Constitutional processes following a general election - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 87-128)


24 FEBRUARY 2010

  Q87  Chairman: Sir Gus, Mr Laws welcome; we are very glad to have you with us this morning. The purpose of this session is primarily to try to bring some clarity to the processes which follow a General Election, particularly in circumstances where no party has an overall majority. You have sent to us just last night the draft of the chapter which deals particularly with some of those circumstances for a Cabinet manual and we are grateful for that. That is due to published shortly, although there are still some discussions going on. It actually does raise the issue to what extent a rather well praised document, which is still in process of preparation, can be effectively in force at the time of the election. But perhaps I could start by just asking you whether you think there is sufficient clarity either amongst those most closely involved or more widely in the media and public about what the processes are in certain circumstances.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes. Could I just say a few brief opening remarks as well, Chairman? Thank you. First of all, I would like to thank the Committee for this opportunity—I think this is a very significant event—and this session I think is very well timed in the sense of I have always been someone who has argued that we need more clarity in these things. I think that establishing the clarity early will be very useful and hence the draft chapter that you have before you will, I hope, go a long way towards that. I am grateful to the Committee for agreeing that we can publish this; but it is, I stress, a draft, and we are very keen to get views on this. It is a draft of a chapter that the Prime Minister asked me to prepare as part of the Cabinet manual—this is the New Zealand version, which is rather elegant, and I will be going over to New Zealand to talk to them about their version as well. We have worked on this with the Queen's Private Secretary to produce this draft chapter. I would just like to say that it is work in progress but it has benefited from excellent comments from a number of professors—some are here: Bogdanor, Brazier, Hazell and Hennessy—and comments from Peter Riddell and my former Cabinet Secretaries have all given me very useful comments. I think that that note by your own Lucinda Maer is a very good background note. I am keen to get your comments and I also will be passing the note to the Public Administration Select Committee and the Leaders of the main parties who are represented in Parliament. The purpose of the chapter was to bring together existing conventions and legislation but there are two parts to which I would like to bring the Committee's attention. First of all, paragraph 19 explains that the Prime Minister can ask the Cabinet Office—and I stress, I think in the draft it says Cabinet Secretary but I think in this sense it will be Cabinet Office in general—to support both the Government and Opposition parties in their discussions about forming a stable government. Just to say that I have discussed this with the Prime Minister and he has indicated to me that he would support that use of civil servants; so that means we would be ready to do this in the event of a hung Parliament. Secondly, I know you had some discussions about what you call the caretaker principle and at paragraph 20 the draft proposes—and again this is new—that the rules covering the election period would be extended beyond the election, to the post-election period when we do not have a stable government. So we would extend it beyond that period. I know that there may be other issues you want to raise about that and I am very happy to come back to that. In terms of your question, Chairman, about do we have the capacity to handle these sorts of issues and is there enough media understanding, I would say it is worth remembering that these things are quite rare. I joined the Civil Service in 1979, over 30 years ago, and I have had the experience of one change of administration, the 1997 one—that is it. In terms of the Civil Service, people who have been there quite a few decades have not seen many changes of administration and they certainly have not seen a hung Parliament situation. So can we assume that the Civil Service is up and ready for this? No. That is why I am doing a lot of work on preparing for all possible outcomes, so I think that is important. We have looked back to history and that is why I have been consulting with my illustrious predecessors who have been very helpful on all of this—and I know you spoke to Robin Butler and Andrew earlier. So in terms of media perceptions and are they there, again I think that it is important for us to provide as much clarity as we can and I think the purpose of this draft chapter is to get it out there and to explain some of these issues where there has in the past been some confusion and to try, as far as we can, on the basis just of what is existing conventions, to explain what we think would happen in the event of a hung Parliament.

  Q88  Alun Michael: I am very interested in what you say in paragraphs 19 and 20 and it brings us to a point that came out in earlier discussion. Yes, Minister! and Yes, Prime Minister! are fictional but they do highlight the challenge of drawing the line between the political exercise of judgment and the exercise of judgment by permanent officials, particularly the Cabinet Secretary. That is not covered here, and perhaps it cannot be in the sense that judgment is judgment, by definition, but how would you see these arrangements described in paragraphs 19 and 20 to be clear in terms of where the line is drawn between what is appropriate and what is not?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: You are now getting directly into what people call the caretaker convention. This is very interesting, and I have looked very closely at what is in the New Zealand manual and what Professor Hazell has said. I think the existing election guidance has worked quite well through the period and we have had good experiences of there being an understanding on all sides that no important decisions should be made during that period. When you think about firming it up, if you look at what the New Zealand manual says, it says—and I quote—"No hard and fast rules are possible". That is what they have in their manual, and they say: "Final decisions rest with the Prime Minister." That is two parts of their convention and I think they are right in that. There is an interesting question about can we explain it in more detail but I think it will be hard to come up with hard and fast rules. New Zealand has not and I do not know of any other administration that has. So we will be looking to be as specific as we can but within this area where we recognise that there is some judgment; but at the moment we are exercising that judgment and have done so during every previous election campaign period, so we are quite used to doing that.

