minister, and that is to keep Ministers in post for as long as possible. Mr Cameron has been much better than Mr Blair or Mr Brown were, but in my book I quote data, which I got from the statisticians at the House of Commons Library, about the turnover of Ministers in the 13 years from 1997 to 2010. There were 771 changes of Minister over those 13 years. The median term of office for a Minister was 1.3 years. Now, there were some exceptions, of whom I was one. I effectively did two jobs, foreign policy and home affairs, but that was very unusual.

That leads to a serious de-skilling. It also means that officials become cynical about politics and the political leadership, and cynical about the degree to which the Prime Minister of the day is committed to reform programmes and to moving forward. I am not just talking about some lowly Parliamentary Secretary whose ultimate job is simply signing lots of correspondence to MPs and appearing in adjournment debates, although those are both important. I am talking about Secretaries of State. The turnover has happened under this Government as well, for example in the Department for Transport. It is really serious.

Q678 Chair: Isn’t the fundamental problem in Government, when things start going wrong, one of leadership?

Mr Straw: Yes.

Chair: Either the leadership has not wanted to hear the necessary information, or it has not engaged and brought on board the civil servants who are going to be responsible for implementing the policy. We find that most things come down to leadership, governance and a lack of trust.

Mr Straw: Leadership is really important, but also ministerial skills. It is accidental whether somebody appointed to be a Minister is capable of doing that job as opposed to doing the parliamentary job. It is completely accidental. If you are suddenly appointed to Secretary of State, you are running a big organisation. Mr Blair made some efforts to improve training, but they fell away.

Q679 Chair: Bluntly, Ministers should stop blaming their civil servants?

Mr Straw: From time to time, particularly in Departments like the Home Office, things go wrong, and it is officials-the individual official or officials-who have messed up, but sensible Ministers accept that they are responsible. Nobody in the House of Commons is going to say, "It was you, Theresa May or J. Straw, who left that cell door open," but they will want to know whether the framework you established allowed for slackness within the system or whether it was just one human aberration, and that is very important. As I say, it is weak Ministers who blame officials.

Q680 Paul Flynn: I think it is fine to paint a picture of Prime Ministers in their messianic moods, when they become visionary and look over the horizon, but what is the role of the civil servants when Prime Ministers become infantilised, and start promoting Back to Basics, the Cones Hotline, the Third Way or the Big Society? Don’t they have a duty then to introduce some stability and moderation in completing decisions that are wheezes by Prime Ministers that are here today and where tomorrow?

Mr Straw: No, not unless, Mr Flynn, you want to create a deep state that has authority under our constitution that is distinct from that of Parliament.

Q681 Paul Flynn: In the evidence we have had, and I think yours was among the most valuable we have seen-the documents you produced-because of your great experience, is that the tension is there, with politicians on the make for a quick headline, particularly now, with 24-hour news. They constantly want this drip of adulation from the daily press, and they go for short-term issues. That is what we are going to hear this afternoon; I am sure we would hear it from Labour Chancellors as well. The role of the civil servants is to act as levers that are rubber levers. When politicians sometimes pull them, nothing happens. In retrospect, it is often beneficial to the national interest.

Mr Straw: I do not believe-just to paraphrase and maybe parody what you are saying, Mr Flynn-that it is the job of the Civil Service to undermine or to sabotage what the political leadership, the Government, are there for. It will not work. Going through your list, what John Major was proposing in Back to Basics was, in my view, ill thought through. If you read his memoirs, what he intended and what actually happened were two distinct things, but that is what Prime Ministers are going to want to do.

Q682 Paul Flynn: The Cones Hotline?

Mr Straw: My guess about the Cones Hotline is that it came from the Department of Transport. They probably thought it was good idea.

Q683 Paul Flynn: The Third Way? What happened there?

Mr Straw: The Third Way was entirely a party political idea. The civil servants had no business, and neither should they, in trying to interfere in that. It was Mr Blair’s idea of triangulation. I never quite understood it myself. As for the Big Society, there is nothing wrong with the idea of a Big Society. We are all in favour of a Big Society. If you want Prime Ministers, and indeed the senior politicians in a Government, to be able to see beyond the horizon, to try to spot the challenges facing the country-not tomorrow but in the future- then they are going to try to encapsulate them in a single phrase. ’Twas ever thus. That is not just a function of 24/7 politics, but of democratic politics.

Q684 Paul Flynn: What we know from politics, and the visionary politics that you mentioned, is that the future is always certain; it is the past that is always changing. You, to your credit, are saying the same things about the most important decision in my period in Parliament and possibly your period in Parliament: you have stuck to what you believed in 2003. Wouldn’t it have been helpful for the country generally if we had had a peace party in the Civil Service who were saying to Tony Blair, "Don’t go into Bush’s war"?

