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The Civil Service

4.55 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale rose to call attention to the role of the Civil Service; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I cannot claim that the topic selected for this debate is the most glamourous that can be devised. However, it is important and I am most grateful for the impressive list of speakers. So impressive is it that I was tempted to speak very briefly and then to sit back and listen. It was a temptation that I decided to resist.

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From a plethora of documents I pick out the Government's White Paper of last July, the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee of another place and the White Paper which the Government slipped out last Thursday with all the fanfare of a reply to an arranged Question for Written Answer. I believe that some of the Government's conclusions may have to be looked at afresh when we have the Scott and possibly the Nolan reports. And so far we have had only the most sketchy outline of what is to happen to the Diplomatic Service, a matter on which the recent White Paper was totally silent. The White Papers, incidentally, have the slight disadvantage of being printed on glossy paper, which makes them quite difficult to read in certain lights.

I am not against change and I recognise that the service cannot be exempt from a share in the mistakes and failures of our post-war history. There are legitimate criticism which, no doubt, we shall hear as the debate proceeds. But when I sat on the Fulton Committee, for instance, I found that the Civil Service was one institution in this country which commanded respect elsewhere, even in France. My theme tonight is to ask whether, notwithstanding all the fine words in the White Papers, the changes already made and those in prospect may be going too far in risking the loss of some of the virtues of the service. I have in mind integrity, loyalty, political impartiality and objectivity, and an ability to respect confidences.

In the time available I shall concentrate on just two topics out of many. The first is the management and provision of services by the executive agencies set up under the Next Steps programme. The second is the support of Ministers on issues of policy.

Nearly two thirds of the Civil Service now work in the executive agencies, if one includes the executive structures of the two revenue departments. Each of them has its fashionable key performance targets and is run by a chief executive. The Government, for some reason, seem especially proud of the fact that a majority of those chief executives come from outside the Civil Service. Last December, we had a weighty report extolling the virtues of these new creations and reminding us that between them they had won no fewer than 30 charter marks. The concept found favour with the Commons Select Committee, so it is perhaps churlish to harbour any reservations.

I wonder whether the recent discussions about the Prison Service and, notwithstanding all the explanations, the doubts which many of us still have about the blurring of responsibilities at the top, may prove to be a foretaste of the need to revise our traditional notions of ministerial responsibility to Parliament.

I have time to touch on only a couple of other aspects. The first is the issue of financial probity. I believe that the Welsh Development Agency is not technically a Next Steps body and I shall not dwell on its lamentable record. But it strikes me that the recent White Paper is perhaps a shade over-complacent in ruling out any possible connection between the upheaval in the service and the report of the Public Accounts Committee that it had come across a number of serious failures in

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administrative and financial systems which represented a departure from the standards of public conduct established over the past 140 years.

If there is no conceivable cause for concern, I wonder why the White Paper announced that a new handbook would be issued to all agency chief executives setting out the rules on conduct and financial propriety. The Comptroller and Auditor General, in his evidence to the Select Committee, went further and urged that there should always be discussion with a new chief executive on those issues before he took up his post, and not just on what contribution his expertise would bring. I ask whether that is to be done.

My second point in that context is that one of the main aims of the Northcote-Trevelyan report was to mitigate the evils which resulted from a fragmented service. The theory of a uniform service was still alive at the time of Fulton but now it seems to have gone and instead we have the vision of a federal structure—ominous words, those—of autonomous units. Some of those brought in from outside have difficulty in recognising that they are civil servants. I wonder what will happen over the years to any concept of a public service ethos and just where loyalty will lie.

There may also be some rather strange practical consequences. With delegated powers of settling pay, two civil servants doing strictly comparable jobs may receive quite different rates of salary, something that has just been condemned roundly by the Audit Commission in respect of local government. I know that we cannot put the clock back but there are real dangers. When the Minister responds, I wonder whether he will be able to give us any words of comfort.

I turn to my second main theme—helping Ministers on the development and implementation of policy which I believe, unlike the Home Secretary, cannot be altogether separated. What is now in prospect is a senior Civil Service of some 3,500 individuals down to the present Grade 5, whatever that may be, including all agency chief executives. The inclusion of those executives prompts me to ask whether, when they complete their contracts, they will be subject to the normal restrictions on civil servants taking other jobs when leaving—the two-year moratorium and so on—and if so, whether they are warned about that at the outset.

As I understand it, before any single vacancy among those 3,500 is filled, the question of whether to advertise, either in the service or by full open competition, will have to be considered. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that the first advertisement for a permanent secretary post has appeared, and that in Mr. Portillo's department. Contracts are to be introduced for all 3,500, normally for an indefinite term but with specified periods of notice. There is to be a single pay scale for all permanent secretaries, the individual's position within that range being settled by a remuneration committee which will include outside members.

