Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)

THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER 2001

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

120. I suppose colleagues put down parliamentary questions. I am just asking a straightforward question and would like a straightforward reply.

  (Mr Prescott) I am probably reflecting some of the exasperation when you see these journalists who write all this from the side really.

121. You must not be exasperated.

  (Mr Prescott) How long should the Cabinet take over its business? As long as it needs to discuss it I assume. I have read, and I am sure you have, that under previous Labour Governments, and Mr Heseltine's resignation from the Cabinet, they take longer when you have difficulties inside a Cabinet. We have not experienced that difficulty in this administration. We deal properly with it, every Cabinet Member is able to raise it. We do it in the period of an hour or an hour and a half. You can ask is that as good as having a Cabinet meeting of four hours where everyone is rowing? I do not know. I am just saying that we have sufficient time in Cabinet to get on with the job. On the question you asked, which is an important one, about the Cabinet government, in the main we have not been as effective in utilising Cabinet committees as perhaps we could have been but that is because we found agreement among Ministers. Cabinet government is about where we have agreement and you send something round and we can do it by sign off. I have to do an awful lot of that in this job. Now it is very clear, particularly now I have a new domestic affairs committee, most of the things can be referred to that committee where there are disputes and disagreements and it has to be agreed through that process. That is strengthening the Cabinet committee, it has been more actively involved, we get more agreement that way. I think as you get longer in Government you might possibly get some more disagreements and if you get disagreements you have to settle them some way. They either go to the Prime Minister and he settles them or you go through Cabinet government. The Prime Minister has made clear in restructuring the Cabinet committee that that is the first place you work out.

122. That was what I was getting at really. We are talking about a system of government which is based on bilaterals between the Prime Minister and individual Ministers.

  (Mr Prescott) But that always has been so.

123. But, to a large extent, there must be a lot of Ministers who are outside the loop because the Prime Minister will decide who he wants to consult on a particular issue and if referring a matter to Cabinet will take up too much time and there will be too much discussion it is easier to decide things bilaterally, then that is quite a big change, is it not?

  (Mr Prescott) My experience is that it is not necessarily the Secretaries of State who will sort it out and if you do it that way they are forever knocking on No10's door, are they not, and the Prime Minister is then actively involving himself trying to sort it out. I think I am available to do that job, and I am doing it.

124. A final question on this. The Joint Cabinet Committee with the Liberal Democrats, what has happened to it?

  (Mr Prescott) I do not know, I never sat on it. As I have already said, as they are not going to do it, it is not a problem for the future either.

125. It is a serious question.

  (Mr Prescott) I am sorry I have tried to give you the best answer, I did not sit on it so I do not know what it does. I had no intention of sitting on it and I did not.

126. Does anybody know what has happened?

  (Mr Prescott) It was a means by which we chatted with the Liberals.

127. It was a formally constituted committee.

  (Mr Prescott) You are right. We did have an agreement in the election on constitutional matters to discuss with the Liberals and a committee was set up to deal with that. It followed from a commitment we gave in the manifesto. I am pleased the Prime Minister did not require me to sit on it. After it had completed that work, what else was there to do? I believe the Liberals felt it was not worth pursuing any further and the Leader of the Liberals said they are not going to do any more about it and I am quite happy with that.

Chairman

128. I think we have got the idea on that. Before Gordon strayed into all that, can I take you back to the first part of his question which is the nub of this in a way. In the memorandum that you have given to us helpfully for this meeting it says two things. It says that the job of the Cabinet Office is "to support collective government".

  (Mr Prescott) Yes.

129. And then later on it says that all these changes that we are talking about are to do with "strengthening and deepening of the relationship between the Cabinet Office and No10". I put it to you, and I thought this was what Gordon was asking, I cannot read these changes in any way that strengthen collective government but what they certainly do is beef up the Cabinet Office/No10 relationship. I wonder why we have to be so coy about this all the time? Why can we not simply say that we are developing a Prime Minister's Department?

  (Mr Prescott) I do not think we are intending to be coy about it. I suppose you could say "I am a politician, I am here to help" and you could put your interpretation on that. You may be genuinely intending to help but that is our role in the Cabinet Office, to work with the Secretaries of State to see that they can deliver, they want to be successful. Look at it like this, the Secretaries of State have to get the resources to do whatever they want to do and have to have the procedures and the policies to carry out that programme and hopefully it will be successful. There can be arguments with Treasury about whether you should have resources in these matters and Treasury has a direct responsibility but when we have a collective outcome, and in those discussions where we all sit round there can come a collective decision, that can impinge upon these areas of collective responsibility. While it is a departmental trade-off largely between the Treasury with most of the Departments with PSA they come to an agreement but any aggrieved Secretary of State who feels this is not satisfactory and cannot reach his targets will then be coming through the Delivery Units and will be in the PSX Committee where we will decide a government policy. This Cabinet Committee is helping, it is hoping that we can help Secretaries of State to deliver on their programmes and it is beneficial to both. At the end of the day we will stand on the final result and that is a collective responsibility with a collective government.

