Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-79)



  60. And you think we should stop this wedge before it gets much thicker?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is the issue this is intending to address. It is always open to the Government if we want more, but then it would be required to explain why it wants more.

  61. It is always quite difficult to understand what Sir Richard is saying, but it was quite clear originally that he was comfortable with the Order in Council for civil servants and quite clear latterly that he was not. So he might have changed his mind. Do you have an opinion on whether or not civil servants should have Order in Council powers?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) This is one of the issues I have not really addressed. What was clear from the document from the Wick's Committee is that in some sense reality has run ahead of the theory. The idea is that special advisers only advise and they do not direct the work of civil servants. They do not direct—they never have and I do not think we will ever want them to—in a sense of taking decisions which will affect the career prospects of civil servants. But does that rule out directing in the sense of their work? If you look at the Policy Unit down the ages, policy units were very often a mixture of two thirds special advisers and one third officials. The head of the policy unit chose those civil servants, gave them their portfolio, so to speak, and directed their work. We have never had any problem with that. What people would find was the problem was if that civil servant was being asked to do something which was not consistent with their code (in fact it is covered in the code, they cannot ask a civil servant to do that), or there is some judgment being made about their promotion or performance pay. In all these arrangements civil servants have always ensured that they had oversight of those kind of management processes.

  62. Can I ask you just two very quick Civil Service questions. You talked about a permanent Civil Service, but not permanent civil servants. Is this going to be a message of comfort to people in Whitehall departments about the impermanence in their own status, their own jobs or their career prospects? Will they not think this is a signal that they will have to fight for their jobs.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think that world is already with us. A lot of people are taking early retirement, nearly always by agreement or by proper compensation, but, going back to a question earlier, it is recognised that we need to bring in skills and develop people. We are never going to go to a world in which we are just a bunch of mercenaries, a kind of city bond dealers. Equally, the idea that we recruit at graduate level and are an entirely self-sufficient organisation and the skills that we recruited 30 years are still with us, that is not right either. We are moving the balance so that we will be less distinctive. The big private sector organisations have a policy; they develop their own people, they probably do it even better than we do. But when necessary they also bring in people.

  63. It has done well by having very bright people at a young age but you are not paid as well as in the private sector; there are other systems of rewards. You have done well out of that, and you would be foolish to throw it away.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) We are still going to compete and as fiercely as we have done for the best graduates, but we are also going to recruit and bring in other people in mid-career and also have a much more open attitude to returners. It was not long ago that if you left the Civil Service you could only come back at the grade you left it at, even if you left it 15 years ago. We actively welcome returners. We spend a lot more time keeping in touch with the people who have left because we think we might want to get them back at some later stage.

  64. It all sounds very much more expensive.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) It may be more expensive, but it may be worth it for the quality.

  65. Can I ask you one last question about the Civil Service Commission. Baroness Prashar came and saw us recently. She was quite unambiguous about her views on special adviser caps and other matters of Civil Service legislation. I had never seen one of these Commissioners before. It was fascinating to meet one. She had essentially, I think, been appointed by the Cabinet Secretary through a complex procedure, she had a small number of staff, all Civil Servants, a modest budget and all the rest of it. Clearly an outstanding person. But what is the role of the Civil Service Commissioners now? Can it be developed?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) She has expanded the number of Civil Service Commissioners very substantially. There used to be five or six, now there must be at least double that number. She has brought in some very good people, particular people still serving. It used to have a kind of feel of retired Civil Servants; that feel about the Civil Service Commissioners has changed.

  66. What is it for?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) What it is for is to maintain—partly a regulator—the principles and values, in particular the principle of selection on merit, but it also accepts that it has a shared endeavour to improve the access we have to the best people. This body is an essential sort of brick in the structure. The issues in the Bill are to re-enforce that by putting it on a statutory basis.

Mr Prentice

  67. Are Cabinet meetings a waste of time?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I am not going to answer that.

  68. It really is a serious question. Cabinet meetings do not last very long and there are huge public policy issues that the rest of us are talking about that do not even feature in Cabinet discussions.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That assumes that the Thursday meeting is the one and only place where these things could be discussed. It never has been the one and only place where ministers resolve serious policy.

