Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-176)



  160. Where there are organ grinders there are monkeys.
  (Professor Weir) That is left open to other people to establish, he is the person who orchestrates.

  161. You did mention the American system, you praised it as a system, so, presumably, in your view it would be far better if we had a more radical approach and at every election have 6,000 political appointees brought in at the same time as a new government?
  (Mr Jones) I do not think that would be necessarily right across the board. As has come out from Mr White's point and from other points, this is something which has caused successive governments about a problem and how governments relate to the news media. It is one of the most sensitive areas, which is why a labour government has invested so much into it. There is an example where we should follow the American system, where we should have clear identification. If you move to a position where, yes, the heads of information were political appointees then clearly 20 heads of information would have to go at the change of an election. I think that is what is happening already, that 20 heads are rolling. I think if we had another general election the point I have been making is if you look down the list of the heads of communication would they all be acceptable to an incoming Conservative government, I do not think they would be.

  162. Within the American system there are never sources quoted?
  (Mr Jones) There is a completely different point of view about whether or not people give off-the-record information, of course people speak to journalists off-the-record. One of the most important points is that you have a bedrock of information which is imparted to the media on-the-record. If you just use the example of the general election campaign then we in radio and television record every single news conference, everything that is said. We record hours and hours of material because we believe our job in the media is to hold the politicians to account. What I am saying is if you have a system here where you have these people identified, I am not saying it would be in the papers everyday or on television everyday but it is a basic fundamental fact this should be known. My criticism is that you can have Jamie Shea who was speaking for NATO during the Kosovo crisis. I have spoken to Jamie at length and he now acknowledges and believes that all public spokesmen should be seen and heard and should be identified. He makes the point that, yes, he said things about the Kosovo conflict which were incorrect and he believes that every spokesman who is speaking on behalf of a government should be identified. The same goes for people in the American system, they recognise that the fact that you have to go and defend yourself in front of the media and be identified is itself part of the democratic process.

  163. Journalists will still want anonymous briefings from sources—
  (Mr Jones) Of course journalists will still want anonymous sources.

  164.—in whatever system you operate.
  (Mr Jones) I keep coming back to this, you have a system which is based on clearly identifiable sources. At the moment we have a system which is encouraging the media to invent sources. I am sure if you read the newspapers—

  165. Does that happen?
  (Mr Jones) Of course, you know that it happens. Any journalist does not need any help, we have Whitehall sources, we have insiders, we have government sources, you name it we have them. The point is that the special adviser system is encouraging it.

Michael Trend

  166. I have been fascinated by all of this. Can I ask one or two points. You said that before the election, and I remember you saying it, your view was the Order in Council system was something that should not be renewed after the election. I rather fancy the committee took that view as well. Does it remain your position that it is an undesirable situation?
  (Mr Baume) Yes. We have changed our view on that now.

  167. Do you think insofar at you represent some special advisers that it would be appropriate for this committee to call them and get them to answer questions?
  (Mr Baume) At the moment specialist advisers are civil servants, they would give evidence as any civil servant on the basis of the authority given to them by their minister. The Osmotherley Rules, as I understand it, would apply to special advisers in the same way. I am not clear on the position where a request has been made for a civil servant to appear before a select committee and whether or not that has been rejected. I would want to think about this, and if there is a problem that is apparent. I am not conscious there was a problem.

  168. We would be grateful if you would think about it. There is a problem here and although once this Committee was allowed to speak to Mr Campbell publicly, formally since then it has not been. Indeed others normally hide behind or are hidden behind the permanent secretaries rather than the departmental heads, the secretary of the Cabinet comes and talks for everyone, and very welcome it is too. You do not think there is anything in principle that these people should give evidence in public and should be accountable in some way?
  (Mr Baume) I do not think it is wrong that any civil servant should not be able to be called. What I would say is that there would be a case where the minister would seek to suggest an alternative civil servant, if you asked for a particular civil servant, to appear. I am not conscious the rules are different for special advisers as against civil servants. It is a point we raised in the past that the Osmotherley Rules are a government set of rules, they are not binding on select committees. I would personally prefer to see something like the situation that has developed in the Scottish Parliament, where there is a tripartite agreement on the rules so that the select committees or Parliament in the round, ministers and the permanent secretaries, endorse a set of rules that everyone signs up to, rather than having a government set of rules and then select committees not always feeling very comfortable with those.

  169. We managed to do a report on special advisers without interviewing any special adviser in post. The statement you made at the beginning was hard and as you know will appeal hugely to the press. You said that you are not able to say anything more about the Mr Sixsmith, who is a member of your Union, are you able to tell us anything about the process by which his behaviour is being investigated or have you been privy to meetings with the Permanent Secretary or the Secretary of State? Are you happy with the process of how your member is being dealt with?
  (Mr Baume) All of my negotiations have been with the Department and with the Permanent Secretary. I have not had any dealings with the Secretary of State, it would not have been appropriate for me to do so. I do not want to go beyond that.

