Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)




  1. Could I call the Committee to order and welcome our witness Sir Andrew Turnbull, the arriving Cabinet Secretary. We are delighted to have you. You do not formally take up post until 2 September. We particularly wanted you to come and speak to us as soon as you could so that we could see what you are going to be up to. I am particularly pleased that you were able to come. We had an exceptionally fruitful relationship with Sir Richard Wilson, the outgoing Cabinet Secretary, and I am sure we shall have a similarly productive and constructive relationship with you. I understand that you might like to say a few things just to start us off.

  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Only very briefly. My statement really is the document that I have sent to you. There are only two other points. The first is to reiterate what you have said about working productively with this Committee over the next three years. There will certainly be a lot to talk about. The other point is just to clarify the status that since my appointment was announced I have been and still am the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury. I think my last engagement is the Audit Committee next Monday. There have been certain areas that I have been able to work on in that time of dual running, particularly the team and the structure, but also there are a lot of issues that I have not managed to address and will not until I get there in September. Of the things I have worked on I think there is quite a lot to discuss.

  2. In the prospectus that you issued just a week or two ago the phrase that you used a lot was the "mandate which the Prime Minister has given me". Could you perhaps tell us what you think this mandate is?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The mandate is to give higher priority and urgency to delivery and reform. As Head of the Civil Service he wants me to lead that process personally. He has kept the two parts of the job together, Cabinet Secretary overseeing the coordination of work in Government with the Head of the Civil Service. That is a decision I favour. At the top of an organisation the policy and what it delivers have to be integrated together, but within that structure I need to give greater priority to delivery and reform, to restructure my responsibilities to enable me to do that. There are a number of ways in which that is possible. The first is actually the Cabinet Office itself. The last reshuffle has recreated a Cabinet Office which concentrates on its core activities, the four activities that I have set out. And those things which came with the Deputy Prime Minister personally have now gone and formed the nucleus of his new department. So that is helpful. The second is the—something which you may want to go into in greater detail—exchange of responsibilities with the second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, David Omand. Historically the Cabinet Secretary has had certain responsibilities for the oversight and coordination of security and intelligence matters and the second Permanent Secretary has led the Civil Service reform process. In effect, we have done a job swap. I have now taken the lead on the Civil Service reform and performance and he has taken over the coordination of the security and intelligence. Which is a very wise move because he is ten times better at that than I am, given the particular personal career that he has had.

  3. That is interesting in describing the structure, but trying to get to the essence of the matter, is it not the case that the Prime Minister has said to you—and indeed this is why he has appointed you—"Go away and sort out the Civil Service for me, please".
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I do not think he is saying that nothing has happened and the Civil Service has lain in a dusty room unreformed. Indeed, there is a process going on—and a lot of changes going on—but he wants a greater degree of urgency. He wants to build on what has happened already but definitely wants to up the pace. But he also does not see the boundaries of this as being limited to the Civil Service alone; he is very conscious of the fact that there is a wider thing called the Public Service (that is what your last report was all about) and he wants to ensure that what the Civil Service does is also linked to the various people we work in partnership with, the wider public sector and also with the private sector, voluntary sector. It is about the kind of pace and urgency I think.

  4. He gives the impression of being permanently frustrated and impatient with the inability of the machine to deliver for him and he wants you to make the machine deliver, does he not?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) He does and he has a time frame. I have a time frame. It is ironic that his time frame is exactly the same as mine. I told him that at the interview and I think it may have got me the job.

  5. His fate is rather different than yours, is it not?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think reputation is common to both of us in this case. There is an impatience. The Government has done something in the sense unusual. It has explicitly raised taxes at a time it did not need to do so. Governments have raised taxes many times, but that is often because there has been some fiscal reason to do it. There was no fiscal requirement to raise taxes. It has done so because it perceives there is a great demand for better public services. The public has frequently said in opinion polls that it favours this switch, but there has always been the small print of "Yes, but they actually do want to see those public services". That is the kind of political background, that is what puts pressures on politicians which in turn puts the pressure on us. I am happy to accept that challenge.

  6. Let me just pursue this a bit further. Reading what the great Professor Peter Hennessy has been saying recently—and of course people who work in Whitehall go and ask Peter Hennessy what is going on, do they not, so they can find out what is happening—in the talk he gave on the "Blair Style of Government" he talks in particular about this Cabinet meeting on 7 March. Then he quotes one participant describing how relations between ministers and the Civil Service had reached what he calls a point of crisis. Then he quotes this person as saying, someone who was at the meeting, "When ministers talk privately among themselves there is simply a lack of confidence in the Civil Service's capacity to deliver. In 1997 there was not a deep suspicion of the Civil Service but everyone has been deeply shocked by the sheer incompetence of the Civil Service to deliver in the modern world." Then he goes on to single out David Blunkett. Is this not part of the context that you arrive within?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Someone may have said that. It is probably one of those footnotes, a typical Peter Hennessy footnote, where it says "Private Information" so we all know where it comes from.

