Publications on the internet
UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC HC 484-iv
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
THE PRIME MINISTER
TUESDAY 12 MARCH 2013
RT HON DAVID CAMERON MP
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 1 - 63
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.
Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.
Taken before the Liaison Committee
on Tuesday 12 March 2013
Sir Alan Beith (Chair)
Dame Anne Begg
Sir Malcolm Bruce
Mrs Louise Ellman
Mr Bernard Jenkin
Miss Anne McIntosh
Examination of Witness
Witness: Rt Hon David Cameron MP, Prime Minister, gave evidence.
Chair: Welcome back, Prime Minister. I did say that I would suspend until 4.25 pm, which means that one of our members is not yet back, but I know that you have another commitment following this one, so we will do our best to keep to the timing.
Mr Cameron: I am sorry about that.
Chair: In fact, I think there is an overlapping membership with your next commitment. We will try to help, so I though that we would start straight away rather than delaying unnecessarily.
Q1 Miss McIntosh: Prime Minister, welcome.
In 2010, the Government changed the machinery of government, particularly relating to the Food Standards Agency. Its primary remit was reduced to food safety. Why did you make that change? What problem were you trying to solve?
Mr Cameron: Yes, it was linked to a speech I think I made in opposition, when we did quite a big exercise looking at all the quangos and non-governmental bodies and tried to design a strategy for which parts of quangos should remain in quangos, and which bits should be put back into Government Departments. The basic rule that we tried to lay down was that if something was about policy design, it should be in a Government Department and accountable to this House. We were trying to increase accountability at the same time as reducing the size and scope of some of these quangos. What should be in the quango is the technical function that needs to be independent of the Government. This was not just the Food Standards Agency, as there was the same approach with the Environment Agency and other organisations: put the policy in the Department; put the independent function in the agency. That was what we did with the FSA.
Q2 Miss McIntosh: But it is not independent, is it?
Mr Cameron: What, the FSA is not independent?
Miss McIntosh: It is not completely independent.
Mr Cameron: Well, it is independent in that it has an independent head, it reports independently and it reaches independent judgments. Ministers cannot overrule what it says, so I would argue that it is independent. It may not be perfect, but it is independent.
Q3 Miss McIntosh: So do you think that the change that you made to the FSA made its role-its core task-in responding to the contamination of meat scandal, with horsemeat replacing beef, any easier?
Mr Cameron: I do not think it made any difference, to be fair. I have looked very closely at what the FSA has said itself about dealing with this problem. As I say, it was not reducing its ability to do its key independent job, which is properly to oversee testing, the science and the advice. The key thing is independent advice to consumers. This is why everyone goes back to why the FSA was set up as it was, but policy should be developed by the Department. I don’t think that prevented it from acting properly with respect to this very worrying event.
Q4 Miss McIntosh: You will have seen the conclusions that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee reached. We are very clear that there has been a lack of clarity and some confusion over the response. I understand that the Government have commissioned some work with the National Audit Office on the future role of the FSA. There was also the capability review that reported in January about the need for the FSA to improve its relations with local authorities and FSA equivalents across the European Union. Do you think there has been confusion and a lack of clarity?
Mr Cameron: As I say, I do not think there is a lack of clarity between policy and practice. I am sure that there are lessons for everybody to learn in terms of what has happened over horsemeat and the scandal there. I think there are lessons for the FSA and probably lessons for the Department, as well as lessons for the retailers and international lessons that need to be learned, and we must make sure that we learn them. I don’t think there has been a lack of clarity in terms of roles. I would argue that from the moment I was told about the finding of the Irish Food Safety Authority-that was on 15 January-the next day I announced that I would ask the FSA to conduct an urgent investigation, and from that investigation followed the discovery that there was horsemeat in a number of products, so they were suspended. From that point, I would commend the Department and the FSA for the action they have taken. If you look across Europe, we have conducted in the UK many, many more tests than any other country. So in terms of whether the organisations-both departmentally and the FSA-moved rapidly to grip this issue, I would argue that they have, but there are always lessons to be learned.
Q5 Miss McIntosh: So you are not aware that we were told in an evidence session that the FSA UK was told in November that the FSA Ireland was conducting DNA tests on products that were destined for our market. Would that not have been a wake-up call that perhaps our FSA should have started testing in November?
Mr Cameron: That is a very good point. I was not told that. At the time I made the announcement to the Commons on 16 January, all I knew was what the Irish FSA had said. Subsequently, I learned the point that you have pointed out. As I say, I am sure there are lessons that can be learned, but from the point at which the Irish authorities made their announcement, I think the British authorities-
Q6 Miss McIntosh: That was the conclusion of the tests.
Mr Cameron: Yes.
Q7 Miss McIntosh: To whom is the FSA accountable?
Mr Cameron: Obviously the head of it is appointed by the Secretary of State, but it is an independent body and it can report separately to Parliament. My understanding is that, if we go back in history-why it was set up in the way that it was in the light of previous health scares-there was a sense that Parliament and the public needed an independent body that could give independent advice, and could be very clear about what was safe, what wasn’t safe and all the rest of it, post-BSE. I think that is probably right. You don’t want Ministers having the lead responsibility for giving food safety information; it is good to have a food safety agency. As I say, your Committee can grill it thoroughly and have a good look at what it says.
In the early days of the horsemeat scare, I felt there was a slight reluctance on behalf of bodies other than the Government to come forward and speak. I thought Owen Paterson did a good job at getting out there and explaining what was happening, but I thought it helped a lot when the retailers then came forward and the FSA came forward more. Fundamentally, this was an issue for the retailers to explain to their customers what was happening with their products, because it was much more a food labelling issue than a food safety issue. There may have been safety issues, of course, but it was much more a food labelling issue. I thought that the supermarkets were a bit slow off the mark, but since then they have really come into their own. I think they have been very frank and they have given a lot of information out to their customers.
Q8 Miss McIntosh: There are two things that I might ask you to look at, Prime Minister. Will you look to see that local authorities are entirely refunded for the tests that they have been asked to do by the FSA? Do you have any plans yourself to look at the role and responsibilities of the FSA going forward?