As I see it, the problem is that there is more to work of that kind than measurable management skills. We are talking of people who, on what has happened hitherto, have devoted a career to administration and to gaining

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experience of the unique relationship between the Executive and the legislature, with a strong service-wide ethic, and trained to tender independent advice, whether palatable or not, to governments of any political complexion. The July White Paper says that the contracts will put those people more on a par with their counterparts in other walks of live. But there are not any counterparts in other walks of live. There is a special art of government, so I believe, which cannot be acquired overnight, as the Clinton Administration found out. There is a need for a profession, as someone put it, which is able to translate the language of politics into the language of government. I believe that deeply, but I do not get much sense of it from the two White Papers. Behind all the words, they make one wonder whether any place is to be left for the public service ethic in a world of contracting-out and market testing.

I ask your Lordships to consider whether someone brought in from outside, with a business ethic and on a short-term contract, could be counted on to act, as the relevant Permanent Secretary acted, in setting down his objections to the Pergau Dam project, which was something by no means without precedent. I do just wonder.

On a practical point, the prospect that the number of posts at the top will be reduced as the service shrinks and that some of that reduced number of posts will be filled from outside serves only to diminish the attractiveness of the service for the prospective bright young entrant.

As regards pay, there is already a great deal of scepticism about performance-related pay for people of lesser ranks. I am baffled to know what are the criteria for a permanent secretary. Does he score a mark every time he prevents his Minister doing something foolish and lose one every time he fails to do so? Or possibly, is it the other way round? How on earth is the remuneration committee to know?

One feature of the latest White Paper is to be applauded; that is, the decision to introduce a code of ethics with a right of appeal. There may be arguments about the contents of the code and the appeal procedure but I have gradually come round to the view that the case for some sort of code is indeed made out.

I am not so sure about the need for legislation giving statutory backing to the terms and conditions of service of civil servants, presumably including diplomats. In the recent White Paper the Government suggest that there is something to be said for legislation if it can be based on a cross-party consensus. It is interesting that they are talking of consulting the other parties on that fairly narrow issue when, as far as I know, no initiative was taken by way of cross-party consultation on the drastic changes already decided by the Government without even seeking a parliamentary debate.

My time is nearly up. I just wish to say that if things go on as now proposed and if, in a couple of years, a bright young man were to ask me whether I should recommend his joining the service as a career, I fear that having first enjoined him to have a care about talking of anything so old-fashioned as a career, for the first time I should tell him to hesitate for a very long time indeed and to consider carefully other possibilities

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before joining the service which I was proud to serve for the whole of my working life. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen, for bringing this subject before it this afternoon. Indeed I believe that the House will be grateful to him in a longer-term sense for his most notable contributions to our deliberations. I am especially grateful to him for special services rendered nearly 30 years ago.

As the noble Lord said, there is a notable list of participants in the debate, although there are some notable categories of absence. For example, there is no noble Lord present, whose experience is primarily a business experience, to tell us about the virtues of business values and business practices in the Civil Service; nor is there a very strong what I would call "mainstream" Conservative representation among today's speakers. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, is to speak. But, sparkling a speaker though the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, may be, I do not believe that he exactly represents the mainstream governing Conservative tradition.

However, we are very rich in Permanent Secretaries. The debate is almost a reunion to me. I say that because, among the speakers today, there are no fewer than three Permanent Secretaries who—and I am not sure how to put this: if I say, "Who served me", I would regard that as being presumptuous; if I say, "Who I served with", that would not be exactly true because that would imply that I was a Permanent Secretary which, alas, I am not; but if I say, "Under whom I served", that would not be true either. However, in making a farewell speech once to a very powerful and authoritative Permanent Secretary—not, I should add, a Permanent Secretary in your Lordships' House—I said, as a joke, that I had assembled the four Home Secretaries who had served under Sir Charles.

It is the case that there are three speakers with whom, whatever the appropriate word is, I served as a Minister when they were Permanent Secretaries. There is a fourth from another branch of the service who I think once believed that I was due to come to him as Secretary of State—indeed, I would have done so had the electorate not decided otherwise—who braced himself for the experience. As a result of that, I have been left with an almost unalloyed admiration for the British higher Civil Service as it has evolved and developed. It has certainly not been static in the 140 years since the Northcote-Trevelyan report and the 120 years since it was implemented.

Perhaps some of the virtues of the higher Civil Service have been what are called "mandarin virtues". But the field of recruitment has been by no means exclusive. Of the three most outstanding Permanent Secretaries whom I had, two of them were without the benefit of Oxbridge. Indeed, one of them was a boy entrant into the Civil Service but, nonetheless, he became a distinguished Permanent Secretary. I also believe that they maintained genuine political

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impartiality. For example, when my experience with working in the Civil Service began in 1964, I believe that, on the whole, senior civil servants welcomed the change of government. That was not because of any ideological prejudice, but because they thought that 13 years was long enough—so, indeed, it was; and longer is more than enough—for the healthy working of the system. But, I should say that they maintained their impartiality by becoming fairly quickly disenchanted with the deficiencies of the new government, although certainly not to the extent of ceasing to do their best for us.

