- Constitution Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 60-74)

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

Q60 Baroness Quin: Picking up Dr Heffernan's last point, I think perhaps back-of-envelope problems have been going on for a very long time. The example was given of the American Department of Homeland Security, as opposed to some of our sort of instantaneous departmental changes. I remember being part of a parliamentary committee visiting the States at that time and it was very much seen as a presidential, almost panic initiative to the issue of terrorism. The different departments of security within the United States were at that time quite worried that they would not be able to reorganise within this department at the same time as trying to tackle the terrorist issue. So it seemed to me that, rather than being a contrast with our system, it was similar to our system. Although I think this has existed for a long time, I wonder if, following Professor Kavanagh's point, it has been heightened by the kind of 24/7 media environment, so that, if you have media on the hoof, you also have government on the hoof. I wonder if there is some way in which this has become an unreasonable way of operating, and that government as a whole should somehow signal that this is not the way to operate for the future.

Dr Heffernan: The strength of our system is that we can respond quickly and organically to present circumstances. The difficulty in the United States is that the system prevents government from doing things in terms of setting up departments. I think that there is a happy medium between these two. It would be against the British tradition of doing politics where the executive had to ask Parliament for permission to change the machinery of government; but nonetheless Parliament could insist upon some process by which the machinery of government is altered, and you need not do it in such an ad hoc way. That is a problem in terms of the way we do politics and there are numerous examples of it. That is why I think that one of the strengths of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, in trying to engineer a more powerful and authoritative centre, was probably a good thing, provided that it is transparent and can be held to account by other members of the Government.

Q61 Lord Rowlands: In many ways you have answered our fifth question, which is what you would identify as the key issues or problems that the Cabinet Office and the wider centre of government have faced since 1997. That is what we have done for the last 45 minutes. Perhaps the best thing for us to do is to clarify where we stand as a result of the evidence of the last 45 minutes. Do I take it, first, there is a ground of agreement that there was a need for some kind of joined-up government but the efforts to do it since 1997 have not been successful? Secondly, as a result of the means by which they tried to do this, Cabinet Office roles have become complicated and incompatible. Thirdly, there has been a blurring of responsibilities and therefore a lack of parliamentary accountability. Is that a reasonable summary of what we have said in the last 45 minutes?

Professor Kavanagh: Yes, I would agree with that very much.

Q62 Lord Rowlands: In that case, Dr Heffernan has been very consistent in his evidence suggesting that we should have a Prime Minister's Department proper. Do the other two of you agree with that?

Professor Smith: In a way, I think it is not my decision but—

Q63 Lord Rowlands: Would you recommend it?

Professor Smith: In a way, it does not really matter. What we need to do is be clear about how the centre of British Government is organised. It could be the Cabinet Office or it could be the Prime Minister's Office or it could be the Treasury, but what it cannot be is three departments, and maybe more, fighting over who has control of the centre and nobody actually being clear about what those rules are and who should be in charge of the centre.

Professor Kavanagh: A Prime Minister's Department has been mooted, in 1982 and on at least one other occasion. It was the Cabinet Secretary on both occasions who objected strongly to this. If we did have a proper Prime Minister's Department with a Permanent Secretary overseeing officials, there is no doubt it would raise serious questions about the role of the Cabinet Office, the role of the Cabinet Secretary and, dare I say it, the role of the Cabinet and secretaries of state. It would be a recognition and a formalisation of what Britain is moving towards, definitely. You do get the old romantics. They want to go back to cabinet government. They have this idea of a mythical age of cabinet government and a different kind of Cabinet Office. It is really between changing both of these. It is interesting to look at Australia and Canada, which have kind of prime ministerial-cabinet-parliamentary systems. Cabinet and its Cabinet Office equivalent have been in decline and both have moved towards the creation of strong Prime Minister's Departments. I do not know whether my co-author and good friend Dr Anthony Seldon will speak to you at some time, but he has made the recommendation that it would be good to look at some other exemplars of British-type political arrangements, of how they are dealing with these questions. Because, as Professor Smith has said, the problems of co-ordination, of joining up departments with very long histories and long-established pools of wisdom and so on—these are ever-present and they are probably getting more intense as government is moving out into new fields. Many departments go back 50, 60 years and some of them go back centuries; and if you were starting British Government as of now to deal with the particular problems of the elderly or single parents, inner city problems and so on, you may well end up with a very different departmental structure than the one that was formed by and large before 1914. Someone raised the question about the coming and going of departments, the merging of departments, the separation of departments and so on. It is a very British style of intuitive, ad hoc, incremental adaptation. That is the essence of the British constitution. We all know that. But I have to say that if you were starting from now, you probably would start off with a powerful Prime Minister's Department and probably short-term departments, set up to deal with particular problems; then they may be wound up after 10 or 15 years, as the problems redefine themselves.