  Q89  Alun Michael: Can I put the point that came up earlier as well, the point where it was suggested that there needs to be, in effect, danger in a Prime Minister taking decisions on which there is disagreement with the advice to the Cabinet Secretary. Is there not a need also for there to be an equal and equivalent constraint on the Cabinet Secretary in not gratuitously withholding agreement to a particular decision? It is a judgment in both cases.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: That is absolutely right and there have been various people who suggested the Muldoon precedent where there is the whole question about devaluation and the like. I discussed this with Robin Butler, it is worth noting that if we had had the New Zealand caretaker convention it would not have made any difference to that case, and that is what I think the New Zealanders have told me. It does not answer that problem; you are still faced with this judgmental issue. If we get to a situation where a Prime Minister wanted to do something during that period where there was not all-party agreement then where we would have to go is in the area of a direction; we would have to say, "That can only be done, Prime Minister, if you direct me to do it," and we would make that direction available in the normal way to Parliament.

  Q90  Mr Tyrie: Just to clarify that point, after that direction has been issued, elicited, Lord Butler was suggesting that this should follow the procedure that is used by Accounting Officers. That would be for the Accounting Officer to ensure that the NAO are informed and of his reasons, which would enable the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Chairman of the PAC or both to make that public.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes.

  Q91  Mr Tyrie: What arrangement for publishing the reasons for the disagreement with the decision do you envisage?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: As you know, currently what often happens in these cases is that there is a letter from the Permanent Secretary to the minister making the decision and a letter from the minister. So the letter from the Permanent Secretary will say, "For the following reasons, Minister, I would require a direction to do what you are asking me to do," and laying out the pros and cons; then the minister would say, "Thank you for your advice but I have decided, boom, boom, for the following reasons." We would normally put those two letters, as you rightly say, to the NAO. In a period where we do not have a Parliament—it is an interesting one—again we are in the stages where it is for us to think about what are the right principles that should govern this. Personally, I would like the principle that we should publish those letters immediately and if we cannot publish them to Parliament because we do not have a Parliament to publish them to, we would just publish them on a government website or make them publicly available.

  Q92  Mr Tyrie: That sounds a sensible approach, if I may offer a view. One other question, very quickly. Your paragraph 20 refers to the caretaker arrangements after the election continuing—it was a point to which you referred in your initial remarks. Could you clarify that those caretaker arrangements will be in the same form as ones before the election?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes, that will be our presumption—simply to take what you have in the pre-election guidance and roll it forward. I would certainly be saying to civil servants to carry on in that mindset post-election but pre-stability.

  Q93  Mr Tyrie: One last procedural point, given that this is the first time we will ever have had an election where we have before us a manual, and given that the election is likely to be May 6—but I of course accept in your covering letter that you cannot know that and you say that it depends on when the election takes place—when do you think you can get the manual in full published?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The manual in full published? The idea is to publish this draft straightaway if the Committee accepts that. We are working on the draft. I have given the Chairman a list of the chapter headings. I would hope to have this ready for just after an election to put to the incoming administration, whoever it is—

  Q94  Mr Tyrie: So this is not going to be ready for an election?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: No.

  Q95  Chairman: Does that mean that some of the principles that it enunciates and upon which you have enlarged already will or will not be what you follow at that time?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The ones in this draft, the reason for publishing it now, is because I think that these are hugely important and that we get them established now; and in the absence of commands otherwise I will certainly be following this one.

  Q96  Mr Tyrie: So it will be fully operational even though not fully published?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: This one will be published—this chapter will be published, which gives us the bit about a hung Parliament; but the other chapters which relate to things like devolution arrangements and all those other things will be available post-election.