Similarly, I never found that civil servants wanted to dominate Ministers and do their job for them. If a Minister cannot make up his mind, then the civil servants will have to move in, fill the vacuum and provide him with some sort of makeshift policy. But, in my view, high quality officials always prefer a strong Minister to a weak one. They have a very shrewd conviction that someone who is putty in the hands of the department, will be putty in the hands of the Cabinet and will be pushed around by the House of Commons with the general result of low standing and low morale for the whole department.

I believe that what senior civil servants want—and rightly so—is a Minister who will treat them with respect and courtesy and give rational consideration to their arguments. But if the decision goes against them at the end of the day, they will nearly always accept it and carry out the contrary decision with loyalty and goodwill.

Just so that it will not be thought that I am painting too idealised a picture, I should stress that on about two occasions I received bad advice on major policy issues. However, it was my fault for taking that advice. When I set those two occasions against the innumerable ones on which I received good advice, it is as nothing in the balance.

I have been talking about 25 years ago. But is the position as rosy today? I am afraid that I do not think so. Civil Service morale is pretty poor. The prestige of being a high functionary has not fallen as much as that of being a Minister or an MP; but it is not what it was. As the quality of Ministers has gone down, so the dependence of officials upon them has become greater. In my view, they have become more dependent on Ministers for their promotions, for their honours and even, as may now be the case, for the renewal of their contracts. Yet it is essential that officials should speak fearlessly and forthrightly at times to Ministers. There is a danger of creating a web of caution and sycophancy.

Equally, the field of the operations of civil servants has been invaded by quangos, by businessmen brought in to do jobs that have hitherto been performed by officials—with precious little evidence that they do it better—and there are also too many junior Ministers who can often get in the way of the proper relationship between the Secretary of State and his senior officials. It is extraordinary that, as the functions of government departments and the number of their senior officials are cut down, so the number of junior Ministers is at a record level. I suppose that it is thought to be the only way of stopping their intriguing on the Back-Benches.

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All that, combined with a Government-encouraged climate which increasingly worships Mammon rather than respects public service, gives me serious worry about the ability of a battered Civil Service to retain its drawing power for high quality applicants. I earlier cited two exceptional people who did not need Oxbridge to get to the top of the Civil Service. Nonetheless, it is the case that those universities with their traditional encouragement of articulateness, both on paper and in speech, and emphasis upon critical methods of thought rather than purely specialised knowledge should remain important reservoirs of recruitment for the Civil Service.

However, to cite a by no means wholly irrelevant parallel, the percentage of Oxford graduates going into teaching has fallen from 30 per cent. before the war, to 8 per cent. 20 years ago to 2 per cent. today. That has not been good for teaching and I doubt whether that has been good for the University of Oxford. But the scissors effect of the lure of Mammon and a battering of the prestige of teaching has done the deadly work. The numbers involved in entry to the higher Civil Service have always been much smaller, but I could see the same process—certainly upon the highest quality of potential recruits—operating there.

Unless this Government, or a future government, take early action to restore the quality and the morale of the Civil Service, I see the dismal prospect of our weakening what has been one of Britain's most famous world assets, and in the name of what?—of introducing business values and business methods into the public service. At least since the end of the 19th century Britain, to be blunt, has not been particularly good at business. Such success as we have achieved has mostly come from refugees or other immigrants. But what Britain has been particularly good at has been maintaining a Civil Service which has been outstanding throughout the world. Cannot we have some sense of proportion and of historical perspective?

5.21 p.m.

Lord Dean of Harptree: My Lords, it is wholly appropriate that this important debate should be introduced by a distinguished, retired civil servant with an outstanding record of service to our country. I am glad that he started his speech by saying that we can be justly proud that we have a Civil Service which is able, loyal, impartial and wholly incorruptible. Would it not be nice if that could be said of all other countries in the world?

As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, has just said, there is normally a strong bond of trust and confidence between the civil servant who advises on policy and the Minister who has to make decisions. The civil servant is the expert. He puts the pros and cons of a particular course of action before Ministers, and the effect that a particular course will have on other activities. The Minister is the amateur. He has to make up his mind what course to take having received the advice, and above all of course, if he is wise, he has to ask himself: can I get this policy accepted in Parliament and will it be regarded as fair and reasonable by the

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public? The relationship between Ministers and officials is the hallmark of our system of government. It serves us well. It provides for both innovation and continuity.

