Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)|
THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER 2001
PRESCOTT MP, THE
TRADESTON CBE AND
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
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.
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
(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.
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
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.
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
(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
(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.
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
(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.
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 OfficeI am still trying to get my head slightly
round thisand 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
(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
(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.
138. You are going to provide us with a diagram with
all the arrows going in the right direction so we can understand
(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?