Public Administration Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 74

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee

on Tuesday 16 April 2013

Members present:

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)

Alun Cairns

Paul Flynn

Robert Halfon

Kelvin Hopkins

Greg Mulholland

Priti Patel


Examination of Witness

Witness: Jonathan Powell, Former Downing Street Chief of Staff.

Q719 Chair: May I thank our witness for joining us today for this session about the future of the Civil Service. Could I ask you to introduce yourself for the record please?

Jonathan Powell: I am Jonathan Powell; I run a small charity. I used to be Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, for 13 and a half years. Before that I was a British diplomat for 16 and a half years.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming.

Q720 Priti Patel: Good morning Mr Powell. In your book The New Machiavelli I think it is fair to say that you identify a couple of faults with the Civil Service, in terms of its way of functioning. These include that it acts as a brake upon Government in getting things done, which is something we have also heard and experienced from other witnesses. Why do you think the Civil Service seems to act in this particular manner and what would you do to change this way of working and culture in the Civil Service?

Jonathan Powell: I was a civil servant for 16 years so I feel able to both praise and be critical of it. I think it is certainly amongst the best civil services in the world, but that does not mean it could not get better. The basic problem with it is a problem of mindset and of skill set. It lacks the skills for coping with a modern society and a modern political system. It needs to have new skills like project management, accountancy skills and so on-rather than just being an amateur organisation-and those need to be brought in from outside. It has a cultural problem in that it is a bit like a monastic order. People still join at 21 and leave when they retire at 60. There is a danger of pensée unique: they all think the same way. What it needs to do is break up that culture by getting more people in and more people out. We do not want an Americanstyle public service but people who criticise the American public service do not really understand it correctly, in my view. It has one big advantage, which is that it brings people in from outside so there is an opportunity to learn from skills outside and to break up the monolithic culture. That is a big advantage to the American system, despite the downsides. I think those are the two basic changes that need to be made. There are quite a few more, such as incentives etc. which I could go into if you want me to.

Q721 Priti Patel: In your time, particularly when you worked with Tony Blair in Number 10, from the experiences you have had, were ideas shared about how the Civil Service could be changed, particularly in the area of the mindset and skill set and potentially opening that up? I raise this because you have made the point that on Tony Blair’s first day as Prime Minister the then Cabinet Secretary tried to show off a bit and overwhelm Tony Blair with information about codes etc., to foster this culture of dependency where the Cabinet Secretary is, dare I say it, the boss in charge. That attitude still seems to pervade and dominate. I am assuming that at some stage discussions were had on how to overcome that and on what could be done to change that culture, mindset and way of working.

Jonathan Powell: I think you are a bit unfair on Robin Butler, who did a remarkable job handling transition from a Tory Government to a Labour Government in difficult circumstances. It is true that he had been there a long time and he wanted to let that be known.

Q722 Chair: Difficult circumstances? Why were the circumstances difficult?

Jonathan Powell: Because there had been a Tory Government in power for nearly 18 years. Almost none of the Labour new Ministers had been in power.

Chair: There was a lack of experience.

Jonathan Powell: He was managing Ministers who thought that the Civil Service would be biased against them, which it was not, actually, but that was what they feared. There was therefore a difficult trauma in such a big change after such a long time.

Chair: Sorry, I interrupted your answer.

Jonathan Powell: That is okay. There was a problem that developed in the 1970s in the Civil Service where the Civil Service was the "continuity girl" of Government while Ministers came and went. That is where the Yes, Prime Minister and Yes Minister type of impression came from. What tends to happen is that when a Government or a Prime Minister has been in power for a long time the balance of power equation changes. Prime Ministers become more assertive once they have been there longer and know more about the facts and the way the Civil Service works than even the leading members of the Civil Service. If you want to change the culture you have to, in my view, have someone from outside heading the Civil Service. I think you need to win that battle. The latest Government appears, according to the newspapers, to have tried to fight the same battle and lost again. Unless you have that happen you will not get real change.

You also need to bring people from outside into the Civil Service. We introduced five year contracts that were supposed to have that effect, so people would leave after five years rather than automatically getting another job in the Civil Service. People will tell you that that worked, but it did not. When I was secretary of the trade union in the Foreign Office, the DSA, I remember asking how many women were employed in the Foreign Office. They gave me very convincing figures that showed it was 50/50 men and women. When I probed a little further I discovered that all the women were secretaries and all the men were diplomats, so it was not really achieving the objective you wanted. That is how the Civil Service tends to fob off attempts to change it.

Q723 Priti Patel: I worked in the private sector for 10 years. On this whole issue of bringing new people into the Civil Service, what is the compelling vision for those who jump ship from the private sector to go into the Civil Service, where the mindset-as you have highlighted in your book-seems to be of a different era, dare I say it? The culture is different, the ways of working, the attitude, and the cut and thrust of executive leadership simply does not exist.

Jonathan Powell: It is supposed to be public service so it is naturally going to be different from the private sector. What it could do with is an injection of new approaches and new ideas. If you can make it with people going in and out like that-and that means people going out into the private sector and changing the private sector too, which could do with some of the skills reflected in the Civil Service-it will only happen if people are really prepared to make it happen from the top of the Civil Service and probably also only if you change some of the problems, for example, the Civil Service being underpaid relative to the private sector. If people were paid more it would be easier to persuade people to go into the Civil Service from outside. If the pension provision was not so generous in the Civil Service people would be more willing to risk going into the private sector. I would advocate having fewer, better civil servants, higher paid, and having more interchange with the outside world, particularly the private sector but also the voluntary sector.

Q724 Kelvin Hopkins: Good morning. You wrote that, following the 1997 election, "Far from aiming to frustrate the new Government’s plans, [civil servants] had to be restrained from taking every component too seriously". In your book you also say that: "In the event, our major problem was not a wall of Conservative opposition but having to restrain their newfound leftwing enthusiasm".

Chair: That does not surprise us at all.

Kelvin Hopkins: I could elaborate, but perhaps you want to say a bit more about it?

Jonathan Powell: It was not a sudden conversion of ideology. It was two things. Firstly, people had got very tired of a tired Government. It had been there for a very long time and the civil servants wanted a change. They wanted something interesting to do and wanted a Government that actually wanted to do things rather than stop things happening. It was partly a natural enthusiasm, not a new found socialist inspiration of the Civil Service but the desire for change. Secondly, it was the desire to show their new masters that they were not what they feared they were, which was dyedinthewool Thatcherites, but actually something different. They were leaning over too hard, not because they believed in it but because they wanted to convince their new masters that they should work with them individually rather than with some other awful person who was really a Thatcherite. Those were the two motivating factors.

Q725 Kelvin Hopkins: I have put to various witnesses that we have seen in recent weeks and months that the Civil Service has difficulty these days because there has been a change of ideology in Government. In the past there was a range of views, from onenation conservatism to social democracy, in a broad range, but they were essentially all statist. When Thatcher came in-indeed New Labour continued the process-there was hostility to the idea of the state and they wanted to privatise, marketise, liberalise and change the whole approach. The Civil Service found this difficult. When New Labour came in they expected New Labour to return to social democracy and it did not. When we were elected in 1997, my wife said, "Now we can do all those socialist things that we have not been able to do." I said, "You do not understand New Labour. There will be a continuity there. The Civil Service may be on the left but New Labour is not." Is that true?

Jonathan Powell: No; neither is it true to say that the Civil Service is on the left. One of the great things about NorthcoteTrevelyan is that we ended up with an impartial Civil Service that genuinely is impartial and genuinely is apolitical from that point of view. I do not think that is right. New Labour represented quite a big change from the previous Government, particularly the John Major Government. You had a Government that did not want to do anything very much and was conservative in the traditional sense of just sitting there: cones hotlines were the main Government policy. That changed to a very activist Government. You may not have agreed with the policies of the New Labour Government but they were an activist Government that wanted to do things. That is what civil servants like doing: having new policy challenges and new things to implement.

