Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 180-199)

SIR RICHARD WILSON GCB

THURSDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2001

Kevin Brennan

  180. Could I press on that point. Could you clarify for the Committee the current situation on exactly how special advisers are appointed?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) A Minister considers a group of possible people whom he or she might want to appoint, they select whom they wish to appoint and they then draft or get a letter sent to Number 10 which says, "My Minister wants to appoint so-and-so as a special adviser", and the Prime Minister gives a view and approves it or does not, and that is sent back to the Secretary of State concerned.

  181. What has interested me about the Jo Moore case, and I do not want to talk about the specifics of what was done, is that the process of appointment for special advisers circumvents all normal Civil Service recruitment.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) That is entirely correct.

  182. And we were told during all of this that the manner in which the disciplinary proceedings had been dealt with was quite proper, the Minister, as you say, issued a reprimand, but ultimately it was for the head of department to decide on the sentence under the Disciplinary Code. What I do not understand is what sense does it make if a Minister can summarily hire someone but cannot summarily dismiss them. Where is the logic in circumventing the firing procedure of the Civil Service once you have been hired and you are in this very special strange status where you are hired at the will of a Minister but cannot be fired at the will of a Minister? Where is the logic in that?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is always open to a Minister to fire a special adviser if they wish to do so.

  183. In this case the Secretary of State, had he so desired, because of the way in which the special adviser's actions had breached the Code of Conduct and embarrassed him, could personally have fired that special adviser without invoking the Civil Service Disciplinary Code?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) The contract of special advisers is set out in the model contract.

  184. I have it in front of me.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) And my understanding is that if a Minister wishes to end employment, I think they have to give proper notice and they would have to do it in accordance with the law, but the Minister can terminate the appointment and ask the Permanent Secretary to do it if he wants to do so. All personnel management of the Civil Service is delegated ultimately from the Crown to the Minister and from the Minister to the Permanent Secretary in the department except to the extent that it involves the use of resources, and the use of resources is a matter for which the Accounting Officer has to account to Parliament personally in the normal way. Therefore, it is up to a Minister if he wishes to withdraw whatever delegation has been made to the Permanent Secretary and exercise it himself and if he wishes to exercise whatever the normal rules are about the dismissal of an employee

  185. To be clear on that point, are you saying that the Minister could summarily dismiss any civil servant in the way you have just described, or are you saying that there is a special way because they have been personally hired by the Minister without any procedure being followed in the case of special advisers? That is the point I am trying to clear up
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Special advisers, as the rules make clear, are exempt from the requirement that they should be able to serve governments of any political persuasion and they are exempt also from the requirement they be selected on merit, but for the rest they are subject to the normal employment rules of the Civil Service. It is certainly the case that a Minister can, if he or she so wishes, sack somebody. I have been involved in that episode myself personally some years ago when Michael Howard sacked Derek Lewis. I wrote the letter but the decision was one that Michael Howard took, it was accounted for in the House, and that is all on the record. That is a case where he exercised his very proper right to end the employment of a civil servant.

  186. So that it is absolutely clear, the Secretary of State could in this case have exercised that power had he desired to do so?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) That is my understanding. If I have found I have got the law wrong I will write to you. It is a law, as I explained to you, I have had occasion to learn.

  187. I want to check one other thing. You did supply us with a list of the 81 special advisers that has been so widely publicised. How many special advisers are there in the devolved administrations that are not listed here?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I cannot answer that, I will supply the answer.

  188. I would be interested in what your role is and the Prime Minister's role is in their appointment and any supervision of their activities.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Could I let you have a note on that.

Chairman

  189. And also a note —
  (Sir Richard Wilson) A note on the issue of substance that you raise.

Annette Brooke

  190. If I might backtrack and come forward. The backtracking is because I asked Mr Prescott two weeks ago whether, in fact, there had been any sort of inquiry into the civil servant's position and Jo Moore, and I said I felt that if you could have the same sort of statement over Jo Moore and the e-mail, that somebody has definitely investigated it, action or no action has been taken, that there would be a line drawn under it. I am still not clear whether in fact there has been any internal inquiry on Jo Moore asking a civil servant to do something which was improper.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Can I just do a little bit more clarifying on that, Chairman?

Chairman

  191. If it involves telling us the answer that is all right. We know you of old, you see.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) May I read out a memorandum which my predecessor sent this Committee on 21 November 1997 which is about the disciplining and employment relationship of special advisers. It may help to just remind the Committee it did have a note on this because it showed foresight and asked for this some years ago. It includes the statement that "The Head of the Home Civil Service, therefore, has no role in relation to specific disciplinary issues relating to special advisers in departments other than his own". The terms "inquiry" and "investigation" are terms which to me, and I think to many of us, imply a very formal process which quite often raises issues about whether individuals can have trade union representatives with them, legal representation, whether records are taken and so on. No inquiry or investigation of that sort has been undertaken. However, you can rest assured that the Permanent Secretary of that department has gone to great lengths to satisfy himself about exactly what happened and has given me some account of it so that I too may know what has been going on.

Annette Brooke

  192. So we can conclude it has been thoroughly investigated?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) But not in a formal investigation is what I am saying, yes.

  193. I wanted to move on because I am very heartened to hear you say that you will be moving the agenda on as far as the relationship between civil servants and special advisers is concerned. I have got paragraph 22 in front of me which you referred to earlier which is very clear when it says "any civil servant who believes that the action of a special adviser goes beyond that adviser's authority....etc., should actually raise the matter immediately with the Secretary of the Cabinet or the First Civil Service Commissioner".
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes.

  194. That is really very, very clear what should actually happen. I think you were implying it went through the route of a senior civil servant in your answer.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Not to me though.

  195. It did not necessarily have to go to you, is that what you are saying?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) No, it did not. It was raised. The action went up the line from the individual concerned, yes, that is my understanding.

  196. My final question to put this to bed is that in order to have any sort of a grip on special advisers' conduct you are totally relying on civil servants to perhaps do something which might not be in the best interests of their careers. Is there likely to be a conflict in that area?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think it is very important that people who feel that they have been put in an improper position should have the confidence to raise it with their senior managers and should have the support of their senior managers. I know that Richard Mottram told the individuals concerned in that case that they were right to do what they had done, and I think that is right. I think you are also right that people, if I am realistic, do worry about their own position in relation to the Minister and the senior members of the department if they rock the boat. I think realistically I have to say we have to work at giving people the assurance that they will be supported if they have concerns.

  197. I am tempted to say, although I am sure I should not, that they might seek a transfer then.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You are referring to Alun Evans?

  198. Obliquely. I was trying to keep it general.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not want to leave false impressions on the record so I have to address this directly, if I may. Again, I have discussed this with the Permanent Secretary. The question of Alun Evans moving from his job was in play before the episode which we have been discussing. He is not a member of the Government Information and Communications Service. He had worked in the Strategic Communications Unit and he then became Head of Information in DTLR. He is an able man and he also naturally wants to go further. A number of us had the view that his career would need to broaden out at some reasonably early point. The fact that he moved was not itself the direct result of this episode, it was something that was already in play. That is all I want to say really because there is a limit as to how far I want to go into individual cases.

Chairman

  199. Mr Byers was keen that he should have his career broadened too, was he not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is very important for any Secretary of State that they have someone in that job who they work closely with and well. He stayed in that job until he moved on to another job but it was something which we managed, yes.


 
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