Motion to Take Note
My Lords, this may strike you as a genuinely perverse opening remark, but I truly regret the need for this morning’s debate. Why is this? It is because I wish we lived in a well managed state, praised for the quality and delivery of its public services, admired for its ability to complete grand projects on time and within budget, overseen by a Whitehall where—the odd emotional spasm apart—the crucial relationships between Ministers and officials were always and everywhere in good repair. I fear that these tests are not universally met.
However, there is no need to succumb to excessive pessimism nor to unleash a relentless cataract of anxiety or criticism. There is still a lustrous quality to our great tradition of non-politically partisan public service, transferable from one Government to the next along with its perpetual duty of speaking truth unto power; of telling Ministers what they need to know rather than what they wish to hear. As a country, we also possess a considerable, usable past in the history of our conduct of central government. Public service has always attracted capable and well motivated people and it still does. However, each generation has a duty to revisit the traditional verities afresh; to test old models and established practices against new needs and, quite rightly, ever more stretching delivery requirements, while facing up to examples where performance has not risen to the level of events.
It is a very long time—48 years—since a Government commissioned a wide-lens review of the Civil Service when Harold Wilson and his Chancellor, Jim Callaghan, set up the Fulton inquiry in 1966. The Fulton story is not an entirely happy one but it is not for reprising this morning, save to note a serious flaw in its remit when Mr Wilson steered the committee away from the crucial, central question of relationships between Ministers and civil servants. It is this terrain upon which I would like to descend first in today’s debate.
These relationships, which make up what I would call the governing marriage between temporary Ministers and permanent officials, depend upon confident Secretaries of State and confident civil servants in candid symbiosis, raising the quality of each others’ game. The relationship rests on a three-way deal. The deal is the product of two key enquiries—the Gladstone-commissioned Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854 and the Lloyd George-commissioned Haldane report of 1918—plus a good deal of practical, everyday experience of working our constitution by Whitehall generations past. Deal one is non-political civil servants speaking truth unto power in private. Deal two is reciprocal: in return for such candour, Secretaries of State carry the can in public, even if things have gone wrong in places over which Ministers did not have direct control. Deal three is a valuable, high level of continuity within the state thanks to the career Civil Service transferring between Administrations without a clean sweep of top posts, as happens in the United States.
The triple deal has been under stress for a good while now due to a number of largely post-Fulton developments. The first has been the arrival of special advisers in some quantity. Although a valuable and vitalising factor in many ways, this has complicated the old-style governing marriage and, in some unfortunate instances, has injected poison into it. The second is the truly welcome development of departments shadowing House of Commons Select Committees since 1979, which has brought senior civil servants into a public and parliamentary limelight experienced previously only by accounting officers appearing before the Public Accounts Committee. This has altered for ever the old calculus of official accountability to Parliament.
As an outside observer, I am struck by the scratchiness in some, but by no means all, current Whitehall departments between the partners to the governing marriage to the point where there are suggestions that elements of the old deals are but Victorian relics that clutter up the path to more effective and efficient government. It is genuinely ironic that, with the ink scarcely dry on the sections of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 enshrining at last the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan tenets, one should hear whispers in Whitehall that if less dramatic reform measures fail, the 2010 Act should be amended to allow Secretaries of State to have the predominant say in who will be their Permanent Secretaries, a process known in the shorthand as ministerial choice.
Place the question of ministerial choice alongside the new development of extended ministerial offices—EMOs—a fusion of Whitehall private offices with a variant of the French Cabinet system announced last summer in the Cabinet Office document, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, and you have what some would see as a combined move towards a real, if unacknowledged, politicisation of the senior Civil Service. Is this a creeping politicisation that dare not speak its name? Certainly, it is the coming of the EMO plus the question of ministerial choice that has proved to be the weathermaker within the wider debate about the coalition’s Civil Service Reform Plan.
I was fortunate to have an on-the-record interview with the Prime Minister last October about, among other things, the new extended ministerial offices and greater ministerial choice. Mr Cameron sought to reassure on both points. I asked him first if he sensed a whiff of danger of the politicisation of the Civil Service through the extended private office. “I don’t”, he said, continuing:
“I think that one of the things that makes the civil service great and makes civil servants proud to be civil servants is that they are not political … I think one of the most exciting things for a civil servant is the transition from one government to another; it’s a great test of professional people”.
The Prime Minister went on to explain that EMOs would allow Secretaries of State to have more back-up with, and I am quoting his words,
“some experts, a bit of implementation, some special advisers. That’s quite like what the Prime Minister has. It’s quite like what some Ministers have already put in place. I think it’s growing organically. I’m helping giving it a nudge along”—
there is the word “nudge” again. Mr Cameron also sought to reassure on ministerial choice in Permanent Secretary appointments. He believed that the process,
“has been constrained, I think, rather excessively in recent years so that there is one name and the Prime Minister either has to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ … I don’t think we should have ended up in that position. I think it would have been better for one or two people to get over the line, as it were. Then the Prime Minister, in conversation with the Cabinet Secretary and perhaps the Secretary of State, to make the decision. I do not think that that’s politicisation. I think that’s just the ability of a government to make sure it’s got the right people in place to carry out the government’s policy”.
The Cabinet Office Minister with day-to-day responsibility for the Civil Service, Francis Maude, has given me similar reassurances that the coalition’s intention is not to politicise. Yet for all these reassurances, the Civil Service Commission, the instrument Mr Gladstone created to nurture and protect the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, plainly remains concerned. The chairman of the commission, the former Home Office Permanent Secretary, Sir David Normington, has been engaged in what one might call a rolling conversation on these matters with Francis Maude.
So, where are we now? Mr Maude paused the question of more ministerial choice last year. The pause is due to end soon. On Monday, the Civil Service Commission launched a public consultation on its recruitment principles. The commission noted that the Government proposed in its 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan that Secretaries of State should be able to choose from a list of appointable candidates as assessed by an independent panel. In last year’s document, Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On Report, the Government added a new proposal that it should be the Prime Minister, rather than the individual Secretary of State, who possessed the final choice.
In Monday’s consultation document, the Civil Service Commission declares:
“In our view—and that of our predecessor Commissions—merit is best assessed by a process which has independent oversight, is objective and evidence-based. The risk in the Government’s proposal is that it could lead to a Secretary of State substituting his or her personal view of merit for the outcome of an independent, objective assessment process. We doubt whether that is compatible with the legal requirement and it risks candidates being seen to be appointed on the basis of personal or political patronage”.
Those are strong words from the Civil Service Commission. It is striving to clarify and refine the appointments process while retaining the essential Northcote-Trevelyan principles. To this end, it is consulting on two future possibilities. The first would be to go with the new guidance on recruitment principles that the commission published a year ago in response to the Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan. This included, and these are the commission’s words,
“for the first time a provision enabling a panel to seek a Secretary of State’s view on candidates of equal merit after final interviews and before it reached a final decision on the recommended candidate”.
The second possibility canvassed in the commission’s consultative document is, and I am quoting,
“Where a panel assesses two or more candidates to be of equivalent merit … it may put those candidates to the Prime Minister for decision. He should then make the final decision, which must still be made on merit, in consultation with the Secretary of State and Head of the Civil Service”.
I have lingered on this terrain because it spans a first order question. I accept that the Prime Minister and Mr Maude do not intend to turn Whitehall into Washington, but I share the anxieties of the Civil Service Commission. To abandon the Northcote-Trevelyan principles would be a national own goal of considerable proportions.
The real test will come not when the first EMOs are set up this year, nor perhaps even when the next batch of Permanent Secretary appointments are made, though Parliament and its Select Committees will need to keep a careful eye on both. On the creation of EMOs, Civil Service Commission approval will be needed for outside recruits brought in for their specialist knowledge at Whitehall director level or above—a welcome safeguard. The true test will bite when a new Government of a different political colour takes office.
If greater ministerial choice of Permanent Secretaries has happened and several EMOs are in place—especially if they have morphed into central directorates, essentially departments within departments—might not the new Secretaries of State feel that they are inheriting a senior Civil Service that has, to quite a high degree, been politicised? True, these new Ministers will be able to create their own EMOs afresh, but is there not a risk of a future Government saying no doubt, with regret, we must replace the senior career officials too with bespoke civil servants of our own choice? Should that happen, the Northcote-Trevelyan principles would effectively have been abandoned and our Civil Service will have passed through a one-way valve.
It is my belief that our Civil Service does not belong to any single party or any single Government—rather, it is a national asset of central importance to Parliament and all our people. If its essential DNA is to be changed, it must be done so openly and on the basis of as high a level of consensus as possible. To achieve this, much care and forethought is required, which brings me to another question that has exercised Parliament over the past year: the need for a very substantial inquiry into the overall condition of the Civil Service as a central capability for the nation in the 21st century.
When I talk to younger officials, their eyes are not just on Northcote-Trevelyan—though they are—they are acutely sensitive to a whole range of pressing concerns that are already in play or may become so during their career lifetime. Such matters embrace the very configuration of the United Kingdom, with the possibility of independence for Scotland, of a UK intact or not, facing life in a cold economic climate outside the European Union in the 2020s—the size and scope of the state, including levels of public spending, the scale of our welfare state and the continuing affordability of our top flight defence capabilities. In my judgment, these factors powerfully reinforce the case for a broader gauge inquiry into the Civil Service.
Last week, the Government replied to the fine report Truth to Power, produced the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, led by Bernard Jenkin. I should declare that I gave evidence to PASC. To my regret, the coalition said that it does not accept the committee’s assessment that the evidence for a,
“comprehensive strategic review of the nature, role and purpose of the Civil Service is overwhelming”.
In my judgment, this reply is as misguided as it is disappointing. Last November, no fewer than 17 other Select Committee chairs, with no recorded dissenters, backed PASC’s call for a joint parliamentary commission on the Civil Service in the Liaison Committee’s report entitled Civil Service: Lacking Capacity. In our interview last October, the Prime Minister did not, however, close his mind to such a possibility when I raised it with him. He said:
“There’s nothing … to stop Parliament, if it wanted to, to set up its own Commission on Civil Service Reform, and it has now, it’s got a committee”—
he is referring to PASC—
“they’ve had an inquiry. They can go on having inquiries if they want. He”—
I think he means Bernard Jenkin—
“was asking me do I want to set up a Royal Commission. No I don’t at the moment. Maybe it would be a good idea in the future”.
I profoundly hope that the Prime Minister will reconsider. David Cameron has a shining opportunity to stimulate a modern Northcote-Trevelyan/Haldane equivalent, and something a bit more, either by encouraging a parliamentary commission or creating an inquiry on which non-parliamentarians could sit. It need not stymie, as some in the Cabinet argue, the Civil Service reforms that are under way—far from it. The Civil Service does not, and I am sure would not, sag back with relief if such an inquiry was established.
