Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
6 FEBRUARY 2007
Q1 Chairman: Let me welcome our witness
this afternoon, Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head
of the Home Civil Service. Thank you for coming and seeing us
again. We are particularly looking at Civil Service skills in
an inquiry we are doing at the moment, as you know, and that will
be the focus of what we shall say but, as always on these occasions
when we have a Cabinet Secretary, we tend to wander around the
territory. I am sure you know that too. Is there anything you
would like to say to kick us off?
Sir Gus O'Donnell:
No, just to say thank you for the ongoing work you do, a very
interesting range of reports, and I am very happy to answer all
Q2 Chairman: Thank you for that.
On the question of reports, we did issue a reportI gather
it was seven months agoon memoirs. We have got this convention
that governments answer within two months. It has gone into a
black hole somewhere and we wonder if a reply is about to emerge?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: The answer
is, "Yes", and thank you for the report. It was very
useful. The black hole is to do with trying to get legal aspects
of our reply on precisely what we can do vis-a"-vis
civil servants and others on memoirs. We are almost there. I expect
you will get it within a week or two.
Q3 Chairman: Thank you for that.
Can I ask you, because everyone will expect me to ask you, about
some of the current difficulties? Is the police investigation
and the pressure that the Government is under at the moment proving
a distraction for the running of government?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I have certainly
got a very full in-tray, let us put that way. Last Cabinet we
were doing counter-terrorism, so there is a very full agenda.
We have been doing things like pensions, energy, nuclear issues,
Trident replacement, so there is a lot going on. The policy review
process that the Prime Minister was talking about in the Liaison
Committee this morning, various strands, that is by the Strategy
Unit within the Cabinet Office doing all the preparation for that,
so it is quite an intense period for us, as well as things like
Capability Reviews. We are very busy, I think the Government is
getting on with things, Cabinet has a very full agenda, so in
that sense we just carry on.
Q4 Chairman: So it is not a distraction:
it is government as usual?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Absolutely,
Q5 Chairman: Can I ask you about
another aspect of this. Obviously, I am not going to talk about
anything to do with this investigation, but one issue that has
arisen is to do with whether the police have had access to all
the documentation inside Downing Street. It is a matter for you,
I think, to make sure that that happens. Can you give us an assurance
that all the bits of paper that are in Downing Street have been
made available to the police?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes, I think
you had a letter from Assistant Commissioner Yates. If you look
at the bottom of that letter, he says he has had excellent co-operation
from the Cabinet Office, and I have no reason to believe that
has changed. We have had no complaints from them about access.
We have complied fully with any requests. The Prime Minister has
made it clear to me, to ensure that we co-operate fully with the
police, and that is what we have done.
Q6 Chairman: You are right to point
to the letter, because that was the peg on which I was asking
you. Certainly the police have said that they have had the fullest
co-operation. When you read these reports about separate computer
systems and all this, is there something that is completely unknown
to you? Do these reports seem bizarre?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: My former background
as a press secretary has always taught me never to believe everything
I read in newspapers. There is no second email system inside Number
10. I find it deeply worrying just how much media coverage there
is. That is all I can say.
Q7 Chairman: It is helpful to be
told that. Could I ask you again on these rather general things,
we are living through interesting times in terms of relationships
between the political side of government and the elucidative side
of government? It is unprecedented, is it not, for a Cabinet minister
to say that his department is dysfunctional?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: If you remember,
if you are referring to the Home Secretary, I think there are
lots of things he said that were very positive about the department,
and I think it is fair to say that the Home Office has found that
its degree of challenge has gone up significantly since 9/11the
demands on counter-terrorism, for example, are significantand,
therefore, there are some issues. I think the issues were brought
out in the Capability Review, the areas where the department needs
to do better. We have some (to use the Capability Review notification)
serious concerns about some aspects of the Home Office, and they
are dealing with those. It is an area where I would say they have
had lots of successes. People forget that the Home Office has
14 out of 17 PSAs on track. They are dealing, like I say, with
very difficult areasasylum, foreign prisoners and the likeand
these are not easy subjects to deal with. It is not as if the
customers want the services that the Home Office is providing,
quite often they are doing things they do not want, so it is challenging
and I think they are coming to grips with that. Remember that
there are aspects of the Home Office that are out of sight. They
are, I think, really performing incredibly well. I went to see
the Home Office Scientific Development Branch up near St Albans
and they do amazing work in terms of protectionprotective
armour for police, for example, work on non-lethal weapons like
tazersit is a very small grouping but, actually, world-class,
doing amazing work and used by a whole range of services, security
services and the like. So I think we have lost some of the positives
in all of this that are going on.