Professor Smith: The other big difference between Britain and Australia and Canada is that they are federal systems, and so Prime Ministers do not get bogged down in questions of whether street crime has gone up in South Yorkshire.

Professor Kavanagh: Britain is moving slowly towards a quasi-federal system.

Professor Smith: Maybe the fundamental problem for the failure of co-ordination is that British Government at the centre tries to do too much. If more of it was done in the localities, they would not be bogged down in all these particular little issues.

Q64 Lord Rowlands: I gather that we have one definitely for, one half and, Professor Smith, I am not sure where you stand on the question of a Prime Minister's Department.

Dr Heffernan: We have one already. It is simply formalising it and then making the Cabinet Office do a better job of doing what it should do.

Q65 Lord Rowlands: Would not the advantage of a Prime Minister's Department be that there would be a corresponding select committee to scrutinise it?

Dr Heffernan: Yes.

Professor Kavanagh: Of course.

Q66 Lord Rowlands: You can establish a line of accountability.

Professor Kavanagh: You would have to.

Q67 Lord Peston: I was going to ask a question about what improvements you would recommend to the centre. Do I understand it that you feel, all three of you, you have answered that question? You have given us your improvements?

Dr Kavanagh: Lord Peston, I do not know whether you are anticipating question 9.

Q68 Lord Peston: Yes, that is what I am doing, in order to save time.

Professor Kavanagh: Can I answer very briefly? I have four points but I will mention only one. I think all the worries, all the plans for creating new machinery and creating new units for co-ordination can never compensate for poor policy, lack of good judgment, lack of political will/authority, and weak departmental leadership. We do not talk about those, but you can draw up the most perfect schemes, like you drew up Westminster-type constitutions in many newly independent African countries in the 1950s and 1960s, and they just disintegrated. Peter Hennessy last time was quoting his colleague Tony Wright's lecture that he had given about political culture, which was much more important than changing rules, conventions, and so on. That is what I would come back to. I do have other recommendations, but essentially that is what it is.

Dr Heffernan: I have two, if I may be so bold. If there is a formalised department of the Prime Minister created, I think that the Cabinet Office role should be seen, whatever its title, as a kind of department of public service. Presently, the Cabinet Office identifies six departmental strategic objectives. The first one is "To build an effective UK intelligence community". That would be by the Cabinet Office. "Improved outcomes to the most excluded people in society and enable a thriving third sector"—that was an objective done by the Cabinet Office. So too "Building the capacity and capability of the Civil Service to develop the Government's objectives". At present, we hide the Civil Service away, since we abolished the Civil Service Department. It is a lot of work for the Cabinet Secretary in addition to his or her other responsibilities. I think that there is an argument to regularise that within the Cabinet Office. "Promote the highest standards of propriety, integrity and governance in public life"—that would be a responsibility for a Cabinet Office. I have one other general point. When I was preparing to come here today, I looked at the list of Cabinet Office ministers who had had the title since 1997. There are 12 of them. That is one for every year. It is seen as the most junior position of the Cabinet. It is not a Secretary of Stateship. There is an argument that, to reform the centre, you would create a much more powerful position for a ministerial head of a reformed Cabinet Office. Sir David Clark was the first one and essentially was the deputy to his deputy, Peter Mandelson—because politics will always take precedence. That is necessary and inevitable. However, it is a place where, as I said before, those on the way down go, Hilary Armstrong and Jack Cunningham—I mean no disrespect; I am just observing career trajectories—or those on the way up, John Hutton, Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne most recently. But I cannot imagine that you would be able to get as the head of the Cabinet Office, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office, any ability to work out how the Cabinet Office itself works, let alone co-ordinate or help co-ordinate government when having a post for less than a year. It is an absurdity that we reshuffle now for the sake of reshuffling, or sometimes for the sake of our political lives—which is absolutely necessary, and that is politics—but I think that that is one issue that your Lordships' Committee may wish to consider. The turnover of Cabinet Office Ministers, and that it is a place on which you perch on the way up or on the way out, is not really helpful for the work of the Cabinet Office in terms of dealing with the three functions it has at present, given that the lines of accountability are skewed and that the role of the Prime Minister in helping co-ordinate its work is now pretty much its principal function

Q69 Lord Lyell of Markyate: I agree with that and I agree with Professor Kavanagh about the importance of judgment, policy and will. However, I am sceptical about a large Prime Minister's Department that tries to do everything. My short ministerial experience was in the Department of Social Security. That is incredibly detailed. It takes time to realise that the difference between those who are paying for the social security and those who are getting it in income, on general terms, is tiny; the tapers, and all that sort of thing. You have to have a department which is steeped in it to make the country work, and I think that goes to other departments too.

