Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)

THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER 2001

THE RT HON JOHN PRESCOTT MP, THE RT HON THE LORD MACDONALD OF TRADESTON CBE AND MAVIS MCDONALD CB

Mr Lyons

20. Can I go back to the question of the reprimand from the Permanent Secretary. Was that the outcome of a disciplinary hearing, a formal charge against Miss Moore?

  (Mr Prescott) I am not too sure about that. I shall certainly bring it to the attention of the Secretary of the Cabinet who will be here before you and perhaps will tell you the detail of how the Civil Service machinery dealt with it. As I understand it, it was not a complaint. I think it might have been referred perhaps by the Secretary of State himself. I am not exactly sure about that. Whatever the process, she appeared before the Permanent Secretary and was reprimanded for her action.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

21. I want to bring you back to this—and we do not know the full circumstances—the circumstances were that there was an e-mail —

  (Mr Prescott) I was referring to the other allegation.

22. The allegation is that an e-mail went out. I believe that there are 81 special advisers. Do you not think it is time—because this is going to happen again, I suspect, human nature being as it is—that it was tightened up and the entire relationship of special advisers to Ministers and civil servants is debated on the floor of the House and we have a proper debate to take this forward?

  (Mr Prescott) I know that is a concern of this Committee, indeed I think it is one of your recommendations, and it is one of the responses we want to give to you. But I am glad that at least you are generous enough to say there can be errors of judgment, and in this case there was. The rule did not make any difference and in fact was not taken into account when the decision was made.

23. Is the answer that you would like to see it debated formally?

  (Mr Prescott) It is open to anybody to have debates and I think when we get the response to the Code we will have opened up that debate and, as I understand it, we wish to include it into Civil Service legislation which will be put out to consultation and will be debated, so no doubt a debate will come and perhaps we will all benefit from that.

Annette Brooke

24. If I could return to the departure of the senior civil servant to another department. What I am not quite clear about is how you know there has not been a breach of the Code of Conduct in that, as far as you are indicating, I believe up until today there has not been a senior investigation and yet there is certainly a lot in the press about it. I think this is a matter of concern. You said there is not a formal allegation but surely for there to be confidence in the future of this particular senior adviser, this matter does merit some investigation, so that you can categorically say there has been no breach of the Code of Conduct?

  (Mr Prescott) If there is no complaint and we read the allegation in the press by an unknown source are you saying that we should investigate it?

25. It is a matter of serious public concern.

  (Mr Prescott) Would you be satisfied with that approach? It is a serious matter, and she has apologised for it. It is clearly getting a lot of attention in the press.

26. There are two issues which have come to light. I am referring to the one that we do not know very much about.

  (Mr Prescott) Is that the possible direction of civil servants to do something improper?

27. Exactly and I think that is very worrying potentially, certainly to me as a newcomer, if that has happened behind the scenes. If you could assure me that somebody fairly senior has carried out a full investigation to see there was no breach of the Code of Conduct, then I could sit back and feel fairly comfortable but I have not heard that from you this afternoon.

  (Mr Prescott) No and I do not think I can give you a proper answer to that. I would suggest the chief civil servant is coming before you and you may want to ask that. There is another offence which has been committed and that is leaks from inside the Department to the press, and I see nobody asking or demanding that there should be investigations into every one of them. That is not a proper answer to your question. It is one I feel is a matter of imbalance between the way this matter is pursued and the way others are. But the chief civil servant will be here before you and we will have produced answers to your recommendations on the Code and you will have another opportunity to pursue it. If the Committee were still not satisfied, I am quite happy to appear before you again and give you further responses if that is the wish of the Committee.

Chairman

28. We are grateful for that. I think the point of the last question was of course we do not know what went on, but my information from within the Civil Service is that this did happen and therefore it requires something to be done about it. I think the feeling that something is not to be done about it does help to damage people's faith in the political system.

  (Mr Prescott) I would be grateful for any information you can give me as to who gave that information or if you could pass on to that person that they should make the complaint, we would be delighted to investigate it. The complaint has not been made by the person this is alleged to have happened to.

