Examination of Witness (Questions 360-379)|
THURSDAY 14 MARCH 2002
360. I have not yet seen it.
(Sir Richard Wilson) You have got a letter. My own
recollection is that something like around 11 are full time dealing
with the media. The rest of around 30 are people who, in his words,
are advising on presentational strategy and planning and speeches
and that sort of thing, and they may not all talk to the press.
The picture which you sometimes get in the press that all 80-odd
special advisers are spin doctors is factually inaccurate. However,
I think the fact is that there are more people than there have
been in the past who are there to deal with the press. It is not
the case that previous governments have not had people dealing
with the press; they have. I can think of special advisers over
many years who have dealt with the media.
361. But if you could have predicted where the
area of real difficulty would erupt you could have thought it
was going to be in that area, could you?
(Sir Richard Wilson) In my experience of special advisers
who deal with the media, as long as they understand their roles
and get them right and work closely with the Information Service,
it can work perfectly well, and actually can be a protection to
the Civil Service in not getting politicised because they can
deal with party aspects of government which it would be better
if civil servants did not deal with, so in that sense it is not
necessarily predictable. I would not say that all these relationships
are going wrong just because one relationship clearly did.
362. You do not think the boundary lines in
this particular area need more clarity?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think a number of things are
happening but there is a case for saying that we ought to be doing
more to clarify some of the boundaries than we have done so far.
I also think there is a case for saying that Parliament should
play more of a role in overseeing these boundariesnotwithstanding
the work of this distinguished Committeethan Parliament
has done so far. I think that the focus of attention on these
issues, which is much stronger than it was in the past, is first
of all casting questions which have not previously been raised,
for instance, about the accountability of special advisers which
you raised just now. I have often talked to this Committee about
grey areas. I think there are grey areas where perfectly honourable
people can come to different judgements about what is and is not
proper. I think we need to do a bit of really good work debating
where those boundaries are and what we should be doing to clarify
them. You have probably seen this consultation document which
the Wicks Committee have put out, which raises a lot of questions.
I commend it to this Select Committee because I think that raises
quite a lot of issues about boundaries and I think we are coming
up to a moment where it would be healthy and sensible to have
a good debatenot a partisan debateabout boundaries.
I would welcome that.
363. I am sure we do too. Is not the absence
of a debate like that part of the problem so far because now we
are told that we are about to have some Civil Service legislation,
which we look forward to as a boundary definition exercise, but
we are told that it is going to include a cap on special advisers.
The argument about a cap has never been made. No-one has done
the work to find out whether special advisers are adding value
to the system of government or whether they are not. If they are
doing maybe we should double their number. It seems daft to come
along and propose a statutory cap without having had the discussion
about what these people are doing.
(Sir Richard Wilson) The Neill Committee, as it was,
did do quite a lot of work on this and the proposal that there
should be a cap on the number of special advisers came from the
Neill Committee, so it is not wholly fair for them to say that
there was no work done at all.
364. Also to be fair, the proposal for the cap
did not come out of the argument. The argument said, "Special
advisers are good things. We have not heard a word against them.
Oh, there should be a cap."
(Sir Richard Wilson) Secondly, the proposal is likely
to be that Parliament should have the power to set the cap so
that there would then be a clear forum in which that debate could
take place and I am sure that that is something that this Committee
would want to support. Let us not disagree about this, though.
I would welcome a debate about these issues and about the question
you raise: whether there should be more or fewer. I think that
is a perfectly proper question to have a debate on, but it is
a debate that should be had in my view in the open and not be
done as it were absent-mindedly.
365. I have one more question, and this is to
raise the tone. Richard Mottram was much reported here last week,
saying that what the Civil Service is like is what he called "a
rather stupid dog. It wants to do what its master wants and it
wants to be loyal to its master, and above all it wants to be
loved for doing that, and I am not sure that ministers understand
that." All I want to ask you is whether that is an adequate
description of the Civil Service. I do not mean whether it is
stupid or not, because he went on to revise that view, but what
I am asking is, does not the Civil Service guard certain public
interests against politicians and the idea that you are simply
a dog that slavishly follows its master does not quite accommodate
that idea, does it?