Mr Straw: There were officials who did indeed say that, and there was a pretty high degree of scepticism amongst some parts of the Foreign Office, for example, against it. It is a matter of public record that one of the senior legal advisers in the Foreign Office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, sufficiently disagreed with the position that Mr Blair and I were taking that she resigned, very honourably, and I have never criticised her for that. You cannot have public administration in a democracy unless it is ultimately loyal to the democratically elected Government regardless of the opinions of the officials. You cannot operate.

Q685 Paul Flynn: This is the final question. In fact, what Francis Maude is saying now is the same as always pattern: you blame the last lot, you blame the European Union, you blame the civil servants, you blame the press, and eventually you come round to deciding that the civil servants are the ones that are really gluing up the system. Francis Maude is complaining about it bitterly now. All of us are in the political process. There is a role for civil servants who delay actions by politicians, and an honourable role too.

Mr Straw: I do not accept that, I am sorry. I would not tolerate that. I will just repeat that if you want the kind of constitutional arrangements that existed in Turkey for some decades, where by the constitution they had a deep state that was distinct from the democratically elected national assembly that is fine.

Q686 Chair: The European Union, for example?

Mr Straw: Or the European Union. The European Union is in a sense reflective of an elitist view of how you should run a Government. Now, that is fine, Mr Flynn, but I am surprised that you should be adopting it.

Paul Flynn: I apologise for winding up the Chairman on this, who is likely to run amok.

Chair: Mr Flynn, I think I wind you up.

Mr Straw: I have not read Francis Maude’s evidence, but I know him pretty well. On some things I am on the same side as him, and on the issue of appointments of senior civil servants, or Permanent Secretary positions, as I set out in section five of my note, I think you have to allow the relevant Secretary of State with the Prime Minister to have a proper choice over Permanent Secretaries and the heads the NDPBs. As I say in my note, I know of no senior civil servant who would be willing to accept the restrictions on his or her discretion for appointments for which they were responsible that, for example, the Civil Service Commission are now saying that senior Ministers have to accept. I think it is narrow, self-defeating, and will not work.

Q687 Chair: We will come to the question of appointments later. I think it is interesting how in order to ensure an impartial public appointments system, we have rather tied ourselves in knots. I think the Government is trying to address that, but possibly not in the right way. Coming back to the question of what kind of challenge you expect from your officials, don’t they often challenge you about the wrong things? Elizabeth Wilmshurst was challenging you about legality when she was wrong. Who was challenging you about the likelihood of a sectarian war following the invasion? Who was telling you that there was going to be a massive Shi’a insurgency that the occupying forces were going to have to deal with? Did anybody challenge you on that?

Mr Straw: Mrs Wilmshurst was entitled to her views. I happen to think she was wrong.

Q688 Chair: So did the Attorney General.

Mr Straw: Importantly, so did the Attorney General. However, she was entitled to her view. She acted very honourably, and she decided to resign. There were plenty of people putting forward all sorts of position papers. Mr Chairman, these subjects have been examined in incredible detail by the Chilcot committee.

Q689 Paul Flynn: Which were not reported.

Mr Straw: I am very happy to talk about them, but the view of the officials in the Foreign Office, as it was in the Ministry of Defence, was that ultimately the decision was a political decision, and that is true. Of course they raised all sorts of issues, but they took the view that as long as they were in post as members of the diplomatic service or the defence staff, their duty was to serve their country, and through that the Government of the day. You cannot run a democracy in any other way. There is a separate issue about the aftermath, which was to do with catastrophic decisions made by part of the United States administration without the knowledge of the other part. I am very happy to talk about that.

Chair: Another time.

Q690 Lindsay Roy: Good morning, Mr Straw. There is a very interesting section on sub-optimal performance by Departments. You have spoken about the churn of Ministers. What evidence can you provide that the churn of officials leads to that sub-optimal performance and, indeed, to what extent does the churn of Ministers lead to that effect?

Mr Straw: There is a problem about churn of Ministers, both at Secretary of State level and at junior Minister level. We call them junior Ministers, but I have always felt it is a slightly pejorative term. There are some very junior Ministers whose effect on policy is not all that great, but big Departments and Ministers of State have a lot of responsibility. The churn is just too great. I have made that point, and personally I would like to see a rule that Ministers are appointed to a position for at least two years. Of course there would have to be provision for emergency resignations. You may get an emergency reshuffle through resignations or illness and so on, but that should be the norm. The way in which I saw reshuffles handled-I have witnessed them being handled in this administration-was pretty shambolic and without a care for good governance. That needs to change.

