Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Fourth Report


FOURTH REPORT


The Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee has agreed to the following Report:

THE ATTENDANCE OF LORD BIRT AT THE TRANSPORT, LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND THE REGIONS COMMITTEE

  

I INTRODUCTION

1. In December 2001 the Committee announced its inquiry into the Review of the Government's Ten Year Plan for Transport. As part of this inquiry we wrote to Lord Birt, inviting him to give oral evidence in his capacity as the Prime Minister's adviser to the Forward Strategy Unit at No 10 Downing Street where he is engaged in 'blue skies thinking', looking at transport over the next 15 to 20 years.

2. Mr Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Prime Minister's Forward Strategy Unit, replied on January 30 (see Appendix I). He told us that the role of the Forward Strategy Unit was to provide long term strategic analysis to the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers. Lord Birt, the Prime Minister's unpaid strategy adviser, worked with the Unit on these issues but had no executive role. We were informed that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions was responsible for the matters covered by our inquiry and that the appropriate civil servant, Mr Willy Rickett, would represent Ministers in answering any questions about longer-term issues relating to transport.

3. The Committee immediately issued a press release (see Appendix II) indicating why we had decided that Lord Birt should give evidence to us. The following day the issue was raised by several Members with the Leader of the House at Business Questions. It then became apparent that the refusal to give evidence was a matter of principle. Subsequently the issue was debated in Westminster Hall on Tuesday February 5 in an Adjournment debate. A junior Cabinet Office Minister reiterated some of the points made by the Leader, and stressed that there was a long-standing tradition of strategic units at the centre of Government. His chief point was that "Ministers [were] accountable to Parliament, not officials except for accounting officers".[1]

4. We would have summoned Lord Birt. We are prevented from doing so because of a long-standing convention that Members of the other House are not compelled to appear before Committees of the House of Commons.

5. We now think it appropriate to report to the House more fully on these matters and give our detailed reasons why advisers, in general, and Lord Birt, in particular, should attend. We set out:

  • the relevance of Lord Birt to the Committee's inquiry;
  • the role of the Prime Minister's Central Unit and advisers, and their involvement in the work of Government Departments;
  • why they should be accountable to Parliament;
  • the Government's reasons for not permitting its advisers to attend Select Committees, and why they are wrong;
  • who should decide whether advisers appear before Select Committees;
  • the convention that Members of the Other House do not appear before Commons' Select Committees; and
  • our conclusions and recommendations.

II. THE RELEVANCE OF LORD BIRT TO THE COMMITTEE'S INQUIRY

6. While Lord Birt pursues the long term future of transport in secret, the Committee is examining the Government's Ten Year Plan for Transport through a series of public evidence sessions. We have been seeking to discover if the Government has the right objectives, and if its assumptions about how those objectives will be achieved are well founded. Any sensible plans for the next ten years must take account of forecasts or analysis of what happens thereafter. We have only a sketchy view of what Lord Birt is doing: even those experts he has spoken to have little idea. But his work seems likely to be highly relevant to our inquiry. It is therefore appropriate that he appear before us, all the more so because of the high regard the Prime Minister appears to hold him in. The questions which need to be pursued are:

  • what bearing his work has on the Review of the Ten Year Plan for Transport;
  • what is the scope of his project;
  • as a man with no previous experience of transport policy, what grasp he has of the subject;
  • what he will be able to add to the work of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), which is by no means evident, since the Department must be considering the future of transport after 2010 in its review of the Ten Year Plan;
  • what assumptions he is making about patterns of demand and costs, technologies and expenditure levels.

An evidence session would also play a valuable role in making his work public.

7. One of the few things we do know about Lord Birt's activities is that they are taking up a good deal of the time of senior civil servants. On January 30 we took evidence from Mr Willy Rickett, Director General, Transport Strategy, Roads and Local Transport, at the DTLR. The relevant questions and answers are printed in Appendix III. We were surprised to discover that Mr Rickett has had to meet Lord Birt almost every week. Other evidence sessions, while increasing our doubts about Lord Birt's suitability for the task — he was described as being on a 'steep learning curve' — made it clear that not only did he have ready access to very senior civil servants, but that he had spoken in private to many of the witnesses appearing before our inquiry. As part of our remit to examine the finance and administration of the DTLR, we will wish to consider the cost to, and benefits for, the Department of Lord Birt's work.

III. WHETHER ADVISERS SHOULD ATTEND SELECT COMMITTEE HEARINGS

The role of advisers and the Prime Minister's Central Unit

8. Our concerns go beyond the refusal of Lord Birt to submit himself and his project to parliamentary and public scrutiny. Since the Government has made clear that it objects in principle to advisers appearing before Committees, we are inevitably led to consider the role of advisers in general and of No 10 Downing Street itself.

