Examination of Witness (Questions 352-359)|
THURSDAY 14 MARCH 2002
352. If I can call the Committee to order we
can make a start. It is very good to see Sir Richard Wilson. Thank
you very much. You are a regular visitor to these parts and it
is always a pleasure to see you. I gather we are going to see
you next month too so this is perhaps the first instalment of
a longer conversation. We particularly wanted to see you, Sir
Richard, to see what you made of recent events, to start with
at least. It seems to have done the Civil Service no good at all
to have this row inside a major department, resulting in the departure
of a civil servant and a special adviser. I really would like
to hear from you as to why you think this happened and why it
was not got hold of at an earlier point, and why we have all these
codes and everything else and guidance if, when push comes to
shove, they cannot help us.
(Sir Richard Wilson) The experience of
the last two weeks, as you say, is not one that can give any of
us much satisfaction. I think the most important point is that
I do not think you should extrapolate from what happened in part
of one department to the whole of Government. You have had evidence
from Sir Richard Mottram about the events in DTLR. He has given
you as clear an account as anyone can of what happened. He is
the man who manages the department and managed the situation,
and what he has told you is the evidence on which you should base
your conclusions about what happened. I think it was primarily
a personality clash. I think the evidence must be that discontent
built and the behaviour was such as could not go on. Shall I go
on to the lessons?
(Sir Richard Wilson) On the codes, I think the codes
we have are good and helpful in that they clarify the responsibilities
of special advisers and the principles that should govern the
working of the Civil Service. They are an important part of the
framework which we are putting in place for the operation of the
Civil Service within the Government. In that sense I do not think
there is anything that has happened that invalidates them. What
the incidents show is that codes on their own are not enough.
What is important is that people should live by them and that
they should work. There are issues there that no doubt we can
come to. The Civil Service is going through huge change. This
is not new. It has been going through huge change for 20 or 30
years and the pace of change is accelerating rather than decelerating.
From where I sit that is the most important part of the world
of the Civil Service today, the challenge of change and modernisation
and the challenge of delivery. The incident that you have here
does, I think, have lessons to draw which I am happy to suggest
to you, and indeed this Committee will no doubt have its own thoughts
that we will need to consider. I would not want it thought, however,
that what happened at DTLR should in some way be taken as a signal
of what is happening across Government.
354. That is an issue we would like to explore
with you because of course this arose centrally and almost inevitably
around the issue of news management and press issues. This clearly
is new territory in many ways. I was looking at a piece by your
distinguished predecessor, Lord Armstrong, in The Spectator
the other day. It is funny how, once people leave office, they
become much more interesting in a way than when they were in office.
Here is Lord Armstrong saying, "There has never, in my experience,
been a time when considerations of political spin did not enter
into the business of news management; but it seems to me that
the balance has now swung too far in that direction." Is
that a mature judgement that you would assent to?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I would never call Lord Armstrong
immature; can I make that clear. Can I begin by drawing your attention
to today's Telegraph where Sir John Nott is now giving
an account of his time in office. I notice The Telegraph
have got a little sub-heading which is, "The obsession with
unattributable background briefingwhat today goes by the
name of spinwas as much the curse of politics then as now."
This is the 1980s.
355. Do you remember in the 1970s that the Civil
Service Department, as it then was, set up what was called an
(Sir Richard Wilson) I had forgotten the Image Unit.
356. Permanent Secretaries would write letters
to miscreants who were defended in the press and so on, and this
was abolished by Mrs Thatcher in 1979.
(Sir Richard Wilson) In this work he says: "Number
10 was briefing against me. Articles appeared in the press criticising
me personally." In his resignation letter he wrote: "The
personal loyalty and dedication of your political press advisers"note
that phrase"in Number10 I do not question, but the
lobby and the corridors of Parliament are a dangerous place .
. .". I could go on. All I am saying to you is that spin
- whatever you call it; whether you call it spin or putting over
whatever it is; Bernard Ingham called it putting a gloss on thingsis
not new. That is what I would say to Lord Armstrong.
357. So you disagree with him? You are saying
that his argument that the balance now has swung too far is not
(Sir Richard Wilson) The point that he may be making,
because I have not talked to him about his article, is one that
I have made to this Committee before, which is that the role of
Number10 and the size of Number10 and the concentration of special
advisers in Number10 are different from what they have been before.
If you look back at my evidence I think twice before I have said
that to you. It is a view that I still have and if that is what
Lord Armstrong is saying I think that is true. It does not necessarily
mean that it is wrong, but I think there are issues about the
framework which quite properly need to be addressed and in that
sense I think we have already said to you that that is the case.
358. I do not want to get into swapping quotations,
not least because I have got more than you, but it would be boring
for other people. I am struck by the sheer number of former permanent
secretaries who are now announcing that we are in new territory,
a phrase, by the way, that was used in front of us last week by
Sir Richard Mottram when asked, "Is this"as you
are saying"the cycle going round again, or are we
in new territory here?", and he came down on the basis of
new territory. This is a view shared by Lord Armstrong. It is
a view shared by Robin Mountfield. You seem to be almost alone
in saying this is simply the old thing in a new version.
(Sir Richard Wilson) Let me stand back a bit and say
what I think. I think that the Civil Service that I leave in a
few months' time is going to be very different from the Civil
Service I joined in the 1960s, so there is no way I am saying
it is all the same and that is okay. I think that there has been
huge constitutional change over the last 20 or 30 years, which
is still continuing. I think that the management challenge facing
the Civil Service over the last 20 years is even greater now,
is colossal. I think that Sir Humphrey would be completely lost
today if he were here, and I think that the political climate
in some ways is also very different. The role of the media is
stronger than it used to be, if I may say so. I think that all
these things have put pressures on governments which are very
important and which alter the framework within which the Civil
Service operates. I am not saying it is all the same but I do
think you need to be a bit clearer about exactly what it is that
is different because some of the things that are said are not
359. One thing that is clear, which is where
we started from, is the whole role of news management and people
being brought in to engage in news management. Again, we were
told just a week or two ago by Mike Granatt, the Head of the Government
Information Service, who confirmed to us that something like a
half of special advisers are engaged in press work. You should
know. Here are people who are there formally, in terms of the
Order in Council, to offer advice to ministers and yet half of
them are not doing that but are in fact doing press work. This
leads seasoned observers to conclude that things really are very
different and you mentioned special advisers a moment or two ago.
Again, if I look at Robin Mountfield here, he says, "Although
nominally under the disciplinary control of the Permanent Secretary,
in practice it is almost impossible for the Permanent Secretary
to exercise any real sanction over people who hold their positions
by appointment of the Minister." Is that not just the case?
(Sir Richard Wilson) On the numbers Mike Granatt has
written you a letter, which you should have got, expanding a little
on what he said to you about the figure of 40.