(Sir Richard Wilson) Years ago when my Secretary of
State, as he then was, John Davis, made a speech about lame ducks,
I remember the minister I was working for remarking that it was
always an error to use animal metaphors in public life, and I
am saying forgive me if I do not go into the question of dogs.
I think there is a very serious and interesting issue behind what
you say because the duty of the Civil Service, as set out in the
Code (which was prepared in this Committee), is loyalty to the
government of the day. That is fundamental to the way the Service
and I and my predecessors and permanent secretaries and so on
approach our job, which is that we do not engage in public attacks
on the Government, we do not engage in national controversy ourselves,
we do not take high profile stances on political issues; we concentrate
on establishing a relationship of trust and loyalty with the government
and we provide the best service we can to the government of the
day as long as they are in power. Sometimes you read in the papers
that people would like the Civil Service to attack the government
and you read editorials saying that permanent secretaries are
wimps unless they attack ministers. That envisages a different
role for the Civil Service from the one that I have just described.
I think that there is a kind of tension between the traditional
role that I have described to you and the wish that the Civil
Service should in some way be seen publicly to be standing apart
from the government and attacking it. My own view is that if the
Civil Service were ever to get into the position where it is attacking
the Government, that would be the royal road to politicisation
because if civil servants were attacking the government then you
would find that politicians, quite rightly and understandably,
would want to have around them people whose political allegiance
they could trust and who would stand up for them. There is a very
important issue there. Of course, in private the role of the Civil
Service is to give ministers their best advice on propriety and
to defend the boundaries that I have been describing to you earlier,
and to ensure that the government understands the constitution,
unwritten as well as written, and to ensure that the lines are
properly observed. That is a dialogue and a debate that properly
has alwaysand I am not talking about this Government particularlytaken
place in private, and that is a very important role for the Civil
Service. It is quite important to understand, however, that the
Civil Service's job is not to attack the government. It is the
job of oppositions to oppose; the job of the Civil Service to
provide loyal service.
Chairman: That is the start of a very interesting
conversation which will no doubt continue next time.
366. I think, Sir Richard, you deserve congratulations
because, coming back to reports, a couple of years ago you were
criticised, and I cannot remember which paper it was, for not
standing up for the Civil Service. This was at a time when devolution
was happening, modernising government was happening, and so on.
There was a whole series of things happening and you were criticised
for letting the centre of government go and now you look at the
situation: FOI is dead in the water; modernising government is
marginalised. Any appointment made to the Civil Service is now
accused of being Tony's cronies; any reform of the Civil Service
now is accused of politicisation, and you have a situation where
we are going to have a Civil Service Act that entrenches the status
quo, so any innovations have gone. Have you not turned the whole
situation round and protected the centre and it is game, set and
match to the mandarins and the whole reform of the Civil Service
is killed for a generation?
(Sir Richard Wilson) It is quite a jolly picture.
It just bears no relationship to reality. I do not see the world
at all in the light you have described. The Freedom of Information
Act is now on the statute book, the Data Protection Act is being
implemented, the Human Rights Act has been passed. Between them
they are a major re-balancing of the balance of power between
the individual and the state, and no-one should be under any illusion
that that is a very important constitutional change. There have
been all sorts of misleading and in fact wrong press reports about
my views and my role in relation to that, which simply ignored
what I actually said and attributed to me things that I have not
said. I can also run through the other list of things. Modernising
government, for instance, is not only alive; it is a huge challenge
for the Service. The Civil Service has transformed itself over
the last 20 years and is now mobilising its energy behind a very
big programme of delivery which the government has committed itself
to and on which the political stakes are very high. I do not think
anyone should be under any illusion that the modernising government
agenda has been buried. With regard to the Civil Service reform
programme which you referred to we have issued this report which
I commend to you. I think it is a huge achievement, it is a very
radical programme; I think it is changing the Service. The work
of departments in key areas of health, education, crime, law and
order and transport is a fundamental reform. The welfare state
is undergoing huge reform which people on the whole are not paying
much attention to but is very important in the Department for
Work and Pensions. I think that, far from being engaged in some
Sir Humphrey game of the kind which you have attributed to us,
the Civil Service is engaged on probably the most radical programme
of reform of any Civil Service in the western world and it is
something we can be very proud of and in which we are being true
to our best traditions.