Q726 Kelvin Hopkins: I was not suggesting that it was left-wing, but I was suggesting that the previous philosophy of Government and approach to Government had been consensual-what Robert McKenzie used to call Butskellism, if you remember. It was an area the Civil Service could deal with. There was a range of views: some would nationalise steel, some would not, but by and large it was statist. I was meaning left-wing in the sense that perhaps one nation conservatism is left-wing. Indeed, our new leader is talking about one nation politics now. He has much more in common with one nation conservatism than with the thrusting, marketising New Labour.

Jonathan Powell: I think you are right about Butskellism. It is true that the Civil Service is more comfortable when there is that degree of consensus, partly because they like to implement policies that have long-term impact. If you have to change policies every four or five years then it is much harder to make a difference. Maybe we are in a new era of Butskellism when it comes to education and health. Maybe we have greater consensus on education and health since the beginning of the Tony Blair Government than we had before, which makes it easier for civil servants to implement change. What I think civil servants like is activism. What they do not like are Governments that do nothing.

Q727 Kelvin Hopkins: Pursuing your point about education, in fact it illustrates very well the state dissolving itself and handing over power to the market; funding will come largely from Government, and even that might change over time. When civil servants are asked to indulge in dissolving what they have done for a century or more, it is difficult for them. They are getting rid of their whole raison d’être, their life, and are handing it out to the market: free schools, and all of that, which could be seen as very much on the right rather than the left. Even though there may be consensus around some parts of New Labour and the Conservatives, it is actually a dramatic change from what we had in the past and could be seen to be very right-wing.

Jonathan Powell: I wrote a book about Machiavelli. He had a very good comment about the enemies of reform. It is true that if you try to bring in reform, those who have vested interests in keeping things the same will do their very best to resist it, and those who will benefit from the reform are very lukewarm in their support because they do not know what they are going to get in the change. It is true that there will be people who will resist reform, perhaps particularly in the public service, rather than the Civil Service. One of the jobs of a Government that wants to bring about reform is carrying those public servants with them and convincing them that it is the right thing to do. The interesting thing is that when you get to a new balance, a new Butskellism, civil servants tend to support that new balance. I think you will find that civil servants are not massively opposed to free schools or all the rest of it; they are perfectly happy to implement that once they have got over the hump of the change.

Q728 Kelvin Hopkins: It seems to me that the Blair Government in particular did make some changes. Some of the heads of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretaries did come from the outside, whereas Robin Butler was the last of the traditional mandarins who had come straight down from Oxbridge and worked his way through the Civil Service to become its head, whereas people like Sir Gus, for example, came from outside. Many of them who were outside were not part of that mandarinate.

Jonathan Powell: No, that is not quite right. You are right about Gus but there were two Cabinet Secretaries in between who both came from inside the system-Richard Wilson and then Andrew Turnbull-who were very much in the classic mould of civil servants and who did not see the job of the Cabinet Secretary as being the person to bring about Civil Service reform, which we wanted to happen. They saw their job, as you say, as being head of the mandarinate, rather than doing management. Andrew began to change that but Richard was pretty resistant; then Gus was the first who tried to do it. That would be my reading of it. Even then, they are still people who spent the vast proportion of their lives in the Civil Service. What I would like to see is someone from completely outside trying to do the management job.

Q729 Priti Patel: Mr Powell, you mentioned activism in the Civil Service, with a new Government and fresh ideas keeping the Civil Service busy. In my earlier question to you we touched on the failures of the Civil Service and issues around ways of working to a certain extent. Did you feel at the time, with a new Government coming in, with a new air of activism and new initiatives presumably, that the Civil Service was geared up, from a skills point of view, to bring in the activism and new policies etc.? Also, what is your assessment of how the Civil Service deals with failure of policy and policy delivery failures? We talk about the UK Border Agency all the time and have touched on West Coast Main Line in the past. Are those down to skills failure, ministerial failure or failure of an actual team in their own way of working?

Jonathan Powell: No, the Civil Service did not have the skills that we needed for an activist Government coming in. As I said, there had been a donothing Government for a while and they lacked the skills, particularly of project management and some other necessary skills. As a result, we brought in some very highly paid outsiders on a number of occasions to try to change things, like the Immigration Service, and were roundly attacked in the Daily Mail and other newspapers for spending so much money. It is in the taxpayers’ interest to have people come in and really transform systems because they will save a huge amount more money than paying those people to come in from outside. It is false economy to go down that route. Sorry, was the second part of the question about the skill set now?

Priti Patel: The skill set at the time, but also in terms of dealing with policy failures.

Jonathan Powell: There is a tradition in the British Civil Service of promoting someone who fails, which is slightly unfortunate and something I hope they are gradually breaking away from. There needs to be, in my view, a system of personal accountability where people are charged with succeeding or failing on a policy, so they are rewarded if they succeed and there is a consequence if they fail. At the moment it is all too easy to just blame the system: people forget about the policy, the Minister is moved on and no one asks the question of what has happened to it. For civil servants too it would be much more satisfying if they felt they owned a policy and could really push it through. At the moment it is a oneway bet for a civil servant: if something goes wrong or they make a mistake they will be punished; if they do something inventive and innovative they never get rewarded, not just in financial terms but in terms of recognition and promotion. The system needs to change to make that one-way bet at least a two-way bet, so you are not just encouraged to avoid problems but to find solutions that help the Government achieve its aims and help the taxpayer save money.

Q730 Priti Patel: Do you think that can be addressed? Is it more from leadership or more from a performance management point of view?

Jonathan Powell: It is performance management; it is about how civil servants are reported on, how their promotion is managed, getting away from Buggins’s turn and having insiders and outsiders swapping places. That sort of thing would make a difference.

Q731 Chair: I have to say that so far I feel we are only scratching the surface. Before we come to the role of Number 10, in summary, what it looks like from outside is that the new Government came in with a rather simplistic set of headline objectives, which had been used to fight the election and win power, but it all turned out to be much more complicated and difficult. Then, in 1999 the Prime Minister brought forward a plan called Modernising Government, which seemed to be attempting to address the complexity, difficulty and resistance in the system. Despite the evident willingness from the civil servants to help the new Government there seemed to be an extraordinary amount of inertia in getting things done. Yet after Modernising Government the Prime Minister was talking about the "scars on my back" and was still feeling very frustrated. Is that a fair summary?

Jonathan Powell: No. I notice that two Prime Ministers have talked about scars on their backs after coming in, trying to bring about reform and wrestling with the Civil Service. Tony Blair and, more recently, David Cameron talked in almost identical terms about it.

Chair: Exactly.

Jonathan Powell: I do not think it is an ideological thing or a party thing.

Q732 Chair: No, I am not saying it is an ideological thing. I am trying to draw out what is wrong with the Civil Service and what is wrong with the system of Government.

Jonathan Powell: As I said, I think we have one of the best civil services in the world and we would be crazy to destroy it in pursuit of making it better, but it does need to be made better and can be made better. The basic problem with it, as I say, is that it is much more inclined to stop things happening than it is to make things happen. It is the job of the Civil Service, in my view, to warn Ministers about elephant traps and say to them, "If you push ahead in this particular direction you will come a cropper". The trouble is-I experienced it myself as a civil servant-that when you are there a long time, you have seen all these policies before, have seen Ministers come and go, an idea has been tried before three times and has failed, so you tend to get very-

Q733 Chair: Forgive me for cutting you short. I am expecting you to say all this. Why did Mr Blair’s civil service reforms not work? Why did they not leave, for Mr Brown and Mr Cameron, the responsive and agile machinery that he wanted for himself? Why is it the same as it was when Mr Blair took Office?

Jonathan Powell: I am not sure it is the same.

Q734 Chair: Is it better?

Jonathan Powell: It is better but it is not as better as it could be or needs to be. There are a number of reasons why the change has not gone as far as Tony Blair, other politicians, or David Cameron would want. The first is, as I said earlier, the resistance to change in the culture of the Civil Service. That is what needs to be broken down and the only way I think it can be broken down is by having some outsiders come in if you want to break that culture down. You cannot change that culture by edict from the top.

Q735 Chair: For 15 years, three Governments have been trying to improve the Civil Service. Do you agree?

Jonathan Powell: Yes.

Q736 Chair: Why is it taking so long?

Jonathan Powell: When you have a very strong culture, it takes a very long time to break it down, in my view.

