Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)



  100. An observation first. I have been reading your annual report and I think that a lot of the work that the Government Information Service does is splendid. I was particularly taken by the Pet Travel Scheme and the photograph of the cat with the sunglasses, I think that is really good. The euro may be more testing, I suppose, but we will see what you come up with in the coming months. You have had a long experience in the Government Information Service and over all these years how many press operations have been dysfunctional in some way or another? I am just trying to understand the scale of it.
  (Mr Granatt) That is not easy to generalise about. There obviously have been circumstances, and I can think of three recently, where I would have said that the operation had either been dysfunctional or the way it was running had caused enough concern in the department for them to think about having a review of how it worked.

  101. That is helpful. How long has your professional career been in the Civil Service?
  (Mr Granatt) Twenty-one years.

  102. So we are talking about three cases where a press operation has been seriously compromised?
  (Mr Granatt) No, no, we are talking about operations that have not been worked as effectively as possible. Seriously compromised, over the last four or five years I would think I have come across two.

  103. Two.
  (Mr Granatt) Compromised by the fact that perhaps the relationship between the people in the press office, for example, and the rest of the department, which includes a lot of officials as well as private offices or ministers, has been such that something needed to be done to rebuild relationships.

  104. That is helpful. I am just trying to get this in proportion. Given that you are the guardian of propriety, how many cases are referred to you in the course of, let us say, a year?
  (Mr Granatt) In terms of people seeking advice, as I said we might get one or two queries a week about whether something falls inside the rules. In most of those cases people have been asked by their own departments whether something can be done, in most of the cases have those people come to a correct judgment, yes or no. The very largest majority of cases has not shown a concerted attempt by somebody, this is what you are asking, to continually try and test the boundaries.

  105. I want to distinguish between the trivial and the important. I am not interested in the trivial at all. Stuff that you would deal with or would be dealt with in the department. When you have your regular meetings with your line manager, the head of the home Civil Service, how often do you discuss matters of propriety of individual cases with him to get a steer or it is sufficiently important that you would want to raise it face to face with Sir Richard Wilson?
  (Mr Granatt) Over the last four or five years, and of course before that with his predecessor, Robin Butler, probably four or five times. In all those cases I was asking him if he thought my opinion was right. He is my fall back. They have involved cases where, for example, the department wanted to do something which was innovative and innovation in some circumstances is a dangerous area. It is dangerous for two reasons. One is we need to innovate in a rapidly changing world, if we do not innovate it would not be worth continuing, and that is what has had to happen over recent years quite rapidly because of innovations and simply the way that people receive information from public sources. There has been one sort of instance where, for instance, if we issue a consultation paper, would it be proper for it to be issued in this form, what should the language look like, how should it be couched, is it actually soliciting a view from the public actively using public money which in some circumstances are not right? Others have been, for instance, a line in an advertising campaign, which could be read as putting across a political view rather than being part of the copy necessary to persuade.

  106. I want to come back to the point Brian White raised earlier. With the change in the news technology and so on, when President Clinton became President I remember he said there were 50 web pages and by the time he left office in the White Office there were 350 billion web pages. The fact that things are changing so rapidly and you have established a News Co-ordination Centre, I see, in No10, to what extent does that mean that everything is increasingly driven by the centre in order to keep a coherent Government line?
  (Mr Granatt) The News Co-ordination Centre is not in No 10, it is one of my units that—

  107. The Cabinet Office, forgive me.
  (Mr Granatt) It is part of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. It is for co-ordinating information during a crisis, it is not day-to-day co-ordination of information. The web is a particularly interesting case in point on this. The web provides either the opportunity to present information that can be retrieved, can be pulled, or it provides ways of things being pushed. I think there, for instance, is the cusp of whether people would consider it is right for Government to act. I think placing information on the web to be retrieved, if the information is couched in the right terms, it is couched in the normal terms that Government should issue under the Codes, there is not a problem with it. I think, for example, if one started to push information at people that was unsolicited there then arises the question of is that a proper use of Government resources and is it a proper way of approaching the public. You can take all sorts of views on that. For example, it is easy when you consider advertising to say that spending a million pounds on this is wrong, it is spending money ineffectively, but when it does not cost you anything, and actually sending out ten million e-mails does not cost you anything, is it still wrong? There is an interesting issue there that no-one has quite resolved and I think it comes down to the content of the thing. There is the issue of how you compile e-mail lists and what you do with e-mail lists and people's privacy. There is the issue of new techniques like viral marketing when you create something which is then passed on from person to person and deliberately designed essentially to entice that process. I think there are certainly new challenges involved.

