Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 160-179)

SIR RICHARD WILSON GCB

THURSDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2001

  160. We are having a very grown up conversation about it.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Of course.

  161. But I am interested to discover from you that in fact, unless I have misunderstood you, nothing to do with memoranda now, in this particular case of the Alun Evans business the civil servant did feel that they were being asked to do something.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) They declined to do it.

  162. Because they felt it was improper to do it.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) They thought it was the wrong thing to do and they put it up to their line and their senior managers.

  163. It was in breach of paragraph six of the Special Advisers' Code. What has happened in relation to that?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It has not gone wrong in the sense that they declined to do it.

  164. It is making the approach which is improper.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) What I am saying to you is I think there is a grey area there which we need to clarify.

  165. You think she was in the grey area?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think she was in the grey area, yes. I think she was approaching them about doing something and they were saying to her "no, I do not think we should be doing that". I am saying to you there are all sorts of situations where people say "I would like to do this" and we reply "I think that is actually on the wrong side of the line".

  166. It means that codes do not help us a lot, do they, if it turns out in particular cases they somehow do not apply?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think the problem is that over time grey areas develop. What I do not believe is that this is a new problem. I can remember situations going back to the 1970s—I am not going to particularise—in which I was involved, where I found myself at a much more junior level than I am now in a situation where special advisers were, as it were, giving me instructions and I found myself in quite difficult positions as a result of that. I think this question of how far special advisers in practice can tell or ask civil servants to do things is an issue which has existed for quite a long time as a grey area but has now become a matter of public concern and controversy. You can come to all sorts of answers. I could justify to you all sorts of different positions but I think what we need to do is to come to a clear understanding of what the rules are so that they can be enforced. It is much more difficult to enforce them, much more difficult to handle controversy, if there is a lack of clarity about where the lines are.

  167. This is where the codes are supposed to help us.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, all right. I am saying to you let us develop it.

  168. I am sure. The civil servant who was asked to do something that he felt was improper, did he, under the terms of paragraph 11 of the Civil Service Code, report the matter in accordance with procedures laid down in the appropriate guidance or rules of conduct?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I cannot tell you. You are now cross-examining me on the detailed affairs of a department which I cannot give you chapter and verse on. What I do know is the civil servant concerned reported it up the line to his or her line manager, which I think was a very proper thing to do.

  169. There have been no other cases where either this special adviser or other special advisers have made improper requests that have been reported?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I cannot answer that. I do not keep a register of them.

  170. Could you possibly find out?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You mean in relation to this kind of incident? I do not want to get into an exercise I cannot discharge.

  171. It is a matter of public interest to know given, as you say, a lot of the silly controversy about special advisers. If it turned out that in fact there were never any instances where improper approaches had been made or reported, that would be interesting, would it not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think that the way these things work at the moment is less formal than you are implying. If someone says something which people think is not quite right, they make it clear they think it is not quite right and they probably usually win the day. You are not likely to have formal requests.

  172. But the code says what you should do in such instances.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Right.

  173. It does not just say "it is a grey area, it is all very difficult, we cannot do much about it", it says quite precisely what should happen.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) What I said is what I believe, which is that these things are operated in practice in a less formal way than you are implying.

Brian White

  174. Can I turn this around because is it not really the case that a Minister or a special adviser has a policy objective and civil servants disagree with that policy objective, so what they do is they go the Permanent Secretary, the Permanent Secretary goes to you, you go to Tony, he then goes to the Cabinet Secretary of State and that Minister either has that particular policy area withdrawn or a decision is made that reverses that policy and it is a way of stopping the Government delivering. That is what is really happening, is it not, on a number of occasions?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think so. I really do not believe that to be true. If you have chapter and verse and if you want to register a formal complaint with me privately, I shall look into it.

  175. I know I exaggerated it slightly but it is actually happening across the Civil Service, is it not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not believe so at all. I am not sure I understand the question. If you are saying that the Civil Service is using the processes of the Code to obstruct the Government that would be a very serious charge and I would say I really do not believe that is true. I think the strong ethos of the Service is commitment to serving the Government of the day. I also think in the second case that we were discussing just now, if the special adviser with this document felt that it was in the public interest to get out this document showing how Bob Kiley and his staff were behaving and wanted that done, the right course was to raise it with the Minister or the Private Secretary or the Permanent Secretary and there could have been a discussion as to how this could and should be done and it would be done with the Minister. I think that is the perfectly proper way of behaving. What I am saying is it becomes an issue if the approach is done down the line to the civil servant who is not clear what the force is of the request.

  176. How many times has a civil servant come to you because a Minister has put forward a policy —
  (Sir Richard Wilson) A policy?

  177. I am trying not to quote specific examples to protect where I have got my sources from, but I am quite happy to tell you afterwards. The situation where a Minister will put forward a policy area and the civil servant to say, "We are not happy about this," and the Permanent Secretary comes to you. Has that ever happened?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not quite understand the question because it is entirely within his rights, and indeed it is the job of the Minister, to discuss and put forward policies to the department and it is the job of the department to give its best independent advice on the merits of that policy. Are you suggesting that we are talking about a policy that is in some sense improper?

  178. No, I am saying the Civil Service has a different agenda to that of the politician.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not accept that the Civil Service should have an agenda of its own. I have long said in all sorts of contexts over the years that it is the job of the department to provide the best advice it can to the Minister. It should have the argument if it disagrees with the Minister, but at the end of the day what the Minister says or it is decided collectively goes, and it is the job of the Civil Service to implement it. I do not think that departments should or do have their own agenda. If you have a concern of that sort I am happy to explore it with you.

  179. You are content that there have never been circumstances where an individual Minister's policy has been reversed by going through yourself to the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State at the particular department?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) There are situations where there may be a disagreement between Ministers and the civil servant says,"I think we have got a real problem here building up in this disagreement". There are, of course, all sorts of situations where Permanent Secretaries may debate with me the kind of contradiction that can daily occur in government between the objectives of one department and the objectives of another department or the objectives of a department and the objectives that have been collectively agreed at the centre. The whole job of the Cabinet Office is to help sort out those disagreements within government and ensure that collective responsibility is observed. If you ask me does that happen, it most certainly does happen and I think it ought to happen.

  Chairman: I think we need to get specialist advisers out of our system but we have not quite got there yet. Mr Trend, did you want to come in on that point?

  Mr Trend: Can I return to the chart, is that alright?

  Chairman: If it is special adviser related.

  Mr Trend: No.


 
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