I remember very well, as a young, very green Minister, in 1970, being sent to the then Department of Health and Social Security. It was thought by the pundits that the Conservatives would lose that election. Therefore I was agreeably surprised when I reached that department to find the amount of work that civil servants had done on what Conservatives had been saying in Opposition. The papers were prepared for us on day one. That, I think, is a remarkable tribute to the way in which our Civil Service operates.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen, mentioned executive agencies. I have also been asking myself the question: how do these fit in with the traditional Civil Service? I am glad that the Government have made clear in successive White Papers that the arrangements for policy formation will remain unaltered and that the executive agencies will deal with administration. They have performance targets. I believe their work has sharpened administration in our country. I believe that they are more responsive now to those they serve and that they provide better value for money. All this is of course in keeping with the Citizen's Charter.

Some doubts were expressed when agencies were first introduced whether there would be a dilution of parliamentary accountability. I think one only has to look at the recent troubles within the Child Support Agency to see that Parliament has adequate means of giving Ministers a rough ride if it feels that that is necessary, and of persuading Ministers that they should change course. In some of the other agencies, for example those which pay out social security benefits or those which collect taxes, there is little difference in practice as regards parliamentary accountability. It was always the case in the old days that a Member of Parliament who had a constituent with a grievance would take up that case with the local social security office or the local inspector of taxes, where he would normally receive satisfactory redress. That still obtains today. However, the Member of Parliament still of course has the all-important reserve power in that if he is dissatisfied with the answer he is given from the agency, he can reserve the right to take up the matter with the Minister concerned or to raise it on the Floor of the House of Commons.

There has been a good deal of criticism lately of the role of quangos as distinct from elected bodies, such as local authorities. I believe that local authorities have an important role in the government of our country. They are a link in the democratic process. They give local people opportunities to serve their community and to gain experience about the way government works. However, elected councillors do not guarantee good administration or a response to the needs and wishes of people. All your Lordships, I am sure, will recollect cases of oppressive regimes running council house estates. One of the many great advantages of the sale of council houses is that one can now paint one's own front door the colour that suits one and not the colour that suits the local council.

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Another example is the local management of schools. We now have a situation where governors, parents and teachers are able to make decisions based on their local knowledge. I suggest to your Lordships that this is a better arrangement than having to refer decisions to slow moving county council bureaucracy. I suggest that there is a case for quangos and for bodies that are appointed and not directly elected to assist in administration in an increasingly complex society. What really matters is whether these bodies are effectively accountable. Do they have clear terms of reference? Do they have performance targets? If they do, it seems to me that they have a valuable function to perform.

I now turn to the more controversial area of the National Health Service. There is criticism of National Health Service trusts and of GP fund-holding. I realise that these are controversial matters, but I do not believe that they would have developed to the extent that they have unless there was a popular demand for them. I believe that the Government deserve credit for the reforms in the Civil Service which have been introduced in recent years. I believe equally that the Civil Service has nothing to fear from these reforms. It enables it, in my view, to give more attention to helping Ministers to get policies right for the benefit of the community. This is the job that only our Civil Service can do, and on the whole it does it superbly well.

5.29 p.m.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I, too, wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on introducing not an insignificant debate, as he seemed to imply at the outset, but a rather important one. Like him, in general I agree with paragraph 1.1 of what the Government say in the July White Paper. They state that our Civil Service has:

    "a high reputation, nationally and internationally"—

as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, even in France—

    "for its standards of integrity, impartiality and loyal service to the Government of the day".

However, the fact that there have been two White Papers in six months and a report of an important Select Committee in another place indicates that there are grounds for concern, which I share, that standards are in serious danger of deterioration. There is a danger of the erosion of the very ethos of the Civil Service, and the qualities of which we are rightly proud.

A survey of more than 4,000 civil servants, referred to in paragraph 84 of the Select Committee report, found exactly that; namely:

    "a belief that the public service ethos is being eroded".

I have two major concerns. The first is the devolution to agencies or quangos. Today 20 per cent. of officials are based in those non-departmental agencies. Last April they numbered 110,200, according to a Written Answer which I received yesterday, and at the same date there were 533,000 civil servants in the Civil Service.

My second concern is the effect of 15 years of single party government on the Civil Service we care so much about.

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On the first point, I do not necessarily complain about the transfer to quangos. Indeed, I welcome the point made in paragraph 3.9 of the January White Paper about the improvement in value for money. That is very important. But my concern arises in relation to issues raised by probably the most important all-party Select Committee—which I had the honour to chair myself—the Public Accounts Committee. Robert Sheldon, my successor as Chairman, who has been chairman for 11 years and therefore has great experience, referred in evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee to the eighth report of the Public Accounts Committee issued last year. That was a devastating report. It covered various non-departmental bodies, including the Welsh National Development Agency and the Wessex Water Authority.

