- Constitution Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 40-59)

Professor Martin Smith, Dr Richard Heffernan and Professor Dennis Kavanagh

Dr Heffernan: I am Richard Heffernan. I teach at the Open University and I am a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

10 JUNE 2009

Q40 Lord Rowlands: Where would there be a healthy constitutional division of responsibility? Can you help to define it for us? Between the Prime Minister's Office and Cabinet Office.

Professor Smith: Again, it opens up a big question, because your starting point in a sense would have to be what are the powers of the Prime Minister? What can the Prime Minister do? If you make a decision—which I think has happened in practice—that Prime Ministers can autonomously innovate policy, then you would have to say the rule that follows from that is that the Prime Minister can then clearly direct departments in what they do in terms of policy direction. I think that is the situation in practice but, in terms of the written and unwritten rules of the constitution, that is not the practice that exists, because the terms of the rules are that decisions should go through Cabinet, that they are collective decisions; once they are agreed, they are implemented by departments. I think that there is a big slip now between the practice and the rules.

Dr Heffernan: At the moment, we do not know where the Prime Minister's Department begins and where the Cabinet Office ends. We know that, for example, in the reshuffle last week the Northern Ireland Secretary is also in the Cabinet Office, reporting to the Prime Minister. We do not know whether he is also reporting to the new Cabinet Office Minister, Tessa Jowell. There is a whole mix-up in terms of where Downing Street begins and where it ends. This has been an incremental process. It is largely owing to the Blair administration but it has precedence. John Major famously tried in 1994 to have David Hunt in—if anybody remembers that occasion—as the Cabinet Office enforcer. Cabinet Office enforcers do not work, because the Prime Minister is usually his or her own enforcer; but there is a real difficulty in knowing what the rights and responsibilities of the Cabinet Office are. Somebody said in another place, the equivalent to your Lordships' Committee, that the Cabinet Office is a "bran tub", from which you go and pull out what it is you want. I do not think that is really acceptable in modern government. It also means that the one thing you do not have a Cabinet Office doing rather effectively is monitoring the Civil Service. Both chambers of Parliament have been asking for a Civil Service Bill for a long time, and I know that the executive is minded to give you one but one has not yet appeared. I think that the real issue of understanding the role of the Cabinet Office is to take it outside of the Prime Minister's remit, and that would mean creating a Prime Minister's Department—which may not necessarily strengthen the Prime Minister any more than people have suggested in the past.

Q41 Lord Woolf: I think that this is probably a question to Professor Smith. You have indicated that the Prime Minister can initiate policy himself. That is now accepted. If the policy is misconceived, in the sense that it has not taken into account what is involved in implementing the policy, would you identify any official who has the responsibility to say, "Hey, Prime Minister, you won't be able to do that"?

Professor Smith: There is a very interesting example of that, going back to the Blair government, which is the issue of the street crime initiative. In that instance, the Prime Minister decided that this was a key issue and that it was an issue he was going to take up. In fact, one of the Chief Constables, the one for South Yorkshire, said that he did not think that was a problem for South Yorkshire, and he did not stay in that position very long after. I am not saying that there is a relationship between those two events.

Q42 Lord Woolf: I was thinking of the demise of the Lord Chancellor.

Professor Smith: Yes, again. Clearly there are people who can say to the Prime Minister, "That's not a very good idea, and that's not going to work", but that is not a formal position.

Q43 Lord Woolf: Should there be somebody who is formally identified?

Professor Smith: I think that formally it should be Parliament, should it not? It is supposed to be a system where Parliament should hold the Prime Minister to account, and so the mechanism, in a way, should not necessarily be ...

Lord Woolf: That is post the event. That is the only problem.

Lord Lyell of Markyate: They did hold them to account in about five minutes, because frogmarching people to cash points was so obviously dotty!

Chairman: The Chief Whip has a role here. Lady Quin.