367. In that case, the next Head of the Civil
Service, your successor, will have a very important role to play.
(Sir Richard Wilson) Absolutely.
368. One of the issues seems to be that there
is an awful lot of speculation about that. Perhaps you could outline
for the Committee the process and timetable for your successor,
who sets up the short list, how it is done,not necessarily
who it is but the process by which it is done.
(Sir Richard Wilson) You will not expect me to talk
about candidates because that would not be proper. As to process
I would be happy to tell you, and this is a process, obviously,
which has been very thoroughly discussed with the Prime Minister.
The final decision is for the Prime Minister. We began by discussing
the post and what he wanted from the person who occupies my job.
The Prime Minister has decided that my post should not be split.
There has always been a debate about whether or not it should
be split. He has decided it should not be split and that my successor
should be both Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service
and will sit next to him in Cabinet, as I do, and so on, and have
the same main over-arching responsibilities. But within that he
would like whoever succeeds me to spend more time on delivery
and reform, the things which I was just talking to you about,
and to free up time in a job which I have to tell you is pretty
heavily loaded, by delegating to other permanent secretary colleagues
some parts of the job that are not to do with delivery of reform.
I am not going to speculate to you how that is going to work because
that is a matter for my successor to agree with the Prime Minister
and I am not going to get into that. That is the job. The Prime
Minister also wishes the background of whoever takes over from
me to be a Civil Service background, either a current or a former
civil servant. The way we have approached it is that I have asked
each head of department (a) whether they wish to be considered
for the post, and (b) who else they think among permanent secretaries
should be considered for the post, and (c) whether there are any
former civil servants outside whom again they think should be
considered. We have done other things to consider former civil
servants outside who might be suitable. This process has been
overseen by a panel consisting of Lord Simon, who has played quite
an important role over the last few years in helping us on our
reform programme and who, I have to say, is a huge source of wisdom
and advice on management of large organisations; Usha Prashar,
who is the First Civil Service Commissioner and who therefore
provides an independent eye; and Sir Hayden Phillips, who is the
most senior permanent secretary and who is not himself a contender.
I chair the panel. The next stage, having done that process, is
to draw up a short list of people and the people on the short
list, if the Prime Minister is content, then undergo psychological
assessment, and are also asked
369. My lips did not move.
(Sir Richard Wilson) You can do things, Chairman,
non-verbally in the most impressive way and are also asked
provide a two-page account of how they would do the job if they
were selected, and then there is a series of one-to-one discussions
about how they would do the job, and finally recommendations to
the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will then have to decide,
no doubt on the basis of interviews, what he wants to do. This
has been compared by my predecessor with the choice of the Archbishop
of Canterbury. I have to say I have not heard that candidates
for the Archbishop of Canterbury were going through a psychological
370. And the timescale?
(Sir Richard Wilson) Timescale is a matter for the
Prime Minister. Reasonably promptly because I shall be retiring
in the late summer and you need to have a period when someone
takes over from you to start thinking about making their dispositions.
371. Just to be clear, there is a re-definition
of the role going on but not a formal split?
(Sir Richard Wilson) It is not a formal split. Everyone
does the job differently, I think. The huge importance of leading
the Civil Service and leading the permanent secretary college
through the period of change that we are going throughand
it is a big changerequires in the Prime Minister's mind
(and I think he is right) more single-minded concentration than
you can have if you try, as I have done, to cover the whole front.
372. Did you advise against splitting the role?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I am not going to talk about
advice, if that is all right.