I am not a “golden ager” or a seeker after what the much missed Lord Dahrendorf once called “a better yesterday”—I think he was rather unkindly referring to the SDP. Can we see in the hand that history has dealt us—that extraordinary mixture of people and processes and that jumble of departments overseen by a centre which some say is too powerful and some say too weak—the ingredients of a highly functional, self-regenerating, top-flight system of government? We need the inquiry and we need it soon. David Cameron has the chance to do a Gladstone and a Lloyd George for the 21st century. I hope he seizes it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, on bringing this important debate to the House. It seems these days in this place, that the more important the subject—whether it is the balkanisation of Britain, our membership of the European Union or the future of the Civil Service—the shorter the time that we are allowed to make speeches. I have only three minutes so I will content myself with saying that I agree with everything that the noble Lord said.
However, I would add one bit of emphasis, which is that I think that the mischief is not so much ministerial choice but having candidates who have come from outwith the Civil Service system. The key point here is that we must maintain not just the non-political nature of the Civil Service but its independence. It is that that I want to talk about in the context of the Civil Service Code.
I received a Written Answer this week from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. In my Question, I asked whether the Government,
“intend to ask the head of the Civil Service to report on whether the preparation and publication of Scotland’s Future by Scottish civil servants complied with the Civil Service Code of Conduct”.
The Answer which I received from my noble friend was:
“Questions relating to compliance with the Code of Conduct of the Civil Service in Scotland are dealt with by the Scottish Government in the first instance”.—[Official Report, 13/1/14; col. WA 1.]
However, my complaint was about the Scottish Government. It was raised in debate, and the Minister said it was not a matter for him.
The document I referred to, Scotland’s Future, contains within it one page headed, “Gains from independence—whichever party is elected”, and another headed “Gains from independence—if we are the first government of an independent Scotland”. Included in those “gains” are: the renationalisation of the Royal Mail; the abolition of the bedroom tax; and a reduction in corporation tax. None of those things is within the responsibility of the Scottish Government. This is a manifesto in a document paid for by the taxpayer, written by civil servants and costing £800,000. In common with everybody else in Scotland, I got a leaflet through my letterbox, paid for by the taxpayer, urging me to read the document. There are billboards and advertising hoardings.
We used to have a Civil Service code of conduct which was enforced; it is not being enforced, and it is an absolute dereliction of duty on the part of the head of the Civil Service not to bring this nonsense to an end. It creates a precedent, and the Civil Service operates on precedent. I believe that upholding the Civil Service’s code of conduct is a priority if we are to maintain the integrity of our systems of government. I think that it was a great mistake to separate the roles of head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary and to diminish both offices in the process. This goes to the heart of what is going on.
When people say that those of us who are concerned about the issues that the noble Lord has raised are out of date and do not really understand how things have changed from Victorian times, Ministers should remember that the monarch acts on their advice and Ministers are advised by civil servants. If we break that link, we will have lost our way and we will slide into chaos and further reinforce the contempt and dismay that we see among the electorate in our country.
My Lords, I echo the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy.
In 2010 I returned to Whitehall as the Minister of State for Justice after a gap of some 31 years, having served as a special adviser to the late Lord Callaghan in the Foreign Office and Number 10 from 1974 to 1979. I am often asked what my impressions were of working again with our Civil Service after that 30-year-plus gap.
I was impressed by the high quality of bright young people who still join our Civil Service motivated by a desire to serve the public good. What is more, in the intervening 30 years, our Civil Service has achieved a diversity in race, gender and social background that, although still a work in progress, outstrips anything seen in the upper reaches of the judiciary, for example. I found a service that, far from being resistant to change, was eager to embrace new methods of working and new technologies.
However, we are moving to a relationship where the public sector acts more and more as a commissioner of services, with the private sector as a supplier. To make that work, we need to equip our Civil Service with the skills for that task. That will mean the Civil Service embracing greater transparency, underpinned by freedom of information. It is increasingly going to need the skill sets to manage contracts with the private sector in a way that gives the taxpayer high performance and value for money. It will need a capacity to procure and manage highly complex information-technology programmes.
We will recruit and retain the civil servants for those tasks only if Ministers are willing to defend public servants from the mythologies, prejudices and dogmas of left and right. One of the great reforms of 19th-century liberalism, as was referred to, was the implementing of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms that cemented into our governance the concept of a Civil Service that is politically neutral and selected on merit. In the search for efficiency and technical competence, we must not lose either the ethos of public service or the political neutrality and selection on merit that have served us so well in the past and are still qualities to be valued in a Civil Service for the 21st century.
My Lords, this is a timely debate and I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. I agree with every word that he said and with every word that the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord McNally, said, except for one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I do not believe that selection on merit should be entirely confined to those already within the Civil Service. We need a more open choice than that and this has been done in the past 20 years.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, and the other speakers that something is wrong in the current working of our government, and in particular in the relationship between civil servants and politicians. A symptom of that, in my experience, is an unprecedented spate of recrimination against named civil servants, made worse by the fact that much of it has been through unattributable, backstairs briefings.
Another factor, not referred to by previous speakers, is the alarming turnover in the senior ranks of the Civil Service. Every department but one has had a change of Permanent Secretary since 2010: five have had three Permanent Secretaries in that time; and the Department for Transport had no fewer than four Permanent Secretaries between May 2010 and July 2012, which was when the debacle over the west coast main line took place. Paradoxically, the Government’s proposal for five-year fixed-term contracts for Permanent Secretaries would lengthen their tenure, not shorten it.
I support much of the Government’s programme for reform of the Civil Service. The service needs continually to be trained in the skills that today’s complex world requires, and where such skills are deficient they should be brought in from outside, although experience shows that that is both expensive and not always successful. As the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in another place has said,
“we have to ensure that people with the right skills are trained up within the Civil Service”.
However, like the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, that is not at the heart of my concern. What worries me is that the “us and them” attitude of some Ministers endangers the relationship of mutual respect and loyalty between politicians and civil servants that has served the country well for 100 years. Before we let that relationship go, we should think very hard about whether there is a better alternative. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, that that is not a matter for just one party or one Government.
I have come to support the recommendation of the Liaison Committee and the Public Administration Select Committee in another place for a parliamentary commission on the Civil Service. It seems extraordinary that the Government should brush aside a recommendation made unanimously by the very senior chairs of all the Select Committees that scrutinise departments.
I am sorry to suggest that the Prime Minister is ignorant of the Standing Orders of Parliament, but the fact is that we would expect a sovereign Parliament to be able to set up such a commission if it wanted to. That, I am advised, is not the case. It cannot do it without the consent of the Government. That may not be right, but it is the present situation and I hope that the Government will think again.
My Lords, I declare one relevant interest: my position as the Government’s lead independent non-executive board member, a role that provides the context for my brief remarks today.
When the Prime Minister appointed me and 60 other independent non-executive directors, he asked us to make the Government more businesslike and to help equip them with the skills needed to deliver government policy. We have made some progress. The non-executives are providing valuable independent advice and scrutiny and have helped set up the Major Projects Leadership Academy to address one of the critical weaknesses in government. With the support and input of other non-executives, the Government are taking steps to strengthen the functional leadership in the Civil Service, including the appointment of a government head of finance with the equivalent experience of a FTSE-50 finance director.
The institutional and cultural changes driven by non-executives show the great potential for productive co-operation between the public and private sectors, and have played a critical role in equipping the Civil Service for some of the challenges of the 21st century. But there is only so much that independent directors and a reform plan can do: they can make valuable and long-lasting changes within existing structures.
The Civil Service now faces a fundamentally different environment and set of challenges from those for which it perhaps was designed. At some point, incremental reform will no longer be enough. We need to look more fundamentally at how we expect the Civil Service to behave and perform in the 21st century. A comprehensive and independent review of the Civil Service’s structures, processes and lines of accountability is long overdue. So, too, is a thorough review of the roles and responsibilities of Ministers in Parliament when it comes to their relationship with the Civil Service. That review must not distract from the current reform plan. Indeed, it does not need to; it can be part of the plan. It will ensure that we do not to have to do this debate again under the next Administration.
If a review leads to a more flexible, effective and sustainable Civil Service, fit for the modern world, then it would be time well spent. I am sure that noble Lords would agree, though, that if it were just a report for the archive, it would be incredibly damaging.
My Lords, I join those who warmly congratulate the noble Lord on initiating this debate. I am not one who believes in a major commission, except in so far as it would give the noble Lord many opportunities to present evidence which we would all greatly enjoy.
At a time of coalition Government, I do not think that uncharted territory is the time for a fundamental reform. Many of the comments around whether the central role of the Cabinet Secretary as the head of the Civil Service should be split have a lot to do with coalition Government and the fact that we live under severe financial constraint.
I declare my interests as set out in the register, but suffice it to say that, from the experience of running the health service, where we brought in commercial people to help lend their skills to what we were trying to achieve, I have become a very strong believer that there are talented people in the commercial world who have a huge amount to offer government. It is possible to find people who will undertake the work on much reduced income and be committed and add great value to what we are trying to achieve.
My concern is that, even now, the only Permanent Secretary we have who comes from an outside environment is Stephen Lovegrove at DECC, who came from Deutsche Bank to the Shareholder Executive and is now a Permanent Secretary. I do not think that this makes sense. The work that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, has been doing with non-executive advisers on departments—I refuse to call them “directors” because they are not—has shown the calibre of people who are prepared to come to assist in government. I see the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, who I remember said, “We want a permanent Civil Service; we do not want permanent civil servants”. We should question more closely whether there is a resistance in the Civil Service Commission to giving ultimate leadership appointments to individuals who have spent a lot of their life in a different field.
Only today I have published a paper about the leadership of universities. We have Bill Rammell, a former Minister; Martin Bean from Microsoft; Sir David Bell, a former Permanent Secretary; Debbie Swallow from the V&A—they are all now vice-chancellors. It is not that they should necessarily come straight into the top job. When commercial people come in, of course they need to learn and understand the subtlety and values of the Civil Service. It is my sense, however, that we should look carefully at what the resistances are.
The Civil Service was commended by my noble friend Lord McNally for diversity—maybe of gender, orientation, race and ethnicity, but not of occupational background. Every other field of endeavour in this modern, fast-changing world needs different skills, which do not necessarily grow themselves.
There are of course great differences—although I understand the ministerial frustration—but, increasingly, politicians have very little business background. They know about press notices; they do not know about delivery of projects. The implementation of anything means you have to go through winter and spring before you get to the summer of delivery. There are key fundamental principles, and my sense is that both Ministers and civil servants need to look again at this.
Finally, have we looked closely enough at the model of the Greater London Authority and some of the local government models, where service delivery and policy formation is much more closely integrated? Certainly, the much underexamined GLA has in many ways a more interesting balance of people coming through into the executive.
My Lords, I add my voice to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, on securing this important debate.