Q44  Baroness Quin: I can certainly think of a couple of examples under the Blair administration where the Prime Minister thought of an initiative but eventually was dissuaded from it by the relevant department, which was the Home Office. Obviously there are discussions and negotiations between the Prime Minister and the Home Office. I see what you mean about formal lines of accountability. I am not arguing against that, but I think that in practice prime ministerial power is curbable in various ways.

Professor Smith: The problem in a sense is that it is arbitrary on what grounds it is curbable. Clearly there are cases where somebody says, "That's not going to work" or "That wouldn't be a very sensible thing to do", but there are other areas where people might say, "That's a good idea" and it goes ahead. But we do not know what are the grounds on which the Prime Minister's powers are bounded. They depend on the issue and the personnel involved. There is not a formal sense of what the limits or extent of the Prime Minister's powers are.

Q45 Lord Rowlands: There is nothing new about Prime Ministers initiating policies. Prime Ministers through the ages have initiated things. What is new?

Professor Smith: Two things are new. One is the extent of the Prime Minister's initiation. Clearly it has gone on, but if you look back at Prime Ministers like Attlee, Macmillan and Callaghan, they tended to focus maybe on one or two issues. Callaghan, of course, was very famous for picking up the issue of education, which was seen at that time as relatively unusual. The other thing that has changed with the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit is the involvement of the Prime Minister in the implementation of policy, and that really is a considerable change. Before then, the Prime Minister might become involved but essentially it was the departments that were left to handle it. What has happened with the growth of the centre and the creation of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit is that departments to some degree have either been bypassed or have been very strongly pushed by the centre.

Professor Kavanagh: Can I pick up the point made by Lord Rowlands? I would like to broaden it out, if I may. You are quite right. Prime Ministers have always taken initiatives, particularly responding to particular crises, when they are expected to get involved. What has happened since 1997 is the elaborate infrastructure in Number 10 and in the Cabinet Office that the Prime Minister erected after 1997. The scale was such that I think one could talk about a qualitative difference in the perception that the Prime Minister took of himself. If I may be so indiscreet, because the ten-year rule has now elapsed—the Prime Minister said to David Butler and myself only about two weeks after being Prime Minister, "Ministers have to understand that they are agents of the centre. They have been sent to the departments to carry out a strategy". I cannot imagine many other Prime Ministers saying that. What he tried to do gradually was to equip himself to do that. Because we are talking about the Cabinet Office, can I remind you of something where this is formalised? May I read out just a few lines? "Before Tony Blair moved into Number 10, the Cabinet Office's official remit was "To provide an effective, efficient and impartial service to the Cabinet committees. The secretariat has no executive powers beyond serving the Cabinet and committees and co-ordinating department contributions". After 1997 the remit changed, and, in emphatic typing, it has changed to this: The Cabinet Office is expected, "to support efficient, timely and well-informed collective determination of government policy and to drive forward the achievement of the Government's agenda".[1] In other words, there is a formal statement that the traditional role of the Cabinet Office as an honest broker between departments has now changed into being something like—I do not like the term, it sounds like John Le Carré—an arm of the centre, which is decided by the Prime Minister. I think that is somewhat different. In practice and in terms of the behaviour, it created problems for a number of Cabinet Ministers and it has created problems for a number of permanent secretaries—particularly when there were tensions. The other part of the centre that was not really covered last week and may not be covered this week, is the Treasury. At a time when Number 10 and Number 11 were speaking with different voices, that also created a problem for departments. It is all very well creating a centre, therefore, but where the centre is overloaded, as clearly the Cabinet Office is now, as the dumping ground, it has lost sight of its original objectives. I would say that, of those three tasks, I do not think any of them are performed particularly efficiently. One of the things you may want to consider at some time, My Lord Chairman, is whether the role of the Cabinet Secretary, which has expanded so enormously, gives rise to looking again at whether you need a separate, specialised head of the Civil Service, because I think that the duties on the Cabinet Secretary's shoulders are so enormous these days.