9. There has, of course, long been a central unit attached to No 10 Downing Street. It has grown under successive Governments. Under this Prime Minister, however, it has expanded enormously, as the organogram recently published by the Public Administration Committee shows (Appendix IV). There are three main sections: Communications and Strategy is run by Alastair Campbell, Government and Political Relations by Baroness Morgan, and Policy and Government by Jonathan Powell. This section contains the Policy Directorate, the Office of Public Services Reform, the Delivery Unit, the Performance and Innovation Unit and the Forward Strategy Unit. The Central Unit is staffed by a variety of types of personnel: civil servants, political appointees, special advisers and advisers (of which Lord Birt is one). Never in peace time has a Prime Minister gathered about himself such an assemblage of apparatchiks unaccountable to Parliament. In effect, a Prime Minister's Department has been created.

10. The proliferation of staff and units reflects No. 10 Downing Street's need to keep in touch with policy developments over a wide area and to monitor performance. Yet it goes far beyond this. Moreover, it is far from clear that it is a force for good and rational government. There is widespread concern that the growth of the Central Unit generates an irresistible urge to meddle with the work of other Departments. Both in policy analysis and its implementation, the Central Unit can be part of the problem, not the solution. A small number of people, often like Lord Birt with few relevant qualifications beyond the ear of the Prime Minister, second-guess the work of experienced civil servants. This meddling makes departmental civil servants' and Ministers' efforts to grapple with huge problems more difficult. Their work is inhibited by the attentions of the Prime Minister's Department, and their time is wasted, sorting out ill-considered interventions.

11. This Committee and its predecessor have had an excellent opportunity to observe at close quarters No 10's interference with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and before that with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We have noted a tendency to despise what is seen as the blinkered, old-fashioned thinking of departmental civil servants which is thought to prevent them from finding quick solutions. Allied to this, powerful business interests make use of the Central Unit to push their own views in a more favourable environment than they might receive from officials in the Department. It is alleged that the Business Planning Zones (areas where no planning permission will be required), inserted into the Planning Green Paper, are the result of such pressure.[2] The thrust of No 10's interventions in transport has been to water down the 1997 Government's commitment to create a viable, long term transport policy for a small crowded country. No 10 Downing Street has refused to support the key message that we cannot build our way out of congestion. It is a source of considerable irony that No 10 is now undertaking a review of the future of transport. It is also apparent that the Treasury has meddled in the work of the Department. Decisions about the future financing of London Underground were taken out of the hands of transport experts.[3] Here a key figure has been the Chancellor of the Exchequer's adviser, Shriti Vadera.[4]

Why the Central Unit and its advisers should be accountable to Parliament

12. As the Central Unit becomes ever more powerful, it is ever less acceptable that its work is secret. This applies particularly to the reviews it undertakes. It is bad in practice because the basic assumptions are unchallenged. It is unacceptable in principle that they should not be accountable, and that they refuse to be questioned by Parliament. Not all that the Central Unit does should be made public: Select Committees accept that some advice given by departmental civil servants should be confidential. However, the servants of No 10 should be at least as accountable as those in a Department of State. The Prime Minister has a choice. As the appropriate responsible Minister he could answer to Committees of the House for the work of the Central Unit, his Department; or, more practically, his advisers can appear before Select Committees. Advisers and special advisers and others from the Prime Minister's Central Unit should no longer conduct their reviews in secret, but should be accountable to Parliament for work relating to the policy of individual departments through the system of Departmental Select Committees.

The Government's grounds for refusing to allow advisers to give evidence to Select Committees

13. The Government has given a number of reasons why advisers should not appear before Select Committees.

14. These arguments are remarkably feeble:

  • That advisers may refuse to serve if they have to answer questions before Select Committees is irrelevant; the best people might refuse to become civil servants because they have to appear before Select Committees. In fact, advisers have appeared before Select Committees (see below), and this does not seem to have prevented many others from putting themselves forward. If this a serious concern the Prime Minister should publish the evidence.
  • The fact that Lord Birt is wealthy enough not to require paying as the Prime Minister's adviser is also irrelevant.
  • Cabinet Government is already being undermined by the growing power of the Prime Minister's Department. This had happened long before this Committee called for Lord Birt to give evidence, and it is frankly incredible that the appearance of advisers before a Committee would have much effect on this process.
  • Civil servants appear before Committees every week to answer questions about the scope of reviews they are undertaking and their assumptions. Asking Lord Birt similar questions could scarcely be considered to undermine confidential advice to Ministers.