  Chairman: I will ask colleagues for very snappy questions, we are just into the last few minutes, and perhaps we can have fairly snappy answers too.

Mr Trend

130. If I can make an observation following what you have said. If this had been in the last Parliament, and I think it is true that nobody has mentioned this phrase at all, we would have spent a great deal of time talking about joined-up government. I am sure other Members of the Committee remember this, it was the jargon of the day of course. With the disappearance of the annual report and nobody on either side of this exchange discussing joined-up government and more focussing on beefing up the centre, some of us think there is a sea change going on slowly but surely in the way in which we are governed and it is no longer so clear as it was where accountability rests. It cannot be attractive a job to be a senior Cabinet Member unless you are close to your party leader. I would argue it is a transfer to a presidential system of government and when that Freudian slip was made in the other House and someone referred to the Prime Minister as the President the whole House burst into laughter.

  (Mr Prescott) I think it was one on your side.

131. It was indeed. I think was unintentional but everybody knew what he meant. If the Prime Minister wishes to change the system of government and the Civil Service has to be moulded, it does leave lots and lots of loose ends and loopholes in terms of responsibility.

  (Mr Prescott) It is a serious matter and it is a judgment about the power of No10. I think that question could be raised right through decades of political activity. If you look at Wilson's government, which you referred to, in the 1960s he established the Cabinet Office, and it has grown and it is no coincidence so have the political advisers who have doubled under every government in that process. This is a real and proper question. Is this the same kind of government that it was 60 or 80 years ago? There are differences. I thought Mrs Thatcher was pretty presidential, was she not?

132. Would you personally think that there ought to be some cap or level on this where it is more exciting and important for somebody to go into the spin doctor trade than become a Member of Parliament like you did?

  (Mr Prescott) I hope they would make the judgment that I made. I find it is better than working for a living. Leaving that aside, I do find it a difficult question to give a proper answer to. It is a real question for each and every one of us and that is at the heart of the argument about Select Committees and accountability of government, the role of the Prime Minister, how these things play a part. I have just come back from Russia and the Ukraine which are trying to develop their democratic systems and they think somehow if you get press freedom that will solve everything. I said "come over to Britain and have a look at it". It is a balance. It has got to balance. I do not know what the real answer is. I notice the trend and I am pleased to be actively involved in it and to be accountable to people like yourself but at the end of the day I do not know where we will end up, will Prime Ministers become more powerful or less powerful? I suspect the trend through all political parties has been that Prime Ministers want to deliver, they want to be successful and they feel they actively have to intervene to make sure that they do deliver. This Prime Minister has made delivery the issue more than any other Prime Minister and he is a hands-on Prime Minister.

Brian White

133. Can I come back to the whole issue of private sector involvement in the public service. One of the lessons that certainly local councils learned was that if they did not put resources into project management and contract compliance when services were dealing with the public sector they lost out. We should treat that as red tape and cut that bureaucracy, as Anthony Steen was talking about. How is the Government going to square that circle of more resources in project management and getting the skills, which we have always been bad at, and managing the relationship with the private sector?

  (Mr Prescott) I do not really know. I think we have all had to learn from the private sector as the public sector. I come from a thinking that was very much public orientated but the experience we have seen over the last 20 or 30 years show there are gains to be made by working in both public and private, and we all say things about that. We have had difficulties because we have been too ideological in how we settle some of these matters. I think there is a fresh thinking to that although it is not without its problems and we can see that at the present stage and there are lessons to be learned. I was thinking when you were talking before about computers. We are always amazed in Government Departments just how something becomes so expensive and then fails completely. You have taken all the best advice, you have paid hundreds of millions out to consultants, and they are the only ones who really gain anything in this process, and you find it fails. It is difficult and it is frustrating but it is the nature of Government.

134. Because we do not put resources into project management.

  (Mr Prescott) I think that is an important argument that we have used for resources as well. I think the resource management argument, the changes that have been made in the Treasury, are the same kind of thinking. I cannot give you an adequate answer on the budget one, I will just follow it up.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) If I could just come in on project management. There is a very central issue for us and we have an Office of Government Commerce now under Peter Gershon and I know Sir Richard and others in looking at the skills that the Civil Service needs feel very strongly that we must try to train up people with an expertise in project management and also, as you say, in contractual matters too, the handling of complex contracts. There is also the IT area where there would not be natural expertise inside the Civil Service. I can assure you that the Civil Service seems to be very alert to these concerns and is working to try and repair it as quickly as possible.
  (Mr Prescott) Plus, if you look at the way we have done it in the Treasury over the years governments have tended to say "tighten up the finances, force them to do it properly, compulsory competitive tendering will bring in the elements" but I am afraid looking back on that it does not, it would be better if we did project management but also generally improving the quality of management itself.