Mr Cameron: On the first point, I am not fully aware of the funding arrangements. All I know is that, even though there have been difficult public spending decisions, the level of testing has not declined. In terms of reimbursement, I am very happy to look at that and to write to you.
In terms of the role of the FSA, I am sure there will be a moment for a proper lessons-learned exercise. The FSA was only recently set up. I do not want to throw all the cards in the air and have some massive great royal commission into the whole thing, but I am sure that, as we get on top of this problem, there will be a moment when the Secretary of State will want to consult people in the industry, and perhaps more widely, about what lessons we can learn and what we can put in place, and I am sure that your Committee can contribute to that.
Q9 Andrew Miller: You mentioned testing, Prime Minister. The Secretary of State specifically told me that 5,430 tests were carried out, but he would not or did not tell me whether that was a sufficient number. Who told you that sufficient tests had been carried out, and what sort of scientific qualifications did that person have?
Mr Cameron: During this, I was obviously having quite regular conversations with the Secretary of State. I think the view was taken that we were carrying out many more tests than other European countries, and that the number of tests was appropriate. When you look at the relatively small number of horse-food contaminations, I think-well, it is difficult to tell. I asked a lot of questions of the Secretary of State, with my experts advising me, as it were, but did I ask an independent scientist? No.
Q10 Andrew Miller: We will come on to the independent scientists in a moment. When you are testing that kind of volume in an emergency situation-brigading together, as one had to, facilities all across the country-is there not a risk of inconsistencies of standards and expertise? How do you really know that the testing done was adequate? Nobody was prepared for this.
Mr Cameron: The people who were most keen to get the tests done, and to make sure that they were done properly, were the retailers on whose whole future proper testing and accurate labelling depends. As I say, they were a bit slow to start with, but if you look at what has happened now-in terms of the tests they are carrying out, the changes of practice they are looking at, changes of sourcing and massive great double-page advertisements in the newspapers-the retailers absolutely know that they have to get on top of this and that they have to use scientific opinion to help them make sure that they do. As I say, I think that if you compare what we are doing in the UK-let us bear in mind that we have only a very small number of horse abattoirs anyway-with other European countries, it compares quite favourably.
Q11 Andrew Miller: I want to move on to how you interface with your scientific advisers to ensure that you get independent voices on the science in Departments. Obviously, there are circumstances when Ministers will quite legitimately set aside the scientific advice for policy reasons that override the advice they have received. Do you not think it would be a good idea that, if that were the case, Ministers ought to be required to spell out why they have set aside the advice?
Mr Cameron: I cannot think of an occasion-I am trying to-when scientific advice has been received saying, "Minister, you must do X," and the Minister has gone off and done Y. Scientific advice is normally about: what is the likelihood of success; what are the probabilities; what is the information you need; is there need for further research? I think the important thing is that scientific advice is properly given, properly received and properly looked at. Then Ministers make decisions and then Parliament-Committees, including your Committee-can ask them about whether they have followed it.
Q12 Andrew Miller: I don’t think I am pursuing a party political point. We want to ensure that scientific advice is genuinely independent and robust. I am trying to create an environment in which scientific advisers feel free to give that advice.
Mr Cameron: I think they really do.
Q13 Andrew Miller: But if their advice were rejected for other policy reasons, do you not think that it would be reasonable to expect the Minister responsible to spell out why they were rejecting that advice?
Mr Cameron: If, as you say, there was a clear piece of advice to do X and the Minister wanted to do Y, yes, I think that the Minister would have to explain-they will be questioned in Parliament-why he or she had taken that decision. From my experience, that is not quite the way it works. You get scientific advice about an issue and it is something that you take into account. The advice often is not taking this path or that path, but trying to explain the context.
Take Fukushima, for instance, where the scientific advice was really important. We held Cobra meetings to listen to the advice of the ambassador and the chief scientist about what we should do in relation to Fukushima. There wasn’t a moment when we disregarded scientific advice, but you were taking that advice into account as part of your decision making. I can’t really go much further than that.
Q14 Andrew Miller: Just on that, it is appropriate, as this is his last fortnight, that we put on record how well John Beddington did during that period and how he helped people to understand the crisis that they were facing. It is that kind of situation in which it is absolutely critical that Governments accept that scientists such as the chief scientist in this case, Mike Weightman, can genuinely feel free to give independent advice.
Mr Cameron: I think they totally feel like that. From my experience, they do not hold back in giving their opinions. They get asked a lot of questions about their opinions in those sorts of meetings so that we really drill down into what they are telling us. I do not think that that is a problem.
Q15 Chair: When you said a moment ago, in relation to meat contamination, that you asked a lot of questions, assisted by your advisers, who were you talking about? Were you talking about scientists, specialists or No. 10 staff, as opposed to those who were in the Department?
Mr Cameron: More No. 10 staff. When this issue came to light, I was obviously using the private secretary who follows this Department, and also using Policy Unit people and Implementation Unit people whom I thought would have interesting views. Part of the job there is to probe and ask the right questions: what are the retailers doing; what is the chance of this spreading internationally? It is making sure that, as Prime Minister, you feel that the Department is on top of it and gripping it properly, and actually I think it did a good job.
Q16 Chair: The reason I ask that question is that in this part of the session we are trying to get at how you and No. 10 handle difficult situations and issues that arise. I am going to ask Dame Anne Begg to move on to a different topic with the same intent.
Q17 Dame Anne Begg: It is not quite different, in as much as I am going to talk about the cost of food, which is going up faster than other prices. In particular, the cost of energy is also rising faster than other prices. The poorest in society spend a higher proportion of their income on these two commodities than the rest of us, yet at the same time, they are facing cuts in their benefits as a result of welfare reform-indeed in not just benefits, but their overall income. What did No. 10 do to anticipate this double whammy, if you like, that will fall on the most vulnerable in society? Have you done anything to mitigate the effects of the rise in prices and the cut in income?
Mr Cameron: First, on energy prices, No. 10 has played quite a role in pushing very hard on what is now going to be put into law: the idea that energy providers must put customers on to their lowest tariff. I think that there is a lot of frustration among consumers. There is a baffling array of tariffs. You know that you are allowed to choose and change suppliers, but you can never be certain that you are getting the lowest tariff. That change of law is significant, and No. 10 has been very involved in that.
