Examination of witness (Questions 182
TUESDAY 16 JUNE 1998
182. Sir Richard, may I welcome you to this
second session of evidence on our inquiry into the Government
Information Service. May I also welcome you in particular as the
Cabinet Secretary because it may well be, (I am not sure), whether
it is the first time you have given evidence to a Select Committee
as Cabinet Secretary, although I am sure you gave evidence on
several occasions in your long and distinguished career in the
Civil Service. Also, I particularly welcome you because we have
two things in common in that we both share an origin in the Cardiff
area, and you and I were both civil servants in the DTI at different
periods: me in the 1970s and you in the 1960s, I think. I would
like to ask whether you have a statement that you would like to
read out or whether we will go straight into the questions. That
is up to you.
(Sir Richard Wilson) Mr Chairman, thank you for
that welcome. I have not got an opening statement because I think
Select Committees can get very restive if civil servants turn
up with long opening statements. All I would just say is that
I am very glad to have the opportunity of meeting the Select Committee.
I am also very glad to note the history of the constructive dialogue,
which has particularly resulted in the Civil Service Code and
also the very helpful and interesting comments on the freedom
of information proposals. If I can contribute to that constructive
dialogue I should be very glad to do so.
183. Thank you very much. If I could put
a somewhat critical note to you to begin with then: why have you
not been willing to supply us with a copy of the Wilson Report?
(Sir Richard Wilson) The Wilson Report: may I
explain a little of the background to it. The Prime Minister asked
me, soon after I arrived, for my views and advice on the role
and organisation of the Cabinet Office and on the ways for strengthening
it. I set about doing that. It was not a formal review in the
sense of a committee with a secretariat, anything like that. It
was the sort of thing I had actually done in other departments
where I had been a new head, where I sat down and after a period
gave my first impressions and thoughts about it. It is a minute
from me to the Prime Minister which is my advice. I talked to
him about it. We are now doing some more work on some aspects
of it. It is really for him to decide what he wants to say and
when he wants to say it. I think, if you do not mind, the right
thing is for him to take those decisions himself rather than for
me to anticipate him.
184. Is it your understanding that this
information would be available under the right-to-know proposals
and, therefore, in subsequent legislation? Could we make an application,
as members of the public, for this information?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I am always wary of giving
instant rulings, particularly on anything which is raised by Mr
Shepherd because he is a great leading expert in this area. I
think I would regard this as having the character of advice to
the Prime Minister and, as such, it would not be available.
185. You will understand, therefore, that
the only difficulties we have in not having the Wilson Report
is its relevance to or being parallel with the trends (or alleged
trends) of the Government Information Service towards a stronger
central focus, if you like. The reason why the Committee sought
to have a copy of the Wilson Report was in order to see whether
there was any parallel between what we have read in the press
from extremely distinguished commentators about what was in the
Wilson Report, based obviously on briefings that it was going
to provide Number 10 with a focus in order to be able to get a
much stronger grip on government from the centre and drive government
policy forward; and the way in which the Mountfield Report on
the Government Information Service has also referred to the need
to get a stronger grip on the presentation of government policy:
the driving forward and presentation of government policy in a
more focused and coherent way. They appear to be two parallel
moves which may result in much better government, but certainly
a more centralised government, and that is why we thought it would
(Sir Richard Wilson) I do understand that. What
I suggest is: why do we not move on to the other issues and where
I can draw on the thinking I have used, or where I can say things
that are relevant and I judge them to be not in any way prejudicial,
I will do that. I do not feel particularly inhibited. I will give
my thoughts and do my best to help you.
186. Let me put that question to you then.
Do you actually see, from your extremely lengthy experience in
the Civil Service as a fully paid-up member of the Amalgamated
Society of Mandarins and Allied Tradesyou have been there
and you have served Labour and Conservative Secretaries of State
for several decades nowdo you see a trend towards centralisation,
or to what some people refer to as a kind of presidentialisation
of British government and away from the collegiate style, both
as regards policy making and as regards presentation? Are we halfway
towards a presidential system of government? Is that something
that you can see on the information side or the policy side?
(Sir Richard Wilson) These things come and go.