Chair: Fifteen years?

Jonathan Powell: It will probably be longer. If you are really going to change this thing, you are talking about a very long period of time. It is not something you can do just like that.

Chair: Fifteen years is hardly "just like that".

Jonathan Powell: In the history of the Civil Service it almost is.

Chair: I think I am listening to a civil servant.

Jonathan Powell: I was one.

Q737 Kelvin Hopkins: Isn’t the problem really that many civil servants have thought that Governments were doing the wrong thing and they resisted them because they disagreed with them philosophically and thought it would not have the right result. Successive Governments, starting with Mrs Thatcher, and particularly Nigel Lawson-who was a Europhile, and now it seems the Europhiles were the ones that ousted Mrs Thatcher-tried to stuff people who thought like them into the senior Civil Service. They did not quite get away with it but they tried to strip out opposition and install people who believed what they did.

Jonathan Powell: I personally do not think there is an ideological strain to the Civil Service. It is remarkable how apolitical it is. You are right that there are different philosophical approaches to things. For example, many senior civil servants opposed Tony Blair’s approach to trying to bring about reform through legislation. They felt there was too much legislation. He very strongly felt legislation was the right way to do it. There was a difference of opinion.

Q738 Chair: It does tend to be Government Departments that persuade their Secretaries of State to produce large bits of legislation, does it not?

Jonathan Powell: Yes, for different incentives, but they did not want legislation that would try to change things.

Q739 Robert Halfon: You talked earlier in your evidence about the civil servants’ and public servants’ brake on reform, but in your book you talk a lot about Gordon Brown being the brake on reform. Which is it? Was it really the civil servants or was it Gordon Brown, or was it a mixture of both?

Jonathan Powell: There were two different sorts of brake. There was a political brake, in the form of Gordon, and there was an entropy brake from the Civil Service on change actually happening. There were two different brakes.

Q740 Robert Halfon: Which was the bigger brake?

Jonathan Powell: I find it very hard to assess the relative difference of them. Neither of them stopped us getting done the things we want to do, they just both slowed it down.

Q741 Greg Mulholland: When I was a politics A-level student, starting my interest in politics at 16, I remember talking about the power of No. 10 and presidential Prime Ministers and all that. The debate does not seem to have moved on particularly, amazingly, 25 years or so later. I notice that in your book you say, "A new Prime Minister pulls on the levers of power and nothing happens". In the week that we are laying to rest Margaret Thatcher, who had huge majorities and presumably lots of power, and you, having served for however many years under Tony Blair, who had even bigger majorities and therefore lots of power, how can that be the case?

Jonathan Powell: The guilty secret of our system, despite everything that is written in the newspapers, is that No. 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister are remarkably unpowerful in our system. People talk about imperial prime ministerships but it certainly does not feel that way when you get into Downing Street. It is like the gold at the end of the rainbow: when you get there it is not actually there. What you have to do once you get into being Prime Minister is to learn how to build coalitions of support to make things happen. The reason that some Prime Ministers are stronger than others is that they have a stronger leadership style, a bigger majority, or an ability to carry people with them. It is not just by merit of being Prime Minister that you make things happen. You can contrast John Major with Tony Blair, for example, or Mrs Thatcher with Gordon Brown.

Q742 Greg Mulholland: You mention "the little secret of the British constitution", which "is that the centre of government is not too powerful, but too weak". I am sure there are many who would disagree with that. For the purpose of this inquiry, do you genuinely think that that is a problem with getting things done, rather than some of the other views expressed in some of the written evidence we have had, which suggests that the other view is the right one and No. 10 is too powerful and too dictatorial?

Jonathan Powell: I think you are getting two different views. If I read your evidence correctly it is people who were not in No. 10 or at the centre of Government but people who were in other places in Government or academics who had a different view. I can tell you that, sitting there, the way it feels to somebody in the centre is that it is very hard to get things done. One of the reasons it is hard to get things done is the articulation between No. 10 Downing Street and the rest of Government. It is very hard for the Prime Minister to get Departments to do things. I gave some evidence decades ago about this. There is a problem: we still have a feudal system in our Government structure. It is the Departments that have the troops, in the form of civil servants, and the money, in terms of the budget. No. 10 does not have civil servants and does not have budgets. The only way it can get a Secretary of State to do something is by a threat to his future in the job. There is no inbetween weapon that you can use to persuade him to do something, unless you are a very strong leader.

The articulation between No. 10 and actual Departments is very weak. It is slightly stronger now than it was originally. This, again, is a difference of philosophy or difference of approach. If you took evidence from a mandarin they would say that that is quite right and the job of the Cabinet Office is to frustrate what the Prime Minister wants to do and get it down to the lowest common denominator between all the other Cabinet members, whereas if you are sitting in No. 10, what you want to do is achieve things politically. It is that articulation between the two where the weakness comes.

Greg Mulholland: I love the idea of the Prime Minister riding at the front of various groups of troops run by feuding feudal lords-presumably the Cabinet.

Jonathan Powell: That is certainly what it felt like.

Q743 Greg Mulholland: How do you think things can be strengthened? If you are saying that No. 10 needs to be more powerful, which would be controversial, how do you think, institutionally, that would be done?

Jonathan Powell: What I would do is to have something more like the OMB in the American system or a department of the plan, as in many European Governments, where you bring together setting priorities for spending along with setting priorities for personnel. You would have the Cabinet Office and the spending bit of the Treasury together as one powerful Department at the centre, with a Cabinet Minister in charge of it. That would align your incentives for Government: you would have the money and the instructions flowing in the same direction. At the moment you do not have that. If you have a Chancellor going in a different direction from a Prime Minister the centre of Government is very divided in its instructions so I would do that. I would make it more explicit that the job of the Cabinet Office, or this new entity, would be to deal with the instructions of the Prime Minister in Cabinet, and make sure those were implemented by Departments. Those are the two steps I would take.

Q744 Greg Mulholland: In your book you cover the interesting roles played by Alastair Campbell particularly and Peter Mandelson in a different way. Do you believe that one possible solution is to go further down the American model and have political appointees in charge of Government Departments?

Jonathan Powell: We have political appointees in the form of Ministers. It is a question really of how far down the system you go. It is not as if we do not have any political appointees. We have Ministers and now we have special advisers. Americans have it very low down the system. In the French and German systems it is different, where every civil servant has some sort of political affiliation and they go into exile when one Government comes in, and then go back into Government. I would not go the route of the French or the German system and I would not go the whole way down the American system, but I do think there is scope for more political appointees at the top of Departments, rather than less. It would be ludicrous to say we could take politics out of Government. Government is supposed to be about fulfilling the political wishes of the electorate, so I can see a good case for a decent cadre of political people at the top of Ministries, perhaps slightly larger than we have at the moment.

Q745 Greg Mulholland: If the reform programme that you neatly and helpfully laid out for us was proposed by a Prime Minister, who do you think would squeal most loudly? Would it be other Cabinet Ministers or the Civil Service?

Jonathan Powell: If those changes were introduced it would be the Chancellor to start with, whoever the Chancellor was, because they would be losing a good deal of power. Other Ministers might favour it because one of the problems Ministers have is trying to wrestle with the Treasury for money. If the thing was aligned between the objectives and money, that might make their life easier. I think you would find retired mandarins squealing the loudest.

Q746 Chair: You have spoken on more than one occasion about the effect of exceptionally strong leadership from No. 10. There really is no substitute for strong leadership is there?

Jonathan Powell: In our system, if you want to get things done, then yes you need strong leadership. Even that takes quite a long time to take effect. If you think of Mrs Thatcher’s early years, or Tony Blair’s early years, it took quite a long time before they could make a difference.

Q747 Chair: Sorry to be mildly political but I do not remember Margaret Thatcher ever complaining about scars on her back or about pulling levers and nothing happening.

Jonathan Powell: She certainly did complain about the Civil Service.

Chair: I am sure she had battles with the Civil Service but it was notorious that her writ ran throughout Whitehall. Her presence was felt in every Government Department. All the witnesses who wrote biographies at the time bear witness to that.

