Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 200-219)



  200. We are grateful, we are almost at the end of this. Just so we are all clear about it, we have left the memo now and I think you have told us that a civil servant believed that there had been an improper request from a special adviser but I think you also told us that nothing happened to the special adviser as a consequence of that, contrary to that code, and also the civil servant did not report it, contrary to that code. Is that not what you have told us?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) That is not how I would like to record it. I have told you that nothing wrong, in fact, happened because the civil servant said they thought this was not the right way of proceeding and they referred the matter up the line. I think that is a very proper way of behaving, that is what I have told you.

  201. As a way of leading this then let me put to you this suggestion that in the way Permanent Secretaries can, if they want to, tell the Public Accounts Committee if there are things amiss on that side of things in their role as accounting officer, why could Permanent Secretaries not also be ethical accounting officers so if they felt there was something going amiss on that side of the business they could alert the relevant parliamentary committee?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Because I think there are other ways of handling it which also work quite well. I think these are issues we should discuss in the context of a Civil Service Bill. The very special process which applies in relation to expenditure where an Accounting Officer puts a note on the file that they cannot defend, this decision is very different from the kind of situation where a head of department feels that a special adviser is not entirely playing within the rules. I think that is a situation which could be dealt with, and should be dealt with, best by raising the issues directly between the Permanent Secretary and the Minister and, if need be, involving me in the discussion. I think that is a perfectly proper way of doing it. The problem about putting it on the files of a select committee, and I intend no disrespect, is you tend then to invite the whole thing becoming a matter of a party political football, a controversy of the kind that you quite rightly said is not the best way of handling it. I do not think it should become a matter for point scoring because the truth is there are grey areas, it is not easy. I actually think that it would be very wrong to give the impression that there is widespread abuse of the rules. I do not believe there is.

  202. No.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I keep very closely in touch with my colleagues and I think if there was widespread abuse they would come to tell me about it much more than they actually do. That is where I come from.

  203. There is a public interest and we all in our different ways want to identify it and uphold it. No doubt we will come back to this on occasions in the future. Could I move on—
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think that public interest lies in clarity about where the boundaries are and what the rules are. I am not claiming that the Code is perfect, although I think it is a good step myself, but I would.

  204. Thank you for all that. That took longer than I hoped it would. We have not quite got to the New Centre which is what we wanted to talk to you about. I have got one further hurdle to make you jump over first which is an area this Committee has had a long-standing interest in and produced endless reports on, which is freedom of information. The Committee is alarmed at reports which suggest that there is a possibility, perhaps something stronger than that, of a serious delay now in implementation of the legislation. We had this leaked minute from the DEFRA FOI Committee on 3 August this year which found its way into The Guardian which says: "Previously HO (Home Office) had timetabled June 2002 but this has been abandoned in favour of an across-the-board implementation supported by the Prime Minister." A question in the margin is is the person who leaked that in trouble because it could be seen as the release of information which should not be released but, more importantly, the firm promise was given that 18 months after Royal Assent this Act would start to kick in with central government in the summer of 2002. There were all kind of reasons for that in terms of the system learning how to do it, central government coming in first, then local government coming in and and other bodies coming in after that. And yet suddenly now we have got the prospect of it being kicked into touch with some kind of "big bang" before 2005. Surely, that makes no kind of sense and is also contrary to everything ever promised about this piece of legislation.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is my policy to be helpful to this Committee but I do feel bound to point out that Freedom of Information is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. He gave evidence on the matter on 16 October to the Home Affairs Committee. To the best of my knowledge, no decision has been taken about the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. I think the Lord Chancellor is due, if I remember rightly, to make a report before the end of this month and I am sure that is the right way to proceed.

  205. You are aware, though, that what I am telling you is what until this point has been the position? You have not been wholly uninvolved in this at the centre of government and, of course, the Minister on the last day that it came before the House of Commons said: "It seems sensible for the Bill to be implemented in stages by extending coverage gradually by type of organisation. It would make sense to start with central government and it is right that central government provides models of good practice." It would be absurd if that did not happen.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am sorry to hold the line but I really am not responsible or accountable to the House for this. This is a matter which the Lord Chancellor is responsible for and he has to report by 29 November his plans for bringing the Act into force. That is where I have to leave it.

  206. I would be very grateful if you bumped into the Lord Chancellor if you would say to him that you met us and we had a conversation about this.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) If I bump into the Lord Chancellor I will certainly pass on your message.

  207. Finally, we get to the New Centre. My question would be have we got a New Centre?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) The Cabinet Office and Number 10, as I have said to this Committee before, constantly change over the years and build themselves to meet the needs of the Prime Minister of the day and the Government of the day. At the last Election we made quite a number of important changes in our structure in order to meet what the Prime Minister wanted from his second term.

  208. Let me just move you a bit further. Peter Riddell, who may be within hearing at this point, said in The Times looking at the new arrangements : "The far-reaching changes in Number 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office since the Election have created a Prime Minister's Department in all but name that ressembles the executive office serving the President in Washington DC." Is that not a statement of fact?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think that is the same article where he said this is "West Wing meets Sir Humphrey".