15. We suspect that the Government's reasons for refusing to allow advisers to give evidence to Select Committees are so flimsy because the decision to prevent Lord Birt from appearing before this Committee was taken on the spur of the moment. In the past advisers have happily given evidence to the Select Committees. Lord Simon of Highbury appeared before the Public Administration Committee in January 2001 and Lord Haskins in November 2001.[5] Mr Martin Taylor, who was an unpaid adviser to the Chancellor on tax and benefits, gave evidence to the Social Security Committee in February 1998.[6]

16. The only conclusion that can reasonably be reached is that the Prime Minister, or his most senior advisers, refused to allow Lord Birt to appear before us because his performance would be an embarrassment.

Who should decide who appears before Departmental Select Committees

17. One of the most surprising aspects of this episode is that the Prime Minister and his Department should take it upon themselves to decide who should give oral evidence to Select Committees. In a democratic Parliament the Prime Minister and his advisers should not obstruct a Select Committee from taking evidence from a relevant witness. If the Prime Minister does not want them to give oral evidence, he should appear himself. Select Committees themselves should determine who should and should not give evidence to them. We consider that No 10 Downing Street's refusal to allow Lord Birt to attend this Committee to discuss the future of transport amounts to a deliberate attempt to undermine the Departmental Select Committee system.

IV. THE CONVENTION THAT MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE OF LORDS DO NOT APPEAR BEFORE DEPARTMENTAL SELECT COMMITTEES

18. This Committee, like other Select Committees, faced by a recalcitrant witness, has the power to summon him or her to appear. We would undoubtedly have used that power to summon Lord Birt, but cannot because he is a is a Member of the House of Lords, like so many of the Prime Minister's advisers. Accordingly, he is able to hide behind the convention, established long ago, for utterly different circumstances, that Members of the other House cannot be summoned to appear before House of Commons' Committees. We understand the reasons for this convention in general, but it should not be used to enable the Prime Minister's or other Ministers' advisers to evade scrutiny by Departmental Select Committees. We have no doubt that this is an anomaly which a Government committed to the modernisation of Parliament and to increasing the powers of Select Committees will wish to clear up. We endorse the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee made in its report on Select Committees that this matter be investigated by the appropriate Committees of both Houses, which we take to be the Procedure Committees.[7] It is our particular concern that the Procedure Committees consider whether the convention might be modified to prevent those Members of the House of Lords who are Government advisers from refusing to appear before Select Committees.

V. CONCLUSIONS

19. There are a growing number of units and staff attached to No 10 Downing Street. In effect a Prime Minister's Department has been created. It, and the advisers within it, like Lord Birt, are increasingly influential, although we readily admit that he is far from the most significant. There is a serious danger that in their endless meddling in the work of departments, they reduce rather than increase the effectiveness of Government.

20. Our current inquiry is reviewing the Government's Ten Year Plan for Transport. It is entirely appropriate that in doing this we should take evidence from Lord Birt who, judging by his almost weekly meetings with the most senior civil servant responsible for the Plan, is clearly undertaking an exercise of some magnitude relating to the future of transport.

21. The Prime Minister's advisers should be accountable to departmental Select Committees. If the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, can account to this Committee for its review of the transport plan up to 2010, so Lord Birt should for his review of transport after 2010. It should be for House of Commons' Committees themselves to decide who should or should not give evidence to them, not the Prime Minister, his Department, or advisers. Of course, Committees in most circumstances can do this by summoning witnesses to appear.

22. Unfortunately, this is not possible because Lord Birt, like so many of the Prime Minister's advisers, is a Member of the Other House. He is therefore able to take advantage of the ancient convention, established in quite different circumstances, that he will not be summoned to appear before a Commons' Committee. We recommend that this convention be modified to ensure that the Prime Minister's or other Minister's advisers do not abuse it to evade scrutiny. We endorse the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee that the Procedure Committees of both Houses examine this matter.

23. It should not, however, be necessary for the Prime Minister and the Central Unit to hide behind an ancient convention. Even at this late stage we urge Lord Birt to give oral evidence to the Committee.


1  
5 Feb, col 237-9 WH Back

2   Business Planning Zones were discussed in an evidence session with Lord Falconer, HC (2001-02) 476-i Back

3   See 2nd Report of Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, HC (2001-02) 387-I.  Back

4   See HM Treasury Press Notice 19 February 1999 Back

5   HC (2000-01) 94-iv: HC (2001-02) 263-iii Back

6   Third Report of the Social Security Committee Tax and Benefits: Pre-Budget Report HC (1997-98)  Back

7   HC 224-I, February 2002 Select Committees Back


 
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