Jonathan Powell: Yes, but they are being a bit ahistorical. I joined the Civil Service in the summer of 1979, just as Mrs Thatcher came to power. In those early years she did not have the same writ. For example, in the Foreign Office with Peter Carrington there, she did not have the same writ as she had five, 10 years later. These things come on gradually, not suddenly.

Q748 Chair: Moving back to this question about dealing with the long term issues, you remark: "It was extraordinary how little capacity for original thought the [Civil Service] departments seemed to have". We are into a new context of challenges with internationalisation, complexity and speed of events. Why do you think attempts to address this have so far been so unsuccessful and the ability of Government to think long term and strategically has not been evidenced, I submit, since Margaret Thatcher.

Jonathan Powell: You would be quite hard pressed to argue that the Civil Service were better at coming up with long term-

Chair: I am not just asking about the Civil Service, I am asking about the system of Government.

Jonathan Powell: If I were to make a political point about Mrs Thatcher it would be purely a political point. Trying to address the Civil Service or Government aspect, it is not only the British Government that has trouble thinking strategically. Nearly every Government you look at around the world struggles with this and tries to find solutions. There are a number of reasons. One is that civil servants and Departments are slightly inclined to self-censorship. What they tend to do is think of all the possible policy ideas and rule a whole lot out on the grounds that they are not going to work politically. They would be better off coming up with those ideas and allowing the politicians to decide that they are not going to work politically; so they give them the whole palette of choices they might have and then the politicians can say, "That one will not work politically but this one might", because they might have a different judgement. There is a degree of self-censorship among civil servants in that regard.

In terms of strategy, we tried a number of different approaches. From the No. 10 point of view we tried to encourage Departments to come up with ideas. We got to the stage later on of introducing strategy units in Departments because we found the strategy unit we set up quite useful. You had the CPRS under Ted Heath, which was quite good at coming up with ideas. Mrs Thatcher did not like it because it came up with ideas that ended up in the newspapers first, so she closed it down. It is possible to have units inside Governments that do that long-term thinking and they do not necessarily need to sit in No. 10, as the strategy unit did not by the time we finished in Government.

Q749 Chair: When we proposed strengthening strategic thinking the conclusion I reached was that it needs to be covered by the Official Secrets Act and needs to be treated as one of the agencies in order to think strategically. Otherwise it leaks too easily, is not treated with sufficient respect, people will not trust it and it will get closed down.

Jonathan Powell: Yes; I am not sure about the Official Secrets Act, but you do need to convince people that blue sky thinking is better done in private than in public.

Q750 Chair: It comes down to leadership, does it not? Unless the people at the top, the politicians, are really hungry for different and challenging ideas, they are not going to get different ideas and challenge; they are going to be given the mush that the bureaucracy thinks they want.

Jonathan Powell: Yes, although even when they do want challenging and new ideas, in my experience it is sometimes difficult to get them. There is also the effect, when parties have been in power for a long time, that people lose the will to come up with those ideas.

Q751 Chair: Is that not a question of leadership?

Jonathan Powell: I was going to say that with Mrs Thatcher-who I think no one would accuse of not showing leadership-over time there was less imagination shown by Departments because more and more decision making was absorbed upwards. I watched it during my career. Decisions that would have been taken at a much lower level, where people would have to come up with imaginative ideas and implement them, went ever upwards to the stage where nearly all decisions were being made, in foreign policy terms, in No. 10 rather than in the Foreign Office. Once that happens, the capacity for independent and individual thought inside the Departments gets etiolated and that is a problem.

Q752 Chair: How do we need to adapt Government and the relationship between Ministers and their officials, as well as the administrative structure itself, to meet the challenges of the next 20, 30 or 50 years in this very dramatically changing environment, which is very different from Margaret Thatcher’s day?

Jonathan Powell: I have suggested a number of ideas, the most important of which, in my view, is making the thing more porous, with more people going in and out, so you are getting some of the skills from outside and people who have adapted to the modern world who break that pensée unique. There are also structural things you can do. In terms of strategy, if Departments have strategy units that are well led and valued by their Ministers and by No. 10, it can make a real difference. You will get interesting, exciting ideas. In terms of energy policy, we had some big successes from the strategy unit working for No. 10 coming up with really interesting, imaginative ideas, which looked at the future and the danger of the lights going out, and came up with answers, some of which were very difficult, like nuclear power. You can do that-it is not impossible-but you need leadership, you need ideas and people coming from outside, and you need structures that allow that sort of thought, in my view.

Q753 Alun Cairns: Mr Powell, you were talking earlier about how the power lies in the Departments, as No. 10 has limited resources and more influence than spending power. Therefore, do you think that the federal system of the Whitehall Departments is the best way?

Jonathan Powell: I was quoted 20 years ago saying I thought we wanted a more Napoleonic system. Of course, I should not have used a word with a foreigner involved because it immediately led to the wrong allusion. I do think that there needs to be more command and control from the centre if the system is going to work effectively, yes.

Q754 Alun Cairns: What positives or drawbacks do you then see in that?

Jonathan Powell: The drawbacks would be if the Departments become even less inclined to independent thought and simply become regimens for doing what they are told, because you want them to think and to argue but you do not want them to stop things happening. That is the downside of it. The advantage is that you would have a coherent Government. If you think about it as a car, if all the wheels are pointing in the same direction you have more chance of getting where you are going than if they are all pointing in different directions, which is what is happening at the moment.

Q755 Alun Cairns: Can we achieve the positives you have talked about with strong leadership but with the federal system?

Jonathan Powell: Yes you can, but it requires people to think about how they are constructing it and, particularly, for civil servants not to lose the will to argue. It is very important that they argue back, but that when the argument is settled, by the Minister deciding which way they are going, they do not carry on the argument but implement the policy.

Q756 Chair: You touched on quite an important drawback of just taking more power of direction to the centre. Are we not already seeing the effects of this? Is not one of the problems that Departments themselves feel emasculated? Who feels responsible for getting things done in a Government Department if No. 10 are constantly resetting the targets and recalibrating the policy? Nobody.

Jonathan Powell: That is one of the reasons I would name officials responsible for implementing particular aspects of policy, who would be rewarded or would suffer some consequences if the policy did not happen. If they are being frustrated by other things happening that are stopping them doing it, insufficient funds or whatever, they would have the chance to talk about that. At the moment no one is responsible; that is a problem.

Q757 Chair: We know who the Permanent Secretary is and we know who the Secretary of State is. They are responsible.

Jonathan Powell: That just takes you back to the old dropped bedpan problem. It does not solve the problem at all. You need someone who is implementing the policy to feel some responsibility for it, so it needs to be at a lower level. The other thing I was going to say is that one of the innovations that has happened, which I think is important and can make a big difference, is devolving more to a local level: some of the joint task forces we set up at local levels, such as the Youth Offending Teams, where you bring together different Departments and the Total Place budgets. There are problems with them, but they can make a real difference. What I would like to see is more innovation at that level, at the most local level, where people have budgets they can vire between the problems they face.

Q758 Chair: Imagine what it is to be a Secretary of State where No. 10 is taking more directive power to the centre and identifying named individuals, your subordinates, who are made more directly accountable and responsible for what is going on. The Permanent Secretaries and the Secretaries of State are becoming emasculated. They are losing their influence. The Cabinet is becoming a less meaningful body as the bringing together of all the great Departments of State.

Jonathan Powell: If you think of the analogy of a private company, if you make the sales manager responsible for sales, it does not mean the CEO does not have any responsibility. I do not think that is right. In the modern world, most companies and most charities are devolving power both downwards and upwards. That is what we have done with devolution in Britain as well.

Q759 Chair: That may be another issue, but have we not just created a kind of melée of such complexity that you would actually need to be a new Machiavelli in order to navigate this extremely complex system. Lines of responsibility are now so confused that nobody is responsible.

Jonathan Powell: That is exactly why I am saying that there should be named individuals who are responsible for implementing particular policy areas-not coming up with the policies but implementing them. The Secretary of State should be responsible for the policy direction, and the Cabinet and the Prime Minister should be responsible for policy direction, but you want a named person implementing them who is accountable to the Minister. They should not be accountable to anybody else, but accountable to the Minister who takes the blame in the end.