Q18 Chair: In fact, it was a rather interesting moment when you announced it. Looking around, I am not sure that everyone anticipated your very clear announcement of it in Prime Minister’s Question Time.
Mr Cameron: The point I would make is that I announced it in the House of Commons, it is going to be passed into law in the House of Commons, everyone can scrutinise it in the House of Commons, and that will be that.
Q19 Chair: I wonder if it was actually a technique to get the thing driven through the system.
Mr Cameron: You might say that; I couldn’t possibly comment. None the less, on energy policy more generally, obviously, there has been a big and robust debate, for which I make no apologies, about how you get the balance right between sourcing for renewable energy, making sure you have security of supply and incentivising energy producers to come forward, but at the same time not putting too much pressure on people’s bills. That has been a debate held within the coalition, and it has now been answered. We have set out the renewable obligations and the energy strategy, so everyone knows what the system is. I think it is a fair balance between security of supply but also making sure we keep energy prices down.
Q20 Dame Anne Begg: But what about the people who have found their income being cut at the same time? No matter how low their energy bills-or indeed their food bills-are, they no longer have the same amount of money, of disposable income, that they need in order to afford the basics.
Mr Cameron: The difficult decisions about welfare have been taken, by and large, in meetings with the Deputy Prime Minister, Prime Minister, Chancellor and Chief Secretary, and on many occasions we were joined by the Welfare Secretary when discussing welfare issues. We have had to make very difficult decisions, but when you are fighting a budget deficit that is one of the biggest anywhere in Europe, and when one in every three pounds that the Government spend is on welfare, I do not think it is possible to deal with the crisis in public spending and the deficit without addressing welfare. For instance, the decision we made about the 1% increase in working-age welfare was taken in that forum. The Department for Work and Pensions was involved in that decision, and all its experts were able to brief us on that matter.
I think it is important to point out that, because prices have gone up faster than wages over the last few years, people on welfare have seen their incomes go up faster than people in work. I know they have gone up because of increases in inflation, but for instance an unemployed person on jobseeker’s allowance will get £325 more a year this year than in 2010. There are quite a lot of people in work who have not had a £300 pay rise over the last couple of years.
Q21 Dame Anne Begg: Yes, but that doesn’t take into account the effects of your other welfare reforms which have actually cut incomes, such as the cap on housing benefit, the so-called bedroom tax and time-limiting contributory ESA. Soon people will have to find 20%-possibly more-of their council tax that previously they didn’t have to find. So disposable income, despite the 1% increase, is much less as a result of these cuts.
Mr Cameron: If you are asking whether we have had to take difficult decisions over welfare, the answer is yes. Have we taken decisions on welfare that have affected people right across the income spectrum? Yes, we have. We also, of course, took away child benefit from families where someone was earning over £60,000. This is not the forum in which to be political, but the interesting thing about all these changes is that even the change affecting people earning over £60,000 a year has not had all-party support, if I can put it that way.
You can take the view, "We wouldn’t make any changes to welfare at all", even though we have a budget deficit which is now effectively the biggest in Europe. That is a point of view. If you want to take that point of view, you then have to find public spending reductions in health, education, housing and elsewhere. My argument is that, if welfare accounts for one in three pounds that the Government spend, it is impossible to deal with the problems of excessive public spending and excessive deficit without looking at welfare.
Q22 Dame Anne Begg: But 50% of the welfare spend is on the old-age pension. Almost 70% of the welfare spend goes to people who are above pensionable age, but they are not the ones who are facing the cuts.
Mr Cameron: This is a political choice, but my view is that people who have worked hard all their lives and have retired deserve dignity in old age. I made a very clear promise at the election that people would continue to receive their old-age pension, properly uprated, and they would continue to get the free television licence, the free bus pass, the winter fuel payment and the cold weather payment. I have kept all those promises, and I am proud of the fact I have kept them all.
When you actually examine where welfare has increased very rapidly and where we need to give it more attention, I would argue that working-age welfare-in 2010 Members of Parliament were able to get working tax credits. I don’t think that is appropriate, and that is why we have changed that. So I think it is working-age welfare that requires attention. I accept that it has to be done properly and sensitively, but that is the choice. If you want to argue that it would be better to take the money off pensioners, then go ahead, that is a point of view.
Q23 Chair: We need to move on, having established that you took a close personal interest in some aspects of these issues.
Mr Cameron: Those are obviously very big decisions on welfare. They are big budget decisions and you would expect the Prime Minister to be fully involved.
Chair: We will move to a different subject faced by the Government.
Q24 Mrs Ellman: The decision to cancel the competition for the intercity west coast franchise has cost the public at least £50 million up to now. It has caused great disquiet within the whole of the rail industry and led to a major review of the Government’s rail policy. Don’t you feel, Prime Minister, that with something so important with such major implications, No. 10 should really have got a grip on that one?
Mr Cameron: Clearly, something went very wrong at the Department for Transport. I am personally very frustrated about the way in which that happened. I think you know that, as the process was going on, I was getting letters from participants and I was concerned about what I was reading. So I asked the Cabinet Secretary to examine whether it was being done properly. He in turn asked the Department for Transport for assurances about the process and received them. It turns out that the assurances he got were wrong, and the assurances that he gave me were wrong.
Am I happy with what happened? No, I am absolutely not. That is not acceptable. That is why we had to stop the franchise. That is why we have had the two reviews. I think Sam Laidlaw did a good job. We have got to learn the lessons from that. That was a major error and a major problem that have to be properly dealt with.
Q25 Mrs Ellman: But what lessons have you learned from that as far as No. 10 is concerned?
Mr Cameron: As far as No. 10 is concerned, I did ask the Cabinet Secretary to investigate and ensure that it was being done fairly and properly.
Q26 Chair: It wasn’t a very productive process.