  Q97  Mr Tyrie: So on what date will this chapter be finalised and made fully operational?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: In a sense it is partly down to how many comments we get and the Committee's own views on it. So I have deliberately said that I want this to come to you as the Justice Committee and I accelerated the work on this chapter so that we could have this conversation now because I think it is hugely important that we get clarity ahead of an election. We will get those comments together and I would want to try and get this finalised before the start of an election campaign, but of course as Mr Tyrie has said I do not know when that is, so I will work diligently as rapidly as possible.

  Chairman: Do you not? Are you sure you do not know?

  Q98  Mr Heath: So when we read in paragraph 20: " ... it would be prudent for it to observe discretion about taking significant decisions", we can interpret that as being Civil Service speak for a rather sterner injunction than it would appear to be?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes, I think that is right.

  Mr Hogg: Will it be re-drafted?

  Mr Heath: Yes, why do you now actually say it?

  Q99  Chairman: I think you could take an instant comment from the Committee that it might be helpful if that paragraph made clearer that what you are really talking about are the caretaker arrangements which existed prior to the election, or something at least as firm as that.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: At least as firm as that; absolutely. Personally, the stronger this is the better from my point of view to have clarity on that.

  Q100  Mr Heath: It is not clear at the moment that the same arrangements apply as would apply during the election period.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Exactly, and that is why I wanted to bring it to the Committee's attention because this is new. The point of the manual really is to codify existing practice but I want to say that here is something where we are suggesting something new, so I think it is legitimate for people to give us their views. If we get a strong view that we should firm this up and it is a cross-party consensus on that then I would be very happy to move to that.

  Q101  Mr Heath: Can I ask one specific example of the sort of decision that I would anticipate not being taken in a period of uncertainty, and that is changes to machinery of government. Would it be your view that it would be wrong for a Prime Minister not yet confirmed by the Parliament's agreement at the Queen's Speech to make significant changes to the machinery of government in that period?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: You raise a really interesting question there. I think the principle behind what you are saying has to be right, that you want there to have been an organisation for a stable government that can command the confidence of the House before you move to machinery of government changes. The question is at what point do you know you have a stable government that commands the confidence of the House?

  Q102  Mr Heath: When Parliament says so.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: In that case then it would be presumably post the Queen's Speech Vote; is that what you mean?

  Q103  Mr Heath: That is what I am putting to you as a suggestion and because this is the first thing that Prime Ministers like to tinkle with—in my view in a completely inappropriate way but that is beside the point. What I am asking is, is this something which this convention could actually avoid happening because of the disruption to the Civil Service and the costs involved?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: The only reason I am being slightly hesitant here is because at the moment the rule on the machinery of government, as you know, is that the Prime Minister determines machinery of government changes. If the Prime Minister were to decide that he wanted to make machinery of government changes straightaway because it would then be clear who the Secretaries of State were for the various departments—so your first reshuffle, as it were—the Prime Minister might want to do that very quickly and that would create the tension. So I think that this is a subject that will need to be teased out.

  Q104  Dr Palmer: I am very glad that you have brought this to our attention because, as you say, it is obviously a new point. I have severe reservations about it. If you think about the reasons why we have a purdah period, my understanding is that it is overwhelmingly because it is thought to be undesirable that the government should use its position of incumbency to affect the judgment of the electorate just before a General Election, so that they should not be able to halve VAT the day before an election and that kind of thing. Those reasons for purdah basically do not arise once the election has taken place. Obviously there could be another election but that is not the immediate issue. Given the possibility which, as you say, would be unusual in our recent history, of a period of uncertainty of who is going to perform a durable government, I would really like to ask you whether you think it is desirable that the Civil Service plays a greater role in constraining how the government acts. In the previous session we had witnesses saying that in an emergency, terrorism or whatever they could act anyway; but there is a second level for things which are not an emergency but which are part of the normal process of government, and especially if there is not a great controversy about those decisions I am very uneasy about the idea that the Civil Service raises its game and starts saying, "We actually need a formal exchange of letters on this because it is still sort of purdah."

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: This is not a power grab. What we are talking about here is during this period if there are terrorist events or crises the previous Prime Minister remains the Prime Minister, we all know that, and so the government gets on with it. If there are contentious issues what the guidance would say is, "Let us try and reach all-party agreement on those." If there are minor issues that everybody agrees on then they can go ahead anyway, so I do not think we would be constraining things in that sense. I suppose what it is trying to guide against is those areas where you might have a situation where a government had gone into an election, had come out of it with many less seats than another party and it was looking as if that other party might be the one that was most likely to govern in a stable way, but the Prime Minister would still be the Prime Minister, as we know, and the Prime Minister might then decide to do something quite major. In those circumstances I would be uncomfortable with that and I think that this convention could stop that sort of area: for example, signing a very big contract, making a big machinery of government change. Those are areas where I think this convention would help us.