Every Prime Minister has a different style, a different approach
to the job, and a different approach to the role of the Cabinet
Office, as it happens. I think it is very important to be clear
that in the non-constitution which we operate, the executive powers
are vested in government departments. The laws which Parliament
passes give operational responsibility, legal power, to Secretaries
of State, not to the Prime Minister. The only executive power
(I think I am correct in saying) that the Prime Minister has,
rests in his powers in relation to the Civil Service. Otherwise,
his main formal powers derive from his power to appoint Ministers
and his other powers of appointment, the chairmanship of the Cabinet
and other committees and groups. Of course, behind that there
lies a much greater power. However, I think that formal position
does impose on any Prime Minister of any hue a particular way
of working, which means the need to work through his colleagues,
and with his colleagues, and through collective responsibility.
It is actually a curb, if anyone ever wanted to become a presidential
style Prime Minister, on the ability to do that. Nonetheless,
I think you are right to identify a wish in this Government, in
distinction to its predecessors, to have a stronger, more strategic
role carried out by the centre. This is not about taking over
the job of departments as I have described it. It is about making
sure that the Government is pulled together in a way which conveys
the themes and messages of the Government and gets across its
overriding philosophy. I was very interested to see that the Chancellor
of the Duchy, when he gave evidence to you on 12 May, said: "We
have always said that we felt one of the weaknesses of the previous
Government was that they were lacking a strategic approach. One
of the difficulties it had was being buffeted from pillar to post
in a fire-fighting capacity." And if you read the book by
Mr Mandelson and Mr Roger Liddle before the election it made no
secret of that. These things come and go. Cabinet Office, at the
moment, is (or was) at a relatively low ebb compared with, say,
the Cabinet Office described by Gerald Kaufman in that memorable
book he wrote about the Callaghan Government. There is a will
to have a stronger centre without encroaching on the formal constitutional
187. If I could just stick to the information
side of it for a moment then: you may have read the evidence,
or may have read press reports of the evidence given by Sir Bernard
Ingham, when he opened up our witness sessions 3on this subject;
also on the evidence given by the three officers from the Parliamentary
Press Lobby, the present Chairman and immediate past, who came
straight after him. Now, I think Sir Bernard Ingham implied strongly
that there had been something of a step-change towards much greater
centralisation, (even politicisation), of information, in terms
of the present Government. That was partially neutralised or rebutted
by the Parliamentary Press Lobby people who gave evidence afterwards:
Michael White, John Hipwood and Peter Riddell, because they said
something, as you did just now, that there is a cycle in these
things. There was a Thatcher style; then there was a John Major
style, which was a bit more collegiate and collective (less pro-active
and aggressive); and now the Tony Blair/Alastair Campbell style,
if you like, which is more similar to the Thatcher/Ingham style.
That seems to be the journalists' view. Do you see this, from
your long experience in the Civil Service, as a cyclical matter,
and what observations do you have on the evidence given by Bernard
Ingham and the three Press Lobby officers?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I have known Bernard Ingham
for many years. I knew him when he and I both worked for Tony
Benn for four years in the Department of Energy so I have known
Bernard for a long time. I do not sign up to everything he said.
No doubt we will come on to some of the things he said. I do not
want to go through his evidence. I was also very interested in
the evidence given by Peter Riddell and his other colleagues who,
I thought, hit a number of nails on the head. What is most striking,
at the moment, is that there is a more systematic determined effort
to co-ordinate, in a strategic way, presentation of the Government's
policies and messages in a positive light across the whole of
government, than I can remember since the time I have been in
the Senior Civil Service. I think that is correct. But I can also
remember previous governments, going back to the 1960s, (Harold
Wilson's Government then), that Ministers from time to time have
made a determined effort to get their messages across. This always
seems to require a new concerted drive and that is what is happening
at the moment.
188. Do you think this will peter out as
the new Government gets used to being in government, and loses
the consciousness of how it used to work when it was in opposition?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think it will peter
out. There is a good reason for that. At the moment, it represents
a very shrewd grasp, (which I imagine took place in opposition),
of the way that the technology has changed; the speed at which
the media gets information and reports information. That is a
permanent shift in gear, which will be with us whatever government
is in power. The wish to be up-to-date with what is going on,
and to respond and to present policies positively with that technology
is a permanent feature.