Q8 Chairman: It is not very good
for morale though, is it, in the Home Office if the Minister says
that it is a useless department?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think it
is perfectly reasonable and I think the Capability Review backed
up that there were areas where there were serious concerns. The
Permanent Secretary said that there are things that they need
to do better. Personally I always try to emphasise the extremely
good things the Civil Service is doing whilst at the same time
trying to say we must not be complacent, there are weaknesses.
That is the whole point of Capability Reviews. We need to build
on those. So it is a joint message.
Q9 Chairman: You have been in the
Civil Service a long, long time. I cannot remember a time, can
you, when what I have just described has happened? Nor can I remember
a time when ministers, or former ministers, have spoken so publicly
about the delivery deficiencies of the Civil Service, and former
civil servants have spoken publicly about the deficiencies of
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think the
two are unrelated. I always tell former civil servants to take
it on the chin, that is the way it is, but sometimes they get
provoked into responding.
Q10 Chairman: On the Home Office
in our reports over the years we have often said that machinery
of government changes are made without sufficient consideration.
Can I have an assurance, now that we have got this idea floating
around that this major department of state is to be broken up,
that it will be done properly, that we will have a proper consultation
about it, if the Government goes ahead with it, that a proposition
to re-organise will be advanced and that people will have a chance
to scrutinise this to see if it makes sense and then to offer
some comments on this and it will not simply be a question of
sticking up some new name plates?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: What has been
said so far is the Home Secretary started some work in the autumn
looking at counter-terrorism structures. There was a Cabinet group
that looked at that. That was discussed at last week's Cabinet.
There is some further work going on there. Associated with that
you will know that the Prime Minister was asked some questions
about the structure of the Home Office, and he said in the House
that he is looking at that and would report back in a few weeks.
The Prime Minister has asked me to look at this whole set of issues
and to put some advice to him.
Q11 Chairman: What I am asking you
though is, instead of simply producing it as a done deal, "This
is what we are going to do", would it not be much more sensible
to produce it as a proposition to solve a problem, and then people
who know about these things can scrutinise it, see if the division
of responsibilities does make sense and it would improve the decision-making?
Can you assure us that it will be done in that way?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I will give
advice to the Prime Minister. It is up to him then, I am afraid,
how he proceeds with the machinery of government changes.
Chairman: We tried.
Sir Gus O'Donnell: The one piece
of machinery of government change I was very closely involved
in was putting Revenue and Customs together, and I very strongly
agree with the need to actually analyse these things in some depth,
and we published quite a lot about that, you will remember.
Q12 Chairman: The Home Affairs Committee
should have a go at it, we might have a go at it. These are important
and complicated matters and there are different ways of doing
it, and I think testing them to see whether it makes sense must
contribute to good government. I am sure you are given this advice
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I should say
on all of these things, exactly, these are quite complex changes
we are thinking about.
Q13 Chairman: Let me ask you one
further thing and then I will hand over to colleagues. I think
you first came to us when you announced your Capability Review
in October 2005, but now we have had seven of these Capability
Reviews and, contrary to what some people thought, they have turned
out to be rather robust exercises?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes.
Q14 Chairman: This goes back to what
I was saying about ministers and civil servants. A minister complaining
that the Civil Service was not very good at delivering would find
confirmation of that in these Capability Reviews. You look sceptical,
but if you look at the figures on this, the delivery figures in
particular, those departments and those elements of departments
which were judged to be strong or well-placed on delivery were
three out of 21, if we just do the tally. That is a pretty bleak
picture, is it not, for a government that wants delivery out of
Sir Gus O'Donnell: No, I think
what it shows you, and I agree strongly with your first comment
that people were saying that these would not do anything, actually
they are very robust. Indeed, I think the way my predecessor,
Richard Wilson, put it was "self-flagellation". Colin
Talbot, I know, said "These have turned out to have teeth
after all." He was quite nervous about it. The Director General
of the CBI has said, "They are strong." Yes, I wanted
them to be quite tough, quite challenging for us. The whole point
about Capability Reviews is to improve our performance and, in
particular, to improve our ability to deliver. It has found that
there are, as you say, areas where we need to get better at delivery.