Q760 Chair: Look at the way we have been struggling with the UK Border Agency under this Government and the previous Government. We know who the head of the UK Border Agency is: he is just the one that gets sacked when it goes wrong now, even though he would argue it was not his fault but it was the direction he was given or the latitude he was given by the Secretary of State. What we have done is divide responsibility and accountability so that there is none.

Jonathan Powell: There is no logical reason why that should be done, it just means that people are not being held to account as they should be.

Q761 Chair: There is a failure of leadership.

Jonathan Powell: Possibly there is in that case. I do not know anything like enough about the UK Border Agency, but I do not think that by dividing accountability and responsibility you make it weaker; you can actually make it stronger.

Q762 Chair: Ultimately, do politicians not get the civil servants they deserve? We run the system, we are the Ministers and the Prime Minister and we hold them accountable. The system is as the politicians want it to be. If it is a mess and if, after 15 years, we have not been able to bring about much improvement, whose fault is that?

Jonathan Powell: We get the politicians we deserve because we vote for them. Civil servants are much harder to change because no one has voted for them and they have been there for a very long period of time.

Q763 Chair: Should the politicians stop blaming the civil servants and start taking more responsibility themselves?

Jonathan Powell: That is probably true historically of all Governments, yes, but I would much rather people concentrated on how those changes can happen. It is not impossible to change the system, it is just a very difficult problem and people need to focus on it for a long period of time, instead of the rolling series of small reforms we have had over a long period of time.

Q764 Chair: But if the leadership is inconsistent, short term and more concerned with headlines and news management than long-term objectives, the civil servants are going to be the same, are they not?

Jonathan Powell: Yes, but I am not necessarily accepting that that is the case. It will certainly have that result. One of the things I thought you were considering was a Royal Commission. I am a bit of a fan of Royal Commissions, having started my career in the BBC doing an Analysis programme on the Royal Commission on Health. There is a strong case for a really good look at the Civil Service-properly, right across the board and thinking about how to change it rather more dramatically. One of the mistakes we may have made in Government was trying to make a series of incremental changes, hoping that would make things better. I think you need to look at the whole system. What you tend to do is introduce perverse incentives. If you change one bit over here and one bit over there they work against each other and you would be much better having an overall plan, like a new NorthcoteTrevelyan.

Chair: That would be the first Royal Commission for more than 60 years, more than 55 years after the Fulton Committee.

Jonathan Powell: On the Civil Service, yes. There have been other Royal Commissions.

Q765 Chair: Would you want this Royal Commission to look at the relationship between Ministers and civil servants?

Jonathan Powell: I would have it look at the whole structure of the thing to see whether they could find a way in the modern world to make it more responsive, more imaginative and more innovative without undermining the political independence.

Chair: But it would have to look at the role of Ministers as well as the role of civil servants.

Jonathan Powell: Yes. I think there is a very good case for looking in particular at the role of Junior Ministers, which I gave evidence on to this Committee, or a Committee, at some stage.

Q766 Chair: Would you favour a Tyrie Commissionstyle Parliamentary Commission, as opposed to a Royal Commission.

Jonathan Powell: As I said, I am a bit of a fan of Royal Commissions so I would go for a Royal Commission to bring in a lot of outside expertise. I am not an expert on any of this; that is just my thought.

Chair: Thank you for that, we very much appreciate it.

Q767 Kelvin Hopkins: Can I take issue with your view that we do not have sufficient strong leadership? Look at what New Labour did. New Labour first of all stripped out opposition in the party. That was done by Mandelson, essentially controlling selections and getting a big majority for New Labour in the parliamentary party. Then the Cabinet became a cipher, effectively, over time. I understand that some Cabinet Ministers, if they spoke out of turn, were taken aside and told, "You do not do that, you listen to the leader." There were very powerful special advisers: Andrew Adonis is one in particular who really took over the Department for Education. He made the Secretary of State a bystander and drove through what he, and presumably the centre, wanted. They tried to get control of the media. The media were really seen as enemy in opposition. The only group they could not really control very well were the civil servants. Even they were marginalised to an extent. I have described what happened as not Machiavellian but Leninist. It was democratic centralism, which is the model you want, which has a very strong centre, where the centre decides things and ideas are fed out from the centre. It was not a democratic system where you have checks and balances and ideas and power feed up from the grassroots and ordinary people, but driven through by a wilful leader in a way that Lenin would have understood. Is that what it was about?

Jonathan Powell: No. I should say Andrew Adonis was a very effective special adviser and a very effective Minister subsequently and made some real changes to this country of which this country can feel proud. It was not a Leninist system. As I say, the guilty secret is how little power rests at the centre. We do have a very effective system of checks and balances in this country. There is an economist called Mancur Olson, who talks about the way that interference builds up in an economy. This applies to a political system too. When you have a political system unchanged for a long period of time, the checks become so sticky that nothing can get done at all. What you had was a New Labour Government that wanted to reform the country. It came in and it found it difficult to get reform done. The notion of the Civil Service as a guerrilla army running around and resisting the hegemony of New Labour is not correct. They were trying to do it but there was a culture built into it that made it difficult for them to do; it made them very cynical about change and new policy innovations. Despite that, a large number of changes were made and some of the results of those are now being seen. I think it was a big success.

Q768 Robert Halfon: How would you regard the Downing Street operation now, compared to when you were in charge?

Jonathan Powell: I do not think I am competent to comment on it; I do not know.

Robert Halfon: There has been a lot of talk about special advisers and that the Government does not have enough special advisers.

Jonathan Powell: I do know that it has more special advisers than we had at Number 10.

Q769 Robert Halfon: But political advisers across the board. Do you think the Government should have more political advisers or not?

Jonathan Powell: As I said earlier, there is a case for a greater degree of politics in Departments and possibly in No. 10. It is ridiculous to think that you can take politics out of the way that Government is run. It is about politics. But it is very important to keep a distinction between permanent civil servants and political appointees. The danger is if you do not have special advisers who can be sacked as soon as the Government or the Minister goes, you instead have civil servants who bend their view in order to fit with a particular Minister or Prime Minister. That is dangerous, as you inadvertently politicise the Civil Service. There is an advantage to have more special advisers, both expert and political.

Q770 Robert Halfon: You indicated in your book that a lot of your time was spent on man management, building relationships and soothing egos. You said that you had pretend strategy meetings with John Prescott in order to make him feel he was part of strategy meetings, and then you had the real strategy meetings without him. Do you think there needs to be a lot more of that in current politics? The criticism of the Downing Street operation is that there is not enough man management and it would benefit from that.

Jonathan Powell: Managing Cabinet Ministers, luckily, was not my job. It was done by Sally Morgan, Anji Hunter, Ruth Turner and others, so I did not have to spend much of my time doing it, and would not have been particularly good at it. As for this No. 10, I do not know. It has a Coalition Government so it must make it more difficult, but beyond that I honestly do not know.

Q771 Robert Halfon: But do you have a view on how the Downing Street operation is being run? You must have a view, as an outsider, having been in it.

Jonathan Powell: I was in it but I am not in this country much and I do not really feel competent to talk about it. I have not seen massive complaints about it, but it may just be that I am not reading the right papers.

Q772 Robert Halfon: What would you do to reform the Prime Minister’s Office now?

Jonathan Powell: We had a debate several times in Government that I have written about, between going for a Prime Minister’s Department and making it into a big powerful organisation at the centre. My brother worked for Mrs Thatcher for a long period of time and he was of the view that there should really only be one or two people in No. 10-usually him. My view was that it should be bigger than that to cope with the challenges of the modern world.

We had one official from the Kanzleramt in Germany, who came and studied with us for two weeks, looking at the way No. 10 worked, to see whether, under Schröder, they could introduce similar reforms in the Kanzerlamt. Before he went back he asked to see me and said, "Whatever you do, do not turn yourself into a Kanzleramt. Do not become a huge bureaucratic organisation." In the Kanzleramt they have Abteilungs shadowing every single Department in Government. That is partly because in Coalition Governments they must have representatives, and they have to have preCabinet meetings and all these kinds of things, but it becomes a huge bureaucracy.

