Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 440-453)

SIR RICHARD WILSON GCB

THURSDAY 14 MARCH 2002

  440. The press reported quite widely that it was announced on the Friday, the afternoon of the Friday, was that an official Civil Service announcement?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) You are taking me into territory I cannot answer. We are talking about Friday when the resignations were announced. It was done, I think, by Mr Byers, was it not?

Mr Trend

  441. Yes.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think it was done by Mr Byers, yes.

Mr Lyons

  442. Are you quite clear how that was handled at that time?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) There was a negotiation that went on. This is handled within the Department and I am not going to get into detailed analysis of what went on inside the Department, if you will forgive me. You have had Sir Richard Mottram before you and he is, I think, the man you should be addressing those questions to.

Mr Heyes

  443. I want to take us back to the touchy subject of the Civil Service Act. You have used some very carefully chosen words today. All we have been able to get out of you is a date for when you are going to make a speech making the case you said.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes.

  444. That is quite a contrast from the last time you were here. The impression I gained from you then was that the case was made, it was overwhelming that in some ways you saw this as the culmination of your career, the Act ought to be in place by the time of your retirement. When the Chair has pressed you for dates on the consultation paper, a Bill, possible legislative timescale, we have not got anywhere near an answer or an indication of what the timescale might be. This Act is fundamental to putting right the kind of problems we have been talking about today and making sure they do not happen again. Is it not likely to be the case that when you are gone we will be told that this is such an important event that we need to take account of the views of your successor and take a fresh look at this and we will back to square one? The Civil Service Act is dead in the water at the moment. You are not able to tell us that but is that not the case?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) No, it is not at all. There are a number of things I must try and correct on that. First, I hope I did not say anything which implied such a personal role in relation to the Act. This is a Government policy. I am merely the head of the Civil Service at this time. I have said in my own view it is a good idea and I am doing what I can to try and develop the case for it because I think I am peculiarly in a position—it is an unusual situation—to do that. Also I think I said last time that legislation and the timescale is a matter for the Government and I could not commit it. That is the absolutely orthodox position, I cannot change it and I do not think you expect me to change it at all. You also question the timetable. I must say do you really think the last few weeks have been the right time to try and launch something in a non partisan atmosphere? I think a certain amount of cooling off is not that foolish. All I would say to you is I am sorry if you feel it has been slow but I am saying to you that I have in mind to develop the case for it in a little more detail in a couple of weeks' time and that is all I am saying to you really.

Annette Brooke

  445. I have one or two confusing matters and I am going to be darting around all over the place. Could we go back to the beginning when we were talking about the appointment of your successor.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes?

  446. I had the impression, maybe you need to correct me, that the panel that you have set up and the feelers that are going out, it is more of a case of do not contact us if we do not contact you. Are there obvious public ways in which people can say to the panel "I would like to be considered" rather than being approached? It did not seem to me quite the way to do it.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I have said to all the Heads of Departments do they wish to be considered? That seems to me to be appropriate. We are being a great deal more open in the process than we have ever been ever before. I think we should get credit for that. I think also as the head of a profession—which is what part of this job is about—the field is one in which you have a fairly good idea of who the main contenders are. I do not feel that the process is flawed in the way you suggest.

  447. I just feel there might be a rank outsider who is not getting a look in.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Well, if you have a name, Mrs Brooke, I will be very happy to chat afterwards.

  Annette Brooke: No. I do not dabble in patronage so I will not be doing that. I just felt it was not totally open and as we are talking about openness, the new Civil Service Act, it seems a good start to advertise this job in a more open way. There might be somebody working overseas who does not actually know this is happening.

Chairman

  448. We had Dame Helena Shovelton in front of us this morning, she is a splendid woman, just been sacked from two jobs.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I am not sure I am going to follow you.

Annette Brooke

  449. I will pass on that but I just wished to express that thought, particularly if we need to make sure it is not necessarily a male who has the job I would suggest on that matter. Can we just go back to the numbers of special advisers too because you have agreed with Sir Richard that a cap is appropriate. Sir Richard last week said "I favour a cap but there are also issues about how they are distributed". I think from our previous witnesses it was suggested that perhaps it had been a little bit misleading to talk about 80 special advisers in the context of 3,000 civil servants when in fact they are concentrated and indeed we are talking about three, were three, I should say, in the Department of Transport in fact. So they are concentrated, are they not? I think one of our previous witnesses was suggesting that we need to be much more upfront about this if we are talking about the significance of special advisers and their impact. It was how they were used and how concentrated they were within sections and within functions. Would you agree with that?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes. The effectiveness of a special adviser, just like the effectiveness of an official, depends entirely on their relationship with the Minister and what power the Minister allows them to have. If that is the proposition you are making, that is correct.