In 2005, I was asked to help close down a foundation and ensure that its final sums were spent properly. In agreement with all the trustees, one of the final projects we sponsored was to look at the reform of the Civil Service. We secured the work of the IPPR, and it led to the publication of Whitehall’s Black Box: Accountability and Performance in the Civil Service. During the course of this project, perhaps one of the most disappointing moments was when, during a seminar chaired excellently by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, there was a strong consensus that progress would not be made because reform lacked political salience, attention and will.
I think there is a great deal of political will and a lot of good ideas. I was encouraged by the commitment made by Francis Maude towards reform, by Sir Bob Kerslake’s work and by the involvement of some excellent private sector leaders, such as Martin Read on IT procurement, but I add my voice to those who say that we should be accelerating the size, scope and pace of change—the excellent work of the noble Lord, Lord Browne—and I strongly support the idea of a commission that has come from the Public Administration Select Committee in the other place.
We have a very talented and able Civil Service, founded on sound principles and ethics. I have always believed that probably the worst sin of the Civil Service has been its recognition of its own quality, making it resistant to change rather than making it the pioneer of adaptability, reform and innovation. That is not to say that it has not done much that is impressive—it is, of course, always exposed to one-way criticism—but we should be willing to support and champion our Civil Service and civil servants to reorganise, change, experiment and, on occasion, fail and be open to learning the lessons of it. In looking at reform, we should be live to the balance between policy and delivery, and perhaps it is not yet in the right place. In the private sector, the focus is clearly on the latter. It does not have to be the best plan, but to succeed it has to be executed well.
The cross-fertilisation of personnel between the private and public sectors should be advanced, and this should include local authorities. One has only to look at the impressive growth and development of Manchester to see what an effective public administration can achieve. Sometimes it is about not the skills you bring in but the structures you bring them into. In this, we have accelerated some of the other changes. Management information is a very important aspect of leadership, and I will be very interested in what the Minister has to say on progress on management information and on whether there are any plans to publish any of that material.
I do not think any institution, like any company, can ever think that there is a time to stop changing or reorganising. I urge the Civil Service to use its undoubted skills and the Government to be much more open to allowing people to debate these issues, and to encourage innovation and change and ensure that effective public policy outcomes with efficiency and cost savings can be achieved. It is time we gave greater scope for everyone to achieve that to unlock the huge potential we have.
My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations and thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who will be sitting submerged in praise by the end of this debate. I agree with what he said and with a lot of the points that have been made by later speakers.
If there is one thing that is certain about the future of the Civil Service, it is that it will always be needed but that different Governments will want different things from it from their predecessors. The Thatcher and Major Governments wanted different things from the Civil Service from the Wilson and Callaghan Governments. When Mr Blair came to power, he inherited a Civil Service that lacked the skills and people that it needed to tackle the large increase in public spending and the issue of delivery. The Civil Service must always retain the capacity to change—to adapt to the needs of the times—while remaining true to itself. To do that, it needs to operate within a sophisticated, complex political deal which everyone subscribes to and understands. It is no secret, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, rightly outlined, that there are problems with that deal now. I regret very much to have to say it. It is partly to do with problems of capability—the management of large projects, as the PAC has very roundly illustrated—but also problems with the constitutional framework, the role of Ministers in the appointment of Permanent Secretaries, the large ministerial offices, and the accountability of civil servants and Ministers to Parliament, and the problem of the large number of Permanent Secretaries leaving over the past few years fills me with considerable dismay. It is crucial for the Civil Service, for us, for Parliament and for the public that the service should go on attracting the best people.
I am convinced that the Public Administration Select Committee’s report, which is a devastating critique, is the right way to go: we need a parliamentary commission. I congratulate the committee on what it has produced. I think it will become a classic of its kind. However, it needs to be agreed between the parties. It cannot be done by the Government of the day. The Civil Service is not a subject for unilateral experiment by people in power. It has to be done with cross-party support and analysis, and it needs to be a truthful analysis—good management and good politics do not always coincide. The framework within which the service operates and the standards by which it is judged must take that into account. It needs good Ministers as well as good civil servants. All these things need to be taken together and a current Government, whatever Government, are not in a position to reach those judgments. I support the need for a parliamentary commission but it must respect what is bedrock: the non-political nature of the service and selection on merit. Provided they are secured, there is a great deal of room for original thought. It needs to be done now and the Government are missing a real opportunity if they fail to grasp that, as they seem to do.
My Lords, I have spent much of my working life in either the Home Civil Service or the Diplomatic Service, working both in London and abroad. The first, important thing I want to say is that the vast majority of people with whom I have worked over the past 30 or 40 years have been committed, determined, able, politically neutral and very often courageous in ways by which, when I started, I was rather surprised. I shall not forget visiting Baghdad and seeing a dozen government department representatives living and working in a container in an underground car park, being shelled by mortars. That was serving your country at its best and is something we need to recognise more often.
I mention it because, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has said, there is a tendency now to attack, blame and denigrate the Civil Service. That is a mistake. One of the things I have learnt in the time I have spent in the private sector since leaving the Civil Service is that if you want to change an organisation, you need the support of those you are trying to change. That needs to be recognised, perhaps more among some Ministers than is now the case.
Of course, the Civil Service needs to change and adapt to ever-demanding tasks. Many of the reforms now under way are necessary, indeed essential—procurement, delivery and focusing on the skills needed for the 21st century, which must include language skills if we are to pay our way in the world. My noble friend Lord Wilson says, “English”, as well and I agree with that, too. The counterpart of this is the need to be able to move on people who are not able, for whatever reason, to deliver what is needed.
There are some reforms now proposed with which I really have difficulty. They have been mentioned by some noble Lords already. I have serious reservations about a substantial increase in the number of special advisers, creating a sort of cabinet for each Minister. When I mentioned to a senior and highly respected French civil servant recently that the Government were thinking of going down that road, he blanched, looked horrified and said, “Do not put a layer of 25 year-old political appointees in between the professional expertise of the Civil Service and its Ministers”. Perhaps that is not what is intended and I hope that, in replying to this debate, the Minister will be able to clarify that point.
I also, like others, worry about the move towards a more political say in the appointment of Permanent Secretaries. If a Permanent Secretary is regarded as the choice of one Government or Minister, he or she will inevitably be regarded with suspicion by the next Minister or Government. The combination of a more politicised group of Permanent Secretaries with larger numbers of political advisers will inevitably erode the principle of neutrality of the Civil Service, which remains an essential and widely respected pillar of our democratic system.
These are extremely important, indeed fundamental, issues for our system of government. For that reason, like others, I very much agree with the case for a parliamentary commission which can look at the role and functions of the Civil Service in the years ahead.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, on his splendid speech, with every word of which I agreed. I also thank my right honourable friend Francis Maude for a useful exchange of views which he had with some of us last Monday. I was glad when he told us that he had not ruled out a commission; the idea has had huge support in the House today.
Before coming to my main argument, I will make two points. First, over the Christmas Recess, I read The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. The blunders are to be laid almost wholly at the door of Ministers and not civil servants. That should be said, and it is made clear in the book. Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, referred to the courageous attitude of many civil servants, and I am sure that he is right. However, today, a lot of senior civil servants seem a great deal more reluctant to speak truth unto power, in the sense of warning Ministers frankly that their proposals will not only fail to achieve their objectives but may well prove harmful. I believe that that is a major duty of civil servants and they should not hesitate to exercise it for fear of the impact on their careers. That has been a fear in recent years. Unchallenged “group think” can lead to serious risk of failure.
Finally I come to my main argument, following the points of others about the appointment of Permanent Secretaries. A year ago, I described in the Times how, in 1983, I urged the Cabinet Office to appoint a successor from a different department to follow the retirement of Sir Peter Carey from the Department of Industry. Sir Brian Hayes proved a great success. I did not appoint; I merely urged the Cabinet Office. However, Sir David Normington took issue with me and wrote in the Times the following day:
“The Commission believes that the best way to recruit permanent secretaries continues to be on merit with the final decision taken by an expert panel rather than a single individual”.
Last Monday, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, reminded us, the commission published a fresh consultation paper on recruitment principles. I thought from the press reports that it had moved in my direction—but no. While accepting the Government’s proposal that the Prime Minister should make the final choice, the commission is insisting that this should apply only,
“where there were two candidates of equivalent merit”.
I find this a very difficult concept. Yes, the relevant Secretary of State should be consulted, but I do not think that the restriction of the “equal merit” point is acceptable, and I hope that the Government will reject it.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Hennessy, not just for our having this debate but for the masterly way in which he introduced it. I admit that I am slightly fuelled by nostalgia in contributing because I had the great fortune to first serve in Whitehall in the 1970s, when the Ministry of Defence was fortunate in having some real giants of the Civil Service in its midst. I learnt very quickly the absolutely priceless value of having an independent, honest, impartial, objective civil servant. The integrity of those people was absolutely incredible.
It struck me then that of course you cannot conduct government, and you certainly cannot have continuity, consistency and stability, without that sort of bedrock. One thing was clear: there was locked up among them an institutional memory which meant that, when issues were raised, they could say not just, “It won’t work”, but, “The last time, or on previous occasions, this and that didn’t happen”. When I look around, I have to admit that, although I fully acknowledge the calibre and quality of those in the Civil Service, I regret that some of that institutional memory is being dissipated by the way in which people are being moved around.
All my foxes having been shot—I am not surprised by this—I absolutely agree with a commission; but I would like to focus on what my noble friend Lord Butler said about the importance of the relationship between Ministers and civil servants. It seems to me that there are two crucial words that are slightly old-fashioned and in danger of being lost in that relationship. One is “leadership”, and we should remember that leadership has to be given both to them and by them—by Ministers and by the Permanent Secretary. The other is “loyalty”. Loyalty is absolutely crucial, and loyalty in the Civil Service will not follow unless civil servants feel that Ministers are being loyal to them. That is hugely important.
If I have one final, lingering regret, it is that the wonderful series on television that we all enjoyed, “Yes Minister”, was not called “No Minister”; because I suspect that if more civil servants had said no to their Ministers, we would not have been plagued by some of the legislation with which we have been swamped in recent days.
My Lords, I worked intensively with the Civil Service for six years when I was in government, and with officials at all levels, generally on major, long-running projects. It was for me a most happy experience. These were people of exceptional talent, of real commitment, and of absolute integrity.
In the higher reaches of the Civil Service, well-represented here today, the sense of wisdom, experience and steeliness is tangible. They and their ancestors have been to war, literally and metaphorically, and it shows. But with the scope and extent of the modern state, the Civil Service today faces challenges of unprecedented scale and complexity; and though it has adapted, I do not think it has yet fully adapted to meet those modern challenges.