My conclusion in the end is that it would be a mistake to turn No. 10 into a large, powerful Prime Minister’s Department with lots of people and lots of money. It is better to have something that has reasonable staffing but is relatively small and relatively responsible of the Prime Minister’s will, so that when someone rings up and hears "This is No. 10" it is not some young person who has no idea what the Prime Minister thinks, but someone who knows what the Prime Minister thinks. There are reforms I would make but I would not turn it into a larger Prime Minister’s Department.

Q773 Robert Halfon: Am I right in saying that you suggest having an Office for Budget Responsibility in order to counteract the Treasury?

Jonathan Powell: No, not to counteract the Treasury, on the contrary. In the United States there is the Office of Management and Budget, which is a very powerful body inside Government that co-ordinates the personnel and policy issues and the money and brings them together. Some other European Governments have similar bodies. I think it would be a good idea to take the spending function out of the Treasury, put it together with the management function of the Cabinet Office and have one central Department that is not headed by the Prime Minister but has its own Cabinet Minister who will be in charge of it, a very powerful Minister, to co-ordinate those things and make sure that when you are setting targets for Departments you have money that goes with it. The danger we had was that Gordon would set a whole series of targets with money and we would set other targets with no money, so you ended up with a mess. What you want is to have those two things co-ordinated.

Q774 Robert Halfon: Is the Office for Budget Responsibility a step towards that or not?

Q775 Jonathan Powell: No, as I understand it, that is doing something rather different. It is looking at the numbers and confirming them independently. That is something completely different. The OMB in the United States brings together the spending functions and the personnel functions. That is what I would do.

Q776 Chair: I think what you are recommending is that No. 10 should remain small; Secretaries of State and Permanent Secretaries should remain powerful and accountable; there should be more delegation within Departments to named individuals to improve accountability within Departments, but No. 10 should not be trying to second-guess every detail of Government policy in every Department. Does that not mean that No. 10 needs to do less in order to do it better, and should concentrate on the things that are important and not try to do everything?

Jonathan Powell: No. 10 should certainly not try to do everything. It could not possibly do it, even if it wanted to, given the number of people there. By necessity, in our system, it does have to avoid political traps and therefore look out for problems. As I guess this Government discovered, if you let health policy go off on its own, unchecked by No. 10 and unchecked by the centre of Government, some disastrous things happen and you suddenly realise and have to recreate the policy unit, bring people in and try to rescue it. That is a problem. You do have to watch out for those traps; you cannot just let a thousand flowers bloom. In terms of driving priorities, it should concentrate on a very small number of priorities that the Prime Minister has and try to make sure that they are delivered to the best of its ability. I favour devolving powers. One of the great things we did in Government was to devolve power to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and to local government. You want to do two things at once: have a more focused centre, and more power and more imagination at lower levels, particularly local levels.

Q777 Paul Flynn: As an occasional supporter of the Blair Government, my feelings about them were that they were timid when they were right and courageous when they were wrong. I am quite surprised to hear you say that an example of the brave new world that Tony Blair brought in was the change of mind on nuclear policy. That took place in 2007 when the official policy was that nuclear power was economically unattractive, and the basis for the change of policy was the belief that the advanced gascooled reactors were going to run out their lives in a short period and leave an energy gap. This was a falsehood, and months after the decision to go ahead with nuclear power was taken, the lives of the advanced gascooled reactors were extended and there was no energy gap. Look at the present chaos, with Électricité de France demanding a 40year guarantee price for electricity that is double the original price-this is going on currently. To take something where they were timid when they were right, the Birt Report on drugs suggested an alternative policy that was very similar to what Portugal has implemented very successfully. Is this true: were they timid when they were right?

Jonathan Powell: I think we were certainly timid. I guess I might agree with the first part of your dictum rather than the second bit. I do not think we were necessarily bold when we were wrong, but we were quite often timid when we were right and did not push it. I am not the person to give evidence on energy policy, but I think it was right to identify the energy gap that was coming and to find a way of dealing with it. You may disagree with nuclear power but that seemed to us to be the only way to fill that gap, because you were not going to be able to do it just with renewables.

Q778 Paul Flynn: You say you are not qualified, so we can judge the value of your contribution from that, but you did identify it. The Birt Report had to be leaked-it was not published-but it is probably the most progressive document on drugs by any Government in the last 60 years. Blair turned away from it.

Jonathan Powell: You told me that I am not qualified to answer, and you are quite right. I am not qualified on drugs either, but I rather agree that John did come up with a very radical report. It was so radical that it had Ministers running away from it straight away and leaking it to try to kill it off. That is one of the reasons why No. 10 is not strong enough. Sometimes, if you have very strong resistance and it is not top of your list of priorities, you tend to run away from these things.

Q779 Paul Flynn: On Permanent Secretaries, 18 of the Permanent Secretaries have been changed and only two are still in position. We have just had a very interesting situation involving a person who was approved by the Secretary of State, Ed Davey, and by a committee of civil servants, including Bob Kerslake who was on the committee. They approved David Kennedy as the future Permanent Secretary. He was turned down by David Cameron, presumably on the grounds of pressure from the global warming deniers on the Back Benches, who have been coming into the ascendency now in the Conservative party. Is this a desirable thing to do, that there should be political appointments of Permanent Secretaries, or should it be left to the traditional system of keeping it apart from political interference?

Jonathan Powell: I know nothing about the case you raise so I cannot comment on it. I think there is a case for Ministers being involved in senior appointments. It is a delicate issue because you do not want to politicise them, as you suggest, but at the moment they can choose their private secretaries and it seems to me that they should also be able to have a say in their Permanent Secretaries. I think it probably should include No. 10 from that point of view. If they were appointing people for purely political reasons-in other words, they were choosing someone they thought was more Tory than Labour-that would be a real problem. However, to deny Ministers a say over the people they are going to work most closely with is quite dangerous, because then you end up with them not working with each other and things not getting done. There is a very British type of balance that needs to be struck in the terms of those appointments.

Q780 Paul Flynn: You present a view of the Civil Service that is probably novel for this Committee and we want to take it seriously because of your great experience of these things. Is it really true that there is a spring in the step of civil servants when they come in to work in the mornings and think they are going to implement the Third Way or the Big Society?

Jonathan Powell: You correctly say that if they are left with very vague aspirations they find it very difficult to implement and very frustrating. In my experience, and I can only speak on the basis of 16 years-in the Foreign Office, not a domestic Department, and my years in Number 10-civil servants like to have a concrete clear policy and clear decision and then to implement it. That is what they really like to do.

Q781 Paul Flynn: You quote Machiavelli as saying that princes are at their best and their happiest when they are taking the big decisions like going to war. The result of this is what we have now, where we remember the name of Margaret Thatcher, but there has been no mention of Jamie Webb, who was the 441st person to die as a result of the hubris that inspired the Prime Ministers who all love to be at war. Thatcher did, Blair did and so does Cameron. They pull on the Churchillian rhetoric. Is this something you think is admirable in civil servants? We think of civil servants as people interested in stability, moderation and holding politicians back from taking decisions that involve the chaos and futile deaths of the wars we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jonathan Powell: Let me correct you on one point. In my experience, Prime Ministers do not like going to war. They actually find it personally very difficult indeed to make those sorts of decisions and they feel very personally the deaths that result, both our own servicemen and the people who suffer in the countries where the wars are happening. I do not think it is right to think that somehow Prime Ministers are gung-ho and dying to get up to their arms in blood. They are not like that. They want to avoid wars wherever they can. They only go into wars where they feel they are forced to.

In terms of civil servants, I think it is very important that civil servants challenge opinions when they are put forward, particularly when they relate to life and death issues such as war. It is important that they are engaged in discussions and important that the issue is argued out. What you do not want is pensée unique, where one person is saying, "This is what you must do" and everyone just goes along with it. That is the role of the Civil Service and, to the best of my experience, the role it tries to fulfil.

Q782 Paul Flynn: In your book you state: "It is desirable that Number 10 staff should not be directly answerable to Parliament" but that individual named civil servants should be held accountable for particular projects. How do you think the civil servants and special advisers should be held accountable for their performances?