Dr Heffernan: I think that Lord Rowlands has hit the nail on the head. There has been an exponential development in the role of the Prime Minister. Prime Ministers have always never been, to quote Mrs Thatcher, "a weak, floppy thing, sitting in the chair". There are two members of your Committee who have experience of working with Prime Ministers, directly sitting in Cabinet. I know that. However, Prime Ministers always are the legal head of the Government, in that they have the right to use the Crown prerogatives and to be involved, either directly or indirectly, in any aspect of government policy that they take an interest in or that they are obliged to take an interest in. The variable matter of the Prime Minister's individual power depends largely on his or her personal power resources. Broadly speaking, if a Prime Minister is electorally popular and politically successful, he or she will be more powerful within the Government and inside Parliament than if he or she is politically unsuccessful and electorally unpopular. A comparison between Blair, shall we say, in his pomp in 1999 and the present Prime Minister at the current time would demonstrate that. The point, however, is that the Prime Minister's right to intervene is presently subject to a variety of whims, in a way. For example, the present Prime Minister has announced the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council, the Democratic Renewal Council. We have no idea how these work. I suspect most ministers do not know. Are they Cabinet committees? Are they based in the Cabinet Office? We will find out in due course, once they are up and running, but I think that this ad hoc approach to simply re-inventing the machinery of government almost instantaneously is terribly bad practice. That is why one suggestion in terms of reforming the centre would be distinguishing what it is the Cabinet Office should do and then determining how it should do it. The three objectives it has at present are simply unsustainable. It is interesting that the Cabinet Secretary's role has increased but his or her personal authority has probably diminished in the past 10 years. We have had four Cabinet Secretaries in 12 years and the Cabinet Secretary is now no longer the chief adviser, in the way that Sir John Hunt was to people like Callaghan and Heath.

Q46 Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: I may have missed a bit of the point and we may be moving forward, but do I understand all three of you to say that effectively you would like to see a slimline Cabinet Office, on the assumption for example that it is as diverse as the Olympics on the one hand and, say, the 30-year rule on the other? If indeed it should be slimmed off—I am not asking department by department—where would they go? Would they go out of government?

Dr Heffernan: I think there is a case for a Civil Service Department, with a Cabinet Minister reporting either within or without the Cabinet. There should be a Prime Minister's Department formalised, established and set up, reporting to Parliament, and accountable and transparent. The other functions in terms of the intelligence service—if the Cabinet Office was reinvented as a department for public service—it would be useful in terms of keeping all of the disparate responsibilities that are presently thrown into the Cabinet Office or taken out of the Cabinet Office, depending on the whim of the Prime Minister. I think the general problem is that machinery of government issues are not statutory; they are not regularised. If you look at the business in which we are employed, universities, we were formerly run by DfEE, then by DfES, then by DIUS and now by BIS—all in the space of five years or so. It is a problem of the way in which we govern ourselves. I think that it is not entirely a slimmed-down Cabinet Office but rather a more effective Cabinet Office, with a better remit and a more manageable and accountable trail, headed by a Secretary of State who is an authoritative politician—not necessarily the case at present. Cabinet Office ministers are usually people on their way up or on their way out. The fact that you have a minister and not a Secretary of State—I think the title might tell us something about the way in which we approach the role of the Cabinet Office in its present form.

Q47 Lord Norton of Louth: I was going to come back to the question about who should say no to the Prime Minister, in terms of what the Cabinet Office does do or should do. One of the things it has never really done has been to be the mechanism through which one says to the Prime Minister, "No, that can't be done". Presumably the role of the office may have changed, but it is from a facilitating body to more of a delivery body. At most, it would be the mechanism by which, say, some reaction was channelled; but you would not see a role for the office itself in that respect, would you?