  Q105  Alun Michael: I have just one question there—whether it is the size of the contract or the controversial nature of the contract or the political nature of the decision that would be the element.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Sorry, not the size; if there is a big contract that everybody agrees on, you are absolutely right.

  Q106  Alun Michael: What I am concerned about is the unintended consequences. The intended consequences that you have described are entirely acceptable, I think. So would you accept that there is a danger of inertia within government actions and a danger of inertia most of the time, which leads to the "if in doubt do nothing" approach; whereas actually very often the issue is that you have a responsibility to take a judgment rather than doing nothing? If you are going to strengthen or clarify the Delphic words in relation to prudence in paragraph 20, do you also not have to strengthen the words that follow about the normal and essential business of government? I say this because I have seen decisions during the purdah period which were not in any sense political but where delay can be damaging either to an agency or perhaps to the industry that is affected by a decision. So if you are going to maintain the balance you need to strengthen both of those sentences or clarify both of those sentences, do you not?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Indeed. When we refer to the pre-election guidance we talk about the issues of—paragraph 11—a decision: " ... provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money." I think those are really important.

  Q107  Alun Michael: Where would the threshold come there because the national interest is a very high threshold? Something that could be damaging, as I say, to the operation of a government agency or to an industry, if it was affected by a decision, could be quite important and significant for that industry but not damaging to the greater national interest.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Yes, but if it was damaging to the industry and they were a supplier to us that might well be detrimental to value for money—value for public money.

  Q108  Alun Michael: Indeed, that is the sort of judgment that has to be balanced.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Indeed, which is why this allows for the fact that you could make such decisions. One of the issues that we work very hard on in the run-up to an unknown election date—by definition it is unknown—is to try and make sure that we are not in the position of having to make those kinds of decisions. So contracts are sorted out early or extended for short periods; so we do try our best to get ourselves in a situation where we are not faced with these sorts of decisions when we are in this period of political uncertainty.

  Q109  Dr Whitehead: Could I return you to the guidance that is issued concerning the person who will be asked by the Monarch to form a government? As paragraph 17 in the draft guidance states: "If the Prime Minister and government resign at any stage." I was interested that you drew our attention particularly to paragraph 19 in the draft chapter where you emphasise that: "It is open to the Prime Minister to ask the Cabinet Secretary to support the government's discussions with opposition or minority parties ... " And, indeed, if opposition parties ask for that support as well that will be given. After which point presumably if the Government then resigned the person who appears most likely to command the confidence of the House in the view of the Monarch would be advised by you?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: An interesting question. The constitutional principle, which I think Professor Bogdanor may have pointed out, is that the Queen does not necessarily have to take the advice of the Prime Minister—there is not a constitutional principle to that effect. I believe that it is the responsibility of the Prime Minister to ensure that the Monarch remains above politics and that when the Prime Minister resigns it is very apparent who the Queen should be calling to produce the next, hopefully, stable government. I think that is the way I see that.

  Q110  Alun Michael: I am presuming, however, that paragraph 19 implies that it is not clear, that should it be suggested by the Prime Minister that you should support the discussions with opposition minority parties to form a government, or indeed the Opposition suggests the same, then presumably at that point it is not clear who is going to form the Government and discussions therefore perhaps need to be undertaken, facilitated by yourself, at which point if the government resigns the Monarch may say, "Who is it that has the likely confidence of the House?" and the House not having met to decide that you would be presumably the only person at that point who would have that information.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: That is precisely why it is the Prime Minister's responsibility not to resign until that situation is clarified.