  7. Yes, a distinguished member of the British Armed Forces, private information.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) But I do not know whether it is actually representative of the Prime Minister's view. He is impatient, but he does not express it as a sort of loss of faith crisis. He thinks this is a good institution, but he wants it to be a lot better. He is right; it should be a lot better. But in the paper I prepared I set out what I called Enablers. This is a fancy word to describe the things we have to attend to and get right. The first of those was shared endeavour with Ministers. We have to have a sense of common purpose. We have already begun to address this. There was a seminar between the Civil Service Management Board and members of the Cabinet which Richard Wilson organised. We propose to continue that process. I do not think we are in the game of "we're blaming them and they're blaming us". We want to develop a common sense and purpose. There are many areas where Ministers have a very good relationship with their Department. A lot of them speak highly of the Department as a whole and the particular officials that they work with. I think you can do that but also want to challenge it to do better. I do not think this idea of crisis and the idea that this is an institution that has to be dismantled brick by brick and then rebuilt brick by brick is really the general feeling. There is a definite appetite amongst Ministers—which my colleagues share—to do better and faster than in the past.

  8. When I look at your manifesto again and what you are going to achieve within this three year period, you are going to make "A Civil Service respected as much for its capability to deliver as for its policy skills". It is going to have "An enhanced capacity to think and operate strategically". Presumably it does not have these things now.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It has these capacities but it is going to have them better. That is the answer. We are not starting on a blank sheet of paper with a zero score. We perform as we perform and the UK Civil Service by comparison with administrations round the world is generally highly admired. But we can see that there are things which definitely need to get better. That is my inheritance.

  9. Let me take you to one more area before I hand over. When you gave your interview to the Times when the announcement was first made you are quoted as saying, "There needs to be a bigger centre". What does that mean?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think in the sense that the Prime Minister, whose principle task is to lead the Government, needs to be better supported in doing that. That is very strongly his view. There also needs to be a better sense of challenge to departments, but there also needs to be better support and those two things have to be delivered in equal measure. If the relationship is all challenge it probably will not work; on the other hand, if we are going to get involved and push departments harder we have to be well equipped to do it and do it having the right skills. That is principally this area of getting the Government to work collectively better. A lot of arguments have gone on now about silos and baronies, so we need to get departments to work collectively better and to support the Prime Minister more in leading the Government. He feels he needs more support.

  10. Indeed, but trying to find a way of just describing this, clearly what has happened there—and all the knowledgeable commentary has pointed this out—is that you have become Number 10's Permanent Secretary and the Cabinet Office now forms part of the Prime Minister's department, does it not?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is how some people describe it. It is not how I see it because the role of supporting the Government in transacting its business is still a very important part of Cabinet Office business. It is not exclusively there to support the Prime Minister.

  11. You do not sound entirely convinced by that.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Of course I am entirely convinced. I have written it down, here.

  12. I do not doubt for a second that you have written it down there.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It is the department which supports the Prime Minister. That is not its exclusive role. To describe it as the Prime Minister's department would be to emphasise one aspect of its work to the exclusion of the rest.

  13. Let me just try this on you. This is Peter Riddell—who knows a thing about these things—in the Times, describing this new dispensation and the role of the Cabinet Office. He says, "It will become an adjunct of Number 10 in what even officials there privately, though never publicly, accept is now a Prime Minister's department". Why can we not just say that?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I do not actually believe it is true. He is here; you can ask him. Do reporters always tell the truth? I think the Cabinet Office has responsibilities going beyond that of supporting the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister himself has not claimed that this is only for him.

  14. Let us leave Peter Riddell alone and turn to John Prescott. He always tells the truth, does he not? When he came to see us here in your seat last October and was asked this same question (this was even before the recent changes): "Isn't the Cabinet Office now the Prime Minister's department?" John Prescott said, "Is the Cabinet Office the Prime Minister's department? The Cabinet Office is the department of the Prime Minister at the end of the day. Am I confused about this?"
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Well he is correct. It is the department which supports the Prime Minister. But that is not its exclusive role and therefore calling it "the Prime Minister's department" fails to capture the other responsibilities that it has. He is correct. He did not answer the questions absolutely directly. He did not say, "Yes, it is the Prime Minister's department". He said "It is the department of the Prime Minister". It is a department which supports the Prime Minister. That is the first of my four roles. There are three other roles in there.

  15. This is a heroic interpretation. I am struck by the fact that whenever we have this conversation it would be so much easier if we could just simply be honest and grown up about it and say "We clearly have a different system of Government here now which involves a Prime Minister's department" which may be a very good thing, but then we could talk about it.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) If you go to Australia they have a thing called PMC (Prime Minister and Cabinet); they just describe it differently. The renaming of it would carry the implication that the Prime Minister wanted this thing to work for him and in a sense he was taking it away from the support of the Government as a whole and he does not want to create that impression. He wants to get better support from it but he does not want to create the impression that this is only working for him.

  Chairman: Of course he does not want to create the impression, but I am trying to get beyond the impression to the reality. Anyway, that is a good opening go.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  16. In your paper you presented on 24 June you talked about a three year vision. First of all, just a personal question, does the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service have to retire when he is sixty?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No. That is the normal retirement date, but I have been asked to stay basically for three years which would take me—

  17. Take you beyond 21 January 2005?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Absolutely correct.

  18. So nearly another year.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Yes. This is not unprecedented, but it has happened for different reasons. Robert Armstrong stayed on beyond 60. The purpose then was not to give him long enough to complete his work, but in order to bring the decision into the new Parliament. It is not unprecedented.

  19. Do you not think it is rather absurd that in the generality civil servants have to retire when they are sixty?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) No, I do not think it is absurd. In fact, what is actually happening is civil servants are, on average, retiring earlier. The reason for this is the pressure on the organisation to perform and to get new skills. In an organisation which is not expanding it can only bring in new people and advance people you have already got if you get some movement out of the top.


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 24 July 2002