Much worse was what he said in replying to questions from the Select Committee. In reply to question 1576 on page 92 of the report he said that he found a common thread running through recent examples. That has to be worrying, coming from an all-party Select Committee. There was no disagreement in that committee about the point that Robert Sheldon made.

I am pleased that, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said, the Government have at last recognised that there is a serious problem. David Hunt, the Minister concerned, will announce new guidance on ethics for quango members. Indeed, there is a possibility of a new code for civil servants, possibly having statutory status. I do not know whether statutory status will be necessary, but Mr. Hunt spoke of the possibility of setting up the code of practice jointly with the Opposition. I hope that my noble friends will co-operate and work to find an appropriate code which can work effectively. If it is not agreed between the three major parties, it will not work effectively.

My next major anxiety concerns the effect of 15 years of single-party government. Sir Robin Butler himself conceded (in paragraph 81 of the Select Committee report) that the length of time one party has been in office might give rise to scepticism about continuing impartiality. There is the possibility of further evidence of falling standards when the results of the Nolan and Scott inquiries are published.

Jim Plowden, the former head of the Central Policy Review Staff, has said that a number of Ministers are reluctant to entertain unfavourable advice and, as a consequence, officials are reluctant to tender it. That is understandable. Apparently junior Ministers are asking civil servants to draft political speeches. Perhaps the civil servants can draft them better than the Ministers, but it cannot be right for civil servants to accept that approach.

We are told that civil servants can appeal to Sir Robin Butler. There has been only one appeal in nine years. That is hardly surprising. I regret to say—because I like Sir Robin—that I fear that he has compromised himself. He did so especially by agreeing to investigate charges against Ministers at the request of the Prime Minister. He should have refused. I am not sure to whom he could have appealed, but he should have refused to carry out such an investigation. That is one of the ways in which he compromised himself.

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Elizabeth Symons, General Secretary of the First Division Association, told the Select Committee that civil servants fear that if they appeal they will be singled out and pilloried by Ministers. That is not a matter that we can laugh away. It is very important. I therefore welcome paragraph 2.10 of the January White Paper which indicates that the Government now propose, as the Select Committee recommended, to establish an independent appeal procedure to Civil Service commissioners. I am sure that that is right and I am delighted that that is to happen.

Despite my welcome for the White Paper, it still does not deal with the major issue raised by Vernon Bogdanor, a very respected Reader in government at Oxford, published in the Independent last Wednesday and raised by many others in recent times. That question is, where does ministerial responsibility lie? For example, following the escapes from Parkhurst the present Home Secretary said that he is responsible to Parliament for policy but not for operational matters.

I agree that it would be a nonsense if every time a prisoner escaped the Home Secretary had to resign. That would not be sensible. However, Vernon Bogdanor quoted Sir John Woodcock's report on Whitemoor prison:

    "'There exists at all levels within the service some confusion as to the respective roles of ministers, the agency headquarters and individual prison governors'. Nor is it surprising that he said there was difficulty in determining what was an operational matter and what was policy".

The White Paper does not dispel that confusion between policy and operational matters. I hope that the Minister will look at that question, and consider doing so this evening. I see him smiling. He obviously has it in his speech already. Therefore, I hope he will do so because it is not unimportant.

I conclude by repeating that I have great respect for our civil servants—as every other speaker has said in the debate so far—and their standards, which are high in comparison with most other civil services throughout the world. However, it is vital that we should be vigilant to prevent slippage of the kind to which I have referred. With those reservations, I welcome the White Papers as a move in the right direction.

5.38 p.m.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: My Lords, I should like to join with those who have congratulated the noble Lord—and my former master—Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on initiating this debate on the role of the Civil Service.

In a memorandum of guidance issued in December 1987 by the then head of the Home Civil Service (and wild horses would not drag his name from my lips) it was stated that:

    "The Civil Service is there to provide the Government of the day with advice on the formulation of policies, to assist in carrying out decisions, and to manage and deliver the services for which the Government is responsible ... Civil servants should conduct themselves in such a way as to deserve and retain the confidence of Ministers ... it is the duty of a civil servant to make available to the Minister all the [relevant] information and experience at his disposal ... and to give to the Minister honest and impartial advice, without fear or favour, and whether the advice accords with the Minister's view or not ..."

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Finally, as my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead (who is also a former master) said:

    "When the Minister has taken a decision, it is the duty of civil servants loyally to carry out that decision with precisely the same energy and good will whether they agree with it or not".

Nothing has happened since December 1987 to invalidate those words. Indeed, I was encouraged to see that those principles inform the draft code of conduct recently formulated by the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee in another place and by the Government in their response to that Select Committee.

I am not absolutely convinced that there is a need for a new code. However, I have no objection to producing a code which encapsulates what is already implicitly, if not explicitly, in existing guidance of one kind or another. I do not believe that it is necessary to give the proposed code of conduct the force of legislation. Indeed, given the difficulty of changing a statute once it is on the book, that might make it more difficult to adjust the code to meet changing conditions. Perhaps such a code could be scheduled to an Act, rather like the Highway Code is scheduled to the Road Traffic Act.