There is another problem, however, which I bring out in my note. If you are a Minister, you can develop a really good relationship with an official or set of officials, and suddenly, without being told, there is a meeting the following week. You look round the room, and the senior official you have been dealing with-or it might have been a middle-ranking one who was really good-has gone. You say, "Where’s so and so?" "They’ve been promoted," or "They’ve moved on. It’s all career development, Secretary of State." "Thank you very much."

On the converse, there are sometimes people-typically people who have managed, one way or another, to find a billet for some years-you know that they lack the imagination or the drive to deliver what you want, so you need to move them aside. Talk to any Minister from any Government, and they will complain about the churn of officials. That is something that the Cabinet Secretary, the Head of the Civil Service and Permanent Secretaries really need to think about much more carefully. Of course officials have a right to have their careers developed, but there needs to be much more flexibility.

Q691 Lindsay Roy: Are you saying that career development overrides Department efficiencies and effectiveness?

Mr Straw: Yes, it can do. Officials may not be in post for long enough, and that leads to sub-optimal performance.

Q692 Chair: Do you happen to know how many Permanent Secretaries who were in post at the time of the general election are still in post?

Mr Straw: It is a handful.

Q693 Chair: It is less than a handful; it is two. The Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport are on their third Permanent Secretary. It has been suggested that the word "permanent" be removed from their job titles, because they are changed more often than the Ministers.

Mr Straw: It is really not satisfactory. Some of these changes have been because the relationship has broken down between the Minister and the senior official. However, in many cases, it is just to do with churn stuff, and it is unsatisfactory.

Q694 Lindsay Roy: Where does the churn of Department officials sit on the scale of issues in relation to departmental performance? Are there other key issues in terms of skills or professional development?

Mr Straw: Quite high. Notwithstanding what I said about how it is only weak Ministers who blame officials, there is a normal distribution curve of talent and skill in the Department. If you are trying to drive something through in a particular area and you find that you have weak officials there, it is very hard indeed.

I will give you an example. I will be careful, because it is not fair on the individuals otherwise, so I will give two examples. When I got to the Home Office, I wanted to pursue a particular policy area that we had developed in opposition. It had not been a priority for the previous Government. That was their view. The result was that the Permanent Secretary put the officials in this unit because the area of work was not a priority for Michael Howard, so it did not matter that you had people who were performing at low revs. I got in there and said, "I want this as a priority." In the end, I had to say to Sir Richard Wilson, "Frankly, this is a big priority; I’ve got to deliver; you’ve got to change," and indeed he did.

When I got to the Ministry of Justice there were big problems in one area, and one of the senior officials had effectively been doing the same job in different guises for over 20 years. A consequence of this was that they formed all sorts of relationships-some of them not good-with the people they were dealing with outside. But there was a paralysis in relationships there, so I had to say to Alex Allan, "Let us just smooth away there." It can be run better.

Q695 Lindsay Roy: I note your proposal for appointments for a minimum of two years, but with the high turnover that is expected to come about with cuts and reduced numbers in the Civil Service, is further change not going to happen?

Mr Straw: Yes, this is certainly a particularly disruptive period in the Civil Service and public administration, and I understand that. However, for good or ill, the Departments will work through this. I do not want this to be quoted against me by Mr Jenkin, Ms Patel and Mr Cairns, but it will probably also be the case, at the end of this process of slimming down, that the Civil Service will be larger than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, or certainly at a senior level; I am not talking about the junior level.

Chair: That is an interesting question.

Mr Straw: In any event, you have big companies that slim down their headquarters and operate effectively. It is how people are used that is critical, not just numbers.

Q696 Chair: You have made a very interesting point. Are you suggesting that Whitehall is becoming top-heavy?

Mr Straw: No.

Q697 Chair: It is a very complicated wiring diagram around Whitehall.

Mr Straw: It is. I mean, it used to be. When I worked in the Department of Health and Social Security, there was a pyramid. There was a Permanent Secretary, deputy secretaries, under secretaries, assistant secretaries, principals, and then there were the executive grades and clerical grades, so it was an absolutely classic pyramid. That changed in the early 1980s, but these days it is complicated. I do not know what the numbers are, but my guess is that for senior grades, the numbers are probably higher than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Q698 Chair: We find that very interesting. More chiefs, fewer Indians. There are definitely fewer Indians.

Mr Straw: To some extent, in some areas there are going to be fewer Indians, as you call them, Mr Jenkin.

Chair: We are not allowed to say that any more. I apologise.

Mr Straw: I have 15,000 constituents of Indian heritage; they are wonderful people. The introduction of IT-for example, in big Departments like Revenue & Customs-is bound to lead to fewer people doing clerical jobs.

Chair: That is very interesting.

Q699 Mr Reed: That is quite a neat segue into this. Over time, any organisation tends to grow, assume more responsibilities and acquire more tasks for itself, unless it is prevented. If we are looking at Government Departments, what should their core functions be?