Mr Cameron: It wasn’t productive. The Cabinet Secretary is very apologetic about that and is angry about the fact that he feels he was let down by the Department for Transport. The upshot of it all is that a number of people at the Department for Transport have been investigated, one of the key people has left and the Department has been restructured. So action has been taken, but there are lessons that need to be learned. I want to make sure we learn them across Government about all of the processes that involve complicated data sets, and that is why Nick Macpherson the Treasury Permanent Secretary has also looked at it.
Q27 Mrs Ellman: But, Prime Minister, it was way beyond complicated data sets. That was a part of it. What we had was the previous Secretary of State-not the current one-in a situation where administrative costs had been cut by over a third and the cut for the whole Parliament had been taken in one go by the decision of the then Secretary of State. The Department was not organised properly. The then Secretary of State embarked on a completely new process, a new type of franchise, that was very risky and ill-prepared. What lesson do you learn from that in relation to ministerial responsibility?
Mr Cameron: You can obviously make the argument that, if you cut a Department, it then becomes completely incapable of doing anything. I just don’t accept that.
Q28 Mrs Ellman: But in this example, Prime Minister, it was catastrophic. That was the basis for problems. There were other issues, too. Do you not take any lesson from that situation?
Mr Cameron: First, let me make two points. One is that, as I understand it, some of the errors made by officials were simple computing errors. You can’t blame that on cuts; that is just incompetence. Secondly, where there are problems you need Departments to surface them early. The people involved with this knew there were problems and they didn’t surface them. Again, that is not about cuts; that is about competence, effective management and proper reporting systems.
I think there are all sorts of lessons to learn about how Departments are run and organised. I think the Laidlaw and other inquiries will help to ensure that they are learned. I think there are lessons to learn about how you conduct complex financial arrangements such as franchises and ensure they are properly done. I hope lessons will be learned there, too. That is why Nick Macpherson, the Treasury Permanent Secretary, has been involved.
Also, as we are here to talk a lot about No. 10’s role, if the Prime Minister asks the Cabinet Secretary for assurances about a process, in future it will be very important to ensure that, when you go to a Department and ask for those things, a better piece of work is done to ensure you are getting to the bottom of it. Obviously, that did not happen in this case.
Q29 Mrs Ellman: In June 2010, the Department announced that Siemens was to be the preferred bidder for the Thameslink rolling stock. That was a controversial decision at a time. We are now in March 2013, and that deal has not been concluded. Has No. 10 been making inquiries of the Department for Transport about what is happening?
Mr Cameron: Yes, I have been following this very closely. It is a very important contract, and we want to make sure that it is carried out properly. In the regular discussions that my officials and I have with the Department for Transport, Thameslink is very important; Crossrail is very important and a number of the road schemes that were embarked on are very important. No. 10’s role is to progress, chase and make sure that things are happening in the way that they must.
Q30 Mrs Ellman: That has not happened, has it? We were told in 2010 that the contract was to be "concluded shortly". Those were the words used. We are now in March 2013, and it has not happened. Have you been asking why that has not been concluded?
Mr Cameron: Yes, the things that are of great concern to me are the biggest contracts, the biggest things that will make a difference to our economic geography and our economy. Obviously, the Crossrail rolling stock is one, and the Thameslink contract and how we make sure that we learn the lessons of that competitive tender in which Bombardier lost out. I want to make sure that we continue with good train manufacturing in Derby. All such things are of concern. They are the sort of questions that I raise with Patrick McLoughlin, and that my officials raise with his all the time.
Q31 Mrs Ellman: Are you satisfied that the delay is justified? The project has still not been concluded, despite its importance.
Mr Cameron: I want us to expedite things.
Q32 Mr Jenkin: Prime Minister, you will remember that we discussed the question of ministerial accountability in March last year. You suggested that there needs to be no change in the accountability of the civil service to Select Committees.
Mr Cameron: Did I say that? I thought that I showed a bit of leg.
Q33 Mr Jenkin: You showed a little bit of ankle perhaps, but I felt that there was no departure from the principle as set out in the Armstrong memorandum, with which I am sure you will be familiar. I will just read this bit: "When a civil servant gives evidence to a Select Committee…he or she does so as the representative of the Minister in charge of the Department and subject to the Minister’s instructions…and is accountable to the Minister for the evidence which he or she gives. The ultimate responsibility lies with Ministers, and not with civil servants, to decide what information should be made available and how and when it should be released". This seems a bit dated in today’s modern world of transparency and accountability and openness. Would not you agree with that?
Mr Cameron: I would agree with that. I do not think that I gave as strict an answer as you say. I will go back and check.
Q34 Mr Jenkin: Well, this is still in force. I checked this afternoon. This is the still the guidance that civil servants are required to comply with. It states that "civil servants should conduct themselves in such a way as to deserve and retain the confidence of Ministers". All the emphasis is on that. "The duty of the individual civil servant is first and foremost to the Minister of the Crown who is in charge of the Department in which he or she is serving." Of course, there is an exception in the case of accounting officers, but that rather makes the case that, in a matter such as the west coast main line fiasco, there should perhaps be more openness and accountability directly from civil servants to Select Committees.
Mr Cameron: I would agree with that. We need to think carefully about where you try to draw some new lines but if, for instance, you summon the chief scientist to a Committee and ask them questions, you expect them to answer those questions accurately and, if necessary, relatively independently.
Q35 Mr Jenkin: I am making a slightly broader point here. You referred to the officials. When it came to the Francis report, we are not allowed to have any scapegoats but, in the case of the west coast main line, some people would feel that relatively junior officials have been made the scapegoats, when we know that there was a loss of key skills from the Department. The responsibility was possibly held at too junior a level. There was a lack of governance because the franchising had been split between two directorates. There was a restriction on outside advice and, as you said, the Cabinet Secretary even looked at this and did not spot what had happened. There was something of a systemic failure in this episode, which does not seem to be recognised in the accountability either to the public or to Parliament. Do you understand why people might feel concerned like that?
Mr Cameron: I do. However, I think in the case of the west coast main line, it is pretty clear that there was a failure within the Department, and that failure was predominantly the responsibility of the officials concerned.