Professor Kavanagh: It is fellow politicians, it is fellow aides who do this—"Wait a moment, Prime Minister"—that kind of thing. Perhaps I could come back to something that has been raised by Dr Heffernan. I am awfully struck by the decline in the standing of the Cabinet Secretary in relationship to the Prime Minister. I think that Lord Armstrong was the last person who could speak very authoritatively to a Prime Minister, and when you think of Bridges, Burke Trend, and these kind of people, Prime Ministers—I will not say that they looked up to them, but they really could appreciate that there is the majesty of the state there, as it were. That has ceased to be the case. Particularly since 1997, it is the granting under Orders in Council of the authority to instruct Prime Ministers that was given to the press secretary and the chief of staff. A novel appointment—a chief of staff in Number 10. Before then, it had always clearly been the Principal Private Secretary. Then you had the Principal Private Secretary Jeremy Heywood joining those two as a key adviser to Tony Blair, and he is probably the most significant figure around Number 10 and the Cabinet Office nowadays. So that is a real problem.

Q48 Lord Norton of Louth: On that point, to what extent should we draw a clear distinction between the role of the Cabinet Secretary and the Cabinet Office?

Professor Kavanagh: Traditionally, the Cabinet Office, let us say before Britain's entry to the European Community in 1973, did have a restricted and pretty clear role. You could not say that the Cabinet Secretary was overloaded or had loads of committees and loads of duties to do. It was mainly the Cabinet committees and servicing the Prime Minister. Now you have this tremendous proliferation of duties. I think that kind of central role, of being an influential figure vis-a"-vis the Prime Minister, has become attenuated.

Professor Smith: Also, it is part of a wider change. This was clearly the case with Gordon Brown in the Treasury and it was true of Tony Blair in the Prime Minister's Office that they both depended on their own advisers. They did not depend on civil servants for advice. I think that is partly as a consequence of the way in which the roles of the Prime Minister, and to some extent the Chancellor, have become much more political. Often what they are concerned with are actually political issues rather than policy issues. There is an argument about how the role of the Civil Service more generally has changed, because politicians have seen their role as something very different from what it used to be.

Q49 Lord Lyell of Markyate: I think that Professor Kavanagh—and you probably all agree—put his finger on it when he read that very interesting passage from an earlier period, where one of the key functions of the Cabinet Office was co-ordination. That has now completely dropped out as one of its functions. As you are telling us, and I certainly agree, the Cabinet Office has become grossly overloaded by the attempts to drag everything into the centre, bully the departments and think that it can all be done by special advisers. The co-ordinating aspect seems to have gone out of the window.

Professor Smith: One of the problems historically—I do not know if the others will agree with me—is that where the Cabinet Office was weak was in co-ordination. This is a point that Lord Norton made very strongly. Traditionally, we had ministerial balance and policymaking went on in departments. It was not unusual, and it is still the case, that departments often did things that were completely contradictory. The Cabinet Office, although at an administrative level it was very good at co-ordinating because it was run by very bright civil servants, I think that at policy level it failed in the co-ordination function. That is one reason why Prime Ministers have tried to build up their office: because they have tried to create co-ordination in government that has never existed.

Q50 Lord Lyell of Markyate: Have they succeeded?

Professor Smith: I do not think they have, no.

Q51 Baroness Quin: I want to go back to what Professor Smith said a minute ago about both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown relying on special advisers rather than the Civil Service. The problem is that it does not seem to accord with my own experience, in that it seemed to me it was a mixture of the two. If I think of the preparation of European summits, for example, the role of senior civil servants in the Foreign Office was extremely important, both in terms of negotiating strategy and in terms of actual goals. It certainly does not accord with my own experience that special advisers on those occasions were even the prime source of information. They were one of them, but not the sole source.

Professor Smith: Yes, I think that is fair and possibly I exaggerated for effect. One of the things that has happened, however, is that there has been a pluralisation of policy advice, whereas, if you go back 20 or 30 years, advice came solely from senior civil servants. Also, if you look at other departments, the role of special advisers is quite limited. If you look at the Treasury and the Prime Minister's Office, if you look at the key appointments, they were not called "special advisers" but the key appointments that Blair made were political appointments. They became civil servants but people like Stephen Wall, people like the director of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit, these were all people who had been political in the past and became civil servants once appointed.