The skills found in the best-run private sector corporations are insufficiently developed still in Whitehall: for example, a forensic understanding of the total environment in which public institutions are operating; or the ability to analyse closely where in a system economic value is being created or destroyed; or the capacity to deliver, as many have mentioned, large-scale projects with multiple partners. There is a lack of clarity about governance and accountability. Where does the buck stop on long-term projects which may span the terms of office of many Ministers and officials? How can Ministers deal with under-performing or insufficiently skilled officials? How can officials be protected from inexperienced Ministers who make unmeetable demands, which they do in all Governments?
I do think it is an appropriate time to review how we can build a Civil Service fit for modern times; how we can radically improve accountability and responsibility for delivery; how we can create mechanisms which protect the impartiality, the independence and the long-term stewardship of the Civil Service, yet give Ministers the confidence that they have the tools to do their jobs. I do not doubt that we have the best Civil Service in the world. Let us make it better still.
My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for introducing the debate, I agree with him that we have to go back to the Fulton report, to which I submitted evidence all those years ago. However, the problem with that report was that it unleashed an often mindless pursuit of managerialism into government. The pursuit of this doctrine led to wholesale privatisation, hollowing out of Whitehall, outsourcing of a multitude of government functions, excessive reliance on management consultants, an army of regulators and the introduction of GOATs into this House, all in the belief that private sector practices were always good and public sector practices invariably bad. The axiom has been the unchallenged operating principle in the conduct of government for more than the near half century since the Fulton report, and has been fully articulated here today. It has created institutional anarchy and shown no regard whatever for constitutionalism, which is the bedrock of democracy.
Somehow this anarchic system has had to be serviced. This has been done by a burgeoning “nomenklatura”. Distinctions are now so blurred that it is not easy to tell if its members come from pressure groups, spads, management consultants, regulators, quangos, the residual Civil Service or elsewhere. They constitute a new breed of “fixer” and are a far cry from that earlier generation which spawned Oliver Franks, Arnold Goodman and their like. The new breed does not know very much about anything but it knows its way around and that, apparently, is enough.
Ministers seem to have a flickering of the problem when they call for joined-up government. However, this will remain a chimera unless the necessary prerequisite is fulfilled—that is, joined-up thinking—and there is no sign of that. Writing a definitive textbook on modern British government is a near impossibility these days that would severely tax the powers of the noble Lords, Lords Hennessy and Lord Norton. As Bernard Jenkin from PASC and the FDA have recommended, and as many noble Lords have endorsed today, there is now an urgent need for a comprehensive strategic review of the role and functioning of the non-elected part of our Executive. We need to redefine the constitution and not live with the present fudge if the increasing encroachments of corporate power in dictating the public agenda are to be resisted. Along with others, I ask the Minister in winding to say why Her Majesty’s Government have rejected the PASC’s recommendation for a review.
My Lords, is the criticism of the Civil Service coming from Ministers, Parliament and think tanks justified? Of course, the Civil Service can, and should, raise its performance, but the big picture is that since 1997 it has contracted by 13% and expects to be 20% smaller by 2015. It is handling a rising caseload with less money so its productivity has been significantly increased and many services have been improved by digital delivery. Other countries see the UK as a source of good practice.
Contrast that with the incontinence of the political payroll, with Ministers up by 8% since 1997, despite the savings which devolution should have produced. Spad numbers are up from 38 in 1997 to 98 now, most of whom are political interns and not deep experts. Unlike politicians whose reputation has been damaged by expenses fiddling and influence peddling, the Civil Service has maintained its reputation for integrity, according to the annual MORI survey on trust.
Do civil servants obstruct Ministers, as some have claimed? That is the cry-baby response of the weak Minister. Strong Ministers get what they want. As others have pointed out, the Civil Service has failed more often in the opposite direction—that is, in agreeing with Ministers’ proposals when it should have questioned them: for example, on the poll tax, the new style rail franchises and the overambitious timetable for universal credit.
On accountability, the Institute for Government got it right when it said that,
“secretaries of state and permanent secretaries have shared accountabilities and responsibilities … Trying to separate them is an illusion”.
It also said that the relationship is,
“impossible to express in contractual terms”.
As Tam Dalyell said of the West Lothian question, the only answer is not to ask it. The argument on accountability is more with Parliament, which wants greater scope to criticise individual officials without giving them any greater right of reply. We should concentrate on those things that bring Ministers and officials closer together and not on things like contracts, extended ministerial offices or more ministerial appointments which drive them apart.
Should Ministers choose their Permanent Secretaries? The answer is definitely not. That should be exclusively for the Prime Minister, who, after consulting the Minister, appoints someone from a list of those deemed genuinely appointable. Is a parliamentary commission likely to help? Despite being a member of a successful commission on banking, I am probably in a minority in being rather doubtful about whether that would add much to performance. More importantly, should a review be carried out by Parliament? In my view, the answer is no, as Parliament is an insider in this argument with a vested interest. A review should be independent.
What are the real priorities for improvement? My answer is professional skills throughout the service, not just for those who work closely with Ministers, in four areas: project management; contract management so that the Government are not fleeced by contractors; digital delivery; and financial management. All four areas have been identified and are being addressed.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield has been taking a keen interest in the Civil Service, its activities and personnel, for nearly 50 years. That interest has become steadily more benign and supportive over the years. We all mellow with age. At least we can be grateful to him for raising the subject and giving us an opportunity to debate it. With time being very short, I shall confine myself to the main point that I wish to make, although I would have liked to comment on many other matters.
Clearly, the Civil Service has to be nimble and versatile enough to keep pace with the implications of the social and technological changes and challenges that occur and will continue to occur. Its role has always been, and will continue to be, not so much to advise about what policies should be pursued—that is a matter for political and ministerial judgment and decision—as to advise on how the policies chosen by Ministers can be put optimally into effect, and then to put them into effect.
Civil servants are expected to discharge their duties with honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity. These have been the guiding values of the Civil Service, as my noble friend Lord Hennessy reminded us, for a century and a half. In 2010, they were given statutory expression and force. Like motherhood and apple pie, no one seriously contests them. However, we seem to feel a need constantly to parade and reassert them, and to write statutes, codes and regulations to try to ensure that they continue to be applied in every aspect of management. That seems to reflect a lack of confidence in their being properly observed.
The development of elaborate statements of principle, codes and regulations makes me uneasy. There have to be arrangements for disciplining those who transgress, but I should prefer a world in which, as a general rule, the civil servant is the guardian of his own integrity and relies on his own professional conscience and sense of values. It is better that a civil servant should say to himself, “Ought I to be doing this?”, or, “Ought I to be doing this in this way?”, than that he should say to himself, “Can I fit this within the rules and regulations”—or, worse still, “Can I stretch the rules and regulations to cover what I propose to do?”. He really should be thinking about the issues for himself.
In the end, this is a matter, as noble Lords have already said, of mutual respect and trust between Ministers and civil servants. I have had the privilege of knowing from experience that that relationship can be established and that, given goodwill on both sides, there can be a clear understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities, and a recognition that they are there to work together in the public interest and not against each other.
The Civil Service needs to be able constantly to adapt to the challenges of changing economic, social and technological conditions. However, the future of the Civil Service would not be best served by a further proliferation of orders and regulations, or a proliferation of expert advisers in extended ministerial offices—which, I fear, would become a device to enable Ministers who are politically unsure of themselves to surround themselves with politically congenial cronies, paid for by the taxpayer, and distance themselves from departmental realities and their departmental advisers.
The prime requirement for a good future for the Civil Service and, indeed, for the good governance of this country is the maintenance of its traditional values in deed as well as in word, and the establishment of mutual respect and trust, based on good will and a clear understanding and acceptance on the part of both Ministers and civil servants of their respective roles and responsibilities.
My Lords, it seems to me that there are two separate issues here. First, there is the constant process of change and modernisation that the Civil Service, like any other organisation, needs. Some of the things that the Government are proposing seem to be sensible—on project management and IT, for example. They get some of them wrong: it was a grave mistake to separate the Cabinet Secretary from the Head of the Civil Service. I know that in the past there were different ways of doing this, but by far the best is if the most powerful adviser to the Prime Minister is also the man who understands appointments and promotions within the service. The abolition of the Sunningdale college, without its replacement, yet, by anything adequate, is also a mistake.
However, these are ordinary things that go on. Government Ministers and heads of the Civil Service get some of them right and some of them wrong. I am nervous of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for a second Fulton report for the following reason. The noble Lord listed a tremendous number of things that such a commission should look at, taking account of everything, including the defence posture of the country for the next 20 years. I speak with a little nervousness in the presence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, but that report would perhaps take a great deal of time, whoever chaired the inquiry. During that time, it might realistically put a damper on the necessary process of modernisation that goes on all the time.
I put it to the noble Lord that something more urgent needs to be done. Are things being done and thought about that run into our fundamental, unwritten constitutional principles, which we are calling today, in shorthand form, Northcote-Trevelyan and Haldane? It is good shorthand and represents promotion by merit, independence from political influence, and the accountability of departments resting with Ministers. I am anxious that things are being proposed that threaten those fundamental principles.
I have a grave doubt about the EMOs—not so much about the way in which the conflict between Normington, the Civil Service Commission and the Government is going, although the commission has got itself into an odd position there, as my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, said. Sir Peter Kemp went to his grave saying that I had sacked him. I had not sacked him, but I had a consultation with the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and we agreed that Sir Peter was not the man to be in charge of that particular department at that particular time. It is possible for these things to be done properly if you have the right structures. However, if we get into a situation in which there is a conflict between a commission that is becoming rule-bound and Ministers who—particularly if the commission is headed by distinguished former civil servants—see it as something of an insiders’ club, we are in difficulty.
We therefore need to look quickly, not at a parliamentary commission—here, I am with the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull—but at an independent commission in which there might be distinguished lawyers, and others, to look at whether our defences against the attacks on the two fundamental principles are real. We are running into danger, and I want a quick six-month or year-long inquiry into whether in the modern world we have enough defences for those fundamental pillars—after all, the Civil Service Commission is charged with looking not at Haldane but only at Northcote-Trevelyan. That inquiry might lead to recommendations for a new kind of Civil Service commission, which may well be necessary. We need to move more quickly; the situation is more urgent than the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, argued—mellowed though he is.
My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has instigated this debate, not least because it gives me an opportunity to discharge a duty that has been long outstanding. That duty is to express my gratitude and admiration for the quantity and quality of advice and help given to me and the institution for which I worked for 22 years. I was lucky enough to have a job that required daily communication with the Civil Service and also, of course, with the Diplomatic Service at various levels. I was then, and remain, a staunch admirer of these public servants, from the mandarins at the top—by whom I am surrounded today—right through the ranks. The patience and friendliness with which advice and help were always given were matched only by its quality. To put it bluntly, I could not have done my job without it. I soon realised that the caricature of the civil servant—portrayed sometimes benevolently and at other times more harshly—was hideously inaccurate, and that I was lucky indeed to have been able to draw on such an extraordinary resource.