Q36 Mr Jenkin: But that Department was run by Ministers and senior officials. Another example, which is one of my favourites, is defence procurement. Endless money is wasted and endless projects are delayed, but somehow the wrong decisions are always taken by somebody who has left or moved on-whether an official or a Minister-and nobody is held accountable. Nobody is held responsible for the endemic failures in defence procurement. Isn’t there something wrong with the model of accountability we have got if that is the case?
Mr Cameron: I agree. I think we need to improve it, and I am in favour of examining with you how much more we can open up the question of civil servants to Select Committees. I do not draw a hard and fast line. I do not believe that Thomas Dugdale, or whatever he was called, was right to resign over Crichel Down. I think we do need to make changes, but there are sensitive, difficult issues here and we have to think about it quite carefully.
Q37 Mr Jenkin: There is a kind of unspoken conspiracy-I do not wish to trespass on the inquiry that Stephen Dorrell is conducting at the moment in the aftermath of Francis-that the Ministers are not responsible because the officials or people down the line were responsible, but we cannot hold the officials accountable because of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. The result is that the worst tragedy has occurred in the health service that we could possibly imagine, but nobody has resigned or been held accountable. That really leaves an uncomfortable feeling.
Mr Cameron: I think you are being a bit unfair on Francis. Francis said very clearly that the management and the board of the hospital are responsible. The tragedy in the system is that they were not properly held accountable at the time.
Q38 Mr Jenkin: Who gave them their independence? That was a decision made in Whitehall. Who set the target culture, and who enforced it? That was senior officials, and made in Whitehall. Where are the Ministers and senior officials who have been held responsible for the policy?
Mr Cameron: As I said in the House the other day, I think everyone has to consider their responsibilities with regard to this. But Francis goes through it in quite a lot of detail. You can read the section about the strategic health authority and the Department of Health. He finds all sorts of failings, but he says, "Don’t scapegoat", and he does not specifically point the finger at people other than the management of the hospital boards. You cannot commission public inquiries and then ask them miraculously to come up with a different answer from the one they provide.
Q39 Mr Jenkin: Well, the inquiry put a lot of information into the public domain, but it stopped short of doing what you say. Just to round this off, and to give strength to the open door I think you are offering us on the question of the accountability of civil servants, in the Haldane report there is a very interesting sentence that foreshadows the arrival of departmental Select Committees. It goes on, "Any such Committees would require to be furnished with full information as to the course of administration pursued by the Departments with which they were concerned; and for this purpose it would be requisite that Ministers, as well as the officers of Departments, should appear before them to explain and defend the acts for which they were responsible." The shock that I think Haldane would have is that Ministers appear so often in front of Select Committees that it is axiomatic-as then the Estimates Committee operated-that officials are responsible for reporting hard facts to Select Committees, unconstrained by this perhaps over-egged doctrine of ministerial accountability.
Mr Cameron: I think you are slightly over-egging it, if I might say so. Take the Home Affairs Committee. They feel absolutely free-quite rightly-to summon officials from UKBA, the Home Office and the police and give them a good grilling to try to get to the bottom of who is responsible. That is what Select Committees do, and that is good. I think you are slightly over-interpreting how restricted you are.
Q40 Mr Jenkin: Well, there have been occasions when officials have refused to answer questions because they are protecting their Minister. On issues of fact-my colleague will be able to illuminate this in regard to a particular instance-surely civil servants should be obliged to answer questions of fact and administration when they are before a Select Committee, whether or not the Minister has pleaded with them not to give the Committee the facts.
Mr Cameron: As I say, I am open to that discussion.
Mr Jenkin: I am very grateful.
Mr Cameron: I think it is a good one to have. There are some people who say that this should be sorted out by giving politicians more ability to appoint the civil servants, because otherwise you can’t have direct accountability. My view is you need a bit of both. I do think that Secretaries of State should be given a choice of Permanent Secretaries. For those that cross the line of being an acceptable appointee, I think that that is important. So I think that there needs to be a greater element of choice for Ministers, but some greater level of accountability for civil servants as well. That is a good conversation to have.
Q41 Margaret Hodge: I welcome that, and I hope that we can build some cross-party consensus on it.
I hope that you will say yes to these three suggestions and we can then move on to the next issue. They are about private providers increasingly providing public services-think of organisations such as G4S, Serco, Capita, A4e. They are all now receiving billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and delivering more and more public services. My Committee needs to follow the taxpayer’s pound, yet all too often we come up against either commercial confidentiality or, indeed, Departments insisting that the people with whom they have signed contracts do not actually give that information over to the public. The Work programme is a case in point.
I will put three suggestions to you, which I think could enable us to follow the taxpayer’s pound and to which I hope you will say yes. First, we could make transparency a condition of contracts so that, where public money is used, how that money is used can be open and transparent to Parliament and others. Secondly, we could give the NAO the power to follow the taxpayer’s pound and look at the way that that money is used in the private company to deliver the public service contract. The third point was suggested by the Information Commissioner: we could extend the powers of freedom of information into where private providers are providing contracts funded through taxpayers’ money.
Mr Cameron: I am not going to give you a flip answer on those. I will look at all of them. I think that it is important that we scrutinise these things properly. If you want to open up public sector procurement to private organisations, there are going to be occasions when there will be issues of confidentiality. I am not at all sure about extending FOI further. I think that transparency on the way in is better than endless information requests on the way out. I will have a look at those and perhaps write to you.
Q42 Chair: Before you commit yourself to doing less than you do now, which would be very unfortunate, I should make it clear that my Committee has certainly recommended, and it is quite common now, that purchasers making contracts should ensure that they can gain access to the information they require to answer freedom of information requests, because their contract with the supplier allows them to do so.
Mr Cameron: Right.