Baroness Quin: Stephen Wall? He is a career civil servant.

Q52 Lord Morris of Aberavon: He is a diplomat.

Professor Smith: I am sorry, but Geoff Mulgan and people like the director of the Policy Unit.

Professor Kavanagh: Ed Balls at the Treasury.

Professor Smith: These people came in as political appointments but became civil servants. If you look at the Prime Minister's Policy Unit, the people in key positions were political and not civil servants.

Q53 Lord Rowlands: Until some remarks by Professor Smith a couple of minutes ago, all three of you were leaving me with an impression that there was this golden age, when you had great, good government because you had Cabinet Secretaries being looked up to by Prime Ministers. That golden age made some horrendous mistakes. All my parliamentary, political and ministerial life, we have been trying to strive for joined-up government. I thought that was trying to correct departmentalism and one department not knowing what the other was doing. Are you saying that there was a golden age or not?

Dr Heffernan: I do not think there was at all. The high point of cabinet government in terms of collective decision-making—Lord Morris sat in it, I think—was over IMF in 1976, dealing with a crisis. Tony Blair has always said that he thought his problem as Prime Minister was not that he was too powerful: he was not powerful enough. He always said that, looking at it from Downing Street, he thought that he did not have enough control over government. That is why he built up, incrementally, ad hoc, with some mistakes, the kind of central capacity of Downing Street—which is why I am an advocate of a Prime Minister's Department. I do not think that it necessarily strengthens the Prime Minister but it helps make the process of co-ordination better. The best form of co-ordination was "Tony wants", which was said to be the catchword in Whitehall, certainly in the first Parliament when he was first Prime Minister. "Tony wants" meant that things got done. That was because he was politically successful and electorally popular. I think that what your Lordships' Committee needs to think about, if there is a need to regularise the work of central government, is that there is a reality that the Prime Minister is much more now than primus inter pares. Even a weak Prime Minister such as the present incumbent is much more powerful. The old days of Baldwin and Attlee as chairmen of the Cabinet have gone, for good or ill; they are not coming back. The Prime Minister will be much more significant than other ministers and there are lots of checks and balances upon his or her power, but one check and balance there is not is an institutional base, because the Cabinet Office does not remotely play that role; and it should play a role in supporting the Cabinet beyond the Prime Minister. At present all it tends to do is support the Prime Minister, because you do not know where Number 10 ends and where the Cabinet Office begins. I think that is a great problem in terms of good government. It is also a problem for the Prime Minister, incidentally. I do not think that having that really assists him or her in doing the job they need to do.

Q54 Lord Morris of Aberavon: I listened very closely to what Professor Kavanagh was saying about the importance of the Cabinet Secretary. I think that we should explore this, perhaps on other occasions, a little further. It may well be that Lord Armstrong was not a happy choice. Some people may say that when he virtually became deputy Prime Minister he came to a sticky end.

Professor Kavanagh: No, that is a different Lord Armstrong. He was not a Cabinet Secretary. It is Robert Armstrong.

Lord Peston: William Armstrong never even got a peerage.

Q55 Lord Morris of Aberavon: I am very glad you have cleared that up. Mind you, he did me a very good service—but that is another matter. Before the Flood, when I was a junior minister, there were honest brokers and clerks in the Cabinet Office. They have changed. How much have they changed in 30 years and how has the role of the special adviser or the Policy Unit or the policy adviser, whatever he calls himself, impinged upon the Cabinet Office and other advisers? One only has to read, and I have read it recently, the two autobiographies of Bernard Donoughue, of the battles that Sir John Hunt had in order to try to control him and get him under his wing. Has the role, the numbers, the activities, the influence of special advisers, impinged on the core functions of the Cabinet Office to support the Prime Minister, support the Cabinet and strengthen the Civil Service?