I wish to comment on only one aspect of the report's provisions. It is an issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Allen, referred. It relates to the provision for appeals to the First Civil Service Commissioner. The grounds of appeal now proposed, covering as they do not only issues of conscience but any requirement to act in a manner inconsistent with the code, are too wide and are likely to make the recourse to appeal more customary and more frequent than it need be.

I am also doubtful about the need for making the First Civil Service Commissioner the appellate authority. Such matters are best dealt with within the internal framework of the system, including recourse in the final analysis to the head of the Home Civil Service. If the objection to that procedure is that a civil servant might hesitate to resort to it for fear of possible damage to his prospects for future advancement, I am not persuaded that appeal to the First Civil Service Commissioner would be any less intimidating or less likely to affect departmental views on the appellant's fitness for promotion. I fear that appeal to an external authority could undermine the confidence between Ministers and civil servants on which the relationship depends.

I welcome the reaffirmation by the Government of their commitment to the maintenance of a permanent Civil Service based on the values of integrity, political impartiality, objectiveness, selection and promotion on merit, and accountability through Ministers to Parliament. Those values have stood the country in good stead for many years and are as relevant and important to public life and good government today as they have ever been.

I do not see any sign that the commitment of civil servants to these values has been compromised by the fact that one party has been in government for 15 years. I have no doubt whatever that if there were to be a change of party in government at the next general election, incoming Ministers would find a Civil Service which would serve them as faithfully, impartially and loyally as it has served the present Government and their predecessors.

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However, if the values to which I have referred are to be maintained it is not enough just to reaffirm them, or even to entrench them in codes of conduct. They have to be defended and protected in deed as well as in words. And I begin to share the apprehensions of those who fear that some of the management changes which the Government have been making, and indeed the sheer volume and pace of change in recent years may, perhaps unintentionally, put the maintenance of those values at risk.

I have supported the principle of executive agencies under the Next Steps proposals; indeed, when working in government I worked hard to bring about their adoption. But the arrangement works most satisfactorily in areas of activity where there is little political content and therefore little risk of political controversy and damage to the relationships between Ministers and civil servants. In my view, it would be unwise to extend the agency principle to areas of activity where the process itself is a matter of high political interest and potential controversy. Murphy's law (I believe it is called) is relevant here: if something can go wrong, one day it will; and, as we have seen in the case of the Child Support Agency, when something goes badly wrong it brings the agency principle itself into disrepute and is liable to undermine confidence between Ministers and civil servants.

I could go into detail on various aspects of the changes which have been made, and their possibly difficult effect. But time is too short to allow me to do that. I shall simply say that the pace of management change—often major change—in the public service during the past 15 years has been intense and seemingly relentless. One change follows another almost before the first has been wholly carried through. I have no doubt that there is room—perhaps there will always be room—to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the public service. But the uncertainties and the disruption resulting from constant and unremitting change can have, over time, a deeply unsettling effect on morale in the public service.

As my noble friend Lord Allen pointed out, the decentralisation of responsibility for pay and grading carries the risk of fragmentation and of undermining the cohesiveness of the Civil Service and the sense of public service as an honourable vocation and a reputable profession.

Civil servants take pride in doing their jobs as well as they can as a matter of individual self-esteem and of pride in public service in the best sense. But against a background of restless change and disruption there is a danger that civil servants may come to feel like the man in A.E. Housman's poem:

    "Oh, let me lie abed and rest.

    What's to show for all my pain?

    Ten thousand times I've done my best,

    And all's to do again".

That feeling, exacerbated most recently by the sharp reductions in numbers at senior levels in the Treasury and elsewhere, is liable, I fear, to create a sense almost of despair which could drive increasing numbers of existing civil servants—I am sorry to say that they are

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usually the better ones—to seek employment elsewhere, and discourage the recruitment of the more able people upon whom the future of the public service depends.

In this situation the virtues and values of the public service as we have known it come under great strain. Like the dikes at Nijmegen, they might not be able wholly to withstand the pressures put upon them by the process of unremitting change, however strongly the Government believe in and reaffirm the importance of maintaining them. Once impaired, they become difficult to restore.

I share the hope that the Government will be sensitive to this danger. I believe that the public interest in the maintenance of a permanent Civil Service staffed by people of high quality and based on the values of integrity, impartiality and objectivity, would now be best served by a deliberate slowing down of the process of management change. No piece of machinery can give of its best if it is being radically overhauled all the time—particularly if it has to stay on the road while it is being overhauled.