  209. It is very good!
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think it is a Prime Minister's Department in all but name. I hesitate to repeat things I have said before, but we do not have a Presidential role for the Prime Minister in this country. We have a system where legal powers and financial resources are vested in the Secretaries of State. The Prime Minister has few executive powers other than administration of the Civil Service. He exercises his power through patronage, appointment and dismissal of Ministers, and through the chairmanship of committees, and his or her power varies from time to time according to the extent his Cabinet colleagues permit him to have that power, depending also on whether the Cabinet is split, depending also on the strength of the Government majority particularly in the House of Commons, and also popular opinion in the electorate and attitudes in the Party. The structure that we have is one that meets the needs of this Prime Minister but it does not imply that the role of the Prime Minister has fundamentally changed. I think the term "Prime Minister's Department" implies a different role for the Prime Minister and a major constitutional change that I would tell you has not taken place.

  210. I wonder if we are not doing it by stealth and why we cannot do it openly and then work our minds around it. When the Deputy Prime Minister came to see us a fortnight ago and we asked him about these things, that we thought the Cabinet Office's job was to service the Cabinet he said that the "Cabinet Office is the Department of the Prime Minister at the end of the day." Something is going on here.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) He also said that the Prime Minister is the mountain top, and I think what he would want me to say is that we do all work ultimately to the Prime Minister. The role of the Cabinet Office is still, as it always has been, primarily to support Ministers collectively and the Prime Minister in his capacity as chairman of the Cabinet and certain Cabinet committees. If you look at the past, it has always tended to be a federation of different groups. Some posts are located there as a matter of convenience, as you will see from our chart. In that sense it is a bran tub because you can pull out all sorts of things you do not expect. The fundamental role of the Cabinet Office, which is to serve the Cabinet collectively, is one that you need to keep in sight as a fact and as a reality through all times and all conditions. I had hoped that you would like this organisation chart. I have grouped under me all the traditional functions of the Cabinet Office and they are still being performed as ever they have been. I would draw your attention to the fact that although people keep proclaiming the end of the Cabinet system, it is in fact extremely healthy and active at the moment. There were 26 Cabinet committees under John Major in 1992 which declined to 19 in July 1995; there are now 38 Cabinet Committees and they are working very hard. I think that cabinet government, collective government is in a healthy state, and the Cabinet Office is the right way to be supporting it and serving it.

  211. You are telling us, in essence, that despite all these new bits of Number 10 that sit in the Cabinet Office, nothing fundamental has changed?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am telling you that the fundamentals of our constitution remain unaffected. There is always a temptation to see wherever you are at the moment as being a permanent condition. In fact, if you look back over 35 years you will see that the role of the Cabinet Office supporting the collective government has persisted through all sorts of different times and conditions of government. I would maintain that it will continue to do that and that is because the basic constitution is clear and remains unchanged.

  212. And there could be a rolling back from the present position.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, if you look at the next 30/40/50 years I am sure there will be similar periods of one kind or another, just as there have been.

Mr Prentice

  213. We have been circulated with a flier telling us that Professor Peter Hennessy is going to deliver a lecture on 7 November called "Tony Wants". There is a feeling abroad, is there not, that what the Prime Minister wants to happen will happen? Peter Hennessy is quoted in one of Peter Riddell's articles saying "Blair operates command premiership". The feeling has got abroad that the Prime Minister really does call the shots and that full Cabinet meetings do not last as long as they used to, there are not as many of them as there used to be and the Prime Minister decides things on the basis of bilateral meetings with other Ministers that he chooses. Is that fair?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) As I said earlier, it is the case that Prime Ministers have varying degrees of power from time to time depending on their strength in the Cabinet, their strength in the House of Commons, their strength in the party, their strength in public opinion. That is something that I doubt anyone would disagree with. The style of government differs greatly from Prime Minister to Prime Minister. The problem we have got in dealing with the kind of public impression you describe is that we have for many years in universities and indeed, I am sure, in talks by me and my predecessors, described a model of how government works which is not actually quite how it has been developing. This goes back over 20 years, to my certain knowledge. I think there has been a change in the role of Cabinet in terms of the number of decisions taken in Cabinet—I am talking over a period of 40 or 50 years—and a growth in the amount that is delegated to Cabinet committees and also a growth in the amount of decisions which are taken in correspondence between Ministers who are on Cabinet committees.

  214. Well, when—
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Do you mind if I just finish?

  215. Yes, please.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think it is also the case that Prime Ministers have tended more and more over the years, and this is not peculiar to this Prime Minister, to deal with things in small ad hoc groups of varying sizes when it was a one-off issue and they thought what they wanted to do was design a little group that was going to hack their way through a particular problem.

  216. I understand all that but the criticism seems to me that with this Prime Minister there has been a step change. You are telling us that it is all evolution and over a period of 50 years things have changed.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think I could, but I will not because I know the Chairman will not let me probably,—


  217. Fascinating though it would be.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think I could support that proposition that there has been an evolution over quite a long period of time in the way that we conduct Government which is towards what I have just described.

Mr Prentice

  218. Okay. Have you ever said to the Prime Minister, who wants to deal with a particular subject in a bilateral meeting, and I am the new kid on the block here, I do not know if this is an improper question, "Tony, really this is something that has got to be discussed by the full Cabinet"?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You would not expect me to disclose the contents of discussions between me and the Prime Minister. I make the point simply because all the time we are drawing boundaries. I can certainly assure you that if I thought something ought to be discussed in a Cabinet committee or in Cabinet I would certainly advise him that was the right thing to do.

  219. But there are people who say, and I do not know if this is true and you are not going to confirm it, it is astonishing that there has not been discussion in full Cabinet on the euro.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You are quite right, I am not going to confirm or deny it.

  Mr Prentice: We are not getting very far, are we?

  Chairman: That is a headline, is it not, "Cabinet Secretary refuses to confirm or deny"? You cannot win, I am afraid.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 18 January 2002