This debate, however, is about the future of the Civil Service, not its past—and still less about my past. Most Governments seem to arrive in office with the avowed intent of not being “in thrall to their civil servants”. After an initial stand-off, they usually work their way through this phase and arrive at a satisfactory relationship, making the most—rather than the least—of those whose job it is to help them. Just now, however, it seems that this relationship is about to undergo a period of fierce pressure, with an onrushing tide of reforms and an increasing prevalence of special advisers separately and together challenging the traditional role of the Civil Service. To my mind, it is undesirable for the engineers of change or their special advisers to become the creators of policy rather than the sources of specialist advice—the role for which their jobs were created.
My devout hope for the future of the Civil Service is that it retains its position as the hub around which the wheel of government turns, and not just an adjunct to be used or blamed at the last resort. I know it has not quite come to that yet, but I believe we should guard very carefully against it. A review along the lines outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, or a parliamentary commission, would be good ways of mounting this guard.
My Lords, unlike my colleagues, I am wedged here between distinguished civil servants, but I speak as a former Minister of State for the Civil Service. I strongly support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has said. The difference between now and the 1980s, of course, is that there is a breakdown in trust between Ministers and the Civil Service, which is at a serious level. However, we ought to acknowledge at the same time that there has been a considerable change in circumstances facing Governments of the day. The circumstances are more complex: we have a coalition Government; the technology has transformed the scene; and the media demand a 24-hour service.
To my mind, there are two key points. It is essential to preserve, on the one hand, the ethos and the values of the Civil Service, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. Secondly, it is important always to ensure that there is ongoing, incremental improvement in the effectiveness of the Civil Service. That is what the Government are now effectively trying to do in things such as delivery and improving the skills and the quality of advice that the service gives. At the end of the day, we must do nothing to undermine the values of the service.
Then there is the question of accountability. At the end of the day, the buck stops with the Minister, who is accountable to Parliament. It is perfectly sane and sensible in today’s rather complex age of government to expect that the roles of civil servants should be clarified and that systems of accountability should be there. At the end of the day, however, it is Ministers who carry the can: I say with some feeling that there are times when they even have to resign.
Secondly, we should not politicise or personalise the appointments of Permanent Secretaries. The job of the civil servant is to give fearless, objective advice to Ministers. They must have no fear of losing their job because they are doing their job properly. A good Minister will want to hear all the arguments before taking a decision; otherwise the Minister is in danger of taking the wrong decision. Therefore, I am totally opposed to any weakening of the present position where the Secretary of State cannot appoint the Permanent Secretary.
Lastly, I am extremely suspicious about the extended ministerial office. There must be no conflict of loyalties. There must be no cocooning of a Minister within his little bureaucracy. There must be no proliferation of political advisers. There are plenty of junior Ministers in this present Government to give political advice.
I support my colleagues who believe that there ought to be an all-party-supported independent or parliamentary inquiry that reaches its conclusions before the next general election. The country needs a strong and stable Civil Service.
My Lords, I, too, am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has secured this important and timely debate. In the time available, I want to make two points. First, I very much endorse the recommendation of the Public Administration Select Committee for a commission on the Civil Service. That case is well made in its report. The Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan focuses on making the Civil Service more effective both in service delivery and in offering policy advice. As I said in evidence to the Public Administration Committee, it takes a narrow and one-dimensional view of the relationship between Ministers and civil servants.
Ministers depend on good civil servants. Conversely, civil servants rely on good Ministers, and Parliament relies on Ministers and officials who understand their responsibilities to Parliament. The system relies on an understanding of these relationships, but the basis on which this rests is being eroded. It is being eroded as a consequence of the turnover in senior civil servants and the lack of turnover in the party in government. Some politicians have become senior Ministers with no prior experience of government. Turnover in the senior Civil Service takes out the administrative experience and specialisation that offsets the fact that both civil servants and Ministers are generalists.
This makes the case for a major review and one that puts the Civil Service within the context of our system of government and not simply as some discrete managerial entity. Ministers see civil servants as part of the problem without acknowledging that they too are part of the problem. For that reason, the decision on how to address the problem should not be left to government.
That brings me to my second point. The Government have rejected the proposal for a commission. That, combined with my preceding point, means that it is up to Parliament to take ownership of the process. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, and my noble friend Lord Waldegrave: on practical grounds we will not get an independent commission. If the Government decline to support a Joint Committee, it is up to this House to establish an ad hoc committee on the Civil Service. In response to my noble friend Lord Waldegrave, that would time limit the actual inquiry.
We are not short of expertise, as is so clearly demonstrated by this debate. My comments today are thus not addressed to the Minister but to the House. In my view, we should grasp the opportunity.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for introducing this debate and echo the concerns of others that the ingredients for improving efficiency and effectiveness in the Civil Service are not even provided at present. I was a member and former acting chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We did a considerable amount of work on the role of the Civil Service and the importance of its independence. I wish that I had more time to say more about that.
Secondly, as chair of ACAS, I was responsible for promoting good employment relations. Had I been approached about whether a 30% reduction in the number of senior civil servants would improve employment relations and increase effectiveness, I would have been delighted to give my view.
It is extremely important to be aware of the distinction between good employment relations and Civil Service independence, and not confuse the two. When I arrived at ACAS—and its staff were Civil Service-related—it was clear that there was a need for a major reorganisation to recognise the changes in the world of work. This was a big project that involved the staff and was achieved with consent. It took time. If you are going to get the best out of staff, you need to inspire and motivate. Even within the term of one government, there can be between two and eight changes of Minister and junior Minister, all with different priorities. A new Minister comes in and says, “Why are we wasting taxpayers’ money on this?”. The Civil Service has to be able to show the origin of the project, usually the Minister's own predecessor, so accountability is extremely important.
Ministers with perhaps only one or two years of office before them naturally want to get things done. If they see Civil Service caution as an obstacle, they are tempted to be surrounded by their own creatures. Of course, there are Ministers with experience who have been managers. Too often, however, our leaders come from a much narrower background and have absolutely no experience of management or transparent appointment procedures. To extend political appointments will only make a bad situation worse. I only hope that there will be a code of conduct to ensure transparency of appointment and pay. If the limit for Civil Service commissioners’ approval remains as high as £84,000, it will miss the point. Some of these prime ministerial wannabes will do it for nothing and will come from a background where they can afford to. While I accept that project management in government does not have a great record, let us be clear: it can happen even when a non-civil servant is drafted in from top business. The MoD might well be a good example.
Finally, enshrining Civil Service objectivity in law was a good thing and I acknowledge the Government’s achievement in that. But it is in danger of being a totem when huge staff cuts and the growth of political cronyism are the reality.
My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said, in his long journey from the dark side. I also thank both Houses of Parliament for passing the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which, I have to say, civil servants advised Ministers to do about 150 years before they finally did it. Pace is something we need to think about.
If we are thinking about the pace of change, we should think about what has happened in the past three years. The Civil Service has downsized by about 75,000. It has managed an effective coalition Government, which has not been done before. It has had to deal with cuts in real pay, pensions, redundancy terms and promotion prospects. Yet throughout all of that, morale has gone up. Engagement scores for the Civil Service show an increase of two percentage points. Trust levels, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said, have gone up by six percentage points at a time when, as we know, trust in the political system is not exactly strong. I put it to the House that if the Civil Service were a private sector company, the Harvard Business Schools of this world would be doing case studies on it, and we should applaud that success.
However, let us not hark on the past but talk about the future. What are the challenges for the future? We are in a period of austerity until 2015 and beyond, or is it infinity and beyond—who knows? Can we carry on? Yes, we have skills shortages in the Civil Service in areas such as commissioning, financial management and project management. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for the work that he has been doing on some of these areas. The innovation, of which we need more in the role of non-executive directors, has been fantastic. They have been incredibly helpful in departments and in bringing home to civil servants and Ministers the business skills that we need to deliver these big projects. That is very good.
However, we also need a broader set of skills if we are to look at the reforms for the challenges of government—and I stress government—for the next few years. It is going to be all about things such as behavioural public policy and sorting out how we measure success. In health, we have quality-adjusted life years. For the whole of government, we will need well-being years. Those are things to come. We need a broader range of skills, including those of psychologists and multidisciplinary people. We need more risk-taking, as I have said. If we are to get risk-taking right, we will have to stop the emphasis on ex-post Spanish Inquisitions and do a lot more on ex-ante appraisal of projects before they come to us. Parliament should be demanding more information. We should have something like an office of taxpayer responsibility which, building on the OBR, would look at these projects and give you evidence to show what the risks are. Where is the evidence base? Too often we have what I call the Bachelors’ approach to policy. Do noble Lords remember that Bachelors’ hit “I Believe”? Ministers come in with very strong beliefs and you say, “Very good, Minister, let’s test them. Let’s have a bit of evidence. Let’s have a randomised control trial”. They say, “No, too slow”. We need all of that.
Finally, I strongly support more experts. Of the top 200, 41% were externally recruited in the first place. They should not be experts in telling the Minister who appointed them how brilliant the Minister’s ideas are. They should be genuine experts, based on meritocratic principles. If we think about the future of government, we should analyse government. You cannot just analyse the Civil Service. If you are going to have a commission, make it on government and about Ministers and Civil Service together. It would be a nonsense to do one half of the horse.
My Lords, I am uneasy about extended ministerial offices. There is a risk that we get the worst of all possible worlds. In America, we see the dangers of hiatuses on a change of Government. In France, the danger is that the cabinet system means that policy-making is separated from the expertise of the department as a whole. I am uneasy about surrounding the Minister with more people whose tenure is dependent on the king’s smile. We do not need more courtiers. If the Minister wants sycophants, he gets special advisers: we have plenty of them already. As has been said, in his policy-making meetings he should want honesty. He should want people who know what they are talking about. The turnover numbers in the Civil Service are very scary now. The expertise may not be as great as it should be. I am struck by the fact that the Treasury wastage rate was 28% in 2010 and 22% in 2011: 50% over the two years of a great financial crisis. That cannot be right. It suggests that something is wrong.
On the issue of the apolitical Civil Service, I am struck by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. It is astonishing if the head of the Civil Service is not taking up with his counterpart in Edinburgh a clear misuse of government money and time in producing a political manifesto. I am uneasy about the exclusion of civil servants from policy-making if one goes down the EMO route. The Minister who does not want his policy subjected to the most rigorous internal dialectic should not be in office. The artificial distinction that is drawn between policy-making and delivery is a false dichotomy. There is no such thing as a good policy that cannot be well delivered. That is a bad policy. You need to have, in the room, as you decide, the people who will be responsible for delivery. Even if you have, in your head, already decided what the policy will be, it is crucial that you pretend to take account of the arguments being advanced. You listen to their talk of pitfalls and precedents and things that could go wrong, and you make them feel that they were present at the creation. It is really important to loyalty that people feel they were present at the creation.