189. This is my last opening question before
I turn the questioning over to Andrew Tyrie. If I could widen
it again to this issue of the Government Information Service and
the Wilson Report thinking, as reported in the press then: what
has been very interesting for us in trying to interpret what is
in the Wilson Report from the press comments, is whether the Government's
priorities in trying to strengthen central co-ordination are to
try and get away from "departmentalitis", which is seen
as a bad thing and we are trying to get away from; and the good
thing, which seems to be inter-departmental working, "joined-up
government", as David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy, said;
(some of these phrases which pop up in the press from time to
time). Whether it wants someone either as an additional Cabinet
Minister or some sort of focus at Civil Service level within 10
Downing Street, a beefed-up Cabinet Office, (whatever that would
be), "to break down the silos of government"to
use another phrase which pops up from time to timeor whether
it is a way of simply improving the coherence of the presentation
of government policy. In other words, what the Government is looking
for is a much better plumber who will unblock the blockages, or
a stage manager who will set the whole thing out so the public
will understand. Do you think what the Government is looking for
is a plumber or a stage manager?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think you are right about
the relevance of departmentalitis; the way that the Government
is looking at the communication of its policies and themes. Over
the last ten or 15 years we have put a terrific effort into the
management of the Civil Service and into getting departments to
focus on their objectives, targets, and to set up these agencies;
to give a much bigger drive to what they are achieving, and managing
themselves better. That is now becoming an accepted fact. That
has had the effect of taking the eye of corporate government off
the ball of delivering outcomes to the community across departments.
One of the things which is interesting about the Government having
come into power from Opposition, is that they came in with much
sharper focus on outcomes than we have got into the habit of having.
One example I would offer you from my last job at the Home Office
was this focus on the proposal that there should be a halving
of the time between arrest and sentence of persistent young offenders.
It is a very obvious thing for the public to want. But it involves
co-operation between three government Departments: the Home Office,
the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Crown Prosecution Service,
and numerous agencies like the probation and court service and
so on, all of them pulling together, pooling their sovereignty
and their resources, and actually coming up with a coherent policy.
That impatience with boundaries, that wish to see departments,
regardless of where their particular interests are, pulling together
to produce an outcome which makes sense to community and to the
public, is an important part of this Government's thinking. To
some extent it is reflected in the setting up of a Strategic Communications
Unit in Number 10, whose job is to pull together the threads across
government. I think you are quite right to see a link. Whether
it is plumbing or stage management I am not absolutely sure but
I think it sounds like stage management.
190. Sir Richard, you said some very interesting
things at the beginning, where you said that one would be right
to identify a stronger strategic role than ever before. Is this
a strategic role in the formulation of policy primarily? If so,
are we moving in the direction of the recreation of some kind
of CPRS which is answerable to the Cabinet and not to the Prime
Minister? If so, are we going to see attempts to use the Cabinet
Office as a briefing vehicle for the Prime Minister rather than
for the Cabinet?
(Sir Richard Wilson) First of all, the role of
the Cabinet Office is always to support the Prime Minister, and
as Chairman of the Cabinet and Cabinet Committees. So the service,
which the Cabinet Office provides to any Prime Minister, is always
to the Prime Minister in his corporate collective capacity. Just
to get that straight. It is quite interesting, if you look back
at that October 1970 White Paper which set up the CPRS, a number
of the themes which I have just been expanding to you are in different
words but the same preoccupations are visible there. If I remember
rightly, there was a great emphasis on the need for a synoptic
approach, which everyone thought was very new-fangled at the time
but which actually means much the same thing. You should approach
government with one coherent view rather than a variety of different
191. I think we call it holistic now.
(Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, I think we call it holistic
now, that is absolutely right. But you are right, This need, this
wish to produce a corporate approach across government, is something
which has been seen before. What it is going to produce, you must
forgive me if I do not get drawn into that.
192. Policy formulation traditionally has
been done through Cabinet sub-Committees, which the Cabinet Office
has served. The point I am trying to get at is: is there any intention
by the Prime Minister, as far as you can tell, to try and devise
policy independently of that structure; and to use either the
Cabinet Office, or some other (as yet) unspecified briefing mechanism
and information system, to enable him to do so?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think the Prime Minister's
position is the same as any Prime Minister would be, which is
that as Head of the Government and Chairman of the Cabinet he
wants the government machine to work in a way that supports the
Government collectively with the service it wants. One of those
services is the provision of coherent policy across government.