Mr Heyes

135. Much of the questioning of the Committee has been about trying to trace lines of accountability and you yourself have referred to the importance of accountability through the democratic process. The key task, according to your memorandum, for yourself is to produce a White Paper on Regional Governance, as it is described in the document. I think there is a subtle distinction, is there not, between regional governance and regional government and that is what I want to try to get to. You talked about one of your decisions needing to be about what is to be the level of democratisation in the regions. I do not recall that when we were discussing devolution to Wales and Scotland that we used the term "devolved governance", we were talking about "devolved government". Does this imply something very much more watered down for the regions? If that is the case, if that is the use of the word "governance", what are the implications in that for accountability through the democratic process?

  (Mr Prescott) I think that is a very important point. Governance may be another word that you are using instead of government but I would draw the distinction that government is directly elected representation, whether it is local government or central government. We have said as a government that we will allow the people in the regions to make the decision whether they want to go to a directly elected assembly or whatever. In regard to Scotland and Wales we set out what it would be and they could say yes or no. What we have said is that it may be different. There is some doubt as to whether all regions of the United Kingdom want that. I remember they said that about the Regional Development Agencies but every region took them. Leaving that aside, I have to accept the possibility that if it is up to the people to make a decision whether they want to go to some form of regional government and it is elected, fine, that is government, but if other regions say they will stay with the regional chambers they have at the present time to give advice on strategic matters while the administration of government in the region is carried out by the existing local government structure, that is not government as I see it, it is a body that is indirectly elected, if you like, to carry on with it. There are different shapes of government that would take place and would flow from the argument if you give people the choice to say which one they would have. A White Paper has to address itself to that because government does not finish if they say they do not want a referendum on whether there is regional government and we have to contemplate the differences that there will be in different regions. A good example, I will finish on the point is if you look at our commitment that it should be built upon unitary government, we have said based on the unitary local government. If you are into the north-east region something like 62/63 per cent of it is covered by unitary authorities, if you go to the eastern region of this country it is no more than 15 per cent. So you do have a local government structure and a government issue in those various aspects that we have to direct ourselves to in the White Paper. Governance tends to cover them all so I went along with the modern word.

Annette Brooke

136. You are coming back with some reading —

  (Mr Prescott) We are going to have quite a post if you ask me for something else.

137. I shall look forward to it. You are head of the Cabinet Office—I am still trying to get my head slightly round this—and we have these questions about is this really a Prime Minister's Department. What I do not quite understand are the people, jointly or individually, who, as far as I can see, are located in the Cabinet Office, maybe they just a rent a room, but do not actually report to you. The Women's Unit is one that I am particularly interested in, for obvious reasons, but that does not seem to report to you at all, as far as I understand it. I believe the Chairman of the party, Charles Clarke, is in the Cabinet Office but I cannot see how he links and how he reports to you if you are head of the Cabinet Office. We have covered Lord Macdonald does not really report to you, we discussed that earlier, but do you think you could just take those two examples. Can you explain to me how you co-ordinate all the work of Government through the Cabinet Office and yet there are exceptions there where as far as I can see perhaps you say "good morning" to them but that is about it?

  (Mr Prescott) No, again the Prime Minister is the head of the Civil Service, he is head of the Cabinet Office also. He has the whole Prime Minister's Office in that and we are all included in that Cabinet Office. The special functions and roles you pick out, particularly the one on equality, Baroness Morgan has the obligation to report to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who has the responsibility for carrying out that function in her Department and that role. She sits, again, with me if they want to come into my own Committee but I have more of a responsibility with Gus because we are delivering the same areas. On the equality issues, she is directly responsible to the Secretary of State, now also to the Prime Minister, as the Baroness has chosen to do in that matter. Now, Mavis, do you want to answer on this since you are drawing all these graphs up?
  (Mavis McDonald) Traditionally the Cabinet Office has provided a home in terms of a base, if I can put it like that, for accounting and housekeeping purposes for a variety of Ministers who are not part of that team dealing with the Cabinet Office core business. So, for example, the Leader of the House of Lords has been traditionally based within the Cabinet Office. So if you look at our annual report then we cover a range of people who do not quite slot there but in the case of Charles Clarke, for example, to the extent that he gets any support as a part of his official duties as a Member of the Cabinet, then he has to have a channel providing support.
  (Mr Prescott) Which was the same under the previous administration.
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes. We are used to living with a picture which is broader than the traditional, if I can say, kind of front line department where you are more used to the formal hierarchy. So there is a broader group of Ministers there. By and large, as the Deputy Prime Minister says, on some occasions they will come together and on others they do not.
  (Mr Prescott) So we have still got a bran tub.

Chairman

138. You are going to provide us with a diagram with all the arrows going in the right direction so we can understand it.

  (Mavis McDonald) Yes.

139. We look forward to it very much. As we end, because it is our business amongst other bits of business, just so we are absolutely clear about this, we are charged with the responsibility of looking at the Civil Service. Could I just ask you who now has Cabinet level responsibility for the Civil Service?

  (Mr Prescott) For the Civil Service?


 
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