  Q111  Chairman: What is your view of the time pressures in that situation? Do you accept the media view really which is that all this has to happen in 24 hours or 48 hours at the most? Or is it possible to conduct it in an orderly way over a slightly longer period?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I think it is and there has been some confusion about this. A lot of people talk about markets being very jittery and the fact that there is not a clear outcome being a problem. It is worth saying that first of all it would not happen out of the blue; we have lots of opinion polls, we have political betting sites, we have spread betting. The markets will have moved very close to understanding what the outcome is. The uncertainty that will be removed is what the actual outcome is versus what was expected by the markets. So that is the difference that you will get there, which I would suggest—unless the polls and the betting are completely off for some reason—is usually quite small, although I stress that I lived through 1992 where the difference between what people actually said when they put their X on the balance paper and what they said when they came out in an exit poll was very, very different. So I think we all need to be very careful—and I will be more than anybody else—in presuming any particular outcome. Like I say, I think the markets will have moved a long way; I think what the markets will be looking for is the achievement of a government that is stable, that can carry through the key decisions that are needed; will carry through and succeed in terms of the Queen's Speech; and of course there will be some important decisions. There is a strong cross-party consensus that the deficit needs to be reduced significantly and there are some decisions there. So what the markets will be looking for is whether we achieve that stable government which could take these important decisions? If it takes a little bit longer to achieve that stability I think they will be patient, but there is no real question in my mind that what they will be looking for is something stable. If you bought market stability by rushing out and getting something which actually did not last very long then you would get a lot more market instability, I would say; so you are looking for something where there is a government which can command the confidence in the House in the important decisions.

  Q112  Mr Hogg: Sir Gus, on this point—and it really arises from paragraph 19—I see that the Cabinet Office, with the authority of the Prime Minister, will support the parties in their discussions. But, for example, addressing the question of reducing the deficit, it is clearly going to be necessary to form a view of reductions across departments. That is not exclusively a matter for the Cabinet Office and I can well imagine that parties would take the view that they would need to have access to individual departmental plans and budgets before they could form a view as to the kind of policies that they might be prepared to support, either as a part of a coalition or as some form of less direct support. What support are you contemplating will be given to the parties in those discussions addressing the problems of individual departments so that the parties know what they want to sign up to department by department?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: This is a very good point and let me stress, first of all, we are not talking about support for the political negotiations between parties as to whether it turns out to be a minority government or a coalition or particular Members in Cabinet or anything like that; we would leave that entirely to the political parties to do and I regard that as their responsibility. And this is new. This process was used during the recent Scottish elections—I know a very different system—and I would envisage us, as far as possible, being able to provide objective factual advice to the parties on whatever they felt was necessary to achieve the—

  Q113  Mr Hogg: But is it Cabinet Office level or allowing them to go to, let us say, Defra, for example, and talk with Defra officials about what would be realistic reductions to spending?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Indeed. At the moment we are in a situation where the Prime Minister has allowed discussions to take place with Permanent Secretaries of the various departments with the parties; those are taking place but they are within a very restrictive framework. I think you are absolutely right; there may be questions which would be much more substantial which we would face in those circumstances.

  Q114  Mr Hogg: How do you propose to deal with that situation?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: It will really depend upon how much detail the parties want. Having established this principle that the Civil Service can support, if the Prime Minister accepts—and, as I say, what this guidance says is that it is up to the Prime Minister and it could be that another Prime Minister might say no; but this guidance says that it is up to the Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister has said yes. I think we will need to come up with some guidelines for the Civil Service—I will need to come up with some guidelines in conjunction with my Permanent Secretary colleagues about what constitutes the right level of support to give because obviously we will be supporting the different parties, but it may be that we will be supporting a party which may turn out to be in opposition to the government. So I think we have some quite difficult practical issues to sort out as to how we make this work. Certainly one of the things that I have been doing is talking to John Elvidge in Scotland about how they managed this and how you manage the Chinese walls between the different groups.

  Q115  Chairman: That is still of course part of the same unified Civil Service of which you are Head.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Absolutely, yes, it is; Scotland Wales and England, all there. There is of course a separate Northern Ireland Civil Service, but, yes, absolutely a unified Civil Service.

  Q116  Chairman: Are you prepared for the complications that will arise if a coalition was formed?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: One of the things I think we learnt from the Scottish case, where they went through various possible scenarios, I think it is fair to say that certainly the public were not expecting a minority government to be the outcome. What I have learnt from that is that we need to prepare for all possible outcomes, so I think there is quite a lot of work we have to do here; and, yes, a coalition would be an obvious part of what we have to prepare for.

  Q117  Chairman: Sir Gus, we will try and make sure that the evidence from this session is printed early so that it can continue to inform the discussion. However, I want to give you the opportunity to tell us, if you wish to do so, whether you have had occasion to have any discussions with the Prime Minister to deal with issues of bullying in Downing Street.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: You go from the sublime to the ridiculous!

  Q118  Chairman: Not if it is real.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I have made a number of statements on this issue and let me be clear again. I have never talked to the Prime Minister about his behaviour in relation to bullying Number 10 staff, but of course I talk to the Prime Minister about how to get the best out of his civil servants; I have said that lots of times. I have not called for investigations; I have not given verbal warnings.

