Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER 2001
PRESCOTT MP, THE
TRADESTON CBE AND
1. On behalf of the Committee could I welcome our
witnesses this afternoon, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for
the Cabinet Office, Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office.
Thank you very much all for coming along. It is in the nature
of the Cabinet Office, even more so now since the recent reorganisation,
that you range wide and I suspect the Committee will want to range
fairly wide in its questioning to you, but I am sure you are prepared
for that. Do any or all of you want to say anything by way of
(Mr Prescott) Yes please. I think I took
your warning on The Today programme, Mr Chairman, that
you do range wide. We have been in the job for four months and
we will try to give you the best answers to your questions. I
would like to thank the Committee for inviting us here to set
out our role in the Cabinet Office and to discuss our contribution
to the delivery of the Government's key objectives. You have a
memorandum which sets out the detail of that but there are just
one or two points I would like to make, if you would allow me.
The Prime Minister has, indeed, made it clear since the election
that the Government's key priority for this term is to deliver
world-class public services, built around the four key principles
which again are set out in the memorandum. That indeed is no small
task. I think anybody looking at the particular problems involved
would agree with that. To succeed needs the commitment of everyone
and indeed a strategic direction from the centre of government
which I think your earlier report, Chairman, pointed out. The
Prime Minister too was conscious of the need to make changes at
the centre and through the creation of my Office of the Deputy
Prime Minister and the restructuring of the Cabinet Office, we
believe we are better placed to help ensure that all departments
deliver on those key priorities and objectives which the Prime
Minister has set for us. I have looked carefully at the Committee's
Seventh Report. Indeed, being in office for only four months in
this particular job I have had a valuable insight into the kind
of problems that we face coming new into these matters. You did
raise a number of interesting points about the role of the centre
and to Lord Macdonald and I with only four months in the job,
it gives us an invaluable insight into the challenges. I hope
you will agree that the changes we have made so far in that limited
time have strengthened the centre and met some of your concerns.
We have strengthened the government offices in the regions. We
are bringing them under the Cabinet Office to help the co-ordination
and delivery of policy. The Delivery Unit will be focusing on
improved outcomes not just outputs, another recommendation that
you made in your report, as we look to develop better public services.
You were also concerned about the centralisation of government
and, indeed, I have always felt you should decentralise it, being
an advocate of regional government. It is one of the responsibilities
I have got at present to bring in more decentralisation although
I hope through the work on regional governance in the coming White
Paper we will address ourselves directly to that concern of your
Committee. In my role as the Deputy Prime Minister I hopeI
leave it to you to make the judgmentyou have the powerful
Cabinet Minister for which this Committee called to help in the
direction and delivery of those services. The responsibilities
that the Prime Minister has asked Lord Macdonald and myself to
undertake have a major role to play in delivering those priorities,
but for my part I have a number of other tasks, again set out
in detail in the memorandum. Principally, I support and deputise
for the Prime Minister at home and abroad and I help to oversee
the delivery of the Government's key priorities. I am assisted
in doing so by the chairmanship of a number of key Cabinet committees
that I hold but I also have a number of specific responsibilities.
These include social exclusionand you have been complimentary
about the work of the Social Exclusion Unitregional governance
and the role I continue to play in the international climate negotiations
representing the Prime Minister. Indeed, yesterday I returned
from a visit to Russia and the Ukraine where not only did I discuss
on behalf of the Prime Minister a number of bilateral issues,
but also how we may develop the global action, not only against
terrorism but how we can deal with the coming UN conference, the
World Summit on sustainable development, next January,
and I think that is quite an important part for Britain to play.
I discussed that with the Presidents and Prime Ministers of those
countries. Where cross-cutting issues arise which are of interest
to both Gus and I we work closely to ensure a co-ordinated outcome.
I know the Committee is also interested in how we work with the
rest of government. We work of course very much in a role of partnership
and the Cabinet Office is there to support and assist departments
in achieving successful delivery of services. It will work with
these departments to set out the framework for delivery and it
will provide strategic direction and evaluate and monitor success.
