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Liaison Committee Report

Volume 572: debated on Thursday 12 December 2013

Before I call the Chair of the Liaison Committee to make the Select Committee statement, it might be helpful to the House if I explained briefly the new procedure, to which it agreed only recently. In essence, the pattern is the same as for a ministerial statement. Sir Alan will speak to his subject for up to 10 minutes—there is no obligation to take all that time —during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members who rise to put questions to Sir Alan on the subject of his statement and call Sir Alan to respond to those in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. These interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in the questioning. The Backbench Business Committee does have the power to impose a maximum time limit on a statement and the exchanges that follow, but on this occasion it has chosen not to do so. I call the Chair of the Liaison Committee, Sir Alan Beith, most appropriately, if I may say so, to make the first formal Select Committee statement.

Mr Speaker, I am delighted that we are able to make the first use of the procedure that you have so helpfully described to the House, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for enabling us to do so.

The Liaison Committee usually reports on matters of process affecting Select Committees. For example, our 2012 report was on Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers. This report relates to public policy and is unusual in that respect. It arose because we had shared concerns among Select Committees about how contracts are managed by Government Departments. That was one of the themes of our evidence session with the Prime Minister in September. We questioned him on a range of examples of poor Whitehall contract management, from the electronic monitoring of offenders to rural broadband and the west coast main line. We pressed the Prime Minister on the significant evidence that the civil service is not equipped to support consistent contract management and tends to be driven by short-term pressures rather than by long-term value for money for the taxpayer.

There are of course many examples of civil service success. We point in our report to the successful delivery of the security for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, despite the contractor’s failure, as a notable example. The Prime Minister told us:

“There are some issues and problems in the civil service as well as that very good performance and we need to deal with them. But I think that we can deal with them with the plans we have in hand”.

We are not convinced that the Government’s civil service reform plan for Whitehall is based on a strategic consideration of the future of the civil service. We are concerned that the reforms proposed by the Government will not be successful in tackling some deep-rooted problems in Whitehall.

The weight of the evidence received by Select Committees across different subject areas led us to conclude that we should collectively report our concerns to the House. It is not enough just to address how best to increase Whitehall’s capacity to manage contracts. There needs to be recognition of the very different role that the civil service is now expected to carry out. It requires different skills and places new demands on the way that Whitehall works, and it is not just about civil servants. The role of Ministers needs to be examined. In our view, that requires a fundamental review of the role of the civil service. The Government have previously signalled that there will be a considerable change in that role. In July 2010, the Prime Minister promised

“to turn government on its head, taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities.”

Government Departments have also been required to change the way they work, while doing “more for less” to meet the financial constraints of austerity.

The civil service was shaped by the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement of 1854, and the Haldane doctrine of ministerial accountability. The Haldane model, dating back nearly 100 years, did not anticipate the size of modern Departments or the vast range of public services, whether they are carried out by the civil service or contracted out. There has been no independent examination of the civil service since the Fulton committee’s report of 1968. That committee was expressly excluded from consideration of the relationship between Ministers and officials. The evidence we heard on the state of the civil service clearly demonstrates the need for a reconsideration of the traditional notion of ministerial responsibility, which is hard to apply in modern circumstances.

A report published by the Institute for Government earlier this week described the current system of accountability as

“opaque, out of date and creaking under the pressure of today’s demands.”

Three months, ago the Public Administration Committee published “Truth to Power: how Civil Service reform can succeed”. It was a report of a year-long investigation into the state of the civil service. The Committee concluded that the Government’s proposed reforms to Whitehall do not look strategically at the challenges facing the civil service of the future. The Committee recommended the establishment of a parliamentary commission into the civil service. The aim of the commission would be to ensure that the civil service has the values, philosophy and structure capable of constant regeneration in the face of a faster pace of change.

The Liaison Committee has endorsed that recommendation. We say that the Government should ask Parliament to establish a parliamentary commission into the civil service and that it should be a Joint Committee of both Houses, on the same lines as the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. It is right for Parliament to consider the state of the civil service. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 clearly established the principle that responsibility now lies with Parliament rather than being a matter for the royal prerogative. A parliamentary commission could draw on the extensive experience of Government and the civil service in both Houses and its conclusions would enjoy cross-party consensus.