The mechanisms for it vary. You say the main mechanism for corporate
policy making is Cabinet Committees. That, of course, is correct.
It is a very important formal vehicle but you know (and I know)
that in previous governments; say, the Policy Unit of Number 10
has had a key critical role in the formulation of policy on, for
example, education or some other area like that. So where the
idea comes from within the centre is perhaps not the point. What
matters is that there is the wish to have a strong coherent view;
coming back to the point about the GICS, the strong coherent communication
of that view in a positive light to the public and Parliament.
193. The Policy Unit was always very small.
Its central problem was getting hold of information. Information
is power and, sitting in Number 10, my colleagues who sat there
told me that it was often very difficult to get hold of the information
to formulate these policies.
(Sir Richard Wilson) For the record, I should
say I am nodding.
194. Do you agree?
(Sir Richard Wilson) Absolutely.
195. In which case, if there are attempts
to centralise or to bring over a greater strategic role from the
centre, would it not be the case that the Cabinet Officeyou
will not publish your report but what we want to know, and you
said you would draw in thoughts which may be evident in your report
if they were relevantis whether one of the proposals or
possibilities is that some better form of information system can
be provided through the Cabinet Office directly to the Prime Minister.
(Sir Richard Wilson) I am not disagreeing with
you. It has been my experienceand this is my third time
in the Cabinet Officethat obtaining information, both from
within departments but also the right information at the right
moment, is always a key preoccupation. Unless you know what is
going on and have the analysis that throws an interesting light
on to the issue in hand, you are handicapped in your ability to
provide the analysis and come up with the policy you wish to provide.
That is certainly one of the things which I think one has to have
196. That was a very straight-bat, Sir Richard.
Let us have another go from a slightly different angle. Another
crucial source of information on what goes on in Whitehall, perhaps
the best single source, is the Treasury. This is because they
are big enough to have a collective wisdom about a large number
of these policies; and they have a locus because nobody can spend
any money without permission, even though the rules have changed
to bring slightly more flexibility on that. At the moment, would
you say that the gathering of information by the Policy Unit is
carrying on much as it did under the previous Administration?
Are they going more to the Treasury in order to obtain information?
Are we seeing a Treasury-led Administration, as we had in the
early days of the Thatcher Administration? Is there a symbiosis
between Number 10 and Number 11 on policy making at the moment?
(Sir Richard Wilson) There is a very close relationship.
All governments revolve around a strong relationship between the
Treasury and Number 10. This is true for this Government as it
is for any government. You are absolutely right that the Treasury
is a very important source, although it is not the only source.
It has a very different role from the Cabinet Office and Number
10, and it is very important that everyone understands their role
and how they can contribute to the successful conduct of the Government.
The relationship is an important one and it is one that is close.
197. One of the key features we have been
seeing since the election, from the way Number 10 and the Cabinet
Office appear to be running things, is a desire for centralisation.
Another one, much more controversially and much more publicly,
has been some party politicisation. I would like you to tell us
what your reaction was when you heard the Prime Minister say that
one of Alastair Campbell's jobs was to do an effective job of
attacking the Conservative Party.
(Sir Richard Wilson) May I just say that on your
use of the term centralisation: just to record that I do not agree
that centralisation, in the sense of taking power away from departments,
is what we are describing. We are talking about a stronger centre
in terms of the ability to produce policies and communicate them
across government. That is a point for the record. On your other
questionand I have, as it happens, the words in front of
me, although I cannot find them for the moment, but we all know
the wordsI think it is important to be clear that the Prime
3Minister, answering that question on the floor of the House,
was not attempting a job description of Alastair Campbell. I think
of all the places to attempt a job description, I would not choose
Prime Minister's Question Time as the right place for doing that.
What he was doing was making a point in the kind of atmosphere
you have there.
198. Do you agree with me though?
(Sir Richard Wilson) The point he was makingand
you can disagree with what I am about to saywas that Alastair
Campbell, in opposition, was very effective in attacking the Opposition;
was no doubt effective in the election campaign; and when there
is another election and he decides to take part in it, will no
doubt be effective then. That is why the Opposition are intent
on attacking him. But the job of Alastair Campbell, if you want
a job description, is the one we supplied to you. You have his
(Sir Richard Wilson) It is the one defined in
his contract, read together with the Guidance for Information
Officers. No doubt we can come to that.