Finally, chair, the Cabinet Office has been significantly strengthened
in order to play its part in all of this. In addition to the staff
in the Government Offices, our London staff are in many different
buildings. We will reinforce our efforts to create a stronger
centre by bringing as many as possible of the London staff together
in nearby locations next summer. These are the main points I wanted
to make. They are in detail in the memorandum. I am grateful to
you for allowing me to make that statement and now we are at your
2. That is very helpful, thank you very much indeed
for that. Perhaps I could just tell you that the Committee has
said that it wants to spend a short time at the beginning exploring
with you some of the recent events that you were referring to
obliquely at the beginning and then we can move on in the remaining
time to the main business. Could I just begin by asking you about
this. Lord Macdonald; when you were asked about the Jo Moore business
in the Lords earlier this week you referred to it, as many people
have done, as a "serious error of judgment". Could I
put it to you that what many people feel is that is precisely
what it was not, that it was gross professional misconduct. It
was an attitude that was reflected, not a judgment of one course
as against another. It displayed an approach to the job which
was inconsistent with any notion of public service. Is that not
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I think
the Prime Minister made it very clear yesterday just how abhorrent
he felt some aspects of that statement were. I do not think you
could have asked for a more abject apology than we got from Jo
Moore and it seems to me that the Prime Minister's key phrase
was he did not think that an individual's whole career might be
destroyed for one error of judgment, no matter how horrible or
distasteful that error of judgment might be. I understand, of
course, that the Secretary of State did reprimand Jo Moore and
indeed formal action was taken by the Permanent Secretary and
it is now for that Department, I think, to decide what the course
of action is next in terms of Jo Moore. I think the Prime Minister
has made it very clear that he backs the judgment of his Secretary
3. With respect, I think that answer would work if
it was an error of judgment we were talking about. If it is something
else then it probably does not because if I look at the model
contract for special advisers, again issued in September, just
last month, it could not be clearer. It says: "Your employment
requires performance consistent with the high standards expected
of senior members of the Civil Service". On any test surely
that test has not been passed?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) That is
right, but I think the question is should someone be sacked for
any transgression of a contract, and that is surely a judgment
that has been made by the Secretary of State, by the Permanent
Secretary and now by the Prime Minister.
4. We are talking about someone who only lives as
an appendage of a Minister, a political appointee whose career
in that sense expires with a Minister anyway. So it is not a normal
career pattern. Let me put this to you or perhaps to Mr Prescott.
If a Minister had done this
(Mr Prescott)Not unknown for Ministers
5. Would the Minister still be in the job?
(Mr Prescott) The issue is about an adviser
not a Minister. You may argue that the Minister has reprimanded
the individual and has decided that it is not a sufficient case
for sacking, which is the view taken by the Secretary of State
in this case and, indeed, the Prime Minister. It is an error of
judgment of the worst kind, "stupid action" I think
it has been described as, and I certainly feel that is so, but
it is one for which she has apologised, for which she has been
reprimanded and the Prime Minister now as head of the Civil Service
has made it clear that he did not think it was a sackable offence.
6. Had it been your special adviser, you would have
taken the same view?
(Mr Prescott) I think all of us who are
in ministerial positions and have employees who are special advisers
have to arrive at their own judgment, and in this case it was
the judgment of Stephen Byers. The Prime Minister has looked at
the matter, the Permanent Secretary was involved in it, there
have been reprimands, apologies made, and I think in those circumstances
we have to accept that it is not, in the view of those people,
a sackable offence and I have nothing more to add to that.
7. Is her position still tenable? Can she still do
(Mr Prescott) That is always a consideration
when somebody makes an error of judgment, however bad that error
is and the one who employs him, and employees is what special
advisers are, and they were not advising me in this case; the
special adviser was advising this Secretary of State and he has
to make a judgment. He has made the judgment, she has apologised,
and neither the Prime Minister nor the Secretary of State believe
that it is a sackable offence. Frankly, it does not rate against
all the other problems we are dealing with, does it?
8. You do not think it turns on trust in government?
(Mr Prescott) I think it turns on trust
between the individuals involved certainly because they are better
placed to make a judgment as to whether this was an error of a
more permanent kind or one that they slipped into and had not
taken fully into account, and they have made a judgment. I am
bound to say that if the same criteria were placed on the House
of Commons none of us would be in there very long, would we? Nevertheless,
it is a judgment that that individual has to make and they have
made it. I hope if I am placed in such circumstances I will make
my judgment and I hope people might agree with it. But I do not
know until the event occurs and you would not ask me to comment
9. If it turned out that the individual concerned,
as has been alleged, had been asking a senior civil servant to
do things which it was improper for a senior civil servant to
be asked to do, would that change things?
(Mr Prescott) I have heard it alleged.
I hear a lot of allegations in the papers. If I had to act on
every one of them I would be in a considerable amount of difficulty
with time. No-one has made an official complaint, as I understand
it, on this matter and where there has been a disagreement about
the matter of judgment in this case it has been dealt with by
the Permanent Secretary and the Secretary of State.