  108. I am just trying to establish to what extent the policy is made by the individual department or whether the policy is developed by the News Co-ordination Centre because you say in your annual report "Government responds quickly in a crisis and establishes its position from the outset. People expect it to be seen and heard and quickly". Is it the case that the News Co-ordination Centre with Alastair Campbell next door in No 10 will decide the line and then tell the department? Let us take the example of DEFRA, foot and mouth, and people getting completely freaked out at all the animals being burned, then the line would come from the centre.
  (Mr Granatt) Let me turn to fuel as an example and foot and mouth would not be particularly different from this. There was a need to reach people with what the Government was saying about this issue very quickly, very coherently, very consistently. There is no greater way to shed public confidence—this is a researched fact, it is not an assertion—than for the voices of authority to speak differently. When you are facing a crisis, such as public safety, clearly you have to speak with one voice to make sure that does not happen. There are a range of other factors but that is a key factor. In those circumstances what the Co-ordination Centre did was this: it went to all departments concerned, it created a brief that was cleared by all departments concerned, it worked alongside No 10, who in all of these matters of strategy and day-to-day presentation will take the lead, to look at the front end of this brief to make sure that the key messages were reflected there and it did this three or four times a day. Therefore everybody concerned, ministers and officials, had one central brief which was signed up to by everybody which provided a consistent set of top line messages that anybody could use, a minister could use in an interview, whoever they were. It is important in these circumstances to realise that any minister on the hoof is fair game on an issue of this sort and, therefore, has to be supported. The departments' individual lines were there if people needed to delve further. That is what the NCC does. On a day-to-day basis No 10 works to assure itself that on a general Government line on a particular issue it takes the lead, and it does that most effectively essentially through the lobby briefings which are a twice daily focus for that activity.

  109. One final point. Alastair Campbell has executive authority over civil servants as Director of Communication. Is there anything inherently wrong in having little or mini Alastair Campbells in each of the departments of state, political appointees? It happens in other countries. What is the problem? Who would go, like Alastair Campbell would go, if the present Government loses the next General Election? Is there anything intrinsically wrong?
  (Mr Granatt) Do you mean having people who have Alastair Campbell's ability under the Order in Council to manage civil servants?

  110. Yes.
  (Mr Granatt) I will give you my view as a taxpayer. We talked earlier about trusting what the Government says and I think if any government wanted to go down the route of having overtly politically driven management of its services they would have to think very carefully indeed about whether the audiences concerned, media or public, were actually going to invest those operations with the sort of trust that the current system does and it might be right, it might be wrong.

  Mr Prentice: Thanks very much.

  Mr Wright: The current system does not have trust.

Annette Brooke

  111. Just very quickly on one or two bits and pieces that backtrack with other questions. Just now you said there were only two cases where you believe there has been a serious situation but actually in your letter you did use the phrase "as has been said many times before" in the context of resigning and operating outside the Civil Service Code. Perhaps just a few cases have hit the press but are there very many more?
  (Mr Granatt) I was thinking of the evidence given by Sir Richard Wilson before you, which is the advice that we always give people, that there are procedures within departments for handling complaints and they vary from a complaint through a line manager or referring confidentially to a nominated senior civil servant, who exist in every department, or taking the matter to the Permanent Secretary, or taking the matter to the head of the home Civil Service, or taking the matter to the First Civil Service Commissioner and, again, taking the matter to me if people want advice and guidance confidentially. Those are the legitimate routes for people to pursue complaints. I understand Sir Richard is also thinking about whether or not the role of the First Civil Service Commissioner in this respect could be strengthened in some shape or form. I do not think it is acceptable for people from a position of privilege inside the department from behind the hand, as it were, to leak information to find some sort of redress or revenge.