Professor Kavanagh: I gave a very conditional assent to the idea of a Prime Minister's Department. My first recommendation that I jotted down was "trust the departments", because they are the repository of experience, of staff, of knowledge, with people on the frontline, knowledge of the pressure groups, et cetera. The Prime Minister may have one or, if he is lucky, he may have two people advising him on that particular area, and it is a mismatch; it is ridiculous. There is this danger. Some departments do feel cut off from Number 10. They do not get phone calls. They only get phone calls when there is a problem; perhaps a media-generated problem that Number 10 has to deal with. Then they come to the department running. I think that a real problem, as with the US presidency, is that if you create a powerful centre, it would probably increase the distance between the centre and the decision-making body in the departments. I think that would make for bad governance. Basically, I would agree with you. It would be particularly acute in certain departments, like social security. I would strongly endorse the point that Dr Heffernan raised. Studies have been done about the turnover of ministers in this country—

Q70 Lord Rowlands: Dr John Reid, for example.

Professor Kavanagh: He had seven jobs in six years! It is not just the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office is an illustration of a general problem. Ministers, on average, serve for less than two years. It means that they have been spending a couple of months learning the job, and the last few months they are reading the newspapers about the way they are on their way out! Can you think of any other walk of life—a university, a school; a bank is not a good example!—but any of the other great areas of life where there would be such a turnover of its chief executive, or where the short-lived chief executive was meant to make a difference? If you are the Prime Minister and you are turning them over so rapidly, it seems to me that you are not expecting very much of them.

Professor Smith: Actually this goes to a deeper problem which has come out in some of the other questions, which is about the adversarial nature of British politics, so that so often the role of ministers is actually not about making policy but about defending their decisions, defending themselves and defending the Government. As a consequence of that the decisions that are made about removing ministers then are political decisions, they are not policy decisions, but that opens up a big Pandora's box.

Q71 Lord Norton of Louth: If I can pick up on a point that Professor Kavanagh has touched on and we were dealing with earlier. You have identified this tension at the centre but there is also tension between the centre and departments, which has clearly changed quite significantly over the years. We have some idea of the sense of what is happening but what should happen, what would be the ideal relationship between the centre and departments? Is the centre role really that of co-ordination, is it that departments, as Professor Kavanagh was just indicating, should be the prime movers in policy-making or should it be somewhat different?

Professor Smith: Again, to some degree it goes back to a big constitutional issue about in a sense what the rules are, what should be the functions and responsibilities of departments and what should be the functions and responsibility of the Prime Minister. Part of the problem is, again, the idea of cabinet government. We had a solution to that in the sense that the Cabinet sat there and made decisions and departments implemented them, but we know that never really happened. I think the problem now is that departments have built themselves up as extremely strong organisations in the sense, as Professor Kavanagh said, that they have the expertise. Often the ministers have high degrees of authority and what you then get in a sense is a power battle between an increasingly powerful Prime Minister's Office and departments of varying strengths, and unless that relationship is worked out it is very difficult to resolve that.

Q72 Lord Rowlands: A question which I had not really thought about until a few minutes ago when you were talking about centralisation and decentralisation is to what extent does devolution have an effect? There are three parts of the kingdom where all sorts of policy are no longer the responsibility of central government. Do you think the whole of this argument or the issues we have talked about have taken into account and been able to understand the consequences of devolution?