  69. In terms of good decision making, is it not better for the Cabinet ministers to meet and to chew the fat, talk about things, rather than have the Prime Minister deciding important issues using bilaterals with individual Cabinet ministers, which is his style, no secret.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) But they also do get round and chew the fat. They go off on their away days and things.

  70. How many times do they do that in a year?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) At least a couple.

  71. Is that enough?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) You had better ask them.

  72. You are the Cabinet Secretary.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) How they want to conduct the balance between working in full plenary session in Cabinet committees, in committees of groups of ministers so that it is tailored for the issue in bilateral discussions or in kind of away days and off-sites, they can experiment; it has evolved over time. There is a sort of nostalgia here. When was the period in which the Thursday morning Cabinet meeting was the point at which major issues of the day were considered?

  73. Sir Richard Wilson said the same thing. These are my words, not his, but do not get fixated about Cabinet meetings because there are other ways of doing the business. I am just interested in the formal mechanisms for deciding public policy issues, if it is not the Cabinet with you taking the minutes.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) The Cabinet meets in a variety of fora. The Cabinet Office takes minutes of lots of meetings other than the Thursday morning meeting. Some of them do not even have committee initials and numbers.

  74. Can I ask about the remit of your own job. You have lost some important areas to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, most notably devolution, regional government in England which raises huge machinery of Government issues and you are completely cut out of that.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I have not lost them. I think there is a much more coherent structure. We have a department. It is called the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister but it is a department which is about the relationship between central Government and a whole series of tiers: regions, local government—we still have secretaries of state for Scotland and Wales—and communities. That is an important function in its own right. Bringing those together is a sensible thing to do. For example, the Deputy Prime Minister had responsibility for the development of regional policy. He produced the original White Paper. Under the old structure having led the work on where we go next on regions, it was then handed over to another department. Now all that is grouped together under a single department. The initiation of the policy and the responsibility to see it through is now all within the boundaries of one department. That is a lot more sensible. I would not describe it as "lost". I am very happy that the boundaries have been returned to something which are more natural for a central department.

  75. Just one more thing, you are thinking where am I coming from on this. It does not feature in the paper that you drafted, nor in the chart. I just wonder if this is something that is actually going to happen or whether it has just been shunted into the sidelines because you are not centrally involved in something which will have huge implications if it goes through to the way in which—
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) Are you talking about regional policy?

  76. I am talking about regional government.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) That is a view that says that nothing happens unless the centre makes it happen. There are hundreds of policies—drugs, health—and we have not said that health has to be run out of the centre because it is important. The things you put in the centre are the things that require a particular coordination or strategic view. Otherwise the Secretaries of State lead on those issues and always have done. You could say that the period in which you had regional policy and some aspects of the negations on Kyoto taken out of the department and ad hominem put with the Deputy Prime Minister, that was the deviation from the normal way of organising business in Government. That is actually now being corrected.

  77. One final question, if I may. This mantra of modernisation that we get from the Government very often equates to huge organisational change, as in the Health Service, and I just wonder how easy it is to meet the delivery targets, for example in Health, where you have massive organisational change happening.
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I think you can overdo organisational change. The Health Service has gone through all sorts of tiers of regions, districts, trusts and so on. In the last few years, a lot more interest has been taken in the quality of what is delivered. If a structure is a serious obstacle to getting better delivery, then the best thing to do is to change that structure as quickly as possible. But thereafter I think you ought to get down to agreeing with people what the objectives are that they should be pursuing, and finding mechanisms of accountability that make it happen. Organisational change for its own sake has a cost.

  78. How much did it cost to reorganise the Department of Local Government, Transport and Regions?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I put the thing together in the first place. The DETR version of it was one year of my life waiting for John Prescott, 1997-98. I thought it was a good idea at the time.

  79. You did, did you?
  (Sir Andrew Turnbull) I did. Transport is obviously so important that you have to have someone who can work on this alone. That is what happened in 1976. It was in the DOE and they said it was too important and it must be a separate department. It was broken up. The thing about transport is that it contributes to so many other aspects, particularly the environment. It has an effect on air quality, land use, noise, light pollution, whatever. It has to be integrated with other policies and so its synergy is really what you want to give priority to. That was the theory of 1997, and now we are saying it was not synergy it was focus.


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