That does not surprise me. What I find surprising sometimes is
that the private sector people, when they come in and they look
at the delivery challenges that are faced in the Civil Service,
they actually start off by saying, "My goodness, I certainly
would not try and do this in the private sector; it is too difficult."
Trying to deliver services to people, to all the hardest to reach
groups, trying to deliver services where you are not charging
for them, so you do not get any information back about people's
demands, I think it is extremely challenging. So, it does not
surprise me, given that it is extremely challenging to deliver,
that we can get better, and it is certainly true we can get better,
and I think what this is demonstrating in the Capability Reviews
is lots of ways and suggestions for us to sometimes use techniques
that have been used in the private sector like `lean' manufacturing.
Those process reengineering ideas are starting to be used much
more in DWP, for example, but I think in all of the areas there
are things we can do better on delivery. The whole point of the
Capability Reviews was to improve our performance and, in particular,
to improve our delivery, so we have chosen to be very tough in
the way we mark and I think that is a good thing. If anything,
I want us not to be complacent about things.
Chairman: I am sure we shall want to
explore that a bit further with you. Ian.
Q15 Mr Liddell-Grainger: It is interesting.
I was just looking at the Capability Review findings. It says,
"A significant number of personnel changes on the Board"we
are talking about the Home Office here"has unsettled
staff. Impact on morale has left many staff uncertain about whether
the Home Office will be a better place to work in 12 months' time."
That was done in the middle of last year. Has that changed? It
has got worse, has it not?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Not really.
There was a very big change around the time of the new Secretary
of State, a change of a large number of Board members. That Board
has been relatively constant. I think they have got three new
Board members. They have added two new non-executive directors
as a result of the Capability Review, but moving down through
the senior Civil Service, yes, they have restructured, and that
has resulted in 18 new changes.
Q16 Mr Liddell-Grainger: The problem
is it has not made the situation better, the situation with prisons
and immigration. We were at the Passport Office recently, some
of us. It has just moved the problem. The actual ability to deliver
has not got any better.
Sir Gus O'Donnell: You were at
the Passport Office.
Mr Liddell-Grainger: Yes, I was one of
the two that went.
Sir Gus O'Donnell: They issued
6.6 million passports this year, which was a record. Their customer
satisfaction level: very satisfied with the service 79%. They
outperformed Tesco on customer satisfaction. 94% of people are
seen within 20 minutes. That is not bad. That is what I call real
Q17 Mr Liddell-Grainger: One of the
problems they have got is that the delivery of the service has
moved on. Where they are having problems is they are going to
expand the service out to hub-spoke areas, right across. When
we went to see them, they were saying, yes, they can do it, but
it is going to be very hard to deliver because, "We cannot
be sure when we are going to open, we do not know how long they
will be open for, we do not know if there is going to be enough
money in certain areas." I went and got my daughter's passport
there, no problem, but we are talking about the next phase, we
are talking about the movement, we are talking about the Home
Office getting better. Is that a fair assessment of what is going
to happen in the next year trying to
Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think what
people are realising is that, for service delivery in general,
the public's expectations are rising all the time. If you take
your expectations about passports, you can now get a passport,
as you know from being there, within four hours. People are looking
at what they get in the private sector in terms of delivery and
saying, "If I can get that, why can I not get the same in
the public sector?" Of course the answer is that you pay
a lot in the private sector, and the private sector will only
perform those services for people who can pay, they will not do
it for hard to reach cases, so it is a very different ethic they
are working to. So, as we raise the bar and try and perform at
ever higher levels, yes, indeed, it will be a continuous improvement
that will be required to reach those bars.
Q18 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Can we take
that as one side and then look at prisons. The prisons are full,
we have got problems with overseas prisoners, we have got problems
with computerisation of prisoners, categorisation and all the
rest of it. How do you make expectations work? You are releasing
the judges from high-profiling. Judges have released or put on
bail people who have had various horrendous crimes brought against
them. Is that going to be able to be rectified?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: What you have
got there is when there were changes to sentencing policy it was
clearly dealing with serious criminals that they wanted to be
in prison and the use of community sentences, and actually the
use of community sentences has not moved up as much as has been
put into some of the plans. I think it is very important for us
to try and develop the community sentencing idea.
Q19 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Given there
have been a couple of very high-profile cases where fairly serious
offenders were given a community punishment, is that right? Should
they not be doing time?
Sir Gus O'Donnell: Again, that
is a decision for judges.