Mr Straw: These days the core function of the Home Office, which is a narrowly defined Department, is providing security for citizens and for the state; that is their focus. They should work through who is doing what in the Department. There are some elementary methods of doing it, but I do not think they are always followed through. In the old Department of Health and Social Security, in the days before IT, there was a distribution-of-business book. There was a big manual, and you could see who was doing what. That was also true in the Home Office when I first got there. When I got to the Foreign Office, I asked for a distribution-of-business manual, and I do not think I ever got it in the five years I was there. I was sure that there were people doing jobs, which no doubt were worthy and important to them, that really did not need to be done. We did not need that many people.

Q700 Mr Reed: Did you ever zero-base what the Department did?

Mr Straw: We tried to, but that runs into what the Chairman is saying. I have taken a very close interest in how you administer Departments. You wake up in the morning and think, "I’m going to have a pop at that," and then some crisis happens. It is literally a crisis, particularly in a Department like the Foreign Office or the Home Office, so you get diverted. Mr Reed, you had very distinguished service in local government before you came here. If I may say so, since I have been a resident of Lambeth for 34 years, I literally saw the transformation.

Mr Reed: You may say so, yes.

Paul Flynn: Several times.

Mr Straw: I have seen the transformation outside my front door, compared with the old days. What struck me with my local authority, Blackburn with Darwen, is that they faced horrific cuts. They are losing about a quarter-plus of their budget. They do not like it, and I do not like it, but they have had to act very intelligently and go through all their activities-the whole lot, all the jobs-and say, "Do we really need to do this job?" This includes socalled protected areas, for example, the protection of children. I have been helping them with that job. You may end up having to work with an acceptable level of risk.

If you delve deep in a Department, you find people and you think, "Why are they doing this?" I always used to take the public lifts in the Ministry of Justice-I had seven floors. I used to ask people what jobs they did. I would go walkabout without telling my office, just to talk to people about what jobs they were doing. It is really important to do that, because then you get into people’s minds that there are questions being asked about what happens in the administration. It is no good expecting the Permanent Secretary of the day to deal with that; it does not work.

Q701 Mr Reed: Maybe we get too focused on the interest of the provider-in this case the Government Department-and lose focus on the needs of the people at the sharp end.

Mr Straw: Exactly. If you take the issue of legal aid, this was something on which the Permanent Secretary and I worked together happily and co-operatively; it was Sir Suma Chakrabarti and I. There were very big problems with legal aid, because on the one hand people are proud that we have what has been a very good legal aid system, but on the other hand it is the most expensive legal aid system in the world, and it is very highly bureaucratic.

The interface between what the Department is doing and what, for example, the Legal Services Commission is doing was extraordinary. We discovered that in the Legal Services Commission, whose job is simply to administer legal aid, there were 60 people working on policy. I went to see the Legal Services Commission, and there were people round the table from the Commission itself who were talking to me about their policy. It turned out to be completely contrary to the policy that I had. As I explained to them, I thought I was the Secretary of State, not them. This had just been allowed to grow. By the end of the process, there were not 60 people dealing with policy, and now the Legal Services Commission is no longer; it is simply an executive arm of the Ministry of Justice. A lot of money is being saved that way. I think there has been an increase in efficiency, rather than a decrease.

Q702 Mr Reed: I have one last point. The title of this inquiry is The Future of the Civil Service. Can we adequately answer that without asking, "What is the future of Government?" or "What is the future relationship between the citizen and the state?" Are we too locked into the structures and processes to properly challenge them?

Mr Straw: The relationship between the state, the citizen and public administration in a democracy can be shortly stated, provided you do not go down the road that Mr Flynn was going down, of developing a deep state that is separate from our democracy. I hope you can answer it because, as I said at the beginning, well run and effective public administration is really crucial to the services that the state receives. If you take Lambeth for example, what was driving residents of Lambeth nuts under the ancient régime was simply the fact that it was inefficient and ineffective. There was favouritism, and it was just not working.

If you have good public administration, then people are pleased. Why do people get frustrated with dealing with the HMRC? It is because they cannot get through on the telephone. It is very simple stuff; it is not that difficult. I hope you are able to say, "This is the importance of a good Civil Service," and that we should hang on to what is very impressive and good about our Civil Service. In world-class terms it is at or close to the top, but it needs to get better.

Mr Chairman, I raise an idea I have been digesting. It is not original, but I do think that the interface between the political leadership and the Civil Service would be improved if there were central policy units in Departments made up of career officials, some people brought in on contracts, and political appointments.

Q703 Chair: You refer to the cabinet proposal.