373. Yes, that is fine; I just thought I would
try it. It is sometimes suggestedand this relates to recent
events toothat, because of the non-split of role, there
are intrinsic tensions in the position so that, when trouble blows
up as it recently has done, with one hat on you are wanting to
massage the trouble away on behalf of your masters, and on the
other hand you are wanting to defend proper boundaries and that
there is a tension there that is very difficult to handle because
of the way in which these roles are combined.
(Sir Richard Wilson) I am not conscious of that. I
think if you have a problem you should try and address it. I do
not think easing problems away, fudging them, is always the right
answer. Quite often you have to address them and decide what to
do about them.
374. You are a Cardiff boy, are you not?
(Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, I was born there.
Chairman: We are familiar here.
375. Most people from Cardiff quite like animal
metaphors. One, who is a former chair of this Committee, you might
remember, once talked about one-legged ducks swimming in a circle.
(Sir Richard Wilson) Yes.
376. Another thing that he did was, when appointing
special advisers as First Minister in the National Assembly for
Wales, was to advertise for them and put them through a selection
procedure, probably including psychological testing; I am not
sure about that.
(Sir Richard Wilson) Assessment, not testing.
377. Do you think that would have been helpful
in recent events, if people had been put through psychological
tests and assessments and so on, or a proper procedure of selection?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think the essence of special
advisers, particularly in departments, is to have people in whom
the Secretary of State has particular trust and puts a lot of
confidence, and of course it is right that a minister who chooses
a special adviser should consider a range of possible people,
but I do not think necessarily if you just had an advertisement
you would produce the kind of personal chemistry that seems so
often to be the essence of the appointment. If, on the other hand,
you are choosing someone because of their expertise, I think there
is a case for sayingand it is not about a personal choice
of someone who is going to be particularly close to you who would
be your eyes and earsthat if you want someone who will
provide you with a particular skill you should go through some
form of selection process as you have described. To give you an
example, the Government wanted, when they came into power in 1997,
to appoint a drugs czar and that was advertised and Keith Helliwell
won the competition, but he was made a special adviser because
it had not been a Civil Service competition; it had been a kind
of competition conducted by ministers. I think that is an example
of a case where a person who is a special adviser was chosen in
the way you have described and I think it is a good idea there.
378. One of the problems and one of the difficulties
that seems to have emerged from the more recent kerfuffle, and
something I have been trying to understand for several months
now, is the process by which you can get rid of a special adviser.
We explored this question when you last came and I asked Sir Richard
Mottram about it, and I asked the question yesterday during Cabinet
Office questions about this. Is there not just total confusion
and misunderstanding about who is responsible for taking a grip
on the situation when a special adviser is out of control? This
is in the system, it is not just to do with this case. There is
no mechanism by which anyone can take a grip on the situation.
The minister has personal chemistry with the person involved and
wishes to retain them. The Permanent Secretary is faced with his
staff in rebellion and everybody up in arms about the special
adviser but is unwilling or unable, because of the nature of the
way in which they were appointed and the role of the special adviser,
to get a grip on the situation, and so things fester for months
and months and we get this kind of crisis. Is that not an inherent
weakness in the whole thing?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I do not think so. I do not think
there is total confusion either. The convention is that ministers
delegate the personnel management of staff in the department to
the permanent secretary. The special adviser I think is an exceptional
case because he or she works to the Secretary of State and is
very clearly accountable in my mind to the Secretary of State,
and although the Secretary of State can ask the permanent secretary
to do something of a personnel kind in relation to a special adviser,
as Stephen Byers asked Richard Mottram to conduct a disciplinary
case on Jo Moore after that e-mail in September, the normal case
is that ministers have a particular role in relation to special
advisers in a way that they do not in relation to anybody else.
The ministers are anyway directly accountable to the House in
the management of their departments; that has always been the
case, and I do not think there is any lack of clarity in anything
I have just said.
379. And yet in practice what happens is that
if a situation arises where a special adviser is causing problems
the reality is that it is impossible to envisage a situation where
a permanent secretary would sack a special adviser without the
agreement of the Cabinet Minister. Would you agree with that?
(Sir Richard Wilson) I think that is true. I do not
think a permanent secretary could sack a special adviser.