Professor Kavanagh: Yes, I think it has. The Policy Unit under Bernard Donoughue in the second half of the Seventies lived in a very different world than the Policy Unit lives in today, with a 24/7 media. It is a much bigger job. Donoughue just looked at a few particular areas. The Policy Unit now tries to look across the board. Can I just give one figure? When John Major left Number 10, I think he had seven special advisers. That had been pretty well the norm, even going back to Harold Wilson and Bernard Donoughue's time. Under Tony Blair it reached nearly 30. Gordon Brown reduced it but it is going back up again. This is a quadrupling. He is really equipping himself with lots of political advisers. Between 2001 and 2005 there was a particular initiative that was very little noted, and that was the amalgamation of the Prime Minister's Private Office, consisting entirely of civil servants, and the Policy Unit, consisting almost entirely of political appointments. Incredible! Cheek by jowl, political appointments and civil servants working. After 2005 they went back to what they used to be. I think that under Blair the Policy Unit was very important. It was illustrated in the very first year. The draft White Papers from John Prescott on Transport and a draft White Paper by Margaret Beckett on fairness at work—these were both entirely rewritten by the Policy Unit, to the chagrin of the two, pretty powerful, senior secretaries of state. When they objected, they were told "These corrections carry the imprimatur of the Prime Minister". You can think of the particular field of education where, in higher education tuition fees in particular, it very much germinated within the Policy Unit—to the consternation of the then Secretary of State. It has therefore been very powerful. It is physically present in the building with the Prime Minister. It bumps into him in a way that the Cabinet Secretary never can. The Cabinet Secretary very often has his Monday morning routine with the Prime Minister, going through the progress of the various Cabinet committees, but some cabinet secretaries pop in at the end of the day, to find out what is going on. That is a very different relationship than used to be the case with cabinet secretaries 30 years ago or more—very different.

Professor Smith: One of the issues is that, until Edward Heath, Prime Ministers had no policymaking capacity whatsoever. They were dependent either on departments or the Cabinet Office to involve them in policymaking. What we have seen since then is Prime Ministers continually trying to increase their ability to make policy independently within Number 10. I think that is a very significant change. The question is whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but that is one of the things that has happened.

Dr Heffernan: According to an NAO study of the Cabinet Office, there were 169 people working in the Prime Minister's Office as of last December. This is tiny in comparison with most chief executives' offices. It is, not only if you compare it to the United States' President, who employs 9,000 people in the executive office dealing with the White House, but also even the Irish Taoiseach has more people than that. In terms of special advisers, I think that they are an inevitability. I think that there is an issue with them with regard to ensuring that they are on a statutory footing. If there was a Civil Service Bill, then you would be able to define more clearly the relationship between special advisers and civil servants. There are probably not enough technocratic special advisers. Most special advisers simply leak and brief on behalf of their principal—for all the good and ill that that has caused. There is one issue with special advisers which is perhaps beyond the remit of your Lordships' Committee, but I thought that I would just mention it. Nine members of the present Cabinet have spent time as special advisers. Eight members of the present Cabinet, appointed last Friday, were special advisers after 1997. I think that the idea that you are creating a political class of career politicians through the rubric of the special adviser model is of severe concern to democratic issues more widely; and if you add in the other two members of the Cabinet, who were not special advisers but were party functionaries before entering Parliament, then you see that a large amount of our political class is drawn from this kind of administrative political sector, which I think is of grave concern. Special advisers are necessary and inevitable. There is no point complaining about them; it is about regularising the relationship they have. I think the Prime Minister probably needs more special advisers, but in a technocratic sense. It is absurd, for example, that his defence and foreign affairs adviser, his European adviser and his domestic adviser are based in the Cabinet Office. They ought to be in Downing Street, even if there is not a Prime Minister's Department regularised.