10. But if it turned out to be the case, whether
a complaint had been made or not, then the question.
(Mr Prescott) It does make a difference
if a complaint has been made. At the moment it is down to the
level of allegations. Have you spoken to the individual as to
whether a complaint has been made or have you read it in the paper?
11. I am asking you.
(Mr Prescott) I am sorry, the substance
of the allegation has to be important if you are asking me to
comment on something like that. Until that is justified I do not
think it is fair to continue the discussion based on an allegation
as a means of extending the questioning about Jo Moore and the
action of Stephen Byers.
12. Let us remove it from the individual.
(Mr Prescott) I got the impression it
was very much about the individual and in fact special advisers
are individuals. Not every one acts in the same way and we are
dealing with one particular act.
13. As you say, we do not know the facts. If we remove
this individual case as alleged, can I ask the general questionand
I point to the terms of the special advisers' codeand say
if any special adviser were found to be prevailing upon civil
servants to do things it was quite improper to ask them to do,
what consequences would flow from that?
(Mr Prescott) If it is improper for them
to do itand there certainly are cases and that is envisaged
in the Code to which you referthere are means by which
you deal with that. There are different disciplinary measures,
for example it would certainly involve the Cabinet Secretary who
said to your Committee here when you dealt with this in your inquiry
that he would have a responsibility to address himself to that.
At the moment it is the Secretary of State who has dealt with
the circumstances as he has seen them. If it is worse than that
presumably there would be a responsibility for others. As I understand
it, you have the Cabinet Secretary coming here in a week or ten
days' time and you will be able to address him on that. Can I
tell you also that hopefully by then we will have our response
to your Committee.
I would like to offer my apologies that perhaps it has been longer
than normal. I do not want to plead special circumstances but
I will do all I can while I am in the job to see there is no further
delay in responding to your Committee.
14. Was the Cabinet Secretary involved in the present
matter, in the Jo Moore matter? Was he consulted? Did he or anyone
else require an apology to be made? How does that work?
(Mr Prescott) I have been away for two
or three days but, as far as I understand it, it was not referred
to him because the matter was dealt with internally by the Permanent
Secretary who is, of course, connected very much with the Cabinet
Secretary, and whether there was a conversation between them,
I do not know, but the matter was dealt with in a professional
manner and she was reprimanded by the civil servant involved in
this case which was the Permanent Secretary.
15. Perhaps Lord Macdonald knows, was this matter
referred to the Cabinet Secretary?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It is the
practice in both the public and private sector that any complaints
from staff are handled as matters of strictest confidence by the
department concerned and that would be the proper procedure. Sir
Richard does not propose to hold a separate investigation. He
believes that this has been handled in accordance with the proper
procedures in the employing department which is the DTLR.
16. In some sense you have overall responsibility
for the special advisers and this matter must have been referred
to you at some stage?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It has
not been referred to me.
17. Do you know whether Miss Moore made the apology
of her own volition or was she required to do so?
(Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) No, I do
18. Mr Prescott?
(Mr Prescott) It is a matter of record
if I believe what I read in the paper. I see also that she appeared
before him, he reprimanded her, you must know that as well as
I do, and I take it as his admittance that he did reprimand her.
I think he has made statements also to the House to that effect.
19. Could I ask a slightly more general question
about the Code of Conduct perhaps in the light of the events that
have taken place recently. Are you confident that the Code of
Conduct is fully understood now by Ministers and special advisers
and if that is the case I notice that within the Code of Conduct
one of the duties that the special adviser is given as one of
their major responsibilities Code of Conduct is "devilling
for the Minister". What exactly does that mean and could
that sort of phrase within the Code of Conduct perhaps have led
to a misunderstanding in this case of what the duties of the special
(Mr Prescott) I have got some sympathy
with the question. I certainly approached it the same way enquiring
what was meant by "devilling", but no doubt our journalists
will tell us tomorrow! In those circumstances, I think the rules
are clear about honesty, about integrity, about not directing
civil servants, about what those limits are. Special advisers
are political appointees, albeit they are civil servants. I think
the Code makes that clear. What we are concerned about is can
anyone direct a civil servant to do something improper? No, it
is in the Code, and if they do then they face very serious penalties.
1 Witness correction: September. Back
Government responses including one to the Committee's Fourth Report
(Session 2000-01) Special Advisers: Boon or Bane? (HC 293)
will be provided. Back