Jonathan Powell: The point I was trying to make about accountability is that civil servants should be responsible to their bosses-to the Permanent Secretaries and to the Ministers-for delivering on particular objectives. In terms of accountability to Parliament, there is a problem. We developed a system, relatively recently, of civil servants giving more and more evidence to Parliamentary Committees. The danger is that they then lose accountability to their Ministers, particularly in No. 10. I was in favour of the Prime Minister being the person who answered for things that happened in No. 10, not the civil servants appearing before Cabinet Committees to answer for them. If you start taking it down to that level, within No. 10 in particular, basically what you end up with is a political bun-fest rather than serious discussion.

Q783 Paul Flynn: You write that your brother was protected by the system from giving evidence on Westland Helicopters, but you disagreed with Alastair Campbell, who wanted to give evidence to the Committee on the Iraq War, on the Gilligan incident. Do you still believe that civil servants should not give evidence at Select Committees?

Jonathan Powell: For the reason I just gave, I think civil servants from No. 10 should not give evidence to Select Committees-for the rules that have existed for a long period of time. I would be in favour of maintaining that, yes.

Q784 Paul Flynn: Do you agree with the view that the overriding ethos of the Civil Service is the unimportance of being right? Those who are cautious and follow their political masters are the ones whose careers prosper, but for the ones who oppose-like the ones who were opposed to Britain’s involvement in Bush’s war in Iraq-their careers wither.

Jonathan Powell: No. I think the first part of your statement is correct. There is a problem of excessive caution because the way the Civil Service, the rewards system and the reporting system is structured is a oneway bet. It is much better to be cautious and not to make a mistake than it is to suggest something innovative that could produce wonderful results but might fail. That is the problem we have with the Civil Service at the moment. I do not think it is the case that people who oppose things politically have their career wither. On the contrary: I have seen people go on to ever higher things if they have done such things.

Q785 Paul Flynn: One of the past mandarins reported that 75 Acts that went through in the last Government-they went through all the stages and were signed by the Queen-were never implemented and nothing happened. Was it a weakness of the previous Government to suffer from legislationitis?

Jonathan Powell: When you say the previous Government do you mean Gordon Brown?

Paul Flynn: No, no, I mean the whole of the 13 glorious years.

Jonathan Powell: I do not think of it as a whole period; I think of it as two periods.

Paul Flynn: There were 75 Acts.

Jonathan Powell: I have no idea, I am afraid, which Acts were not implemented. Tony Blair’s argument was that if you want to change culture and you want things to change, you need to introduce legislation to gear up the system. There is a lot of evidence that that was correct. It is true that many senior civil servants thought there were too many Bills going through, particularly in the crime area. He was strongly of the view, and he was the political leader, that that was the right thing to do and that it made a difference. But the actual individual Bills you refer to, I am afraid I do not know what they were and why.

Q786 Paul Flynn: There is a fascinating part of your book where you describe the final decision on the Dome. This was an almost guaranteed disaster, which had virtually no support in the tea room in this House and no support from the Cabinet, as far as we could see. There was a Committee that met, with everyone being opposed to the Dome, yet the conclusion that came out was that it was a good thing. I am paraphrasing what you said. Here was something that had "failure" written all over it in large red letters but Tony Blair pursued it to his own detriment. Was this Cabinet Government?

Jonathan Powell: If you read that bit of my book, Tony Blair left the meeting before the decision was made, leaving it to John Prescott. He himself was actually fairly ambivalent about the subject, but John Prescott thought he was in favour and concluded the meeting, therefore, in favour. It was an interesting example of Cabinet Government, where the conclusion was reached without the person who was supposed to be imposing it on the Cabinet. Interestingly, if you look back on the Dome now, the Dome now seems to be a great success; it is a fantastic venue in London and is widely used. The actual launch of it was not anyone’s idea of a success, or the content of it, but the actual building itself has turned out to be a real landmark in London. Funnily enough, you may end up sometimes with a success even if you start with a failure.

Q787 Paul Flynn: You do have a reluctance to be self-critical about your period in Government, I am afraid; that is the impression I have from your evidence this morning. It obviously was a golden age in your view, although perhaps not in everyone’s. The point was that a Cabinet discussion was held, apparently nobody was in favour, but the conclusion was passed to the absent Prime Minister of, "This was fine, carry on, we are all behind you." Is that true? Is that Cabinet Government as we know it?

Jonathan Powell: I have quite strong views about Cabinet Government, which I have written about at length, but I do not know that you necessarily want to hear them all over again here, so I would disagree with you about the purpose of Cabinet Government. I fear that the Dome thing was, essentially, a rather odd accident but the way it came about was not quite as people thought it was at the time. I do not think it really illustrates anything much about Cabinet Government, apart from how new Governments work. I hope I have not been unself-critical. There are plenty of criticisms about our time with which I would agree. I do think it is a better period than some people remember it as being, even some supporters of the Government.

Chair: The Dome originated under the previous Government, so let us share the pain as well as the glory for that particular project.

Q788 Kelvin Hopkins: In 2002 you recommended that the role of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service should be split into two, with the latter responsibilities going to "a new chief executive for the Civil Service". Do the dual posts held by Sir Jeremy Heywood and Bob Kerslake fit this model?

Jonathan Powell: Partially. It split the job as we had discussed at that period and again later. What they did not do was appoint an outsider to the chief executive job. They appointed someone who was an insider but had had some time outside, so they did not have the courage of their convictions, when they pushed it through, to put an outsider into that job. I do think splitting the job is a good idea, yes.

Q789 Kelvin Hopkins: Bob Kerslake is, relatively, an outsider. He is relatively new to the senior Civil Service isn’t he? He was the chief executive of a local authority, and obviously a very able person, but he was an outsider with a lot of managerial experience.

Jonathan Powell: Yes, as I said, he is a partial outsider. I would have gone the whole hog, had I been in Government. I read in the newspapers that they originally intended to appoint a fully fledged outsider, not a recent outsider.

Q790 Kelvin Hopkins: Do you mean somebody from business who has the business ethos rather than the public service ethos?

Jonathan Powell: Not necessarily, but someone who has come directly from outside and has real change management experience.

Q791 Chair: Who did you want? Alistair Burt?

Jonathan Powell: I had no dogs in the race.

Chair: Do I mean Alistair Burt? I mean John Birt.

Jonathan Powell: I think Alistair Burt is one of yours. I did not want John Birt. Do you mean when we were in Government?

Chair: Yes.

Jonathan Powell: No, we never considered John Birt for it. We never got past the issue of principle with our various Cabinet Secretaries, so we never got to deciding on names at all or even considering names.

Q792 Chair: Would it be a business figure?

Jonathan Powell: It could be a business figure.

Chair: A Terry Leahy?

Jonathan Powell: I really had not thought of names, but someone who had real success at turning something around and really bringing about change management would be what I would go for.

Q793 Kelvin Hopkins: Was this really about trying to centralise as much power as possible in the hands of the Prime Minister and the small coterie of people with him? Cabinet became a cipher; the Civil Service was still too powerful so if you split the job you weaken them. You make one a very political job, who can be completely under the control of the Prime Minister and the other one just manages and is not a political figure in any sense. Again, it is focusing as much power in the hands of the Prime Minister, given that Parliament has become tamed by a big majority of supporters of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet has become a cipher and Cabinet Ministers are fearful that if they really stick up and fight they might lose their jobs. The power is really in the hands of this small group of people, yourself included, perhaps Alastair Campbell and the special advisers-who are equivalent to commissars, in my view-to make sure that policies are carried out and the civil servants do what they are told. Is it not just about weakening the core of the Civil Service?

Jonathan Powell: No. By the way, Alastair Campbell had left by that stage. The point was actually, if anything, to remove power from the centre by having someone who was focusing exclusively on management of the Civil Service and injecting ideas from outside. It would not be a Prime Ministerial appointment from civil servants that he knew; it would be someone he probably did not know from outside who had had an exclusively management job. That would release the Cabinet Secretary, as now, to focus on policy issues and the other issues the Cabinet Secretary needs to focus on. They are two very different jobs. To be honest, you would be much better off in other Departments if you had a similar split. You really want someone who is the CEO, who is running the Home Office, and someone else who is doing the policy and crisis management. To try to do the two jobs at once really conflicts. The Civil Service has never managed to get that stage. The MOD occasionally teeters on the brink of doing that, but has never quite got to it. That, in my view, would be a better way to divide the responsibilities.