Dr Heffernan: The fact that it meant for Tony Blair that he did not get blamed for NHS failures in Scotland was probably a source of strength to him really; the fact that if you devolve authority you also devolve responsibility. That is why comparing unitary states to federal states is an interesting way of working out how centres operate, but ultimately the role of Whitehall is to set the agenda and for good or ill, whether we like it or not, it falls to a politically successful and electorally popular Prime Minister to do that on behalf of his or her party. There is a model of leadership now which has been established; political parties are now hollow shells of what they previously were, inevitably, and that is a comparative process. David Cameron, if he is to become Prime Minister, will operate according to the Blair mark one model par excellence; Gordon Brown if he were more powerful would do so as well—he was a very authoritative Chancellor and is still a powerful Prime Minister despite his travails in recent time. But I do think that if the centre does set the policy agenda through the interests of the government then creating a Prime Minister's Department—I will not hammer on about it again, we have moved on I know—would help the Cabinet Office to then agenda set on behalf of ministers. It may well then play a role in which it communicates from departments to the centre and from the centre to departments—it is a clearing house of ideas in a way—and I do think that Dennis's advice is very sensible: one should trust the departments. Inevitably in contemporary politics there will be issues on which the Prime Minister will feel obliged or be obliged to take an interest and in Tony Blair's pomp, as I said earlier—the phrase is in one of Peter Hennessy's books on the Prime Minister—"Tony wants" was the watchword, everything fell into place if it was capable of falling into place. That is inevitable. I would like to go back to cabinet government where everybody sat around for eight hours—Tony Benn is always going on about it—having wonderful discussions, putting in papers: those days are gone, they are not coming back, so your Lordships' Committee would be advised, if I may be so bold, to recognise that reality. In identifying the fact that the Prime Minister is the major player you can then think about ways in which the centre can check or balance him or her and the way in which Parliament then can check or balance an executive which is hierarchical, which is operating on the basis of concentric circles. It has always been the case, there is nothing new in this, there has always been a hierarchy in government but it is a more obvious hierarchy now and the Cabinet Office's problem is that it is caught between two sticks, supporting the rest of government and supporting the Prime Minister.

Chairman: Gentlemen, you have covered the ground extremely comprehensively; Lord Rodgers, did you want to ask one final question?

Q73 Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: Can we think of think tanks and of policy units and things of this kind. We have not talked much about it, but going back not only over the last 30 years but further back as well there has been a constructive tension, if that is the right word, between the outsiders brought in, some more independent than others. How far has this been a relationship which was useful, more creative or not? Has there been more creation and more tension over the period?

Professor Smith: Again this goes back to the Fulton Report in a way and the fact that civil servants were identified then as generalists and not necessarily experts in particular policies, and I think in a way the think tanks and the external advisers have to some degree filled that vacuum. It is actually a positive thing for the country and if we had more debate within government, not just within Parliament, a more open debate about what the policy options were, what practicalities, what different ways are there of thinking about issues. Again, that goes back to moving away from adversarial politics because of course adversarial politics leads politicians to keeping everything in and not actually opening up the policy process and not letting different actors and institutions into it.

Q74 Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: Going back for example to Ted Heath's period with Lord Rothschild at that time?

Dr Heffernan: Yes, Minister has done a great disservice to the practice of central government. When I was an undergraduate we would have lectures on the civil service, we would endlessly rehearse the stories about Sir Antony Part's battles with Tony Benn and the Department of Industry, that the civil service was a block on reform, that it said "No". I actually think that over the last 25 years the civil service has got very good—perhaps too good—at saying "Yes, minister, what is it you want us to do?", so there is a real suggestion of being open to advice, to discussion and a permeation from without Whitehall that helps Whitehall work its business. That is to be encouraged. Going back to special advisers, ministers should be advised to take on more technocratic special advisers, people who come in to advise on the expertise they have—not to leak or brief or to bag carry as is often the case now, to help the minister with his or her political work. Of course there is a very interesting study—John Keene has recently published a 950-page book on democracy, rather long, but the executive summary of it suggests that he thinks one of the developments is that contemporary politics is about a monitory democracy, where there are lots of checks and balances from without. Liberty is essentially an external arm of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice now because it will shout when they do things and we as citizens will take notice, which influences the way in which politics works. That would probably need to be encouraged, one might argue, although there are problems with it. I think this is to be encouraged, it is a positive sense and that is one thing the Department of Public Service could actually encourage if the Cabinet Office had a different function.

Professor Kavanagh: Can I briefly pick up Lord Rodgers' point? The Civil Service has shown itself to be, over the last 20 or 30 years, much more open to outside advice. There is competition of ideas, there is more plurality in policy ideas and many more links with think tanks outside the UK. Lots of policy ideas have come from the United States, from the Netherlands, from Scandinavian countries. What is interesting is Mrs Thatcher who, early on, made great use of the free market think tanks in large part to challenge the established lines of policy in certain departments; Mr Blair as well, since 1997, also made use of the think tanks. What we have not talked about today of course has been the role of the Strategy Unit which brings in lots of outsiders—I am thinking of Lord Birt on transport, Ayling on pensions. The Strategy Unit has provided a vehicle for the Prime Minister to bring in outside advisers and go and talk directly to senior civil servants, to experts in the field and, if I can end on a controversial note if we are drawing to an end now, some of these papers were personal to the Prime Minister and neither the Secretary of State nor the Permanent Secretary had sight of them.

Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning and for the evidence you have given. It has given us a great deal to think about; thank you very much.

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