Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 360-379)



  360. I have not yet seen it.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You have got a letter. My own recollection is that something like around 11 are full time dealing with the media. The rest of around 30 are people who, in his words, are advising on presentational strategy and planning and speeches and that sort of thing, and they may not all talk to the press. The picture which you sometimes get in the press that all 80-odd special advisers are spin doctors is factually inaccurate. However, I think the fact is that there are more people than there have been in the past who are there to deal with the press. It is not the case that previous governments have not had people dealing with the press; they have. I can think of special advisers over many years who have dealt with the media.

  361. But if you could have predicted where the area of real difficulty would erupt you could have thought it was going to be in that area, could you?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) In my experience of special advisers who deal with the media, as long as they understand their roles and get them right and work closely with the Information Service, it can work perfectly well, and actually can be a protection to the Civil Service in not getting politicised because they can deal with party aspects of government which it would be better if civil servants did not deal with, so in that sense it is not necessarily predictable. I would not say that all these relationships are going wrong just because one relationship clearly did.

  362. You do not think the boundary lines in this particular area need more clarity?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think a number of things are happening but there is a case for saying that we ought to be doing more to clarify some of the boundaries than we have done so far. I also think there is a case for saying that Parliament should play more of a role in overseeing these boundaries—notwithstanding the work of this distinguished Committee—than Parliament has done so far. I think that the focus of attention on these issues, which is much stronger than it was in the past, is first of all casting questions which have not previously been raised, for instance, about the accountability of special advisers which you raised just now. I have often talked to this Committee about grey areas. I think there are grey areas where perfectly honourable people can come to different judgements about what is and is not proper. I think we need to do a bit of really good work debating where those boundaries are and what we should be doing to clarify them. You have probably seen this consultation document which the Wicks Committee have put out, which raises a lot of questions. I commend it to this Select Committee because I think that raises quite a lot of issues about boundaries and I think we are coming up to a moment where it would be healthy and sensible to have a good debate—not a partisan debate—about boundaries. I would welcome that.

  363. I am sure we do too. Is not the absence of a debate like that part of the problem so far because now we are told that we are about to have some Civil Service legislation, which we look forward to as a boundary definition exercise, but we are told that it is going to include a cap on special advisers. The argument about a cap has never been made. No-one has done the work to find out whether special advisers are adding value to the system of government or whether they are not. If they are doing maybe we should double their number. It seems daft to come along and propose a statutory cap without having had the discussion about what these people are doing.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) The Neill Committee, as it was, did do quite a lot of work on this and the proposal that there should be a cap on the number of special advisers came from the Neill Committee, so it is not wholly fair for them to say that there was no work done at all.

  364. Also to be fair, the proposal for the cap did not come out of the argument. The argument said, "Special advisers are good things. We have not heard a word against them. Oh, there should be a cap."
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Secondly, the proposal is likely to be that Parliament should have the power to set the cap so that there would then be a clear forum in which that debate could take place and I am sure that that is something that this Committee would want to support. Let us not disagree about this, though. I would welcome a debate about these issues and about the question you raise: whether there should be more or fewer. I think that is a perfectly proper question to have a debate on, but it is a debate that should be had in my view in the open and not be done as it were absent-mindedly.

  365. I have one more question, and this is to raise the tone. Richard Mottram was much reported here last week, saying that what the Civil Service is like is what he called "a rather stupid dog. It wants to do what its master wants and it wants to be loyal to its master, and above all it wants to be loved for doing that, and I am not sure that ministers understand that." All I want to ask you is whether that is an adequate description of the Civil Service. I do not mean whether it is stupid or not, because he went on to revise that view, but what I am asking is, does not the Civil Service guard certain public interests against politicians and the idea that you are simply a dog that slavishly follows its master does not quite accommodate that idea, does it?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Years ago when my Secretary of State, as he then was, John Davis, made a speech about lame ducks, I remember the minister I was working for remarking that it was always an error to use animal metaphors in public life, and I am saying forgive me if I do not go into the question of dogs. I think there is a very serious and interesting issue behind what you say because the duty of the Civil Service, as set out in the Code (which was prepared in this Committee), is loyalty to the government of the day. That is fundamental to the way the Service and I and my predecessors and permanent secretaries and so on approach our job, which is that we do not engage in public attacks on the Government, we do not engage in national controversy ourselves, we do not take high profile stances on political issues; we concentrate on establishing a relationship of trust and loyalty with the government and we provide the best service we can to the government of the day as long as they are in power. Sometimes you read in the papers that people would like the Civil Service to attack the government and you read editorials saying that permanent secretaries are wimps unless they attack ministers. That envisages a different role for the Civil Service from the one that I have just described. I think that there is a kind of tension between the traditional role that I have described to you and the wish that the Civil Service should in some way be seen publicly to be standing apart from the government and attacking it. My own view is that if the Civil Service were ever to get into the position where it is attacking the Government, that would be the royal road to politicisation because if civil servants were attacking the government then you would find that politicians, quite rightly and understandably, would want to have around them people whose political allegiance they could trust and who would stand up for them. There is a very important issue there. Of course, in private the role of the Civil Service is to give ministers their best advice on propriety and to defend the boundaries that I have been describing to you earlier, and to ensure that the government understands the constitution, unwritten as well as written, and to ensure that the lines are properly observed. That is a dialogue and a debate that properly has always—and I am not talking about this Government particularly—taken place in private, and that is a very important role for the Civil Service. It is quite important to understand, however, that the Civil Service's job is not to attack the government. It is the job of oppositions to oppose; the job of the Civil Service to provide loyal service.