There is something wrong. We have not yet lost the apolitical, independent, expert public service but it is in danger. I do not know what the correct form of inquiry is. I rather go with the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, on speed, but something should be done. Some kind of inquiry is needed to make sure we do not lose what is the envy of the French and Americans by going down their route.
My Lords, for 50 years I have been observing, commenting on and, at one point, participating in the Civil Service; as a party functionaire, as a special adviser in Whitehall when those were rare beasts, and as a journalist. For some months, at the Economist, I shared a room with the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy—we had a lot of fun—and his arrival has been a great asset to this House.
I have observed, with dismay, a real deterioration during recent decades in the performance and capability of the Civil Service and, indeed, in the quality of some of those who occupy key posts in it. To take just one symptom, the quality and preparation of legislation has been getting worse and worse. We have observed this in our own role here. This is sometimes compounded by the determination of civil servants to stick to what they have produced, casting around for ingenious and often spurious arguments to sustain it. This can be compounded by Ministers if they are prepared to act as parrots for the Whitehall view. I would support the idea of a fundamental look at the Civil Service, but on the one condition that it does not delay the changes that can be made and are so urgently needed now.
The whole idea of Northcote-Trevelyan and the subsequent reforms was to move away from patronage to ensure tough, competitive entry so that the Civil Service recruited the brightest and the best and became a meritocratic elite. Its performance must be held to account with rigour by Parliament; this is where I welcome the growing effectiveness of Select Committees. The problem is the attempt to move away from the simple criterion of excellence in recruitment and promotion towards diversity, the aim of which is to make the Civil Service reflect more closely the profile of Britain. The flaw in this is that the role of the Civil Service is too important to be used in some form of politically correct modern patronage dressed up as social engineering.
Better is needed at the bottom and the top of the ladder. At the bottom, private offices—traditionally a crucial staging post on the route to the top—are there to help serving Ministers get things done. In 2011 I asked, in a PQ, what steps HMG were taking to ensure that the staffing of private offices reflected the full diversity of the UK. In reply, I got a whole column of Hansard, proudly announcing such absurdities as roadshows. Private offices are now falling down on the job. Permanent Secretaries have always been key at the top. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, there is now far too much rotation. For example, the deputy secretary at the Home Office responsible for immigration policy, so rightly denounced as not fit for purpose, was promoted to PUS in the Ministry of Defence. His performance was a disaster and his successor lasted only a few months. Where are the giants of the past? Where are the Sir Frank Coopers and the Sir Michael Quinlans?
Britain needs and deserves the best in the Civil Service. I am in favour of an independent elite. Let us recruit it.
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, joined the House I anticipated some outstanding contributions. That anticipation was fully realised today with his excellent introduction to this debate.
When I started my ministerial career in 1999 as Minister for Finance in Scotland, I was responsible for Civil Service issues and relationships between the new Scottish Government and the UK Government, particularly with the secretary for the Cabinet Office. At that time, we established a number of memoranda to try and ensure a decent and efficient operation between the two levels of government—a point that I will return to.
However, let me start by saying that, of all the contributions made so far by noble Lords, I agreed most with that of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. It seems to me that at the heart of the current problem is a lack of ministerial responsibility and acceptance by Ministers of that responsibility in their dealings with the Civil Service and agencies under their remits. The creeping way in which that has come into government under all parties over recent years is at the heart of the current problem, which is about the independence of the Civil Service, the accountability of Ministers and their taking responsibility for mistakes and decisions.
Without a strong and independent Civil Service, and without Ministers who are willing to listen and to change when change is necessary, our system of government makes mistakes and fails. When Ministers are strong and issue clear directions, civil servants know where they stand and are perfectly capable of carrying out the instructions and policies. That was certainly my experience in government, and I think it should be at the core of where we move to in the future.
The other important point that I want to make is that, in the Government’s document on Civil Service reform published in 2012, there is almost no mention whatever of the relationship between central government and the devolved Governments in the skilling and development of the Civil Service and the spreading of knowledge within the service across the different levels of government.
The level of interchange between devolved government civil servants and central government civil servants in this country has almost ground to a halt. That is to the detriment of the devolved Governments, because the civil servants who work in the devolved Administrations no longer have experience of working in the Treasury, at UKRep—rather than the Scottish Government’s office in Brussels—or in a whole range of other central government offices where they can work with people from other departments. Civil servants working in UK government departments no longer have any knowledge of the education service in Scotland or the health service in Wales or, indeed, all those other departments that are now the sole and autonomous responsibility of the devolved Governments.
It seems to me that the issue of interchange between civil servants working in the devolved Governments and civil servants working at the centre needs to be tackled. It has been ignored through an abdication of responsibility by successive Secretaries of State for the Cabinet Office and by Ministers in the devolved Administrations over the past decade or so. It is time that that was tackled, and tackled strongly.
My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who has been praised almost universally by speakers in this debate, is keeping a tick list, but I should think that the score is around 25 to one. The only difference is on the urgency for a commission.
My mind is taken back to the first time that I was exposed to what might be the collective noun for Permanent Secretaries—I do not know whether it is a perfection or a permanence—at the spring conference in Sunningdale in 1987. The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, will remember it because he presided over it just before he handed over to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and it was just before the election. Every Permanent Secretary there had written his briefs for the right-hand drawer and the left-hand drawer and was in an enormously relaxed mood. We had a debate about the future Government and the role of the Civil Service, and there was a wonderful feeling of confidence and so on.
I suppose I had around 20 years of working with civil servants at senior levels or, in some cases, in quangos having civil servants working for me. I developed enormous respect and admiration for the skills, intellect and dedication of those civil servants. When I was asked to become the chairman of what is now the Senior Salaries Review Body, Lord Plowden, who was my predecessor, said to me, “My boy,”—because I was so much younger than him—“you must realise that this is the ultimate poison pill”. I was slightly comforted because earlier I had taken on another job in the private sector, but I went to a friend to ask his advice. He said, “If you take that job on, you must be even stupider or very much braver than I know you to be”. Anyway, I survived and I am very lucky to be standing here today.
I agree entirely with what so many speakers have said. What we have had in the Civil Service is what I would call the “four I’s”—independence, integrity, impartiality and I have forgotten the last one but it is in much the same vein. I also agree with what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin of Roding and Lord Luce, that in the service provided by Permanent Secretaries and senior civil servants there has to be courage and a certain robustness in order to be prepared to challenge Ministers on their chosen policies along with an ability to convert those policies into legislation and systems that work. So I am entirely in favour of what the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has said. The values were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, as the bedrock. I would describe them as the gold standard of values: a public service ethic and the wish to do good for the country, along with a desire for fairness. These values have, I think, been eroded.
I will finish by referring to one more point. Sir Hayden Phillips wrote an article about the Civil Service for the Times in which he used the term “shared enterprise” in the partnership between Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries. I think that that has been eroded. All I know is that in the private sector, unless there is confidence between the non-executive chairman and the chief executive and there is a working relationship, the right answers will not be produced. That is what is lacking, and I support the fact that there needs to be a major look at the Civil Service.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for securing this debate, and I agree with most of what he said. As the custodians of Civil Service values, the Civil Service Commissioners operate where operational issues and propriety issues interact. My experience as the First Civil Service Commissioner from 2000 to 2005 convinced me that any reform of the Civil Service must be tested against the principles, values and conventions which have guided the Civil Service for several decades.
Radical reform of the Civil Service started in the 1980s, but it has been piecemeal and predominantly managerial. In the 1980s and 1990s, fears arose that those piecemeal reforms might undermine or erode the values of the Civil Service and weaken the conventions which act as checks and balances within our unwritten constitution. Publication of the Civil Service Code in 1995 and putting the Civil Service Commission on to a statutory footing in 2010 were testaments to that fear.
The current proposals with regard to the relationship between Ministers and top civil servants, ministerial involvement in senior appointments and extended ministerial offices have aroused similar fears. That is because, in my view, these proposals underplay the significant functions carried out by the Civil Service within our constitutional arrangements—functions such as helping to ensure that the Government of the day act with propriety, supporting Ministers in the management of decision-making and providing objective advice; that is, speaking truth unto power.
In recent years we have seen many of the consequences that have resulted from defective decision-making, partly due to a lack of capability in the Civil Service, which of course needs to be addressed, but also due in part to the weak application of these principles. In December 2013 Sir Alan Beith, the chairman of the Liaison Committee in the other place, said:
“In our report, we identified examples where we felt that things had gone wrong because Ministers were told what they wanted to hear”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/12/13; col. 372.]
But this issue is not new. In 2003, the former Prime Minister the right honourable John Major said that many Ministers behaved as if officials should be committed extensions of the Government’s electoral platform and that they openly blamed civil servants for errors that in the past had been accepted as the responsibility of Ministers.
It is also worrying that the IPPR report, Accountability and Responsiveness in the Civil Service, which was commissioned by the right honourable Francis Maude MP, sees “tension” between “responsiveness” and “independence”, and does not appreciate the distinction between independence and impartiality.
I believe that the time is right for a comprehensive and strategic review of the nature, role and purpose of the Civil Service, as recommended by the Public Administration Select Committee. Any commission that is set up should look not just at the Civil Service but at the role of Ministers as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, said, the Civil Service is a national asset and is not owned by the Government of the day but held in trust for the next Administration. I urge the Government to change their mind and set up an independent commission for the sake of the future of the Civil Service and for the health of our democracy.
My Lords, I echo the last words of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who has just addressed us. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, feels that he has been present at the creation, but he has certainly been present at a very splendid debate, marred only by the time constraints under which we all have to speak. I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, on the splendid and spirited way in which he introduced the debate. All those who have spoken with vast experience of the higher reaches of the Civil Service demonstrate the value of this House, because they are all wonderful examples of good parliamentarians, even if they are not politicians.
The one thing that troubles me about the Civil Service is its increased politicisation. I believe that that is due, mainly, to the enormous growth in the number of so-called special advisers. When I first became a Member of Parliament in 1970, I had the good fortune to be asked in the July of that year to become a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Health and Social Security. It was one department covering all those areas, with only four Ministers: a Secretary of State, a Minister of State in this House and two Under-Secretaries. I saw at first hand how the effective working—and it was an effective working—of a splendid department, under Sir Keith Joseph, depended so much on the trust that existed between the civil servants and the Ministers. Trust is the essential hallmark of a good Civil Service and a good Civil Service is the bulwark of a true, free democracy.
We talk a lot in this place about free speech, a free Parliament, and we are right to do so. However, at the base of it all, if we are to have a properly functioning democracy, we need those who are imbued by an ideal of public service, who are themselves following a vocation to public service and who are bringing their integrity and their ability to making sure that our country works properly. What has happened over recent years was illustrated for me in 1995, when I called on a colleague who was a Secretary of State to discuss some matters. I was met by a young man who was excessively polite and extremely welcoming. The Secretary of State came in and said “Have you been talking to …” and mentioned his name. I said yes and asked him, “What exactly is his job?”. “Oh, he’s my special adviser”. I said “Oh yes, how old is he?”. “He is 23”. I said “What on earth can he specially advise you on?”. “Oh, he does the party stuff”.