29. We know what happens—people get moved sideways into other jobs.

  (Mr Prescott) I am afraid if you are going to call in hand those pressures, I know those problems in all sorts of directions. There is this great thing that everybody should be independent and I am not sure independency—I will probably get into troubled water. The things that we write down that we would like to happen do not necessarily happen in the way that we would like them to happen.

Mr Trend

30. Can I return to a loose end. It is a general point, not a specific point about the case. Do you not think it would be better if these things were more transparent? This touches on the whole relationship between Ministers and special advisers, the press, who they feed and the general public, who in an important sense have a right to know how they are being governed. There has been a lot of confusion about this. Two of the most powerful people in the country appear either not to have known, not to have been told, not to have discussed it, or not to have tried to work out exactly what happened in this case. It may be that we need to talk to other people about this. This is not good for the governance of the country or the confidence people have in their government. Naturally the press are going to run away and invent—maybe not who can tell—all sorts of fantasies. Is this a good way to run a country?

  (Mr Prescott) You believe that all the allegations that are made should be investigated and people would feel more confident about that? I agree and I am not trying to be trivial in my answer, serious matters should be investigated, and any direction of a civil servant in an improper way is a serious matter. If you are asking me about allegations, I have no evidence to believe that that is the case. If there is, I can only point you in the direction of the appropriate authority to deal with it, the person who is directly responsible for all these matters in regard to the Code and its operation, as they are civil servants, in special circumstances admittedly, who may have sometimes fallen short.

Chairman

31. I hope you will understand that as a Committee we do have responsibility in this matter —

  (Mr Prescott) I do not doubt that for a second.

32. —So we do have to keep an eye on what is going on.

  (Mr Prescott) I am not surprised there are these questions.

33. Can we now move on to look at the organisation of government at the centre which you described at the outset. Could I ask you just to say in a nutshell —

  (Mr Prescott)—While all the press are leaving and we can get down to normal business.

34. To say, as someone who has long experience of these matters, what was the problem at the centre of government to which the new arrangements are the remedy?

  (Mr Prescott) It is a very important question and one that you spent some time in your Committee dealing with. I think you made a very powerful point about government—that it is too centralised in this country. That is one important thing and there should be a process for decentralisation, which is part of what I am dealing with in my job. Secondly, there is the point that public services are not delivered as effectively and efficiently as they could be. Not only has your Committee made that point but others have as well. So there was the appointment of a Delivery Unit to make sure the machinery is in government to deliver—this is your point about outputs in this matter—and we have made changes in that direction. What is important of course is the cross-cutting activities of government in the Social Exclusion Unit, which again your Committee has recommended, and is doing a particularly good piece of work. Also the analysis and work can often be done and recommendations made across departments but it does not always get implemented, hence the need for somebody who has a direct responsibility to do that. I think as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—it really started with Mr Heseltine- there is a need (which your Committee identified) to have a strong political force inside the Cabinet Office to do that. There have been other Ministers of the Cabinet Office as well but I think that the office I hold carries more weight with it by the position I have and by my relationship with the Prime Minister. And the other thing which I have always felt very strongly about in government, is the fact that there is so much demand on the Prime Minister's time to do things, particularly if a Prime Minister wants his government to be successful, that could be done by his deputy and I have always argued that is a good role for the Office of a Deputy Prime Minister. That is what we are now establishing. We think that is important. Indeed, the whole process of decentralisation to regional governments in the White Paper, where the Cabinet Office has a special responsibility to develop this with the Secretary of State for transport and local government, these are the reasons why they are spelt out in the memorandum, and I am delighted to do that job.

35. There is a feeling that obstetrics has come to the heart of government and it is a maternity unit at worst. What I really want to know is who is "Mr Delivery"? Is it you as Deputy Prime Minister?