Q43 Margaret Hodge: Just to say to you, we are beginning to find that there are issues such as the out of hours GP service in Cornwall, where it was really a whistleblower who, in the end, found that there were more than 250 occasions when the contractor just lied about what it was providing. There is the issue around A4e and the Work programme, which we spent some time on. It was very difficult to get DWP to say what level of fraud or inaccuracy meant that the provider was not fit for purpose. I just think that transparency-
Mr Cameron: Let’s take the Work programme as a "for instance"- better than having endless deep dives into what is actually more published information. As I said, I would prefer that to the FOI process. What the taxpayer and, frankly, the Government need to see is what the outcome of these initiatives is. How many people are being helped? How many of them are getting jobs? How long are they staying in jobs? Publish the information-the outcomes are where we need the transparency. You can judge by outcomes. As I say, I will look at these things, but from what I have heard, my worry is that if you over-regulate the processes, you may actually find that you are not going to get good businesses coming in to run and find value for money where the Government needs it. I think that publishing outcomes is far more powerful. That would be my prejudice, as it were, coming to it-publish the information on the way out. But I will have a look at it.
Q44 Margaret Hodge: Well, we need to look at value for money. Can I just say that last year the Secretary of State for Education attacked the PAC in a speech in which he said that "the NAO and PAC, the most influential watchdogs in the country, are some of our fiercest forces of conservatism."? On your behalf, a spokesman at the lobby said that you sympathised with that view. Why did you and Mr Gove seek to undermine the taxpayers’ champions?
Mr Cameron: Don’t take it personally. I think the PAC and the National Audit Office do an important job. We want champions for the taxpayer. The point that Michael was making-this is felt a little bit around Whitehall, so we might as well have this exchange-is that the PAC has got to look at a status quo that is failing. Sometimes, we feel that if you try anything new or innovative, the PAC will come down on you like a ton of bricks. Surely, you ought to spend as much time looking at failing status quos. Let us see the PAC reports into failing local education authorities. We need both, I think is the argument. Look at failures of the status quo and then look at them-
Margaret Hodge: Can I assure you-
Mr Cameron: Sorry, one last point, just to get it off my chest: sometimes in business, if you innovate and fail, you do not get slammed by everyone and told you are a failure and that’s it-go and dig a hole and bury yourself. You are told that that bit of innovation did not work, but keep going, keep trying and keep innovating.
Chair: Put it down to experience.
Mr Cameron: We have got to innovate in Government. You have to do that, and so a failed innovation does not necessarily warrant a great-you get my point.
Q45 Margaret Hodge: I do agree that the only way in which you will cope with trying to get more for less is through innovation, but you will agree that when you innovate you need rational analysis; you do not just need ideological fervour. I think it is the job of this Committee and, indeed, Parliament to ensure that the Government are delivering value for money for hard-working taxpayers.
Mr Cameron: Of course.
Chair: You can’t possibly disagree with that.
Mr Cameron: No, I can’t disagree with that, but sometimes you need to give the innovation a little bit of time. That would be my other point. I am sure this is a debate that we can continue.
Q46 Richard Ottaway: Can we turn to foreign policy and the EU embargo on arms supplies to the rebels in Syria? You have on the one hand the Turkish Foreign Minister calling for a lifting of the ban on supplying arms to the rebels in Syria, and yet you have reservations among our EU partners. Can you foresee circumstances whereby you would veto the arms embargo when it is up for renewal in May, which would effectively mean lifting it?
Mr Cameron: I would hope that that would not be the case. I would like to continue with an EU approach. We have just amended it, as you know, so that we can supply non-lethal equipment. I hope that we can persuade our European partners, if and when a further change becomes necessary, to agree with us. But if we cannot, it is not out of the question. We might have to do things in our own way. It is possible.
Q47 Richard Ottaway: So it is quite possible you would veto an extension of the embargo.
Mr Cameron: Well, we are still an independent country. We can have an independent foreign policy. If, for instance, we felt that action needed to be taken to help bring about change in Syria to help end this appalling bloodshed, and if we felt that our European partners were holding that back, we would have to change the approach, but that is not what I hope will happen. I think William Hague did a very good job persuading his colleagues to amend the terms of the arms embargo, so that we can supply this non-lethal equipment.
It is worth standing back and asking the question, "Why are we doing this?" It seems to me that if we want to help bring about a transition in Syria, we have to work with the opposition groups, and we want to work with the opposition groups to try to shape them, help them, work with them and encourage those that are committed to a pluralistic and democratic future for all in Syria. It is much more difficult to do that if you are not engaged in supplying anything in terms of help in the work that they are doing.
Q48 Richard Ottaway: It is a big step to be supplying the rebels with weapons.
Mr Cameron: Let me be clear: that is not a decision that we have taken. I hope that we do not have to break from a collaborative approach across the European Union. I was just making the point that, if we thought it was the right thing to do, we would do it.
Q49 Richard Ottaway: Fair enough, but the Foreign Secretary said that if he cannot get agreement among his EU partners, "we stand ready to take any domestic measures to ensure that core sanctions on Syria remain effective." That is a very bold unilateral statement.
Mr Cameron: It is a responsible statement because if, for whatever reason-this could have happened when we were discussing the terms of the EU arms embargo-we could not have agreed among the 27 the changes we thought necessary to supply non-lethal equipment, we would have had a choice: you could have let the whole sanctions package fall and supplied the non-lethal equipment, but, at the same time, Britain, as a major financial centre and an important player in all of this, would have had to put in place its own sanctions legislation very quickly. So we drew up that legislation-it was ready to go if we could not get agreement across Europe-because it would have been irresponsible to see the sanctions package fall, but for Britain not to put in place its own sanctions regime; otherwise, members of the regime would have been able to access money, finance and who knows what, so that was just responsible planning.
Q50 Richard Ottaway: Sticking with arming the rebels, it is widely accepted that, at the moment, jihadists are gathering from all over the world to fight their cause in Syria. Do you not think that it would be a mistake to arm rebels, when we do not really know their identities and their intentions are rather uncertain?
Mr Cameron: Obviously, there are dangers in any course of action that we take. I would make the point that there is a danger in inaction: while the world has stood by and, frankly, not done enough in Syria, what has happened? As well as 70,000 people being murdered, you have seen the jihadist elements of the opposition grow. Doing nothing is a positive choice in this case, and it may be that doing nothing means that the situation gets worse and the level of jihadism gets worse. My argument is that, by working with your partners to support part of the opposition by supplying and helping them, you can, at least, have some influence.