The party stuff may be important, but it should never get in the way of the proper stuff. Over the past 30 years, there has been such an increase in the number of special advisers that it really has got in the way of the proper stuff. I have seen a breakdown of trust and confidence between Ministers and those who serve them because of that.
The time constraint means that I cannot go on longer, I wish I could. But I end as I began by echoing the need for either a parliamentary or a royal commission to look at the role and position of the Civil Service in a modern democracy.
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for his initiative in arranging this debate and I am happy to add to his already mammoth score. There have been quite a number of claims recently—sometimes from Ministers—that civil servants in government departments have not properly pursued the policy that their Ministers have laid down and are being insufficiently supportive of their department’s work. I do not share that view at all.
As some noble Lords may recall, I was, at the time, one of the very few people to have been catapulted into the Civil Service from outside to become a Permanent Secretary. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and the noble Lord, Lord Butler, will remember the occasion. However, whatever the circumstances may have been concerning that particular appointment, it gave me the huge privilege—I still regard it as a huge privilege—of joining the Civil Service at the top and seeing and learning for myself how the system operated. When I joined the MoD 30 years ago, I had experienced its workings only from the outside and shared the prejudices of many people in relation to civil servants that, fundamentally, they did not work very hard and were inadequately aware of the world outside of their somewhat cloistered existence.
It did not take me very long to realise how wrong I was. When I appeared in the office for the first time, I said to the staff in my private office, “Look, I want everybody in here at 8.30 in the morning”. Their response was, “Of course, then what shall we do in the first hour?”. I recall that not long after the start of the Blair government, one or two Ministers were complaining that their staff did not brief them adequately on the actions that they should take going forward and simply presented to them a number of options without a recommendation. If I recall correctly, it was the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, who, on leaving office himself, commented sagely that that was indeed the proper role for civil servants—to present options to their Ministers and then it was for Ministers, at the end of the day, to take the decision. He was, of course, absolutely right.
Having experienced my own realisation of what the role should be, I developed a great respect for civil servants and I made the following remark to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, when he was writing his seminal book entitled Whitehall back in 1987:
“We have people within the MoD, within the Civil Service, for whom I would have given my right arm in industry”.
Our Civil Service is, happily, not politicised. It is made up of people who are well trained for their job, recognise their role in the process and work hard for relatively modest reward to serve their country to the best of their ability. I hope, therefore, that in debating the topic put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for this debate—the future of the Civil Service—we can build on the excellent ethos that has been built up over so many years. I am certainly of the view that we tamper with it at our peril.
My Lords, we had a splendid opening to this debate and that has been carried through, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hennessy on that. A number of years ago when I was serving what I suppose was, in a university context, an apprenticeship for this kind of thing, I was the junior member of a senate and had to sit on an appointment panel for a very senior administrative post—university registrar, I think. We were wise and we brought in someone from the Civil Service to help—which is the reverse of the process that we have been complaining about today—as it was an administrative post. He started his questions by looking the first candidate in the eye and saying, “You are evil, but you are necessary”.
I have pondered that ever since and, on the whole, have come down on the “necessary” side, especially in the present company. That was a lesson, and I have to say that any civil servant who was feeling a little bruised in the run-up to this debate might take a turn sitting in front of a senate of academics. I say to them, what you are experiencing now is nothing in comparison.
Lest I run out of time, there are two comments that I will make straightaway. One is that wherever I travel in the world where there is still evidence of the influence of the British Civil Service system, it is a benign influence. Where it is wholly absent, you can tell. By whatever measure you use, this is a benign influence. Secondly—and I should say that I do not think that it is all the fault of the politicians, because we do run the risk of moving in that direction and saying that they are to blame and this perfect Rolls-Royce model is trundling on—I want to focus my remarks for my remaining minute or so on something that has not been discussed in this debate: namely, the place of quangos. They sit roughly between the Civil Service operating as it does and the special advisers brought in to do the jobs that they seem to do.
This came to light in my experience when I was chairing a commission looking at the national tests debacle for schools in 2008, when thousands of schoolchildren did not receive their results on time. The essence of it, eventually, was that there was a quango running this. The internal processes of that quango had failed and the procurement process, though it ticked all the boxes, was not adequate. I have spoken about this before in the House. Also, the lines of communication between the Civil Service, the Department for Education and the quango were messy.
The plan was to deal with the problem of devolving power to a quango by putting observers on the quango and all its subcommittees. It did not work. The observers did not have defined instructions or roles. They did not know, for example, whether they were reporting everything that happened to the Permanent Secretary or not. The members of the quango thought, “Well, we have observers from the DfE sitting here; surely what we are doing is all right”. There was, of course, a real problem and a collapse: a process that spent potentially £150 million of government money collapsed. I ask that, if there is a move towards having a much wider debate, the role of quangos—their powers and their responsibility and accountability to the department—should be sorted out very clearly, especially for those bright young people who go in as observers and do not quite know what they are doing.
My Lords, I, too, thank the—mellow—noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, my PhD supervisor, for introducing such an erudite debate. I am somewhat intimidated by having to follow more than a dozen former Ministers, former Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries and Peers with experience inside Number 10, as well as two professors, one former First Civil Service Commissioner and the Government’s lead non-executive. We also have the benefit of the Truth to Power report, the Civil Service Reform Plan and its one-year update, reports from the Institute for Government, the IPPR, the Liaison Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and our own Constitution Committee, and the annual reports of the noble Lord, Lord Browne; not forgetting the FDA’s own Delivering for the Nation. All these indicate a mood for change.
Despite being neither a former Minister nor a former Permanent Secretary, I want to reflect a third approach, that of consumers of government—especially given that, as Truth to Power says,
“citizens as consumers have hugely increased their demands and expectations of what Government should be able to deliver”.
Indeed, it is for the final user or taxpayer—who funds government—that this relationship between politicians and the service must be world class. People are unhappy when “few ministers or officials” are,
“held accountable when things go wrong”—
“things” which affect their universal credit or other bits of their lives—or when they see their taxes frittered away on expensive mistakes, which does happen. I, too, spent Christmas reading The Blunders of our Governments, which documents not just ministerial errors and the astonishing waste of public money but the often faulty relationship between policy and delivery, as well as the need for less churn, more niche expertise and changes in accountability.
The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has done us a major service. First, he quoted the words of the Prime Minister, who, despite being head of the whole service, has said little on this—worse, his odd criticism, such as saying that the service is the enemy of enterprise, has hardly helped relations. Secondly, the noble Lord has, in his inimitable style, recalled “the lustrous quality” of our,
“non-politically partisan public service, transferable from one Government to the next, along with its perpetual duty of speaking truth unto power”.
Indeed, the role of politicians should not be overlooked, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and other noble Lords emphasised today. The service does not work in a vacuum but as part of what the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, calls, “the governing marriage” between temporary Ministers and permanent officials. Sadly, most of the bundle of reports concentrates only on the Civil Service, omitting what Ministers might do differently to make it more effective—whether in the complexity of laws or procedures, the lack of devolution or our constant demand for new skills to fulfil new tasks.
As has been acknowledged, our Civil Service is admired around the world. It is politically impartial, with core values of integrity, propriety and objectivity, and it has the ability to transfer its expertise and loyalty from one Government to the next. However, that does not mean that there is no need for change. In a fast-changing world, with new technologies and new forms of service delivery, the Civil Service itself wants to change, to meet the increasing demands of government and the higher expectations of the public. That means addressing skills gaps in procurement, accountability and performance management, the integration of corporate functions and better delivery of major projects. We need the best people to be recruited, trained and retained to deliver quality service and—yes—to be reflective of the population that they serve.
However, the Government’s progress report on the Civil Service capabilities plan gave it a red rating for lack of implementation, while the Jenkin committee—Jenkin junior—wrote of,
“increasing dysfunctionality in aspects of the Civil Service key skills”.
The Public Accounts Committee noted that commercial and contracting skills remain weak. There is a lack of leadership expertise, with only four of the 15 Permanent Secretaries of delivery departments having significant operational delivery or commercial experience. Processes for overseeing major projects lack teeth and are seemingly unable to stop ill conceived or poorly managed projects, while the MPA lacks power.
Some of the Government’s policies have merit, such as greater scrutiny of major projects, reduced turnover of senior responsible officers and integration of corporate functions. However, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office has admitted, the implementation of many of these reforms has been poor and slow to start. Meanwhile, the PAC claims:
“The existing accountability arrangements for permanent secretaries are inadequate”,
and that senior civil servants are not held accountable for poor performance, while good performance is not properly recognised.
There are challenges. Constancy of change is a feature of any large organisation, but the skills and attitudes of civil servants need to reflect the ongoing change challenge. There is a need to provide proper support for Ministers, including in their political role, from a high-functioning, responsive and sufficiently political office, while avoiding what the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, calls the “politicisation” of the senior Civil Service when aligned with greater political input into the choosing of Permanent Secretaries, and the noble Lord’s fear of turning Whitehall into Washington. These issues are too serious to be undermined by overt denigration of the service—by what Truth to Power describes as,
“the vehemence of Ministers’ criticism of the Civil Service”,
or by scapegoating a few officials rather than addressing shortcomings in systems and culture. Morale is key to a high-functioning service, and we damage that at our peril.
The plea for a parliamentary commission from the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, the chairs of 17 committees and the majority of noble Lords who have spoken today should be taken seriously. We remain open-minded, as we are still examining Civil Service reform as part of our policy review, while the timing of any such commission presents its own challenge. There are changes that need implementing in 2015 and we must be sure that any such commission would not distract from, or undermine, reform efforts either in this Parliament or the next. We have heard great words of wisdom today and we look forward to a similar response from the Minister.
My Lords, that is a pretty firm pass. It is very good to be back after a period away, although this is the first time I will have tried to stand for 20 minutes non-stop. I do not regret the need for this debate and I was rather puzzled that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, said that in his opening remarks. It seems to me that it is exactly the job of this House to debate the principles of government to see where we think government may be going wrong. We are, in effect, the institutional memory—though some of us can remember rather more than others. In dealing with a number of papers over the past 10 days, I have been very struck by how the institutional memory does not go back much beyond about 1990; however, mine does, so I was able to say, “No, the problem did not begin then”. That is precisely the sort of thing that we should be doing here.
I should declare a few interests. I am a member of the Civil Service reform board. My wife was a civil servant for seven years, at a time when the Civil Service was pretty unfriendly to women with children. My daughter is a civil servant, at a time when the Civil Service is very friendly to women with children—I am happy to say that that is part of the transformation over the past 30 years.