The time has now come for a let up in the process of change: for a period of assimilation of the changes that have been introduced; for reaffirming and, what is more, re-establishing by deed as well as by word the virtues and values which have made the British Civil Service one of the best—perhaps the best—public service in the world; and for restoring the confidence between Ministers and civil servants—a two-way confidence—which is an indispensable foundation of the ability of civil servants to serve the Government of the day as they should do and as they wish to do, and of Ministers to get the best out of the civil servants who are responsible to them and who are keen to give the best service they can to the Government and to their country.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, it is many years since I had any direct responsibility for the Civil Service, and that arose because at that time the Civil Service was administered in the establishment division of the Treasury. I am afraid that my experience therefore antedates that of all the noble Lords who have so far addressed your Lordships. My diffidence is increased when I find my name among some of the most eminent public servants of our time, if not of any time. I join in the expression of thanks to my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale.

Since I shall be suggesting that there are some limitations which should be acknowledged to the role that the Civil Service can play, perhaps I may say at the outset that so far as my experience and knowledge goes our own Civil Service is by a considerable measure the best in the world.

The Northcote-Trevelyan reform brought in a middle class meritocracy; and that brought in, too, the middle-class virtues of probity and loyalty. As regards probity, at the most, the Pontings, the Pottingers and the Tisdalls are rare figures. The recent directive by Sir Robin Butler as to airfares, air vouchers and free travel shows that the austere standard of financial probity is being rigidly adhered to.

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As for loyalty, my only demur is on the question of leaks, of which there have been far too many recently. When the noble Viscount replies, I should like him to tell us, if he can, how many identified leaks there have been; how many of those have been investigated; what the investigation has shown—in other words whether the leaker has been identified—and, finally, what disciplinary action has been taken, where it has applied. That seems to me to be a matter of great importance. We have had two extremely damaging and worrying leaks in the past two days, but they are merely the last of a long series.

The next question which I believe your Lordships would wish to consider is whether we are suffering from over-government in Whitehall. The Brussels bureaucracy provides a dangerous and menacing warning. I say that, presuming myself to be a convinced European. There are several reasons why we have over-government from Whitehall. The first is the proliferation of numbers which is endemic in any bureaucracy, not only government. When I was a law officer, the department was scarcely, if at all, larger than when it was instituted at the end of the last century. Since then, it has increased a hundredfold. Part of that is due to taking over Northern Ireland, but it is a small part and is by no means an unusual feature of any department.

The second reason we have over-government is the doctrine that the gentleman in Whitehall really knows best. To a great extent he does know best. He can take a broader and longer vision than the individual who is affected by the decision. But there are limits to his knowledge. However skilfully the shoe is cobbled, it is only the wearer who can tell where it pinches. That is why we should apply the principle of subsidiarity, moving the decision as near as possible to the person affected by it. Perhaps I may draw attention to the Swiss constitution which embodies the principle of subsidiarity as part of its ethos.

The third reason I think we suffer from over-government is simply that the Civil Service is a necessary repository of power. As Acton tells us, all power tends to corrupt and the first sign of corruption is generally an itch for greater power. So we have some extraordinarily worrying developments. There were the repeated efforts by the Department for Education—four efforts consecutively—to intrude upon academic freedom. That was finally repelled by your Lordships.

The most striking example was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dean: the Child Support Act 1991. That is a major invasion of the magistrature by the bureaucracy. I think it is generally acknowledged that it has worked out disastrously for the citizen and disastrously for the Government.

What is the answer? I have no doubt that one answer is that we should restore the former function of the legislation committee of the Cabinet. I am certain that if that committee had, as part of its remit, to consider the drafting and constitution aspects of any measure, the Child Support Act would never have survived. It would have been referred back to the department. There must be other ways by which, through constant vigilance, we may repel the advance of bureaucracy at the expense,

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say, of the lay magistrature whose decision-making is close to the citizen. I commend to your Lordships the thought that the legislation committee could well be revived in its previous form.

I have come to the end of my time, but I want to raise the question of the regional dispersion of the Civil Service. I gave the noble Viscount notice of that; perhaps he can reply without my saying anything. I draw attention also to London weighting. I have made several suggestions which indicate some limitation on the role which the Civil Service can play. I do so without derogating in any way from my admiration for the way the Civil Service has functioned, particularly since the Northcote-Trevelyan reform.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, told us that he had thought of cutting his speech. He was right not to; his wisdom shone through, as it did to me as a junior Minister in the department of which he was the Permanent Under-Secretary 30 years ago. I was glad to take his advice, as I was that of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, on security. In view of what has been said, I trusted him implicitly to do the right thing in the defence of this country. A temporary civil servant would have been no use to me in those circumstances. Also reminiscing, two current PUSs were formerly my private secretaries. I am sure that their behaviour will be in the same tradition as that of PUSs in the past.