Professor Kavanagh: It is no good just looking at the numbers who work for the Prime Minister in Number 10, because there are severe space constraints in Number 10. That is why the Strategy Unit is deposited in the Cabinet Office. There is no room in Number 10, so there is an overflow. Looking at the numbers in Number 10, which is two 17th century townhouses joined together, it is never going to be a big, powerful centre like that. The Prime Minister has sent his staff elsewhere—an overflow.

Q56 Lord Lyell of Markyate: Briefly on that, when one walks through—and I was astonished when I first did it—all right, there are just two houses, but there is a total rabbit warren which goes under Whitehall, that comes up into the old Cabinet Office by the tennis court. It seems to go on forever. In one sense there is far more space than your initial statement suggests. Regarding this next question, I am not sure that I entirely agree with its premises but I think that co-ordination is an incredibly important question. In my view, that is one of the things that the Cabinet Office ought to do efficiently. This question asks how the relationship between the Cabinet Office and the other two key co-ordinating bodies in government, the Treasury and Number 10, has evolved during this period. Number 10, I could see, might have a co-ordinating role. The Treasury has a policy and money role, but I do not think that it is really co-ordinating. My real question, which I think the Committee want to know the answer to, is this. In the last 10 years, has the co-ordination function been working effectively?

Professor Smith: I think it goes back to a point I made earlier: that in a way co-ordination has never worked particularly well. As a consequence of that, the Treasury has to some degree filled that vacuum; because, whereas the Cabinet Office has very few levers over the departments, the Treasury has very strong levers over departments. You can see Chancellors of the Exchequer, going back quite a long time, using public expenditure as a way of trying to create some co-ordination of government policy. That became even stronger under Gordon Brown, where performance indicators could be used as a very direct tool for Gordon Brown to have a high degree of influence over the co-ordination of domestic policy; and that is actually what happened. It again goes back to the unwritten rules of the British constitution and people not really knowing what is going on. Formerly, co-ordination was supposed to have gone on with the Cabinet, but in fact it slipped to some degree to the Treasury and what we have seen over the last 10 or 15 years is that it has slipped again, increasingly to the Prime Minister's Office.

Q57 Lord Lyell of Markyate: It seems to me that there are three good examples in the last 10 years where co-ordination—admittedly, I am a lawyer and come from a law officer's background—has failed very badly. The cock-up over the Lord Chancellor's appointment in 2003 I find absolutely astonishing, even given that it was done on a sofa, trying to keep it secret from Lord Irvine, which was obviously part of the problem. That the department itself should not have said, "You can't just abolish this"—I was not in the House of Lords then—with regard to what they attempted to do, and that you then have Tony Blair and the BAe case and his saying, "We can't allow this case to go on. We'll lose thousands of jobs", when he had just taken us through the OECD agreements, which said "That is completely not permitted"—how could that happen without a complete failure of co-ordination? Then, when in 2007 Gordon Brown comes in, he says he is going to give all sorts of powers back to Parliament and take away powers from the Attorney General—powers which actually the Attorney General had never exercised, though they did have a controlling role. That is just ignorance, through lack of co-ordination. My impression is that, in the previous 10 years, telephones would have been buzzing and those mistakes would not have been made.

Dr Heffernan: If you look at last week's changes in the machinery of government, the reinvention of BERR, the dismantling of the Department for Universities, Innovation and Skills, created only two years ago, I imagine that less than four hours' thought was given to the reconstruction of these government departments. They were essentially done largely to politically reward the now First Secretary and Lord President of the Council for his political service. Fine. I am sure that he will be a very admirable departmental minister. He is a very able and talented minister. But we do these things on the back of an envelope. In the United States, federal governments' departments are restructured only with the permission of Congress. They have created one federal department in the last 15 years, which was the Department of Homeland Security. It is up to the House and the Senate to agree with the recommendations presented by the President of the day. Here, Prime Ministers reinvent government at a moment's notice. Abolish the Lord Chancellor one day, recreate him the next—simply because he could not do that, because it is a statutory appointment. In terms of whether you wish to have universities run by a Department of Education, by a Department of Universities, Innovation and Skills, or by the Department of Business, Innovations and Skill, it is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister of the day. I do not think that it provides for good government, to be honest.