  Chairman: That is the start of a very interesting conversation which will no doubt continue next time.

Brian White

  366. I think, Sir Richard, you deserve congratulations because, coming back to reports, a couple of years ago you were criticised, and I cannot remember which paper it was, for not standing up for the Civil Service. This was at a time when devolution was happening, modernising government was happening, and so on. There was a whole series of things happening and you were criticised for letting the centre of government go and now you look at the situation: FOI is dead in the water; modernising government is marginalised. Any appointment made to the Civil Service is now accused of being Tony's cronies; any reform of the Civil Service now is accused of politicisation, and you have a situation where we are going to have a Civil Service Act that entrenches the status quo, so any innovations have gone. Have you not turned the whole situation round and protected the centre and it is game, set and match to the mandarins and the whole reform of the Civil Service is killed for a generation?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is quite a jolly picture. It just bears no relationship to reality. I do not see the world at all in the light you have described. The Freedom of Information Act is now on the statute book, the Data Protection Act is being implemented, the Human Rights Act has been passed. Between them they are a major re-balancing of the balance of power between the individual and the state, and no-one should be under any illusion that that is a very important constitutional change. There have been all sorts of misleading and in fact wrong press reports about my views and my role in relation to that, which simply ignored what I actually said and attributed to me things that I have not said. I can also run through the other list of things. Modernising government, for instance, is not only alive; it is a huge challenge for the Service. The Civil Service has transformed itself over the last 20 years and is now mobilising its energy behind a very big programme of delivery which the government has committed itself to and on which the political stakes are very high. I do not think anyone should be under any illusion that the modernising government agenda has been buried. With regard to the Civil Service reform programme which you referred to we have issued this report which I commend to you. I think it is a huge achievement, it is a very radical programme; I think it is changing the Service. The work of departments in key areas of health, education, crime, law and order and transport is a fundamental reform. The welfare state is undergoing huge reform which people on the whole are not paying much attention to but is very important in the Department for Work and Pensions. I think that, far from being engaged in some Sir Humphrey game of the kind which you have attributed to us, the Civil Service is engaged on probably the most radical programme of reform of any Civil Service in the western world and it is something we can be very proud of and in which we are being true to our best traditions.

  367. In that case, the next Head of the Civil Service, your successor, will have a very important role to play.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Absolutely.

  368. One of the issues seems to be that there is an awful lot of speculation about that. Perhaps you could outline for the Committee the process and timetable for your successor, who sets up the short list, how it is done,—not necessarily who it is but the process by which it is done.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You will not expect me to talk about candidates because that would not be proper. As to process I would be happy to tell you, and this is a process, obviously, which has been very thoroughly discussed with the Prime Minister. The final decision is for the Prime Minister. We began by discussing the post and what he wanted from the person who occupies my job. The Prime Minister has decided that my post should not be split. There has always been a debate about whether or not it should be split. He has decided it should not be split and that my successor should be both Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service and will sit next to him in Cabinet, as I do, and so on, and have the same main over-arching responsibilities. But within that he would like whoever succeeds me to spend more time on delivery and reform, the things which I was just talking to you about, and to free up time in a job which I have to tell you is pretty heavily loaded, by delegating to other permanent secretary colleagues some parts of the job that are not to do with delivery of reform. I am not going to speculate to you how that is going to work because that is a matter for my successor to agree with the Prime Minister and I am not going to get into that. That is the job. The Prime Minister also wishes the background of whoever takes over from me to be a Civil Service background, either a current or a former civil servant. The way we have approached it is that I have asked each head of department (a) whether they wish to be considered for the post, and (b) who else they think among permanent secretaries should be considered for the post, and (c) whether there are any former civil servants outside whom again they think should be considered. We have done other things to consider former civil servants outside who might be suitable. This process has been overseen by a panel consisting of Lord Simon, who has played quite an important role over the last few years in helping us on our reform programme and who, I have to say, is a huge source of wisdom and advice on management of large organisations; Usha Prashar, who is the First Civil Service Commissioner and who therefore provides an independent eye; and Sir Hayden Phillips, who is the most senior permanent secretary and who is not himself a contender. I chair the panel. The next stage, having done that process, is to draw up a short list of people and the people on the short list, if the Prime Minister is content, then undergo psychological assessment, and are also asked—


  369. My lips did not move.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You can do things, Chairman, non-verbally in the most impressive way — and are also asked provide a two-page account of how they would do the job if they were selected, and then there is a series of one-to-one discussions about how they would do the job, and finally recommendations to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will then have to decide, no doubt on the basis of interviews, what he wants to do. This has been compared by my predecessor with the choice of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have to say I have not heard that candidates for the Archbishop of Canterbury were going through a psychological assessment.