  (Mr Prescott) We are all delivering in government. This job of delivery is very important. All administrations have found perhaps that they have not been able to deliver as fast as they could or deliver the things they had promised. It has become quite a cardinal issue in politics and therefore—certainly in the last Election—we, probably more than any other government, laid down what we were going to deliver, and we had better deliver or we are going to have problems of a major kind. That requires action to be taken in the way we have addressed it. Working to the Prime Minister I can relieve him of some of the problems that he has and the massive demands on his time, especially internationally but on the domestic scene as well, and I will play a part in helping to deliver it. At the end of the day this is very much the construction of how the Prime Minister wants his government to deliver and I am just helping him to deliver it.

36. The reason I press this is I thought you were going to become Mr Delivery, this powerful Cabinet Office figure that we asked for in our report, but then I am struck by the fact that none of these new units, the Delivery Unit or the Office of Public Service Reform, reports to you.

  (Mr Prescott) They do. We work together. Gus Macdonald is very much looking at the detail of the delivery of the programme. We have people who get involved in PSAs. You said that the Cabinet Office should be involved in that and it should not simply be left to the Treasury. We sit on the Committee that deals with that and sets new targets. The day-to-day detail of making sure the Departments' programmes are generally fitted to achieve that (because we cannot always assume that is the case and there is plenty of evidence for that) Gus Macdonald deals with. I deal with an awful lot of activities on the broader picture but Gus and I regularly meet, we co-ordinate. As you are well aware, Gus Macdonald cannot appear in the Commons unexplained, we are accountable in Parliament, and I cannot afford to be ignorant of what Gus is doing. I wish him well on that and I get on with the jobs I have got. We think that is a more effective arrangement.

37. We called for this greater strategic capacity at the centre and we need to try and find out if we now have it or not, or whether, in fact, we have new sorts of coordination problems set up by the new machinery. I am struck by people who have looked at this, for example, Malcolm Dean in The Guardian says, "the changes were a badly designed structure which broke", what he calls, "the three iron rules of effective management by unclear lines of accountability, confused focus and overlapping remits". David Walker, and I speak as observer of these things, says that the Cabinet Office is "in a right old mess". You can see why people wonder if we have sorted out the—

  (Mr Prescott) I cannot see why. All that is is a conclusion, whether I agree with it is entirely another matter. Overlapping is the very issue of cross-cutting. You complain constantly that departments do not take account of other departments and yet they are cross-cutting. I can recall a Minister making a statement a little while ago, I shall not name the particular Minister, who wanted a particular course of action and a change in direction of his department. It was with regard to speed cameras—I show my hand by saying that—and I had to point out to him that the targets then set for the Department of Transport was to reduce accidental death. If he took all of the money off that and then put it in to reduce crime figures there would be a conflict, so we would not achieve one objective but we may achieve the other. Our job is to make sure that confusion that exists does not allow it to happen, there is a cross-cutting situation. I have a Cabinet Committee to work out disagreements if Secretaries of State cannot work it out themselves. We think we are moving in the direction to get that kind of agreement. He mentioned three points, the one about confusion. He said there was one about—

38. A lack of clear focus, a lack of a clear line of contact.

  (Mr Prescott) I do agree when you are working in these areas it means we have to have a clear understanding between us about who is responsible for what in the system. In the way of accountability I have to be accountable on the House of Commons floor for doing it, I cannot say, "I am sorry, this is done by Lord Macdonald", neither can he say in the House of Lords, "I am sorry, this is done by somebody else". We do have this divergence of thinking, our agreement, our objectives but we specialise in the detail of achieving certain objectives. In Gus Macdonald's case it is designing and making sure that departments deliver the objectives we have set for ourselves. I have other words on decentralisation. I would be actively involved in the White Paper on regions—you might say that is something that I have particular interest for—I want to see it delivered on a further decentralisation scheme in the regions. That fits in with your argument of greater use being made of regional government and decentralisation, I get on with the detail of that and producing the White Paper.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. I am sure colleagues will want to explore some of the issues.

Mr Steen

39. Can I, first of all, say it is a great pleasure to have an opportunity to ask you some questions, I know you are going to be as helpful as you can in your answers.

  (Mr Prescott) Always, Mr Steen.


 
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