We are working very closely with the Qataris, the Jordanians, the Emiratis, the Saudis, the Americans and the French to try to work together, with the opposition, to shape and help that opposition and to encourage the parts of the opposition that want a pluralist, democratic Syria, where minorities have rights. If we just stand back from this and say, "I am sorry, we cannot reach agreement in Europe-there is nothing we can do," I would argue that that is a positive choice, but with a very negative outcome.
Q51 Richard Ottaway: Moving on, we are very much taking the lead in Syria and the reason given for that is, I quote the Foreign Secretary, "We cannot allow Syria to become another breeding ground for terrorists who pose a threat to our national security." Isn’t the weakness of that argument that it could apply to dozens of places around the world?
Mr Cameron: I have often made the argument that just because you cannot do the right thing somewhere that does not mean that you should not do the right thing anywhere. Of course, it applies to other places around the world. I would argue that we in Britain should not overstate our global role and what we can do, but with partners and allies, I think that we can help to have an effect in countries and to reduce-hopefully-the level of threat that we face. If you take, for instance, what we are doing in Mali-
Chair: We are going to come on to that.
Mr Cameron: I am sure, but, just as an example, we are assisting the French; we are helping to train the African forces, but we are not in a combat role or anything like that. Is it better to play that sort of role and to help? Can you have an effect as a supporter? Yes, you can, and that is the role that Britain should seek. We should combine what I call the "tough and intelligent" approach and work out where we can best maximise our national interest and reduce the level of jihadism, and in Mali I think that we have done just that.
Q52 Sir Malcolm Bruce: Can I address the refugee fallout from this? The number of refugees hit 1 million last week; William Hague called it "an increasingly extreme humanitarian crisis", but the support for those refugees is three quarters not funded. The UK has given £139.5 million. Are we going to give more? Is what you said to Mr Ottaway likely to lead to an even bigger flood of refugees and an even bigger crisis?
Mr Cameron: Answering the last question first, I do not think that what we are doing-helping Syrian rebels-will add to the refugee crisis. This is something that is happening anyway. Again, what is our policy aim here-what are we trying to achieve? We are trying to help achieve transition in Syria. As I have always said, there are two ways that can happen: you can have a political transition at the top, through diplomatic pressure-we need to keep pushing at that-or you can have transition from below, where the rebel forces eventually push out the regime, which has done such appalling things to its own people.
This is happening anyway: there is a humanitarian crisis anyway. Britain is playing a very leading role, with £139 million, as you say, in helping with that humanitarian crisis, and we will go on responding to it as it unfolds. But we should be in no doubt about who is responsible for this humanitarian crisis; it is Assad himself.
Q53 Sir Malcolm Bruce: But it is spreading, not just through Syria, but to the neighbours: you are talking about Turkey, which clearly has very strong foreign policy interests of its own and the capacity to follow them through, and then fragile countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, which are really struggling; indeed, this refugee problem could further destabilise them. Will they get support? Will the UK Government give them support?
Mr Cameron: Yes, we have given that. The refugee camp I visited in Jordan was partly funded by DFID-by UK taxpayers. We are looking on a case-by-case basis at where we can best help. We should use our action and our generosity to leverage in others, but, as I say, I would not accept the argument that our actions are making this worse. Our actions are designed to try to help achieve transition in Syria and to ease the humanitarian crisis at the same time.
Q54 Sir Malcolm Bruce: I wasn’t saying they are; I am saying they could.
Mr Cameron: No, I do see that. Sorry, the point you are making-that this is a very fragile region and what is happening in Syria is adding to the fragility-is absolutely right, but I would argue that that is an argument for engagement and trying to help more.
Sir Malcolm Bruce: Can I put one final question?
Chair: I am afraid I have to go back to Mr Ottaway or we will not get to Mali.
Q55 Richard Ottaway: On the subject of Mali, you said in your Commons statement-you were talking about the Islamic terrorists-"we must beat them militarily, we must address the poisonous narrative they feed on, we must close down the ungoverned space". You will be well aware that the Foreign Secretary made an important speech to RUSI about a restructuring of the intelligence relationships in north Africa. Is that speech the response to how you are going to beat them militarily?
Mr Cameron: Sorry, I am going to sound like one of those total bores who starts quoting his own speeches, but I added to that. As well as defeat them militarily, close down ungoverned space and defeat the poisonous narrative, you also have to drain the swamp of issues on which they feed and you have to think about how you develop political systems in which the moderates can beat the extremists. You need all those things.
Richard Ottaway: Sorry, I have it here; I am being hassled by the Chair.
Mr Cameron: The point I am making is that I do not want to be misinterpreted as believing somehow that every problem is a nail and every answer is a hammer. That is not my view at all. This is a tough but intelligent approach that recognises that if you take what is happening in Mali, for instance, you need a political settlement that includes north and south, you need economic development-all those things, as well as the tough action that the French have taken.
Q56 Richard Ottaway: And is restructuring the intelligence arrangements in north Africa part of the response?
Mr Cameron: It is part of the response. I do not think that we should try to pretend that we can take on all this responsibility ourselves-of course we can’t. My argument is that where we have strong relationships-for instance, in Nigeria-we should build on those; where others have strong relationships, as the French do in Mali, they should build on those; and we should try to partner up, as it were, with countries where there are real threats of extremism, jihadism and the potential export of terror. We should try to get ahead of these problems rather than wait for them to grow.
Q57 Chair: In the defence and security review in 2010, there was a very strong statement that there had to be a "clear strategic aim" and "a viable exit strategy" before we deployed UK armed forces. The deployment in Mali is supposedly limited, although it involves not only communications and facilities to receive our aircraft there, which we are sending, but also training the many other forces that are involved, sometimes in their own countries, but sometimes, of course, in Mali. What is the exit strategy?
Mr Cameron: The exit strategy is to train the people who will take over from the French. That is the military exit strategy both for the French and, arguably, for our trainers, who will be training Nigerians, Ghanaians and others. As the AFISMA force goes in and the French can go home, there will be less need for our training. So, militarily, there is an exit strategy. I would argue, more importantly, that you won’t solve the problem purely by military means. The real exit strategy is to build the capacity of the Malian Government and the Malian security forces to reach a political settlement that both north and south Mali feel included in. It is engaging with the neighbours, so they can help the stability of that country. In a way, it is all of those things, which will, over time, enable Mali to have a more stable existence.