Professor Smith: These problems of co-ordination are everyday and they are historical. Peter Mandelson will presumably be telling universities today that they can reduce their funding gap by having more overseas students. The Home Office is making it extremely difficult for overseas students to come into this country. That sort of policy contradiction is constant, because there is not and there has never been a mechanism within the British political system to co-ordinate those sorts of day-to-day policy details. It can work at some grand strategic level within the Prime Minister's Office and it can work at some administrative level within the Cabinet Office, but it is never really properly co-ordinated in terms of policy detail.

Professor Kavanagh: I would agree with this. I have talked to ministers about joined-up government. This was the big theme of the first couple of years. It was a buzzword among civil servants. They all wanted to be part of this. There is a kind of weary resignation that it is so much more difficult actually to achieve than the original high hopes vested in it. I find that there is much less talk now about joined-up government, because they have been so disappointed, facing so many obstacles. Regarding the point made by Lord Lyell and the questions you ask—and one of them was raised last week—we do not know whether the Prime Minister was given advice and he chose to ignore it. We do not know whether he was warned about making his decisions about the Lord Chancellor's Department and so on. We do know that Lord Butler, Sir Robin Butler as he was then, automatically assumed that the Cabinet would be informed of the decision to give interest rate policy to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, and Blair just said, "They'll pass it. There's no need to tell them". This is a case where maybe the Civil Service should have been more assertive; but one gets the impression of ministers riding pretty well roughshod, or the Prime Minister at times riding roughshod, over cautionary advice they were getting—particularly at the early stages of a new government, which thinks that a Civil Service may have got used to working with the opposition party for the previous 10 or 15 years or so.

Q58 Lord Lyell of Markyate: I find it a little surprising, with the three examples I gave, if they received advice and they have simply blundered on, regardless.

Professor Kavanagh: There may be other examples as well.

Dr Heffernan: If they had spent a month preparing, they may well have made fewer mistakes. If they spend a day preparing this dramatic change, they are likely to make mistakes. If you approach something, prepared for it to be ill-considered, it will be ill-considered.

Q59 Lord Lyell of Markyate: This is government on the hoof, is it, or policy on the hoof?

Professor Smith: I do not think this is new, because if you go back to the Scott Report, the arms to Iraq, the whole reason that occurred was because different parts of Government were following their own interests and paying no attention to what was going on in the rest of the Government. Sometimes it was even known that they were all doing things that were contrary to a particular policy that was set out by the Government. I do not know whether this problem is soluble, but it is a key feature of British Government.

Dr Heffernan: The Department of Economic Affairs in 1964—invented on the back of an envelope in the back of a taxi, apparently. It is an inevitable problem but, if you do take some time, if you do have to report to Parliament on the structures and functions of government departments, you will be able to address this question of co-ordination much better. Presently, the Cabinet Office only co-ordinates government by assisting the Prime Minister in his or her ability to do so. The Treasury has different functions under a very powerful Chancellor such as Brown, where they would have these accounting meetings and so on for Public Service Agreements, which strengthened the role of the Treasury in terms of following the money; but a Cabinet Office that dealt with the machinery of government would be much more effective, I think, or would have an opportunity to be more effective. These are, I agree, time-old problems, because often government is about fire-fighting problems as much as it is about laying out co-ordinated plans. However, that is one way in which you would get a Cabinet Office that was more focused, if not streamlined. It would help the Prime Minister and the Cabinet in the conduct of business much more effectively if it did not have to do all of these things.

1   D. Kavanagh and A. Seldon The Power Behind the Prime Minister, p309 Back

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