Mr Straw: Yes, I mean the broad cabinet. As I say, you will end up with the problem of a different interface, but one of the problems I discerned in all the Departments I ran was the lack of capacity of bright people at a central level who were broadly committed to the agenda of Government and who you could move around as staff officers. Quite often, we had to invent them; for example in the big push on crime which started in about 1999, we had effectively to do that-find some bright young senior officials and bring them into the unit.

Q704 Chair: Before we move on, I can report that we have done a little research and you have led to us stumbling on to some very interesting data. In the year 2000, there were 3,108 senior civil servants. By the time you left office, there were 4,212. In 2010 there were 4,900; we do not have the 2012 figure. That is quite an interesting observation. I wonder if you would like to hazard a guess as to what it means. What do we have here? It is a 40% increase in the number of senior civil servants.

Mr Straw: It was one of the reasons people were cheering in the streets for the benefits the Labour Government had brought them after 13 years.

Chair: I will ask Hansard to put exclamation mark after that.

Mr Straw: What it means is that we were interested in expanding the role of Government, for perfectly good reasons. That was reflected in this growth of departmental administration. In retrospect, we should have had better control over it. What the numbers also illustrate is that, inevitably, people’s starting point and frame of reference is the status quo-whatever that may be.

There is a similar issue inside the police service at the moment. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not approve of what the Home Secretary is doing with the police service, least of all with these police and crime commissioners. It is really tricky for the police in terms of reducing numbers, but it will also be the case-it is a matter of fact, which we cannot avoid-that even when these changes have happened, the police service will be significantly larger than it was in the 1980s. We have to take account of that.

Q705 Priti Patel: Can I ask, on that point, how would you better control the Civil Service, in terms of numbers and efficiency?

Mr Straw: That is a very good question, Ms Patel. I would do some of the things I have been talking about, like having Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and senior officials in post for longer. Crucially, I would change the relationship between the centre and Departments.

It is really curious, but one of the things that happened-it went back to the early 1990s-was almost a kind of Balkanisation of Whitehall. The old system was that the Civil Service Department or its successors controlled departmental and administrative budgets, and their headcount and personnel policies, from a central level, and therefore, for example, their pay rates. However, with what I regarded as rather effete nonsense-the next steps agencies hiving off bodies to arm’s length agencies-and with the Treasury deciding that pay rates could be set by Departments, you have a drift away from any central control.

You ended up with completely ludicrous positions. For example, in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office we faced a problem in competing for locally engaged staff. In any country, there are usually expatriate British citizens or locals who are perfectly qualified to do the job. It is less expensive and they often have better particular skills. Our rates of pay were lower than those that DFID could pay, because DFID had more money than we did. We were competing with DFID for the same people; it was completely crazy. You also have people moving from domestic Department to domestic Department, because they get more money for the same job. There are also no proper effective controls over headcount.

What this argues for, in my view, is for there to be a stronger centre in what you would call the Civil Service Department or the Cabinet Office running HR policy and abandoning the idea that pay rates should be negotiated at a departmental level. You control headcount and you control pay. That means that when people see a problem-say, there is an area of work in the Department that suddenly requires extra work; this is going to happen all the time, because something will blow up and you need people to be put into it-they will have to start using their imagination, finding people within the Department who are doing not so important jobs and moving them on to that, rather than saying, "We will just advertise for some more people." One of the main reasons why you have this great growth of senior civil servants was just drift. That is my guess.

Q706 Priti Patel: I have a couple of other questions. In your time in Cabinet and the 13 years you were in Government, how do you think the business of Government changed? Were the Civil Service able to keep up with the changes that were happening in Government?

Mr Straw: When we first came in, the default setting was the way Mr Major had run it, which was the classic way of having Cabinet and Cabinet Committee. As you will know, Mr Blair’s view was, to a degree, similar to Margaret Thatcher’s, though he went further than she did in relying on bilateral meetings. Mr Brown actually made even more use of Cabinet than Mr Blair did, but in both cases they did not make proper use of Cabinet, in my view, and did not understand the importance of procedure in legitimising decisions.

To be allowed a point about Iraq, since Cabinet discussed Iraq 23 times, I am absolutely clear-ultimately it was discussed in the most formal of procedures downstairs on 18 March 2003: a debate on a substantive motion-that the decision would have been the same. However, Mr Blair is open to attack for not having his decisionmaking legitimised by Cabinet. Although it was discussed 23 times, most members of the Cabinet were not privy to the detail. They were privy to the detail that Mr Blair or I or Geoff Hoon provided, but it was done orally; it was not done with papers. Although I think the decision would have been the same, the opportunity for challenge was less under the informality that he operated than it would have been. That said, underneath the Cabinet, the system ran as it always had done-through an elaborate system of Cabinet Committees. I chaired quite a number of those; they carried on operating.