Select Committees themselves benefited enormously from the fact that the Wright Committee had established a programme of reform that took effect immediately after the 2010 election. In the light of that experience, we recommend that the commission on the civil service be established as a matter of urgency and report before the end of this Parliament to enable its findings and recommendations to be implemented after the election. I commend the report to the House.

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had time to see the exchanges in evidence taken by my Committee, the Select Committee on Science and Technology, from Sir Mark Walport and Jon Day, one of the permanent secretaries in the Cabinet Office. Jon Day acknowledges that in his task of horizon-scanning there is a problem of joining up and he specifically talks about the silo mentality. He goes on to say that there are some enthusiastic people who have tried to solve the problem. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that underlines the fact that not only is there the need we have seen but that there is willingness in the civil service to go down this path, so the only obstacle is the Government?

I have seen the evidence given to the Science and Technology Committee and it referred particularly—these phrases keep recurring—to silos and stovepipes as an analogy for Government Departments. When I talk to Ministers, including one or two who might even be on the Front Bench now, I hear a similar language of concern about the silo mentality. It illustrates that there are fundamental issues that such a commission could properly consider.

I thank my right hon. Friend and the Liaison Committee for so emphatically endorsing the “Truth to Power” report produced by my Committee, the Public Administration Committee, and the central conclusion that there should be a commission on the future of the civil service. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is entirely predictable that there should be natural resistance to that conclusion from a Government who wish to concentrate on winning the next election and from a senior civil service that will fight shy of scrutiny of problems and failures in the civil service and the degree of change that needs to be delivered? Should we not invite the Government to set those excuses aside? They have had three and a half years to reform the civil service. It is taking a long time. The inquiry will sit for only a year before it will report. Is that not an effective way of bringing change to Whitehall?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s work on this as Chairman and that of his whole Committee. Clearly, almost all Governments have an in-built resistance to reform. That is a short-sighted view, however, because Governments need a civil service that can respond to the programmes that they want to carry out. The other problem that his Committee has rightly identified is that it is vital that civil servants tell the truth to power and feel enabled to do so. In our report, we identified examples where we felt that things had gone wrong because Ministers were told what they wanted to hear.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on a full and important first report to the House from the Liaison Committee and, with him, endorse the importance of cross-party consensus on civil service reform if we are to ensure more effective government. Does he agree with my Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, based on the evidence we took from private contractors delivering public services, that if the Government want to see more effective and efficient delivery by those private contractors, there should be open-book accounting, the National Audit Office ought to be able to access those contractors as and when it deems it necessary, and freedom of information provision should be relevant and in place when private contractors are using taxpayers’ money to deliver public services?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and, of course, the Public Accounts Committee produced a number of reports that are considered in the report to which I am referring today. My Committee, the Select Committee on Justice, believes that, just as the public pound should be followed wherever it goes, the information to which the public are entitled should remain their entitlement when services are carried out by private contractors, and that contracts should be written in such as way as to ensure that that access to freedom of information is not impaired by any privatisation process.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee for his very powerful report, and for it being commendably brief and very much to the point. Rarely can there have been as damning a sentence in any parliamentary report as

“The Prime Minister’s evidence to us in September did nothing to suggest that the Government has a coherent analysis of why things in Whitehall go wrong.”

The Government have indicated that they want to see changes to the civil service, but is it not a shame that the Liaison Committee, the most powerful Select Committee in this House, has to seek the Government’s permission to set up a parliamentary commission? If the Liaison Committee does not get the answer from the Government that it wants, what will it do?

That, as Ministers often say, is a hypothetical question that I ought not to answer. What I can say to my hon. Friend—and I thank him for his comments—is that the House could set up such a body, but the point of the exercise is to ensure that Front Benches are committed to the outcome. That is why we want those on both the Government and the Opposition Front Bench, aspiring as they do to be a Government, to recognise that it is in the interests of good government that we equip the civil service and enable it to do the job that it will need to do in the very different circumstances of today.

The National Audit Office report on the implementation of universal credit said that the Department for Work and Pensions had developed a “good news” culture and a “fortress mentality”. As a result, Ministers were able to claim that they did not know how badly things were going. Who does the right hon. Gentleman blame for this? Is it the civil servants who were too afraid to speak truth to power, or the Ministers who run the Departments in such a macho way that they want to hear only of the solutions, not of the problems?

In our report it was the first of those two possible explanations that we referred to. For Ministers not to have known for three years into the programme suggests that civil servants did not feel free to tell them what they needed to hear, but rather seemed to be telling them what they wanted to hear. Our primary task was not to look for which individuals to blame, but to look for what was wrong with a system that did not communicate early enough that things were going wrong.