  Q119  Mr Tyrie: I regret having to ask these questions and I am disappointed that you are in the position of having to answer them, quite frankly. What you have just said is a reiteration of what has been described as a carefully drafted Whitehall statement, and these allegations are still being made. I wonder if I could give you an opportunity to clarify the scope of the repudiation you are making. Perhaps I can do that best by just reading out what Nick Robinson said in response to the BBC. He said that your latest statement "leaves open the possibility, indeed the likelihood that you did talk to Gordon Brown about the Prime Minister's behaviour towards his staff, as Andrew Rawnsley insists."

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I cannot be clearer. I have said that I have not talked to the Prime Minister about his behaviour with respect to bullying Number 10 staff.

  Q120  Mr Tyrie: What about other behaviour?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I do not talk to him about behaviours; I talk to him about how to get the best out of his staff.

  Q121  Mr Tyrie: Conduct, treatment of staff?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: This is getting into semantic angels on the head of a pin. When I said to the Prime Minister, "You really get the best out of your staff when you congratulate them for really good pieces of work" he said "Yes" and I make a point when I discuss with him of saying that, "It is really important that you show your support to the Civil Service" and he has done. When he talked to Civil Service Live, a really important conference, he went out of his way to put on the record, very clear, his support for the Civil Service. He has been a very strong supporter of the Civil Service and that I think is witnessed by the fact that for the first time in over 150 years we have in front of the House now a Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which has the clauses in it which will make statutory the Civil Service values. That is the huge prize which people on this Committee could help us deliver. It has cross-party support. Please, if there is one thing you could do for me it is to make sure that those clauses on the Civil Service go through before the House dissolves.

  Q122  Mr Tyrie: It is a passionate statement but one in answer to a question I did not ask. I would like to ask one more question.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I am looking for your support, Mr Tyrie; will I get your support on that Bill?

  Q123  Mr Tyrie: Unfortunately we do the asking of the questions here. Have you at any time discussed the conduct towards the Civil Service or the treatment of civil servants—the treatment that has been allegedly meted out to them—by Mr Whelan or Mr McBride; have you discussed their conduct with the Prime Minister at any time?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I am not prepared to get into conversations about individuals because it is ridiculous. If individuals come to me with issues it is important that I, as the Head of the Civil Service, maintain confidentiality.

  Q124  Mr Tyrie: And the conduct of advisers?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: With advisers I think it has been fairly clear, people have reported quite widely that episode with Mr McBride, and I have made it—

  Q125  Mr Tyrie: Have there been complaints by civil servants about their conduct?

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: I am not going to get into individual complaints; it would be wrong, because we regard it as very important to maintain confidentiality. I think that is important.

  Q126  Mr Hogg: Sir Gus, what you said in response to Andrew Tyrie is that you have talked to the Prime Minister about how he could get the best out of civil servants. I think what the Committee might like to know is what caused you to raise this discussion with the Prime Minister, when you did it and whether before you had this interesting discussion with the Prime Minister other individuals—I do not want to know who—had come to see you with the implication that such a conversation might be useful.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: This is a conversation I have had with every Prime Minister to whom I have been Cabinet Secretary.

  Q127  Mr Hogg: We are concerned, Sir Gus, with this one, if you do not mind.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: But it is a conversation I have had with both Tony Blair and with Gordon Brown. It is to my mind hugely important as part of my job as Head of the Civil Service to understand the relationship with the Prime Minister and his staff and the Civil Service as a whole, and to make sure that that is as effective as it can possibly be.

  Mr Hogg: I understand that entirely, Sir Gus, but there are two points—

  Chairman: Order!

  Mr Hogg: —the timing and did individuals come to see you beforehand.

  Chairman: Order! Rosie Cooper.

  Q128  Rosie Cooper: I just want to put on the record that any Chief Executive working with a Chairman of any organisation—in this case the Prime Minister—part of their day-to-day discussion will be how to get the best out of the organisation they represent. I am astounded that this should be seen as anything extraordinary. In my former life I did it all the time.

  Sir Gus O'Donnell: Like I say, it has gone somewhat from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I would say that the really important thing that the Committee has talked about is a hung Parliament; so I am very grateful for the comments that you have made. I would be really keen to get more comments from all of you on the specifics because I purposely have kept this and labelled it as draft because I think the points that have been made today have been really useful.

  Chairman: We are very grateful to you for this session today. I am glad you thought it was sublime—I think that is slightly overdoing it!—but I do think it was important that these issues were clarified. Thank you very much.

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