Kelvin Hopkins: I could go on, I have more questions, but I shall leave it there.

Q794 Chair: You have lamented the fact that the Prime Minister in our system has very little direct power. Do you think the Prime Minister is strengthened by dividing the office of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service so that he has to talk to the Cabinet Secretary about one group of Departments and policy matters, and has to talk to somebody else with regard to the governance of the Civil Service, leadership of the Civil Service and socalled delivery Departments? Do you think this makes the Prime Minister stronger or weaker?

Jonathan Powell: I do not think it makes any difference to the power of the Prime Minister, but it might make the jobs better done.

Q795 Chair: It makes it more complicated, does it not?

Jonathan Powell: There is some crossover, but not a huge amount, between those two functions. If you are really trying to reform the Civil Service, to do it as a management job, that is a very different job from managing policy, coming up with policy ideas and the other things the Cabinet Secretary does. It is very difficult to have someone with the right skill set to do both those jobs; they do not often go together.

Q796 Chair: I think it was Lord Armstrong who commented to us that when it was suggested to Lady Thatcher-or Mrs Thatcher as she then was-that the job of the Head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary should be divided, she remarked, "We do not want to go back to a Pinky and Perky arrangement, do we?"

Jonathan Powell: She was, of course, the person who abolished the division in the first place when she came in, sacked the Head of the Civil Service and merged it into one job with the Cabinet Secretary. It had been separated before, although not with an outsider. I think she was wrong.

Q797 Chair: The Prime Minister is Minister for the Civil Service, so there is a divided report to the Prime Minister on matters of Civil Service. We have already seen that the Cabinet Secretary might take the Treasury’s part in a row about universal credit because the Permanent Secretary at DWP does not report to the Cabinet Secretary; he reports to Sir Bob Kerslake. It has created division in Government.

Jonathan Powell: I do not think that is right. In the old days you would still find the DWP resisting it, even if it was the Cabinet Secretary signing off on his report. One of the problems is that Permanent Secretaries do not pay attention to the Head of the Civil Service or the Cabinet Secretary. It is one of the bits that is missing in a command and control structure. They regard themselves as feudal barons, dependent on their Secretaries of State and their budgets, and not answerable to the Cabinet Secretary or anyone else.

Q798 Chair: What qualitative difference do you think it would make if the Head of the Civil Service was the Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, rather than a part-time Permanent Secretary in another Department?

Jonathan Powell: Making them a part-time Permanent Secretary is quite tricky, I agree. I would have had someone from outside and was CEO of the Civil Service sitting in the Cabinet Office and not responsible for any particular Department but simply responsible for all the Departments. It would be back to the old Head of the Civil Service, but not Head of the Treasury at the same time.

Q799 Chair: Finally, can I ask about your confidence in the future of the present system? Do you feel that the Civil Service Reform Plan is addressing the continued concerns that people legitimately have about the Civil Service? You have already commented that you think we need a wider and deeper look at it through a Royal Commission, or a Parliamentary Commission. What is your prognosis of the present system if we do not do this reconsideration in the modern context of our system of Government?

Jonathan Powell: It will muddle along, as we always do in this country. It will continue much the same. We will still be a well governed country, relatively, but we will lose opportunities to be better governed and to get more stuff done that Governments want to get done. It would be a lost opportunity. From the experience of lots of bitty bits of reform cobbled together, you would be better off with a rootandbranch look at it through a Royal Commission. That would be my view.

Q800 Chair: Do you not think we are seeing an increase in the incidence of systemic collapse in bits of Government? John Reid, as Home Secretary, announced that the Home Office was not fit for purpose. There was the breakdown of the UK Border Agency and the Immigration Service. One thing after another seems to be reaching crisis point. Do you not think that this indicates that the ship of state is becoming unsteady?

Jonathan Powell: No I do not think so. You can look back at the BSE crisis, when we came into Government, and previous crises where Ministries really were getting into terrible difficulties; this is not the first time this has happened. Maybe in the modern world it happens with greater regularity and happens more often.

Q801 Chair: BSE is a different case; BSE was an external shock.

Jonathan Powell: Yes, but the Department struggled and failed to deal with it.

Q802 Chair: Dare I mention footandmouth? There was exactly the same problem. The Home Office not being fit for purpose and the collapse of the UK Border Agency are internally driven systemic problems-the problems we have in HMRC. These are internally created crises.

Jonathan Powell: They are not; they are created by the crisis outside, like being overwhelmed by the numbers of immigrants or overwhelmed by the ability to cope with the paperwork concerned. They are systems that are not functioning in the face of an outside challenge. If the outside challenge continued the same they would still muddle along.

Q803 Chair: But you do not see us on a particular upward trend or downward trend?

Jonathan Powell: Again, I am not sure I am really competent to talk about it. I suspect what is happening is that things are happening more often, because the modern world involves more different challenges, and there is more transparency about the failures that happen, rather than their being covered up. That is what I would suspect is happening, but I am not any sort of expert.

Q804 Chair: If the Government will not carry out this rootandbranch reconsideration and reassessment of the role of Ministers in the Civil Service, is that not in itself a failure of leadership?

Jonathan Powell: They will make their own decisions, no doubt on the basis of-

Chair: I hear the civil servant in you coming out.

Jonathan Powell: On the basis of what they want to achieve. They have to decide what their priorities are. They may have other priorities, but for me, one of the priorities would be to try to make a really rootandbranch effort to tackle this problem, rather than just to leave it to lots and lots of little crises and little reforms.

Q805 Kelvin Hopkins: Could I make one point about the UK Border Agency and HMRC? I agree with you, actually, that it is outside factors that cause the problem. Governments, first of all, refused to staff the UK Border Agency to a sufficient level and invariably were much more relaxed about immigration than they should have been. It became less disciplined and less good. I know people who worked at the UK Border Agency down in Croydon and they say that it is chaos because there are mountains of files and backlogs with not enough people doing the job and not enough permanent staff with skills. In HMRC, in my view, they were wrongly given the responsibility of handing out benefits, when they should be a tax collecting body, and staffing was cut, cut and cut again and they became a weaker body than they had been 20 or 30 years previously. It was outside factors that made them weak, not internal problems with weak civil servants. Is that not the case?

Jonathan Powell: I am not competent to comment. I suspect that if I looked at it I would probably end up agreeing with you, but I do not know enough to be sure.

Q806 Paul Flynn: You provoke us into more questions, I am afraid. You mentioned BSE and you give an interesting story of how Ron Davies, as Secretary of State for Wales and Jack Cunningham at Agriculture charged in and demanded a ban on certain types of meat-

Jonathan Powell: Beef on the bone, yes.

Paul Flynn: On the basis of the usual political mistake of taking decisions on the basis of perception, prejudice and pressure. Tony Blair, who was not well versed in these matters, took the wrong decision on that. Is this not one of the curses of politics: instead of looking at the big picture, stepping back and taking an evidencebased decision, they are subjected to pressure, perception and prejudices? That decision was a poor decision, like so many other political decisions taken by Governments.

Jonathan Powell: That is the point I am making in the book. Particularly early on in Government you tend to get yourself rolled into these decisions and rushed into them by people coming in and telling you that you must take a decision now, when in fact you do not have to take a decision now and would be better off thinking about it and making a more considered judgment. I agree. In my experience, people change their minds and deal with things better the longer they have been in Government and the better they are able to manage the Government machine, but it is a real danger all the time.

Q807 Paul Flynn: The problem was that in that case, even in the worst possible case presented by the two Ministers, the problems would have been of protozoan dimensions. They would have been tiny: half a dozen possible problems across the whole United Kingdom. That is the great weakness of Government; would you agree?

Jonathan Powell: I do not know if it is the great weakness, but it is a great weakness.

Paul Flynn: Okay thanks.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed for your evidence today. It has been fascinating to gain an insight into your own experiences and to hear your perspective. I am grateful to you. Thank you very much indeed for coming.

Prepared 5th September 2013