  450. Right. It was suggested it was easy to make out they were rather insignificant when they are given as a straight percentage figure but you actually need a concentration factor alongside and I think that is possibly quite important. With the Civil Service Act, and I really am picking up all over the place here, I think again in previous evidence and in our discussions here it has been suggested can you actually put something like the legislation when you have got an underlying problem? If you have got the problem, lack of trust, lack of confidence, of which there is plenty of evidence, is this enough, is there not a lot more to be done?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes. I am getting slightly worried in this discussion. I do not want to over claim for legislation. I would have in mind, as I said before, that the Government should be thinking in terms of a short, relatively brief Act, that, as it were, builds on, codifies, consolidates a lot of work we have done already, puts it on the record and provides a firm reference point so that we can move on what is a very large change of programme. I think, also, there are other things that we should be thinking about in the light of recent events. You can do quite a lot in terms of laying down regulation and boundaries, what you cannot do is determine behaviour. I think there is quite a lot we ought to now be addressing about induction for special advisers, induction training, and we have now in the light of recent events asked the Centre for Management and Policy Studies to lay on new training courses for new special advisers so we can be sure that they have some assistance, some welcome, some support in understanding the system that they are moving into. FDA have made a number of rather useful suggestions, Jonathan Baume, for instance, about personal job descriptions which I think we ought to be thinking about. I have talked about grievance procedures where I think something more accessible could be used. I think, also, we could be doing more to promulgate the codes of behaviour that we have got. I am not sure that everyone knows that we have got the Special Advisers Code or that we have done everything we should to draw attention to it. I think there are things that we ought to be doing more actively to help people understand the system that they have moved into.

  451. I am sure I could pursue that quite a bit more but we will be hearing more about that because it is going to be a cultural change. Again, picking up on cultural change, we are talking about changes for special advisers and clearly the pace of change at the moment is very great, programming, modernisation—
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Huge.

  452.—focus on delivery. Do you consider, in fact, that civil servants need additional support and help through this change? We have got some very upset employees in many of our public services because of the pace of change and rapid announcements without full consultation. Perhaps civil servants are feeling that they are not getting enough consideration in all of this. Would you say that might be the case?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think I can accept the criticism that you are implying. What I do think is in any organisation going through change you need to support the staff. I think that is what leadership is about. I have been engaged, particularly when I was Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, in a very big change programme. All experience of running large organisations is that when you are going through big change morale dips and people take some time to climb out of it. There is a very strong case for concentrating on communications, for explaining to people what is going on, what you are doing to support them, what is going to be required of them and where it will lead to. I think that is one of the main reasons why we have made leadership such an important part of our reform programme. You have to manage staff and lead them through the kind of turmoil that they are going through at the moment. It is very important.

  Annette Brooke: Thank you for that. I am very conscious of the time so I will pass back to the Chairman.

  Chairman: I promised you we were not going to keep you because you have got to go to Scotland I know. Sydney, have you anything to ask?

  Sir Sydney Chapman: No, just to apologise, Sir Richard. I only joined this Committee last week and I had an inescapable lunch time engagement.

Chairman

  453. Is that your question? Could I bring us back to the big picture which I think underlies a lot of this, I do not think we have quite got inside that yet. Could I just go back to our set text and perhaps add another one in. I am struck when Lord Armstrong says—this is pretty meaty and powerful stuff, no mincing words here—". . . those who are in charge of our public administration should recognise the extent to which what they have done and are doing puts the principles of good administration and, in particular, the maintenance of a non-political, professional career civil service, at risk, and act accordingly before it is too late". Then I have got Robin Mountfield, again a very distinguished recently retired Permanent Secretary who talks about "At the heart of government, the position of special advisers is becoming more powerful and potentially dangerous, particularly in Number 10 . . ." and interestingly did not talk about Departments here, he talks about Number 10 ". . . the Cabinet Office and the Treasury". He goes on to say ". . . The effect is not so much interference in civil servants' impartiality, as the virtual marginalisation of orthodox civil service advice. No one now envisages a civil service monopoly of advice, but the present danger is the reverse—its effective exclusion". So you have got these very powerful voices from the Civil Service side saying there is something really serious going on here and you have got significant political voices saying there is something really wrong with the Civil Service. We had a leading Cabinet Minister a week or two ago who said "I think there are too many civil servants who believe that politicians are a kind of sub species". Here are politicians who regard civil servants as people who cannot deliver, they do not do policy for us any more, they cannot deliver and you in turn think the politicians do not understand the old traditions and all the rest of it. So the whole thing is blowing up, is it not?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think the whole thing is blowing up, no. I think there is big change going through the system. I think when you have big change going through the system you do get the kind of things you are describing. My own observation is the relations between Ministers and their permanent secretaries and special advisers across most of Government is strong and good and working well. I think that the challenge that the Government has taken on in delivery of these high quality public services requires different things in the Civil Service from what we have been asked to do in the past. I do not think some of my predecessors would have seen themselves in the kind of role that I and my colleagues see ourselves in. I think the role of the centre of Government is also different and it is seen differently conceptually from the role of the centre of Government in the past. Those are perfectly proper things but they are quite big. Robin Mountfield and Robert Armstrong must answer for themselves but I think what they are signalling is the way Government works is developing and changing. My own view is that is something which should take place and is taking place in the open rather than, as it were, behind closed doors.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for that. I suspect over the next few months, this period before your departure, there will be active conversation on all fronts about these matters that we have touched on today. We look forward to taking part in those with you. We are grateful to you for coming along this afternoon.





 
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