Q707 Priti Patel: You have touched on this, but if we were to refer back to both Thatcher and Blair and their time as Prime Minister, they had quite a visionary look ahead to the future. Is it possible for Government to identify new challenges and think years ahead, while, at the same time, work alongside a Civil Service that may not necessarily have the skills, for that period in time, to think about how to deliver output that is a few years further down the line?

Mr Straw: Yes, it is. How you do it is complicated. The idea of having units to do socalled blue-skies thinking-certainly in my political lifetime-goes right back to Sir Ted Heath’s establishment of the Central Policy Review Staff in 1970 under Victor Rothschild. That transmogrified into a series of other units. I think you have to have a unit like that at the centre doing what people call horizon scanning. It is medium and longterm planning.

It is quite important to choose the right people. I think Victor Rothschild and his people were very good, although they aroused lots of fury in individual Departments. You need people to understand what the Departments are doing.

I quote this in my book: I was faced with the situation of blue-skies thinking by Mr John Birt, who produced a very elaborate plan, complete with worrying diagrams, for amalgamating the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor’s Department, so in a single Department and under a single Minister you would have the Minister for the security services and the police and the Minister responsible for appointing judges and running the courts. It did not take that much thought to recognise that it was probably not a good idea. It was a bit tricky; it would not have flown.

My response was to work out how I could best sabotage it, because I needed to get on with the show. I had a strategy; it was very clear. It was about getting crime down, making the cops more efficient, trying to control immigration and also doing the stuff on rights: the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act and, critically for me, the response to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. I thought the idea that I should waste my time on this kind of stuff was ridiculous.

On the other hand, Tony Blair’s staff briefed him and said, "Straw is not being imaginative enough about cutting car crime and burglaries." Tony called me in and said he wanted to cut car crime by 30% and burglaries by 40%, or the other way around. My initial reaction was, "Would you like me to show you how I can push water uphill with my bare hands?" But he was right. I needed that. I went back to the Department, thought a bit and thought, "Why don’t we have a go?" That led to us thinking more broadly about how we could get vehicle manufacturers involved, how we could do stuff like CCTV, improve lighting in car parks and all sorts of stuff.

Funnily enough, both targets were more than met. You needed to be prodded, because otherwise you would just keep head down and focus on the immediate stuff. There is a balance.

Q708 Priti Patel: In that case, it sounds like it became a prod, or you were nudged by the Prime Minister to say, "This is the focus; sort it out." It was that kind of conversation. Surely, however, within your own Department your civil servants were challenging you as well-or they should have been challenging you-and they had the right skills to say, "Surely we should be doing better in this area and thinking about better output."

Mr Straw: That is a very good point. I think if I had had a Central Policy Review Staff in the Home Office who were tasked to think imaginatively about where we should be in two or three years’ time, that could have happened, but I do not recall an occasion when the officials said, "Secretary of State, we think you should set a target of cutting burglaries by 30% and car crime by 40%."

Q709 Mr Reed: Isn’t the thing that is missing the voice of the citizens who are experiencing high crime? It seems quite odd that it is somewhere within the machine itself-it is the Prime Minister or the official. How are we hearing the voice of the people who are suffering high levels of crime? You were asking about how local government has transformed itself. On many occasions, it is by disempowering, to an extent, the structure of local government, and empowering citizens so that it is more responsive.

Mr Straw: Absolutely. It is more difficult to do in national Government, but one of the things I was consistent on was that people running particular operations at the top level should get out and experience those operations.

In my book, I quote the fact that when I was interviewing one of the candidates for a very senior job, I talked to him about his experience running the immigration department. He said, "I was exiled in Croydon for three years." I thought, "Fine." There were people running the Courts Service who had not been in courts and people running police departments who had not really been out with cops.

Q710 Chair: I am so glad you have put that on the record, because I have told that story so many times.

Mr Straw: Which story do you mean?

Chair: I mean the one about the official who felt that running an operation as important as the Passport Service was being exiled.

Mr Straw: Yes.

Q711 Priti Patel: Did it not alarm you that in your capacity as a member of the Cabinet and as Secretary of State, you had officials who were really quite remote from what was going on in the real world?

Mr Straw: Yes, but that was the culture they were used to. My approach to politics is a hands-on one, but you should think about my predecessors. I do not criticise my predecessors as Home Secretary. They are who they are. Michael Howard was actually very effective in shifting the Department in one way, but he was not handson with the Department. He dealt with it in a different way.

Going back to Mr Reed’s point, within the unitary borough of Blackburn with Darwen, one of the ways we made the senior officials much more responsive was by a very simple device of residents’ meetings with the police chief, the chief executive and the director responsible for the bins. The leader of the council and I chair those meetings on a regular basis. We go around the wards and people turn up in very large numbers to talk about what is right and what is wrong.