  112. Can I just pick up on that and I will perhaps be asking other people this. The other side of this coin is, in fact, whether there has been some injustice done. Sir Richard actually referred to Jo Moore as "poor girl" and might actually think she has been rather badly treated. As far as people who come within your remit, do you actually have a concern that they have a fair hearing before these rather rapid actions are taken?
  (Mr Granatt) The things I have just talked about?

  113. Perhaps it is discussed whether they should resign, but is not the other side of the coin that people have a fair hearing? Are we sure that this is happening as well?
  (Mr Granatt) I think you have put your finger on a particular point which is do people have trust in the systems that exist to provide them with redress if they feel that they have been treated unjustly? There is a serious issue there about whether people do feel confident that those processes will deliver what they would want in terms of confidentiality which do not inherently disadvantage them in some shape or form. Generally it is my belief, and the belief of Sir Richard, as he has said, that they do; the question really is whether the people involved do. In the sort of business in which I work, with people who can move around pretty easily inside Government, and indeed, move outside, often people will feel because of the nature of the relationships that they have to forge that their better course of action, sadly, may be to move out of the department. I think you are right in suggesting that the issue of trust and confidence in the system as it stands is one that is very important to people and often I think they may feel it is not for one reason or another. I would also say that is true for special advisers as well as anybody else. Special advisers are a very small group of people, they enter departments and face this large machine which knows its business the way they do not, I think those are difficult circumstances in which to start operating in the way they are often expected to, in a highly exposed way. I think we have to look at their training and their induction just as strongly as we would look at the training and induction of permanent civil servants.

  114. Can I just come back on that. Do you actually feel that all those processes are there by which people can actually protect their own positions?
  (Mr Granatt) I think they are. I am quite sure that many people do not agree with me.

  Chairman: Ian, do you have a final question?

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: A final one? Okay, yes I do, since there is only one. I have listened to what everybody has asked around this table and I think you—not you personally but your organisation - are totally compromised. I do not think you are doing the job that you were set up to do. I do not think you are actually making the inroads you are meant to because the Government machine has steamrollered you into a corner. I am just looking back: Alan Evans, Charlotte Morgan, others out of the DTLR, all moved. Is it not just an enormous turnover in your organisation which is not able to cope with what is going on because you are told what to do by Alastair Campbell and a machine which you have no control over? Sir Richard Wilson at the moment, I would suggest to you, is not tough enough to stand up to what is going on.


  115. A general final question.
  (Mr Granatt) I am sure Sir Richard can speak for himself but I think personally, and having worked with him for the best part of 20 years, he is tough enough to stand up for himself. A lot of the work that he does, that is not visible outside, testifies to that. On the second point, we have maintained and increased the staffing of Information Service posts around Government in the face of very high turnover and a poor labour market position, in the face of the demands of the system to improve and expand what it is doing, and in the face of much higher salaries elsewhere and I think that is a measure of success in itself. I think, further, that the number of cases you referred to is a very small number of cases compared to the total number of people in the service. With respect, sir, I do not agree.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  116. Fine, that is up to you. What is the percentage of turnover of staff in your organisation?
  (Mr Granatt) Across the whole Information Service?

  117. Yes. Can you let me know, I would be quite interested.
  (Mr Granatt) I have not got detailed figures but I am very happy to provide them as far as we know. I have to state one caveat: we do not know everything, people leave departments without telling us, we do not have a complete track because often they will leave without letting us know or the department does not let us know. We will give you the best figures that we can and we will try to do it in a way that shows how things have moved over time.


  118. Is it your view that we could have some useful review of this area now based upon what we have learned from recent events and also your answer to Annette just now about people's need to have trust in the process?
  (Mr Granatt) My impression, sir, is that the consultation on the Civil Service Act which the Government has committed itself to, and indeed I heard the Deputy Prime Minister committing himself to in front of 1,000 Cabinet Office staff yesterday, is one of the opportunities to do that. Of course, if your Committee wish to conduct such a review then —

  119. I just wanted to know whether you felt that a review would be useful?
  (Mr Granatt) I think anything that would help to bring more knowledge and certainty and consciousness of the system so people understand the process available to them would be helpful.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for that and thank you for your evidence.

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