The happy conjunction of the publication of the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee and this debate enables me to say, fitting in with what has been said, that the recommendation of the Select Committee that agency chief executives should be directly and personally accountable to Select Committees would be wrong. I am glad that the Government have rejected it. I am also happy to see the acceptance by the Government of the principles of an independent line of appeal to the Civil Service, despite the changes that have been made in the past. I think that that is right.

Some people may have been surprised when I appeared in court as an expert witness on the Ponting affair. I shall explain why. I would not want the man in my office, but on the Franks Committee we had recommended that it should not be a criminal offence to do what he did. It was on that precise point. If the matter had been better handled, I do not believe that the trouble would have arisen.

As to the Civil Service Code, there is sense in that, although I am by no means an expert and I should need to read it again. On the whole matter of the report and the changes that will take place, I hope that all junior Ministers—and there are far too many of them—read it when they come to office, together with the procedure for Ministers.

For three or four years I was a member of the committee of privy counsellors which vets (if that is the right word) civil servants, generals, admirals and air marshals who take jobs when they leave government service. It does a good job and there is no force of law behind it. There is no time to develop the point, but I believe that if senior civil servants have to go through

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that procedure their political lords and masters should go through the same sort of procedure if they take jobs too soon, in the same vein as those they had as civil servants. It would be difficult, but it is hard for civil servants to go one way and their lords and masters another.

On the relationships of civil servants to Ministers, I look forward to the Scott report. In the same respect, I read the book by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. His account of the Westland affair makes very interesting reading. It arose, it seems, because of the too personal attachment of civil servants to Ministers. The account is well worth reading. Regretfully, I missed the debate last week on prisons and the discussion on the division between policy and operational matters.

The White Paper states:

    "The Government's view remains that Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the policy, administration and resources of their departments, including operational action, successes and mishaps, whatever the extent of delegation and whether they were personally involved or not".

I raise the point because over the weekend I was in the company of prison officers. The subject arose of the difference between policy and operational matters. One of the officers said that in his view the trouble at Everthorpe —there was, I suppose, an insurrection—was caused because home leave had been stopped as had going out to work. Both had been stopped so suddenly that the trouble that arose was not an operational matter. It arose because of policy changes emanating from the Home Office. I was also told that prisoners who are now unable to go on home leave from a Category D prison or out to work have to undergo risk assessments by the police but that the police do not have the necessary manpower for the task and that the Home Office had not dealt carefully with the issue. It had not dealt with the matter at all; it had not made sure that enough police were on hand.

I turn to the question of junior Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, is not in his place at the moment. When the noble Lord was Minister of State and I was Home Secretary, the matter arose of a chief constable whom I was to sack. I should have remembered that there are other noble Lords present who will remember the incident. Fortunately the man resigned, so the action was unnecessary. But we were girding our loins to do it and going through all the correct legal procedures. Somebody suggested that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, should handle the matter and that I should not, because at the end of the day the man would have the right of appeal to me. I would have sacked him and would also have had to act in appellate fashion. I was firmly advised that there is only one god, and that is the Secretary of State. Ministers of State and junior Ministers have no authority at all.

I read in the paper from time to time that so-and-so is the Minister for prisons and so-and-so is the Minister for this, that and the other. It is a pure creation of the Secretary of State and the department. It has no legal force. Ministers, whether Secretaries of State or not, are very unwise when they stand at the Dispatch Box and

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say "My department this" and "My department the other". They will soon find out whose department it is. It shows an attitude of mind which is mistaken.

I want to raise one other matter. The report deals with the executive agencies. I am very interested in devolution of some government matters to the regions. Indeed in Northern Ireland there is a very efficient Civil Service. Education is very near the ground. Those who deal with it know the schools and universities. They are not distant things because government concerns 1½ million people. The Government have decided to beef up regional offices in Leeds and other places. The Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Employment, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Transport and the Home Office will be locating a senior member of staff in regional offices. I am glad to see that. In Leeds, where I am chairman of the South Leeds Groundwork Trust and temporarily national chairman of the foundation, I deal with the local officers who are absolutely first class. But to whom are they responsible? There is a Cabinet committee, I presume, which somehow co-ordinates activities. We have to be clear. I have here a list of all the responsibilities. I am glad that certain matters are being dealt with in the regions, but if questions are asked about the agencies, I hope that the responsibilities of the new regional offices will be included. I am told that they work quite well. There is a lot of sense in what they do.

Looking back, it is very easy to congratulate ourselves. When I first came back from the war, I taught at a grammar school. We were great ones for clapping each other in the morning, or clapping what the school had done. The French assistante leant over to me one morning and said, "This place will clap itself to death if it is not careful". So far as the Civil Service is concerned, we ought to be proud of it. In the period of 11 years during which I was a Minister civil servants served me well. They will continue to serve well in the future; of that I am sure. But the powers-that-be should listen to the advice offered in today's debate. Too much change is taking place, and if care is not taken a great deal will be lost in the doing.

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