  170. What is your experience across government of ministers acting in personnel matters?
  (Mr Baume) We are keen that ministers do not get involved in personnel matters. There is a grey area there. The point has been made earlier that there will be times when a minister does not feel comfortable working with an individual, Mike Granatt mentioned this. This is not unique, it just happens that sometimes personalities do not work and there is a grey area. I think there are some revised rules being suggested and guidelines prepared by the Cabinet Office at the moment, about, for example, whether a particular civil servant should head up a particular project and area of work. The reality is ministers' views are taken into account. I think that is a grey area. Formally it is a decision for the Permanent Secretary and the Permanent Secretary might discuss with the minister whether X or Y might be the right person to head up that activity. We are keen that ministers are kept as distant as possible from the management of the departments and it is for the Permanent Secretary to take decisions about whether people are sited in terms of the roles they play within each department. The FDA believes it would not be appropriate for ministers to be involved in the dismissal of a civil servant nor in the appointment of a civil servant beyond the rules that are set out by the Civil Service Commission, particularly at senior levels.

  171. By the Secretary of State's own admission he gave the opinion that a civil servant should not be employed not only in his department but in any department across government. What would you say about that?
  (Mr Baume) I would be very careful not to get involved in a discussion about individuals. I was asked by a number of media outlets to comment after the Secretary of State's speech on Tuesday night, I turned all of those down. All I can say in general is the FDA does not believe, and never believed, that it was appropriate for ministers to take decisions about individual civil servants in that way. I do not think it would help the discussions that I am having with the Department to seek to comment in detail on statements by the Secretary of State.

  172. You have thrown enough petrol on the fire for one day, I can understand that.
  (Mr Baume) It was very hard for me as well. I thought long and hard about making that statement but I thought that unless somebody tries to explain what happened we will not learn from this and it is meant, despite the fact it will be picked up by the media, to try and move all of this on now and put all this behind us. You cannot put things behind you if do you not learn. One of failings of government in the past, something this government has recognised, is we do not learn from mistakes enough, we do not stand back and assess what has gone wrong.

  173. Many of us feel that only a Civil Service Act will help in this matter. Many things will go on as they have done. If the government, which it is, I think, it is fair to say, delays bringing forward a discussion paper or a draft, or whatever, and does not want to move on would you be prepared to assist the committee in drafting its own Bill?
  (Mr Baume) I hope we do not come to that. I have seen statements recently by ministers suggesting that this is imminent, shortly. The FDA did ponder on taking this step ourselves and we decided it was such a messy process we were better off doing everything we could to urge and build consensus for the proper authorities.


  174. You have been so helpful, it is a bit much to ask you to act for us. We are way overdue and I apologise for that. Two very, very quick questions, I was determined never to let the name Jo Moore pass my lips again, let us do it one more time, you told us categorically this person was known to be a bully and she proved to be a bully. At the moment ministers can appoint who they like without any process at all to go through as special advisers, is one lesson that we need to have some kind of basic merit test, as they now do in Wales, before special advisers get appointed anyway?
  (Mr Baume) The FDA will be looking at these issues in detail over the coming weeks, partly for this committee and partly for the Wicks Committee. I do recognise that a different approach has been taken in Wales, and we want to have a look at that. I have an open mind about this, I do recognise that if a special adviser is going to do the job that a minister wants them to do they are going to have to be somebody that the minister has trust in and they can relate to and clearly shares their own political perspective, even within a party, never mind between parties. This is an issue I would like to come back to in terms of the Wicks consultation document.

  175. Can I ask whether you all now think this whole area needs some sort of review, the area of special advisers on the media side and relations with civil servants? I put it to you that we seem to have a halfway house at the moment. We have now established that we have a sixth of the people doing press work who are special advisers inside government, that is 40 in relation to the 240 we talked about. I put it to you that we have an unstable relationship here, it needs to be sorted and we need some kind of review, would that be the view of you all?
  (Mr Baume) We have an evolving relationship. I think there would be some benefit in examining this because I think it is potentially damaging all of the way round and we are better off discussing these issues in an open and constructive debate rather than the fudges that inevitably take place if there is not that kind of open debate. Leaving the word review as a rather broad one, yes, I think further attention and further deliberation would probably be very helpful.
  (Mr Jones) I entirely agree it should be reviewed and your committee should look at it. I think Mike Granatt's evidence this morning and his very clear statement about the number of special advisers who do media work was a brave thing for him to have done because it was, of course, contrary to everything which the government has been saying up until now and that only a very small number of special advisers ever talked to the press.
  (Professor Weir) I think there should be a review. I think it should not concern itself wholly with whether special advisers get on with civil servants or not, it should look to the benefit of the public and the benefit that special advisers can give to the public. I am not in principle against the appointment of special advisers, I think they have to have clear demarcation rules for their behaviour and what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do.

  176. Sorry we have kept you so long. We have had a fascinating and important session, we are very, very grateful for the way in which you have spoken to us. Thank you.
  (Mr Baume) Thank you.

previous page contents

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 25 March 2002