Q58 Chair: Isn’t this the kind of situation where our presence forces us to stay longer and makes the exit strategy difficult? Those with whom we are working ask us to do things that were not part of the original strategy.
Mr Cameron: I think we are very alert to that problem because of what has happened elsewhere. The French are pretty alert to it. They want to get their troops out of Mali relatively quickly, because they know the longer they stay, the longer they potentially might become part of the problem. That is why replacing those French troops with African troops is very sensible. Britain’s contribution here is, as you said, troops to help with the C-17, which is helping to do resupply. It is some troops with the EU training mission, which will be in Bamako, which is specifically about training the Malians and others to take over security; and then of course troops, hopefully in Nigeria rather than in Mali, training Nigerians and others to play that role. I think we have learned the lessons from previous conflicts, when perhaps we have not thought these things through as carefully as we should have done.
Q59 Sir Malcolm Bruce: In the Sahel, you have got a position where there has been vulnerability over the years to drought, economic collapse and lack of governance. You call it an "ungoverned space" in which terrorists thrive. But we have withdrawn the development support we had in Niger before this crisis began. Do you think we should reconsider that or other actions in the region?
Mr Cameron: I think that we should always keep these things under review, but I don’t think it was a bad decision on this basis: we had a lot of DFID programmes in a lot of countries, some of which were too small to make much of an impact or give us much of a say. So I think trying to focus in areas where we can both be contributing aid but also trying to help with real political and economic development probably makes more sense. What can we do in this area that is the most constructive? I would argue that Nigeria is a country that we should partner up with more. We can have greater effect there, whereas, with Niger, it probably makes sense for the French, with their historical connections, to do more.
Q60 Sir Malcolm Bruce: Can we take particular action to protect women who are the most vulnerable in this crisis? Indeed, we have seen already that their rights are being brutally suppressed. We have evidence that shows that, whenever there is a crisis of this kind, women suffer rape, violence and very often death. Yet the international community does not always respond and indeed says, "We can’t find the evidence," and does not provide the support services. Do you believe there is a role for the UK Government, with partners, to step in earlier? What we will find otherwise is that, for six or twelve months, we will hear all the horror stories and people will want to know why we didn’t do anything about it.
Mr Cameron: It is a very good point. There are two things. One is that, where you’ve got these jihadist-style regimes like you had in northern Mali, I think that is another justification for the sort of action that the French, supported by us, have taken. Women in Mali will be better off for that. On your broader point about gathering the evidence faster, so that the world can try and act when there is rape, brutalisation and other things taking place, I think there are lessons to learn.
Q61 Sir Malcolm Bruce: Can I press you? Can the UK do something?
Mr Cameron: Yes, I think we can. This is something that the Foreign Secretary has given quite a lead on internationally and wants to raise it as part of our G8. Part of that is how you gather the information about what is happening, so then you can galvanise opinion. The Foreign Office and DFID are very focused on that.
Q62 James Duddridge: Mali has been very much in the press in the last couple of months, but lots of people-political journalists, politicians-were perhaps reaching for maps of the world to locate the country, and certainly the Sahel region. You appointed someone back in September 2012. What intelligence and information did you have at that time that this would develop into the crisis that we have seen?
Mr Cameron: What I was receiving-it is worth paying tribute to the work they do: the Joint Intelligence Committee in the Cabinet Office produced really good security and intelligence briefings on different parts of the world and threat levels.
This was showing up as an area of concern, because of the issues of ungoverned space, and extremism and extremist groups. I can’t claim that we were totally far-sighted, but we did reopen our embassy in Bamako in 2010. The National Security Council discussed Mali in July 2012-July last year-and then again in January this year. I appointed Stephen O’Brien as my envoy, knowing that he had travelled to the area. He knew it as a Minister; he had known it before. He had good contacts with the French, who obviously play a leading role in this area. Actually, it has been a really helpful appointment, in that he has been able to brief me and the Foreign Secretary in quite a lot of detail about all the international meetings that he is attending on behalf of Britain to try to make sure we galvanise action.
This was something that had sort of flashed up through the National Security Council and the national security strategy. As I say, I think it pays to try to get ahead of these problems. I can’t sit here and claim that, today, Mali and what is happening in Mali is a massive security threat to the UK. I think there is plenty of evidence that it is a threat to British people in the region, as, tragically, we have seen in recent days, but I think that all these spaces have the potential to provide a direct threat to Britain. We have seen that with Somalia and we have seen it elsewhere, so it pays to get ahead of the threat, which is what I think we are trying to do.
Q63 James Duddridge: Notwithstanding the reopening of a couple of embassies-the Abidjan embassy in the Ivory Coast as well-the extra investment in foreign languages and the support the Foreign Office has given for Commonwealth countries in Africa over other non-Commonwealth countries, would you agree that there has been an under-investment in north and west Africa over much beyond a decade-prior to your arrival in No. 10-and, if you do agree, what can we do going forward, if this is going to be an increased threat?
Mr Cameron: I think there has been an under-investment in our diplomatic networks and relationships, and all credit to the Foreign Secretary for what he has done to turn that situation around. We have opened quite a lot of embassies not just in Africa, but in other parts of the world. I think that we are now one of the only European players to have an embassy in every ASEAN country. He has reopened the foreign language school for the Foreign Office.
We do face difficult spending decisions across Government, and the Foreign Office budget has not been protected, but the focus on trying to extend our diplomatic punch has been pretty good. My whole argument is that we are in a global race: we need to succeed, forge links with fast-growing countries and make sure that Britain looks outward in the world. Obviously, a strong Foreign Office and strong embassies and trade missions are a very big part of that, which they are very focused on.
Chair: Prime Minister, thanks to the co-operation of my colleagues, we have enabled you to get to your next appointment. We might want to snatch a bit of time back from you when we next see you, which we hope will be certainly by the summer.
Mr Cameron: I am sure we can negotiate it. Thank you very much.
Chair: Thank you.