The civil service is ultimately founded on political power, whereas good business is ultimately founded on voluntary co-operation. Will the Committee accept that this categorical difference could be at the heart of any coherent explanation of the civil service’s failings? Would the right hon. Gentleman consider that this might mean that the civil service is incapable of meeting his high ideals?

That is a very interesting argument, which I would like to discuss with the hon. Gentleman at greater length some time. Both voluntary co-operation and the exercise of power seem to me to exist in both the public and the private sectors.

I am pleased to endorse what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said and welcome his statement, and I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, of which I am a member. Will there be no prescription in the terms of reference for the inquiry and will it have a broad canvas and be capable of taking views such as mine? I am a traditional supporter of the Northcote-Trevelyan-Haldane civil service. On that broad canvas could we look at the role of special advisers, the potential politicising of civil servants and other issues?

The hon. Gentleman raises some important issues, which have been discussed in the context of the Government’s own more limited reform, which they have canvassed hitherto. These are certainly issues that need to be looked at by such a commission. If it is the Government’s belief that there needs to be more personalisation of senior appointments in the civil service—I believe that is their view—that raises issues arising out of the traditional role of the civil service that ought to be considered carefully and be embarked upon with the authority of both Houses of Parliament in the kind of context that such a commission could set.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we would be more effective at holding officials to account if we improved our own accountability? For example, the Speaker’s Commission is still unelected and has no one from an intake after 2001, which is more than half the House. Select Committee powers are very opaque. We have parliamentary orders ignored, as in the case of the BBC with pay-offs. We give significant powers to officials on Bill Committees and do not have the expertise of Members with recognised experience in those areas. Should we not be showing a little more and telling a little less, even when it comes to savings and transformational change, which is what we are seeking from Whitehall but not always delivering ourselves?

The hon. Gentleman leads me into areas covered by other Liaison Committee reports on Select Committee effectiveness, but I think that I can reasonably say that the role and effectiveness of Select Committees have changed significantly over the course of this Parliament, in part as a result of a series of reforms agreed prior to the last general election and then brought into effect. That is the model that has led us to propose the civil service commission in this case.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s statement, which I think is a welcome step forward. Following the previous question, I agree that Select Committees need more definitive powers. I think that they should be able not only to set up commissions, but, if necessary, and in extremis, to introduce their own legislation when the Government refuse to do so. We need to shift the balance of power towards Parliament and away from the Executive as far as we can. Following the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), what consideration has been given to the size, quantity and value of private contractors working on civil service functions, often core functions, and does he believe that that undermines the whole role of the civil service, as a Government-employed service, in giving robust advice to Government, rather than commercially driven advice and running of services?

The hon. Gentleman is a much-valued member of my Justice Committee and himself provides evidence of the valuable work that can be done in Select Committees. The extent to which services should be either carried out directly by Government or contracted out to the private sector is a matter of legitimate political argument, although Governments of quite different political persuasions have extended the role of the private sector in that regard. One thing that united Select Committee Chairs from different political backgrounds was the point that the civil service must have the necessary equipment for effective contracting when those processes are engaged in and that at every stage it should tell Ministers what they need to hear, not just what they want them to hear.

Has the Chair of the Committee observed that this Government, possibly more than any other, have followed the traditional practice of blaming all problems on their predecessors, then on the European Union and then on the civil service? The civil service’s overriding weakness is the great ethos of the unimportance of being right, because those who spoke truth to power are the ones whose careers have withered, and those who spoke comforting untruths to power are the ones whose careers have prospered and who have got to the top. Can he give us an assurance that the Committee, in the splendid work it is doing, will follow what other Committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee, have done by saying that we need to respect, value and continue the great contribution that the independence of the civil service has made to this country over many years?

The hon. Gentleman made some comments on which I would hesitate to give a collective view on behalf of the Liaison Committee, which comprises Members of very different political persuasions, but he is right to emphasise the value of the civil service and the fact that we need a public service. It must be a public service that is capable of not only telling truth to power, but carrying out the decisions that democratically elected Governments make. Getting that balance right exercised the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms and was a consideration in the Haldane reforms. It is time that we looked again at how we can maintain the important and fundamental principles on equipping the civil service for the very different and challenging tasks that we place upon it today.