Talking to senior officials over the last ten years we have been doing this has been really interesting, as has talking to the police because, in many ways, they got more out of it than the citizens have, because it made them more responsive.

Mr Reed: Could we build mechanisms like that into the functioning of national Government?

Mr Straw: No, not directly, but what you can do is build up a culture that if you are running a particular service, the senior managers have to go out and walk the boards. That happens in properly run factories and firms: the people at the top have a granular understanding of what is going on. If they do not, the company often fails. What is really important is the interface between what happens in Whitehall and what happens down the track.

Q712 Alun Cairns: Mr Straw, I want to talk about process. I was particularly interested in the answer that you gave to Ms Patel earlier, when you said Mr Blair and Mr Brown were not particularly good-I forget the phrase you used-they were criticised for not following the process through. You used the Iraq war decision, where it had been discussed 23 times, but they could be criticised for not having followed the process through.

Although you then said that the decision would not have changed and you are confident that the correct process, or a more formal process, had been followed through, can you think of circumstances where the failure of process may have led to a different decision being taken?

Mr Straw: Yes, I can. This is big stuff but, for example, if Mr Brown had had his proposal to abolish the 10p tax rate subject to consideration in Cabinet before he announced it, I think we might have avoided a great disaster for him, actually, as well as for others. I can think of plenty of examples, but that is the best one.

Q713 Alun Cairns: Do you put that down solely to the Cabinet not having papers to consider and discuss and the process that follows thereafter?

Mr Straw: It goes back to a point I made, which I think is often missed in discussing the nature of the British Government: the legal duties on Government are personal duties on Secretaries of State. This means that running socalled UK plc is very different from running a large corporation, where the legal duties are on the board of directors. They are not in the British Government.

This exacerbates the tensions between the centre and individual Departments, but it also means that individual Secretaries of State or their equivalents, like the Chancellor, have an extraordinary amount of individual power for which they are accountable publicly and to this place, but they are not necessarily accountable to their colleagues. That is one of the big differences. Over time, that situation has become, in my view, worse rather than better.

There is a very good book called Six Moments of Crisis by Gill Bennett, who is the retired chief historian of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She looks at the decisionmaking processes in six post-war crises of different kinds, ranging from the decision to go into Korea to the Falklands. One of the things she looks at, however, is the cut in public spending that took place in 1968 following the decision to devalue in 1967. Those were really serious cuts in public spending. The decisions were made after about seven or eight full days of Cabinet meetings. In his memoirs, Roy Jenkins said he hated it. He was close to Tony Blair and advised Tony never to go through that process.

What is interesting, however, is that given the parameters-the fact we were in pretty serious trouble-the Government emerged significantly more united. What is also really interesting is that the opinion polls-this is something Mrs Bennett brings out-showed that the reputation of the Government had increased because Cabinet was meeting for eight days to discuss that kind of thing on paper.

Whenever I used to talk to Mr Brown or Mr Blair particularly, they would say, "If we had these discussions, they would leak." I do not think they would. The leaking normally occurred in Number 10. My experience of Cabinet is that if people knew stuff was not to leak, they did not leak it. I can give plenty of examples. You need to lead from the top when it comes to leaking.

Those who do not understand process do not understand that process leads to access to rights and also to legitimacy. It is not about bureaucracy; the way you access rights in this place-or the way anybody accesses rights-is through process. You get the process right, then you get people access to rights, but you also legitimise decisions you are making.

Q714 Alun Cairns: In your paper you talk about the extremities of the US system, where there are so many political appointments, and you compare that with the relatively small number of special advisers here in the UK. You propose a strong case for strengthened policy and delivery units, which basically become mixed teams of officials. This Committee has taken evidence on several occasions of where the tension between the special adviser and civil servants has sometimes created problems. Do you think the model you suggest could create an environment where there would be more tension?

Mr Straw: There would be tension, but tension is not a bad thing, by the way. It needs to be used creatively. There are tensions within a Department; at official level there will be tensions between one branch and another. It is about how these tensions are handled.

I am not in favour of Ministers who employ special advisers who seem to be there to feed their paranoia, who get too big for their boots and who throw their weight around. It is undemocratic and it does not do the Minister any good. I can think of one Minister in the last administration, who I will not name, but I will tell you outside, Mr Flynn. There was more than one.

I was a special adviser; in fact, I was one of the first, between 1974 and 1977. I employed a series of special advisers and they had good relations with the Department. However, their job was a different one; they were institutionally in conflict.

I think this would work. If you look at the example of the European Commission, where you have cabinets-you have to have them-you then have a problem with the directorates-general, which are trying to follow their own policy separate from that of the Commission. We have to find a way of resolving that.

Q715 Paul Flynn: You use the word "unseemly" in the book about the way civil servants think about party politics. Can I just remind you that I had an active part in Jim Callaghan’s first campaign in 1945, the year before you were born?

