Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 145-159)




  145. Can I on behalf of the Committee welcome the Cabinet Secretary this afternoon. It is very kind of you to come along and to attend upon us as you have done on many occasions. It is exactly a year to the day since you were here before. We always enjoy our sessions with you. We can ask you anything we like because you respond to absolutely everything and also because the Cabinet Office has been described to us memorably by Michael Heseltine as a "bran tub" and we will dip into it, as you will find out. You have sent us a chart, as we asked for, explaining how the Cabinet Office works. It is all very lovely and it is colour coded because it is all so confusing. You will know it by heart. I have tried to follow it. I think I have found a mistake in it. Under Lord Macdonald it has Charter Mark and Beacon Scheme, does it not, as one of his babies, but then he is green coded, is he not, whereas if you look at Charter Mark and Beacon Scheme on your chart they are blue coded, which is a Prescott. So is it a Prescott or a Macdonald?

  (Sir Richard Wilson) Charter Mark and Beacon Scheme are part of Gus Macdonald's empire and you have spotted—I must not mislead the Committee—an error.

  146. We must look for others then! We have trouble reading these charts that you send us.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I hope, sir, that you feel this is simpler and clearer than the one that you criticised before.

  147. I am sure colleagues will want to ask questions comparing the two but thank you for that. While I am getting at you, could I ask you if you know anything about where the replies are to our previous reports? On my count, we have got five reports that still have not had replies and some go quite far back. We had a report on Parliamentary Questions back in January and then we had the Ministerial Code in February, and we had Special Advisers in March. A two-monthly convention looks a bit silly, does it not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) We have kept closely in touch, or tried to, with your Clerks and we are very sorry we have not got these to you before. We are aiming to get them to you as quickly as we can next week.

  148. All the outstanding ones?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, if we can possibly do it, we will. There are three in particular that I am conscious that we owe you a reply on—the Ministerial Code, Special Advisers and Ministerial Accountability. I was not sure that you were expecting a reply on the other ones.

  149. We could discuss that—Quango State and Making Government Work
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You did not have recommendations in that last one.

  150. No, but it was full of good stuff though.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Full of interest.

  151. Thank you for that. Could I, because the world expects it and because it is important, just ask you perhaps for the final word on all this Ms Moore/Alan Evans business. I do not want to remember the wretched memo, but the bit I still cannot understand is the suggestion that this special adviser sought to get civil servants to do things which civil servants should not be asked properly to do. I want to know did she, or did she acting for the Minister, make a partisan request to a civil servant?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You rightly say, sir, that this is something which most people have had their say on. When the Permanent Secretary has had disciplinary proceedings and the Secretary of State has issued a personal reprimand, and the Prime Minister has given his views on the floor of the House, and the House itself has had a full debate and a vote, there is not that much room left for the Cabinet Secretary. You are talking not about the e-mail but the episode with the documents?

  152. Before you leave the e-mail, which I do not want to talk about, is it the case that a leak inquiry is underway on who leaked details of the memo?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) That is correct.

  153. So we may have a situation where the person who released the e-mail may get punished?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am not going to get into a hypothetical situation. If I may say so, this episode is one that gives me no pleasure of any kind. I am not going to add to the weight of criticism that has rightly been attached to Jo Moore's e-mail but I should also say that it gives me no pleasure either that civil servants proceed by leaking documents or appearing anonymously on programmes. I think both sets of behaviour go against the public sector ethos which I would like to see in the Civil Service.

  154. So the civil servant receiving such an e-mail should have done what?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) They have a number of options. They can go to their line manager. They can go to the Permanent Secretary, which I would hope they would feel able to do. If they feel very strongly about it, as the Code of Conduct for special advisers makes clear, they also have the option of making a complaint either to the Civil Service Commissioner or to me. I would like to feel that people would do that if they had an objection. You have seen paragraph 22 of the Code which makes that very clear.

  155. But none of this was done.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) None of this was done; that is correct.

  156. Is that not extraordinary, that someone seeing such an e-mail would not feel the need to go and talk to someone in authority about it?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) They would have been very well within their rights to do so.

  157. That is interesting. It would also be extraordinary if the person who then was to have told the world about this, not having gone through the proper channels, was to be punished while the person themselves stayed in post.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You should not assume that Jo Moore has not been punished. She has been through a disciplinary process and that is the proper form. I think it would be wrong for me to anticipate the Department's disciplinary process in relation to somebody else.

  158. Let me go back to the original question, in some ways the more fundamental one, that very serious allegations have been made about this specialist adviser on the basis that she, it is said, either with or without the authority of the Minister (but it would have had to be with the authority of the Minister under the Code) did that person make improper requests of a civil servant, either on this occasion or, as we are told by the FDA, by someone who has form in this matter?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Can I pick up your earlier point. You asked, and I did not answer, if an approach of a partisan nature had been made. My understanding—and I have talked to the Permanent Secretary about this—is that there was no dirty tricks campaign. The subject of her approach to the press office, and that what was at issue, as the Secretary of State made clear on the floor of the House, was briefing journalists with a document which had been amended by someone on Bob Kiley's staff, so that the journalists could know what kind of behaviour was going on under Bob Kiley. That is quite proper, and it is entirely proper behaviour of the staff to decline to do what was requested on the grounds that the document was not a government document and therefore it was not an appropriate thing to do. I think they were entirely right and I support them in not doing what they were asked to do. I think the way I would look at it is this—if I could broaden the discussion in a constructive sense, I would like to do that—I think in a country where we have no written constitution and where the rules are expressed quite often in terms of principle, there are quite often situations where people want to do things and one says to them "actually this is not something that I think it is proper to do". I do not think that is in itself something that surprises me. What is important is that the right response is given. That is why I am glad that the people declined to do what they were asked to do. To be fair, I would also, however, say to you that I think there is a grey area that we need to clarify and have not yet clarified to my satisfaction about exactly what advice special advisers can and cannot give in the way of communicating the views of the Minister. May I explain that for you?

  159. Yes, please.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) At one end of the spectrum I think it is acceptable for a civil servant to go to a special adviser and say to them "what do you think the Minister would think about X?" and the special adviser interprets the Minister's mind. That seems to me a wholly healthy, useful function. At the other end of the spectrum a special adviser goes to a civil servant and says "I am instructing you", they might not use that language, "to do X". I do not think that is proper because the role of special advisers is to advise the Minister, it is not to line manage civil servants or to give them instructions and the code is clear that they are outside the hierarchy. I do think there is a sort of area in between which is quite hard to interpret and I want to be fair about that. I think it is quite hard to know where a special adviser has talked to the Minister and says to the Civil Service "this is the view of the Minister" and where they are saying, as it were, "and the Minister wants you to act". I think that is the sort of general issue which in my mind is raised in the episode you are putting to me. I shall come on, if you give me the chance later, to say that I think we should now, all of us, be working on a Civil Service Bill. I would like that kind of issue, the one I have just described to you, to be teased out in discussion, but I would like that discussion to take place outside the political arena, not as a political football. In your report on special advisers, the one that you were reproaching me for earlier for not having replied to, there is a sentence which I very warmly support where you say that advisers are too important to be the subject of party political controversy. Why I find myself in difficulty in talking to you about the Jo Moore case is that I think it has become an issue of such controversy that it is actually very hard to discuss the issues in the way that I would like to. What I would like to take out of your question is the need to discuss in a non-controversial context the issues that do genuinely arise out of it because there is concern and we ought to address that concern.

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