Brian White

  370. And the timescale?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Timescale is a matter for the Prime Minister. Reasonably promptly because I shall be retiring in the late summer and you need to have a period when someone takes over from you to start thinking about making their dispositions.


  371. Just to be clear, there is a re-definition of the role going on but not a formal split?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is not a formal split. Everyone does the job differently, I think. The huge importance of leading the Civil Service and leading the permanent secretary college through the period of change that we are going through—and it is a big change—requires in the Prime Minister's mind (and I think he is right) more single-minded concentration than you can have if you try, as I have done, to cover the whole front.

  372. Did you advise against splitting the role?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am not going to talk about advice, if that is all right.

  373. Yes, that is fine; I just thought I would try it. It is sometimes suggested—and this relates to recent events too—that, because of the non-split of role, there are intrinsic tensions in the position so that, when trouble blows up as it recently has done, with one hat on you are wanting to massage the trouble away on behalf of your masters, and on the other hand you are wanting to defend proper boundaries and that there is a tension there that is very difficult to handle because of the way in which these roles are combined.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am not conscious of that. I think if you have a problem you should try and address it. I do not think easing problems away, fudging them, is always the right answer. Quite often you have to address them and decide what to do about them.

Kevin Brennan

  374. You are a Cardiff boy, are you not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, I was born there.

  Chairman: We are familiar here.

Kevin Brennan

  375. Most people from Cardiff quite like animal metaphors. One, who is a former chair of this Committee, you might remember, once talked about one-legged ducks swimming in a circle.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes.

  376. Another thing that he did was, when appointing special advisers as First Minister in the National Assembly for Wales, was to advertise for them and put them through a selection procedure, probably including psychological testing; I am not sure about that.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Assessment, not testing.

  377. Do you think that would have been helpful in recent events, if people had been put through psychological tests and assessments and so on, or a proper procedure of selection?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think the essence of special advisers, particularly in departments, is to have people in whom the Secretary of State has particular trust and puts a lot of confidence, and of course it is right that a minister who chooses a special adviser should consider a range of possible people, but I do not think necessarily if you just had an advertisement you would produce the kind of personal chemistry that seems so often to be the essence of the appointment. If, on the other hand, you are choosing someone because of their expertise, I think there is a case for saying—and it is not about a personal choice of someone who is going to be particularly close to you who would be your eyes and ears—that if you want someone who will provide you with a particular skill you should go through some form of selection process as you have described. To give you an example, the Government wanted, when they came into power in 1997, to appoint a drugs czar and that was advertised and Keith Helliwell won the competition, but he was made a special adviser because it had not been a Civil Service competition; it had been a kind of competition conducted by ministers. I think that is an example of a case where a person who is a special adviser was chosen in the way you have described and I think it is a good idea there.

  378. One of the problems and one of the difficulties that seems to have emerged from the more recent kerfuffle, and something I have been trying to understand for several months now, is the process by which you can get rid of a special adviser. We explored this question when you last came and I asked Sir Richard Mottram about it, and I asked the question yesterday during Cabinet Office questions about this. Is there not just total confusion and misunderstanding about who is responsible for taking a grip on the situation when a special adviser is out of control? This is in the system, it is not just to do with this case. There is no mechanism by which anyone can take a grip on the situation. The minister has personal chemistry with the person involved and wishes to retain them. The Permanent Secretary is faced with his staff in rebellion and everybody up in arms about the special adviser but is unwilling or unable, because of the nature of the way in which they were appointed and the role of the special adviser, to get a grip on the situation, and so things fester for months and months and we get this kind of crisis. Is that not an inherent weakness in the whole thing?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think so. I do not think there is total confusion either. The convention is that ministers delegate the personnel management of staff in the department to the permanent secretary. The special adviser I think is an exceptional case because he or she works to the Secretary of State and is very clearly accountable in my mind to the Secretary of State, and although the Secretary of State can ask the permanent secretary to do something of a personnel kind in relation to a special adviser, as Stephen Byers asked Richard Mottram to conduct a disciplinary case on Jo Moore after that e-mail in September, the normal case is that ministers have a particular role in relation to special advisers in a way that they do not in relation to anybody else. The ministers are anyway directly accountable to the House in the management of their departments; that has always been the case, and I do not think there is any lack of clarity in anything I have just said.

  379. And yet in practice what happens is that if a situation arises where a special adviser is causing problems the reality is that it is impossible to envisage a situation where a permanent secretary would sack a special adviser without the agreement of the Cabinet Minister. Would you agree with that?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think that is true. I do not think a permanent secretary could sack a special adviser.

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