Mr Straw: What has that got to do with the question?

Paul Flynn: You tell a fascinating story in your book about Tony Blair, where you gave him a perfectly sound argument on an issue and he said to you, "What you do not understand, Jack, is that I am always lucky." He was lucky in Kosovo, he was lucky in Sierra Leone; but in Iraq he was very unlucky. Isn’t 179 UK deaths a terrible price to pay for one man’s vain delusion?

Mr Straw: Just so we are clear, Paul, the story about him being always lucky related to Tony’s handling of student fees. As I said in the book, like most of my colleagues I had to spend the whole weekend talking to recalcitrant but movable Members, of whom you were in the first category but not the second, to get them to shift. We won the vote by five, as you will recall. I then went to speak to Tony and said, "Do not do that again; your luck will run out." And he said to me, "I am always lucky."

As far as Iraq is concerned, to be clear, I supported Tony’s decision at the time. I explained at rather great length in my book why I continue to think that was the right decision to have made-however difficult it was later. It was not a piece of vainglory at all. It racked Tony. He thought about it very carefully. I know you had a different view from him and I respect that, but I do not think it is right to say that somebody of his distinction and seriousness treated the issue of going to war as a piece of vainglory. He did not.

Q716 Paul Flynn: Can we look at two great periods, 1945 to 1951 and the recent 20 years? In terms of the difference, there was a huge gulf between the parties, for a start. Politicians were people of great courage, which you put very much on top of your scale of how you admired people. You talk about John Smith lacking courage. They steamed through great changes-great reforms of the health service and the welfare state. In recent years, politics has generally been an evidencefree zone. Politicians have been motivated by perception, prejudice and pressure. They react to those, rather than some great vision. Isn’t it right that civil servants have a cynical view of some politicians?

Mr Straw: It is right that civil servants might have a cynical view of some politicians; they vary, but on the whole some civil servants quite like some politicians. My point about using the word "unseemly" related to something Barbara Castle used to say to me and to her officials. The way she put it was that officials should regard politics in the way that monks should understand sex: they may not take part in it, but they need to appreciate that other people are motivated by it.

Paul Flynn: Monks are, too.

Mr Straw: My last point, Mr Flynn, is that I do not think you should mythologise the 1945 to 1951 Labour Government too much. It did great things, but the interesting thing about its foundation of the welfare state was that the work was laid by the coalition Government. Beveridge was a Liberal. Churchill was willing to let the coalition Government get on with it. Although there were big arguments over nationalisation, even those were not so big, as a matter of fact. It was with the spirit of the time.

Paul Flynn: You were clearly a very perceptive fiveyear old.

Q717 Mr Reed: Were you comfortable to be held accountable to Parliament for everything that occurred within your two vast Departments?

Mr Straw: Yes, I was-with one area of exception. I said in my book, and I often used to say to colleagues at the time, that if you are in trouble, the safest place is in the House of Commons. If you have presided over some monumental disaster, the Commons will give you a fair hearing, provided you give all the information, you do not start wriggling out of it and you do not start blaming people. They are perfectly capable of making their own judgments. Also, some colleagues will have been in that position and others want to be in that position. They are not going to work you over.

There was one week when I had to go to the Commons three times and say, "I am really sorry; this has happened and it is a total disaster. I am trying to make sure it does not happen again." That, however, is far better than trying to scurry away.

The one area where I was uncomfortable, because I felt I had no control, and nobody had any control, was over largescale IT projects. My view there is that we have to establish a similar accounting officer convention. Permanent Secretaries are responsible for spending the money. Either a Permanent Secretary or a named bod has to be responsible for these IT projects. They fall between two stools at the moment.

Chair: Or any senior responsible owner of any major project.

Mr Straw: Yes.

Mr Reed: The rail franchise would be an example.

Mr Straw: It does not work. It does not work unless you have an owner of one project.

Q718 Mr Reed: Damian McBride, when he was here, told us that in his experience some civil servants felt that there were certain technical or administrative things that were nothing to do with Ministers. Does that fit with the doctrine of accountability to Parliament?

Mr Straw: I thought Mr McBride was not the best example of somebody-

Chair: He is a reformed character.

Mr Straw: Is he? I am glad to hear it, because he needed to reform, in my view. I would regard him as a poor witness. He helped to give politics a bad reputation.

Chair: I think you should meet him again.

Mr Straw: I am glad to hear he is reformed.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed. May I just place on record my thanks for your helping us obtain evidence from the former Prime Minister, Mr Blair? We have not yet received it, but we are looking forward to it. He is going to send us written evidence.

Mr Straw: I think there has just been a miscommunication in his office.

Chair: That was a very interesting session. On with the Budget.

Prepared 5th September 2013