As a young academic, in 1977 I published a study of Whitehall’s management of Britain’s international relations and then got caught up in a government review, the Berrill report, of much the same thing. I vividly remember being carpeted in the Paris embassy by Sir Nicholas Henderson, who thought that I was a dangerous radical suggesting all sorts of things that would undermine Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service—and, indeed, the Diplomatic Service saw off the Berrill report pretty firmly. That was a mistake. It is part of the problem that we have with the absence of language skills across the Civil Service at present that we did not think, as the Berrill commission and others like me were saying, that we needed to spread those skills across the Department of Trade and Industry and other departments. The internationalisation of government is one of the revolutions that we have been running through since then.
Over the past 30 or 40 years, Whitehall and the British Government as a whole have had to cope with a whole series of changes. I have mentioned internationalisation, but we have also seen the gradual centralisation of the delivery of public services—first across the country and then with the partial reversal of that in the establishment of the devolved Governments—which has left England as the most centralised country in the advanced industrialised world. I hope that what the coalition Government is now doing with city deals is beginning to reverse that. That will have implications for the central Civil Service.
The expansion of public services, particularly the provision of welfare and health, is running up against the limits of the capacity of government to finance the services being provided. That is one of the underlying problems that any Government of any party will face in the coming years.
Over the past 20 years, there has also been the growth of outsourcing and contract management. The move away from lifetime employment has been a matter not just for the Civil Service but for our entire economy and society. It has been recognised that the accumulation of skills from shifts in post in your career helps you on your way to reaching positions of responsibility at the top—particularly, the need to acquire management skills, which the Civil Service has been much concerned about.
Of course, there is also now the digital revolution. The Government have been behind the private sector in moving from paper to digital exchange, but I am happy to say that through the Cabinet Office—Francis Maude and others—they are doing their utmost to catch up. One of the most effective pieces of insourcing in which this Government have been engaged is the creation of the Government Digital Service. This is made up of a number of bright outsiders who hate wearing ties when they come to work but who are very good at pushing forward the revolution that we need in this respect.
There has also been the revolution of the coalition Government, to which the Civil Service has had to adapt. In my experience, a number of civil servants have adapted extremely well to the tactful ways in which Ministers of two different parties have to be treated. There has been a need for adaptation while, as a number of people have argued, sticking to the core principles of Northcote-Trevelyan.
On the concept of civil servants following the national interest, we no longer talk about them as being “servants of the Crown” but the noble Lord, Lord McNally, talked about the ethos of public service and a sense of altruism as being important parts of what they believe in. That ethos has been undermined to some extent, particularly on the economic right, by the growth of public-choice economics and by the philosophies of Ayn Rand which have come across the Atlantic, but I think that all of us here would hold to the idea that service to the state and the concept of public service are important parts of what holds government, the Civil Service and society together.
The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to the transformation of the Civil Service in terms of diversity and gender. It is encouraging how many bright young women there are coming up in the Civil Service. I think that eight of the 36 Permanent Secretary posts are now held by women—that is not enough; it was rather more two years ago and we hope that it will again be rather more in a few years’ time. There is real diversity across the sector. When I travel to other countries, it seems to me that at every embassy that I visit the economic counsellor is of south Asian extraction. Lots of bright people, men and women, are coming through the Civil Service. That is one of the achievements in particular of the Blair Government and, within the Foreign Office, of Robin Cook. We recognise that that has helped to take us forward.
On the issue of a parliamentary commission, the Government are not persuaded of the need for a vast commission. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, is too young to remember some of the royal commissions of the past. When he was probably still at school, I was a junior adviser to the Crowther-Hunt Royal Commission on the Constitution. If he has the nine volumes on his shelves, he will find in volume VII a paper that I wrote. The commission took several years and almost no one now remembers it. We are hesitant about getting back to the circumstance in which, as they used to say, such commissions “take minutes and years”.
The Prime Minister did say to the Liaison Committee that he is not entirely closed to the idea of further inquiries. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, suggested, it would be more helpful if we took one chunk at a time rather than tried to take the whole thing. For example, there is the question of the relationship among Ministers, civil servants and Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, talked about the role of junior Ministers and how many we may need, which is a rather fundamental issue for the future of the relationship between Executive and legislature. The noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, suggested that we look at the future of the Civil Service Commission.
Through committees and in debates, there are a range of things that this House and the other House should be encouraged to do. That is a different exercise from saying that we need to start again and re-examine the principles of Northcote-Trevelyan, of Haldane or indeed of Fulton.
My Lords, I am not entirely sure what the position on this is, but I suspect that there is a formal position and an informal one. Parliamentary committees inquire into a great many aspects of government, and that is welcome and will no doubt continue. I think that where a good case for a parliamentary inquiry is made, the Government will not obstruct it.
My Lords, the Government are not opposed to intelligent inquiry by Parliament. One of the many things that has changed over the past 40 years is the relationship between Parliament and civil servants. Parliamentary inquiries by my honourable friend Bernard Jenkin’s committee, Margaret Hodge’s committee and others are a regular part of life in a way that they were not 40 years ago. That is a desirable development. We are now having to think about how we rewrite the Osmotherly rules to fit in with this new development.
I have heard a diversity of views in this debate about how far civil servants and senior officials should be directly answerable to Parliament for the major projects that they have been leading. That is another area that is worth examining. After all, we are light years away from the Crichel Down affair, when a Minister resigned over a failure in his department about which he knew little. We would not want go back to that. This is another area where the relationship among Ministers, senior officials and Parliament has evolved, and it will no doubt need to evolve further.
My Lords, I said that the Government are not opposed to parliamentary inquiries. The Prime Minister is not currently persuaded of the case for a massive commission of inquiry of the sort that my honourable friend Bernard Jenkin’s committee recommended. No doubt there will be further discussion on that and on the sorts of topics that it would be reasonable to address.
I turn to the politicisation of the Civil Service, which a number of noble Lords have touched on and expressed concern about. In my experience over the past three and a half years, I have found special advisers, both those within the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office and those working for Conservative Secretaries of State, to be extremely helpful in easing the relations between the coalition partners and in assisting private offices in the division of work between what is entirely administrative and what becomes political. Perhaps it would be appropriate for a parliamentary committee to look at the expansion of special advisers but I certainly would give evidence in favour of their usefulness in the scene. Whether or not the expanded ministerial office will be that different from what one saw in Gordon Brown’s private office, for example, where the spads were very much part of the office, I am not entirely sure. Again, we should recognise that practice has already evolved and will evolve further.
There has also been concern about the question of choice in Permanent Secretary appointments. We have been round this many times before. I am old enough to remember as a student the great spat between Richard Crossman and his Permanent Secretary. Since then, a number of Secretaries of State—Jack Straw and others—have insisted that they have in effect chosen their Permanent Secretaries. This is an area in which it seems that the recent suggestion that the Prime Minister should have the ultimate say on the appointment of a Permanent Secretary is an acceptable move in this evolving set of relations.
The move to fixed-tenure Permanent Secretary appointments also seems a worthwhile step forward. We are conscious that there has been a fairly rapid turnover in the past two years, although I point out that the average tenure of Permanent Secretaries currently in place and those who have retired since 2010 is about four years. This is not too violent a change.
How do we strengthen Civil Service accountability? That takes us to the Osmotherly rules and the question of how far Parliament and parliamentary committees should be examining officials directly. We have already gone a long way down that road, as we well know. That requires some further study and investigation because of course one wants to protect officials from too aggressive parliamentary scrutiny. That question therefore relates to Parliament as much as Ministers.
The Civil Service reform plan has been very much concerned with the capabilities, skills and training of the senior Civil Service and with contract management and improving commercial skills. I said to one of my former students the other day that I was not entirely sure about the recommendation that there should be substantial additional payments for some senior officials. I had my ear chewed off by a bright young civil servant who said that we need to buy in commercial and management skills from time to time and if we have to pay more for them it is worth doing. That, after all, is part of what we are now trying to do.
We are carrying through the digital revolution. I have just written a rather sharp note to the Department for Transport about some of the design problems in the DVLA online form for over-70s renewing their driving licence, and had an extremely good reply from the Secretary of State. We are improving, as noble Lords know. The gov.uk website received an award last year.
The role of the head of the Civil Service has also been touched on. Over the years, we have moved from a combined head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary to occasional splits between the two. From my time on the Civil Service Board, it seems to me that the current division works well. Others in later periods may differ again, but that is the preference of the current Government.
Having now worked in five different departments in the past four years, I am concerned about the gap between the departments and the centre. The obscurantism of one or two departments—unnamed—is worrying. The difference in quality of civil servants at the middle level in a number of departments is worrying. Therefore, I am strongly in favour of providing more shared services from the centre as we hope to shrink the central administration and push more delivery down to the local level.
This has been a worthwhile debate. I come back to where I started: the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, should not regret having to call for a debate such as this. It is very much the job of the House of Lords to hold debates about the structure of government and the nature of the state. That should be part of our prime purpose. There is an awful lot of institutional memory inside this Chamber. Sometimes perhaps we think that there was a golden age or that we would like the world to be the way it was 20 to 30 years ago, without fully recognising the challenges we have now. Nevertheless, we have a great deal to contribute.
I thank all those who have contributed, one or two of whom I can remember interviewing when I was a junior academic—
Before the noble Lord concludes, will he deal with the serious point I made in my speech, which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, also raised, about the upholding of the Civil Service Code and the failure of that to be done in Scotland, and the responsibility that lies with the head of the Civil Service in England because of the precedents it will create to deal with this?
My Lords, I would prefer to write to the noble Lord on that extremely sensitive issue. I think he will understand why. Such matters under the Civil Service Code are for the Scottish Government in the first instance and will be dealt with by the relevant Permanent Secretary. But I will go back and write to him. I know where he is coming from and the point he is trying to make.
We have had a worthwhile debate. It is very good to have a range of different contributions from people who have seen the evolution of British government—
I will certainly provide a copy of the letter to the Library.
I look forward to the next debate in this House on the Civil Service and perhaps to the ad hoc committee that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, might succeed in persuading the authorities to have. This is a subject that we need to continue to discuss, although not necessarily through establishing very large and long-lasting joint parliamentary commissions.
My Lords, we have had a terrific debate. I am aware of the clock and I shall be brief.
First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for the care and thought of his reply. But I must express some disappointment about his views—reflecting the Prime Minister’s views, as he says—on the big inquiry, although I note what he says about little inquiries. No doubt we shall come back to that.
I thank, too, my stellar PhD student, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter—terrific PhD student, like no other—for her and the Labour Party’s open-mindedness on the big inquiry. Above all, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate for their multiple wisdoms, the cornucopian wealth of their cumulated experience and their stimulating reflections. I think it is a record that we have had five former Cabinet Secretaries speaking—I do not think we have had five breathing at the same time before.
A final thought: the Hansard of today’s debate could serve as a very fine submission, a very good briefing paper for the inquiry, in whatever form it comes, whenever it comes. It is just a matter of time. Today’s Hansard will be up there, shimmering, ready. I beg to move.